Tuesday, January 22, 2019

#2135: Hal Puthoff

Harold Puthoff is an engineer and parapsychologist and one of the true legends of pseudoscience. In the 1970s and 1980s Puthoff directed a CIA/DIA-funded program at SRI International tasked with investigating paranormal abilities, collaborating with Russell Targ in a study of the purported psychic abilities of Uri Geller, Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Joseph McMoneagle and others, as part of the Stargate Project. Both Puthoff and Targ became convinced that Geller and Swann had genuine psychic powers, which doesn’t exactly speak too well of their methods or critical thinking abilities. Some of their “research” was summed up in the book Mind at Large: Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Symposia on the Nature of Extrasensory Perception(Puthoff, Targ and Charles Tart.

When psychologists attempted to replicate Targ and Puthoff’s remote viewing experiments (they seem to have invented the term by the way, which is really just a fancy name for “clairvoyance” or “telepathy”), they were unsurprisingly unable to do so. Accordingly, they investigated the procedure of the original experiments to see whether they could explain the discrepancy, and thus discovered that the notes given to the judges in Targ and Puthoff’s experiments contained clues as to which order they were carried out, such as referring to yesterday’s two targets, or they had the date of the session written at the top of the page. They concluded that these clues were the reason for the experiment’s high hit rate (this was not the only problem with the “research”). One may wonder why Puthoff and Targ put the clues in there, but you probably shouldn’t. In fact, the investigators (Marks and Kammann) were initially able only to investigate the few actual transcripts Targ and Puthoff had actually published; to find out whether the unpublished transcripts contained cues, Marks and Kammann wrote to Targ and Puthoff requesting copies, which Targ and Puthoff refused to supply – which is pretty unusual in scientific contexts. Marks and Kammann were nevertheless able to obtain copies from the judge who used them, and guess what? The transcripts of course contained a wealth of cues. In other words, if Targ and Puthoff weren’t frauds, they must have been extraordinarily delusional, possibly even by pseudoscientist standards. Subsequent tests of their hypotheses were negative; moreover, students have easily been able to obtain Targ and Puthoff’s desired results based on the clues left in the transcripts alone. Though bunk, Puthoff and Targ’s experiments are still harvesting press coverage from the credulous (or spineless).

In 1985, Puthoff founded the for-profit company EarthTech International and a purportedly scientific research organization, Institute for Advanced Studies, where he is Director. Puthoff and EarthTech were granted a US Patent in 1998 after five years delay, due to controversy over their claim that information could be transmitted over a distance using a modulated potential with no electric or magnetic field components. The case is still used for educational purposes in patent law to illustrate that even for a valid patent “even a competent examiner may fail to distinguish innovation from pseudoscience.” 

In particular, Puthoff is famous for his promotion of zero-point energy (ZPE); indeed, he is probably the main promoter of the idea. And it is pseudoscience, of course. Puthoff’s work on ZPE lacked transparency and scientific backing, and as such bore a striking resemblance to his psi work.

It is worth mentioning that already in the 1960s, while a devout top-level scientologist, Puthoff wrote, in a scientology publication, that he had achieved “remote viewing” abilities during his ascension through scientology ranks, and that scientology had given him “a feeling of absolute fearlessness.” (He later severed all connections with scientology.) 

Diagnosis: Though it is hard to believe, Puthoff seems to be a true believer, which makes his systematic and striking failures to make his experiments methodologically sound all the more interesting. Probably harmless by now, but his legacy continues to sillify the Internet.

Hat-tip: Skepdic

1 comment:

  1. James Randi in "Flim Flam" really slammed Targ and Putoff, calling them the "Laurel and Hardy" of parapsychology.
    Their "experiments" were useless at best, and a fraud.