Scientific debate over the existence of at least some types of paranormal, or psi, phenomena took a strange twist last week. The federal government revealed that it had funded over the past 20 years a $20 million research effort concerned largely with remote viewing, the alleged ability of some people to visualize hidden or distant locations, objects, or activities.
In the past decade, U.S. military and intelligence officials have consulted a cadre of psychics-including those who participated in the research-on numerous occasions in an effort to obtain information related to national security issues.
Federal funding of psychic research has now stopped. An evaluation of the project, commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency and completed in September, concluded that available data do not provide a convincing demonstration of paranormal ability. Even if remote sensing exists, according to the report, it would not prove useful in intelligence gathering.
However, the two researchers who reviewed the secret investigations for the CIA-sponsored evaluation disagree sharply over how to interpret the findings.
Studies to date indicate that some people exhibit a strong, though far from perfect, capacity for remote viewing or for telepathy, asserts Jessica Utts, a statistician at the University of California, Davis. The brain processes that underlie paranormal skills remain unclear, she adds. "This is a statistically robust effect that, were it not in such an unusual domain, would no longer be questioned as a real phenomenon."
Ray Hyman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, disagrees: "The occurrence of statistical effects does not warrant the conclusion that psychic functioning has been demonstrated."
Researchers don't know why some people in remote viewing studies perform substantially better than would be …