The telescope is one of the great achievements of science, enabling astronomers to see objects in clear detail from millions of miles away. Meanwhile, pseudoscience has also given us the ability to see objects far away through remote viewing. Even better, no equipment is required. The tradeoff is that the clear detail is replaced with vagueness and inaccuracy.
Remote viewing is usually done by having an associate go to the site, with a third, independent party selecting the site and providing transportation. The viewer then draws what he or she “sees,” sometimes offering commentary as well.
The CIA spent 20 million tax dollars trying to pin down this ability in Operation Stargate. The test subject most associated with this enterprise is Joseph McMoneagle, who later attempted to demonstrate his ability on a Houston TV program. For the experiment, a second person went to four locations in Houston, specifically a giant treehouse, a waterslide, a river dock, and a cement fountain.
He did score a hit on “seeing” a pedestrian bridge and something tall that was not a building. But his most specific statements, about seeing a platform with a stripe and the subject standing on an incline, matched no location. There other misses and most of his descriptions were so vague they could apply almost anywhere. For instance, he said there was a river or something like it nearby. Houston has a river, “nearby” is subjective, and “like a river” could be a winding street, lake, or something else depending on the extent of one’s imagination.
Another “vision” revealed perpendicular lines. It would have been quite impressive if he had said there were no perpendicular lines and this bore out, since any place will feature them in some form. He reported hearing a metallic noise, which didn’t seem to match anywhere, though the sympathetic reporters shoehorned in the water slide since it was partly made of metal.
Looking at his list, everything except that striped platform (which he missed) could apply to where I work, and that wasn’t a location he was trying to remote view. Most importantly, he never said specifically what he was seeing. Throwing out vague ideas, such as something large and round, or things that are common like grocery stores and road construction, will probably be accurate, albeit unimpressive.
Brian Dunning at Skeptoid had this to say about remote viewing: “The abilities claimed are well within the magician’s bag of parlor tricks. Either that, or they are accomplishing a feat of true paranormal abilities, which has never been demonstrated under controlled conditions, cannot be duplicated by anyone else, and has no proposed mechanism by which it might be possible.”
One attempt at testing was done at Washington University in Missouri, buoyed by a $500,000 grant to investigate psychic abilities, with remote viewing one of the ideas investigated. James Randi recruited two teenagers who knew the tricks Dunning spoke of. From 300 applicants claiming to have psychic abilities, only the teens – Steve Shaw and Mike Edwards – passed the preliminary exam and were tested extensively. For four years, they wowed researchers by demonstrating their abilities – not as psychics, but as skeptics and illusionists. After Randi revealed this in Discover magazine, the research stopped.
Skeptic author Michael Shermer has noted that most remote viewing drawings are not, say, of a farmhouse on a hill, but of meandering lines and curves. Claimed successes are the result of generously interpreting very vague drawings and scribbles. For instance, Stargate produced a supposed success in which the associate viewed a park’s merry-go-round, and the viewer drew a round object covered with n-shapes that could be interpreted as bars. However, other than the shape and possible bars, everything else was off. The drawing included a lightning rod and a dome, neither of which were accurate. The number of segments in the merry-go-round was wrong, as was its color, materials, background, and the bars’ direction. Despite these many misses, it was touted as one of Stargate’s great victories. The only persons who would be shown the drawing and conclude it was of a merry-go-round would be remote viewing believers, and only then when they were told it was just such an object.