British MOD RV Study: Further Analysis
The following is a post from the e-mail list for the Society for Scientific Exploration, written by Bryan Williams, a student of parapsychology. It contributes a further detailed analysis of the British Ministry of Defense remote viewing study on which I wrote my essay, "They Think They Know."
In his post from 3/21, Paul Smith discusses the recently declassified study in remote viewing that the UK's Ministry of Defense had carried out from November to about late December 2001, and the media's poor treatment of it. This too was mentioned briefly in a sidebar that ran alongside the article on the PEAR closing in the March 1 issue of Nature, and was dismissed with a bit ridicule by first noting that one novice subject in the study had fallen asleep during the course of a RV trial session, then stating that the study "�ultimately concluded that psychic techniques are of `little value'" ("Sidelines," p. 11).
I myself have taken a look at the UK Defense Report, and I agree with Paul Smith (2007) in his article "They Think They Know" on his website that, in addition to being misreported by the media, the RV study was poorly handled in terms of its methodological background, which may have contributed to its mostly null results. Some specific examples I noted in examining the report for myself include the following:
- It seemed to me that throughout the report, the description of the methodology was rather vague and/or incomplete, and some terms used were not properly defined and were thus confusing. I sometimes had to read a section twice in order to work out which label applied to which participant.
- Like Paul, I too noticed that the targets in the target pool were labeled with very specific questions of identification, suggesting that the experimenters expected that some degree of specific analytical detail would be obtained in the RV process. As Paul notes in his article, and as other RV researchers (e.g., Targ, 2004, p. 71; Targ & Katra, 1998, p. 95) have recognized, detailed analytical thinking seems to be mostly ESP inhibitive, often contributing more to mental noise than anything. There are some cases where analytical thinking has apparently led to direct identification of the target (e.g., see the transcript of a session with Hella Hammid involving an airport tower target that appears in Targ & Harary, 1984, pp. 30 � 32), but these cases are rare and are generally not successful.
- I noted some statements in the report that suggest to me that some parts of the RV study were not double-blinded. For example, on page 8 of the report, it states: "The monitor who generates the targets will perform the marking of the other two RV subjects." The wording suggests that the individual who selected the targets also did the judging of correspondence between the subject's responses and the target. Presumably, if this individual had selected the target, then they would have had knowledge of it during the judging, suggesting that they were not blind to the target's identity. In many RV studies (e.g., Lantz, Luke, & May, 1994; Targ, 1994), an independent judge has been used to assess the results of trial sessions while being blind to the target to reduce the effect of experimenter bias. Very little was also said about the design of the individual sessions to indicate whether they were properly blinded, one example of the vagueness and/or incompleteness I mention above. The few things that were mentioned do not seem to suggest an adequate degree of control (e.g., as Paul mentions in his article, it appears that the target envelopes were in the same room as the subject, when it would be a better safeguard to have them in a separate room).
- On page 9 of the report, mention is made of two psychologists consulted by the Ministry of Defense on the design of the study. While it is understandable that they remain unidentified, little is said about their background to indicate whether or not they were the proper psychologists to consult. Questions that were raised in my mind included: Were these psychologists contracted from academic institutions, or were they government officials? Were they parapsychologists, or were they mainstream psychologists? If the latter, what branch(es) of specialization did they come from? The report implies that the two may have participated in sample RV trials as a way to assess the protocol, but that they did not like it and refused to participate further, suggesting that they may have been skeptical of psi. The thought of the approach of the American Institutes for Research to evaluation of the US intelligence projects on RV at SRI and SAIC came to mind for me. In my opinion, it would have been helpful to form a panel of academic psychologists on both sides of the psi issue.
- A reading of the individual RV trial session reports suggested to me that the environmental conditions for the trial sessions were not particularly psi conducive. As mentioned, the Nature sidebar noted that one RV subject fell asleep during one session (p. 29 of the report), and in others, the subjects were noted to appear nearly asleep. I noticed that on page 96 of the report, some of the sessions lasted for nearly 90 minutes, which is considerably long for RV sessions, and with very stimulation (very few of the subjects made verbatim comments or were questioned by the experimenter), it seems reasonable to think that subject boredom could very likely have been a contributing factor over such a long period. In most RV studies I've examined, the actual response periods for the subjects have only been about 15 to 30 minutes in length (e.g., Lantz, Luke, & May, 1994; Puthoff & Targ, 1976; Targ, 1994). In addition, there were notes that indicated that the subjects were not sufficiently isolated from sensory distractions (e.g., some experimenters noted airplane or truck sounds outside). Many of reports gave the impression that the subjects were frequently uncomfortable and not very relaxed (e.g., several subjects were scratching at or adjusting the eyemask worn during the trials, and/or had to shift their bodies around frequently into a more comfortable position). Some ESP researchers (e.g., Braud, 1975; Honorton, 1977) have emphasized relaxation as being an ESP conducive state. Also, as Paul mentions in his article, the RV subjects were novices, and nothing in the way of pilot studies was conducted to see which, if any, of them might be adept at RV. For all I can tell, the novices were immediately "whisked" into a formal test series, akin to putting a teenager behind the wheel of car when he or she has not yet learned to drive.
These examples suggest that the experimenters in the study may not have taken sufficient consideration of past RV research in the planning of the study. As Paul points out in his article, there seems to have been a lack of effort in doing a proper background study of the available RV research literature at the time, or in consulting those who were involved in the US government's RV program (such as Paul himself). To me, these seem to be critical things that led up to the Ministry of Defense's null result, more critical than any evaluations of the performance.
- Bryan Williams