Friday, March 20, 2020

#2321: Russell Targ

One of the grand old men of American pseudoscience, Russell Targ is a physicist, parapsychologist and author best known for his work on remote viewing – indeed, he and Harold Puthoff coined the term “remote viewing” for the practice of trying to obtain visual information of distant or unseen target using parapsychological means. Yes, it is – of course – bollocks, and Targ’s “research” on the phenomenon is most striking for its lack of rigor: many of his experiments would also have been easy to make more rigorous without additional effort or use of resources, and reasonable people should really wonder why he chose not to do so. According to Martin Gardner, Targ and Puthoff “imagined they could do research in parapsychology but instead dealt with ‘psychics’ who were cleverer than they were,” though wishful thinking and motivated reasoning are certainly important parts of the explanation for their “results” as well.

Targ’s and Puthoff’s project took off in 1972 while they were “testing” alleged remote viewer Ingo Swann at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which led to the initiation of the $50,000 CIA-sponsored Stargate Project. Though the SRI team managed to publish some papers, real scientific reviews of the SRI (and later) experiments on remote viewing have of course found no credible evidence for remote viewing but have found plenty of striking shortcomings in the SRI experiments (Targ and Puthoff were initially unwilling to provide later researchers with unpublished transcripts upon request, but after obtaining them from a judge these more serious researchers found “a wealth of cues” to how Targ and Puthoff had achieved their non-reproducible results). Targ and Puthoff for instance believed that famous fraud Uri Geller had genuine psychic abilities, so when they tested him they made sure that Geller had substantial control over the procedures and few limits on his behavior to enable him to make use of his trademark sleight of hand. The CIA has later expressed some embarrassment over their involvement in such nonsense. 

In 1982, Targ, Keith Harary and Anthony White formed the company Delphi Associates to sell psychic consulting services to individuals and businesses. In their book Mind Race, Targ and Harary claimed that all nine “silver futures predictions” made at Delphi (prices on the silver market) in 1982 were correct, though – as usual with psychic claims – they had some trouble documenting their successes. More recently, Targ has accused “skeptics” of defaming his Wikipedia entry by correctly describing his psychic studies with Uri Geller or studies on remote viewing and resisting his attempts to use sock puppets to alter the text and delete any critical commentary.

In addition to Mind Race, Targ’s books include Limitless Mind: A Guide to Remote Viewing and Transformation of Consciousness (2004); The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities; Mind Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Abilities (1977, with Puthoff), Miracles of Mind: Exploring Nonlocal Consciousness and Spiritual Healing (1998, with Jane Katra – yes, of course Targ would go there, too), and The Heart of the Mind: How to Experience God Without Belief (1999, with Katra).

His daughter Elisabeth Targ has followed in her father’s footsteps with regard to sloppy research and a general distaste for evidence and rigor, though she focuses on the field of distant healing rather than distant information seeking.

Diagnosis: Many will find it hard to believe that the flaws in Targ’s pseudoscientific research were not deliberate, and wonder to what extent he really is a true believer. But that, we suspect, would be to underestimate the powers of motivated reasoning. As fine an example of flamboyant pseudoscience as you’ll be likely to find.

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