Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review – Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena

A few days ago, I stumbled on Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The secret history of the U.S. government’s investigations into extrasensory perception and psychokinesis (published by Little, Brown and Co., in 2017). This is the latest book touching on the American government interest in the paranormal, and it brings a number on interesting ideas together.

Annie Jacobsen is a journalist, who wrote a number of books that made to the New York Times best selling list. Unsurprisingly, it is well-written, easily accessible, and it provides an interesting narrative. What is particularly valuable in this book, however, is that it covers governmental interest in the paranormal from the very early days until the present, and hence goes beyond describing the Star Gate project. It provides a holistic view.

On the Internet, there are all kinds of rumours around the connections between Nazi sponsored science in Germany and post-war American government sponsored science. That Internet material has usually zero references, and is vague and most of the time simply aims at discrediting the American government. Jacobsen’s book considers this issue, but this time with real references and a credible and well-articulated narrative. The interest of the Nazi regime for the occult is a relatively well-known issue, and Paul Roland published an excellent book on this very topic in 2012. What is less known is that in the post-war days both American and Soviet intelligence teams seize Nazi research material on the occult, among other topics, and although very little of this material could be used for anything useful, this planted the idea on both sides of the Iron Curtain that research on the paranormal might worth trying. The Nazi regime and its sponsored science were certainly sinister, but not the American discovery of this material.

It is also often said that the US government only started to be interested in the paranormal in the early 1970s, when they discovered that the Soviets had a substantive research programme on the topic, leading to the creation of the Star Gate project. It is, in fact, incorrect. Jacobsen’s book shows very nicely that it had an interest throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, especially through the research conducted by Dr. Andrija Puharich, who received numerous research grants on paranormal-related research. In particular, one of the sub-projects of the really sinister MKULTRA programme, was to find drugs that could enhance psychic abilities. The results were a dismal failure, but it shows that the idea of gaining advantages over the Soviet through non-conventional research was not invented in the 1970s. The book provides a detailed and fascinating account of the research conducted in those days, using in part declassified documents (and references are the back of the book).

Of course, most of the book is about the Star Gate remote viewing programme and the interest in the psychokinetic abilities of Uri Geller. In terms of money and efforts, this is where the bulk of the research was done. The book divides the story into the CIA years and the DOD years. Although there are already very good books on the Star Gate project, like the one published by Jim Schnabel in 1997, it updates the topic with the most recent information. In particular, it covers the now mostly declassified documentation about the strange events that occurred at Livermore Laboratory in 1975, where a psychokinetic experience involving Uri Geller appears to have mutated into a poltergeist-like story, scary enough for several scientists to resign from their job at Livermore shortly afterward. Of note, the popular TV series Stranger Things is partially inspired by those events at Livermore. It is unfortunate that this event was not seen at the time as an opportunity to create quasi-experimental poltergeists (or RSPK - Recurrent Spontaneous PsychoKinesis). Parapsychology would have certainly benefited from such type of experiment.

The last part of the book discusses what is happening now, and there appears to be very little. One projects consider enhancing the Marine’s intuition and premonition capabilities to avoid hidden dangers like improvised explosive devices (IED). Another project is about so-called synthetic telepathy, were electrical signals can be sent from one brain to the next via connected helmets. Finally, some research on lucid dreaming are conducted to help soldiers with PTSD is also noted as fringe governmental research. The scars caused by the criticism laid against the Star Gate project appear to remain deep. As well, although there might be some more openness to study the so-called paranormal in the world of science and universities, it is still a topic with a low social status. But more fundamentally, it appears that all those research projects tend to come to a similar conclusion: there really is something odd and unexplainable happening, but it is too flimsy and unpredictable to be used as a reliable tool or capability. Hence, no one should hold their breadth for a return of something like the Star Gate project anytime soon.  

It would have been interesting, however, if Jacobsen had looked more into the rumor that the NSA is still using remote viewing, probably through contractors, and that the technique was apparently used to find Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This would, if true, be a counter-point to the notion that extra sensory perception would be too erratic to be used as a regular approach for accessing knowledge. But overall, this is a good book, and anyone interested in this topic should read it, as it provides a rational, balanced, and documented study of the American government interest in the paranormal. It is, for sure, quite a breeze of fresh air from what one can find on the Internet.