June 7, 2009
In just the past few days, parapsychologist and skeptic Dr. Richard Wiseman has launched an innovative experiment on the Internet-based social networking service Twitter which aims to test the reality of the ESP-based phenomenon known as remote viewing (RV). In the tradition of similar mass experiments such as that conducted by Stephan Schwartz’s Moebius Group via Omni magazine in the 1980s, Dr. Wiseman hopes to enlist the aid of everyday humans in creating a large statistical sampling that will either tell for or against remote viewing.The International Remote Viewing Association, founded in 1999 by prominent former military and civilian members of the remote viewing community to disseminate information about and responsible investigation into remote viewing, applauds the imaginative way Dr. Richard Wiseman is using Twitter to explore the existence of this interesting phenomenon. We find the premise behind the experiment’s structure to be interesting and generally sound, and wish Dr. Wiseman well in demonstrating a successful outcome once all results are calculated.We do, however, have some reservations about details of the experiment, and are concerned that they may act to dampen the full success a mass experiment model of this sort might otherwise promise. These concerns are (in no order of importance):
1. That there may be too much similarity among some of the five targets in each of the four sets. To have the clearest chance of success, a remote viewing experiment of this sort requires there to be as much difference between the targets and as little similarity as possible (in technical terms, the targets should be as “orthogonal” as possible). However, in several of the target sets chosen for this experiment there is much overlap in composition, shape, color, and content which will likely make it harder for viewers to discriminate between them during the judging phase, when they must decide which of the targets they perceived during their remote viewing attempts.
2. The photos of the targets may perhaps be too narrowly cropped to minimally capture surrounding detail that might be perceived by would-be viewers. RV is a largely perceptual and minimally cognitive process, so the realities of human perception must be taken into account when selecting the targets to be used in the sets. Further, remote viewing is not a telepathic process. Thus, a viewer’s attention may not necessarily be drawn to the same things the experimenter chooses to focus on, but rather to some other attention-getting object or scene in the vicinity. Obviously, too wide a focus would include too much, making deciding between targets harder in a different way. There is a happy medium between too wide and too narrow which, though difficult to specify with precise selection rules, can easily be learned through experience or in consultation with someone who has such experience. It goes without saying that to maximize chances of success, each target location should be selected to be as uniform within the respective target area itself as it is different from other target settings.
3. Testing a large body of naive subjects may not demonstrate a strong effect, as initial success will vary dramatically across individuals with no or little prior remote viewing experience. Strong results produced by some individuals may be canceled out by the statistical noise of others who don’t yet “get” how to do remote viewing.
4. In line with point 3, the absence of even rudimentary instructions on how one might do remote viewing leaves it up to naive viewers to try to figure out how to do it themselves. This may have a further dampening effect on results, as many novice viewers may not have a grasp on how to put the process into effect, and will find their efforts frustrated and unsuccessful. One would not, for example, present a bicycle to someone unfamiliar with the principles of bicycle riding and then conclude that bicycle riding was impossible if the person fails to successfully ride the bike. Future remote viewing experiments such as this might recommend, or even borrow from, simple remote viewing procedures such as those outlined on the Association’s website at http://www.irva.org/
5. It is unclear in the experimental design what measures have been taken to guarantee that all responses will be authentic (that is, unique and individual). It is technically feasible for groups or persons disenchanted with the purpose of the experiment to “spam” the results with large numbers of randomly chosen responses. This would have the effect of diluting or even completely submerging any real effect that might otherwise emerge. Such a strategy can only work to adversely affect the experiment – it cannot produce artificially inflated results, since that would require a large number of votes for the correct choice, which is not known (other than via ESP) for each trial until after it has been closed and no further responses are possible. In order to avoid this, the website and voting process must be constructive to eliminate the possibility of automated randomized or “spoofed” votes.
One final note related to the experiment but not having directly to do with its conduct: Dr. Wiseman’s statistical assessment (if accurately represented in media articles) that three “hits” of four in the series would yield odds against chance of 1 in 125 may inadvertently overstate the case. After consulting with statistician and IRVA board member Professor Jessica Utts, it seems the actual statistical consequence of three “hits” would yield a more modest (but still significant) odds against chance of 1 in 36. As Dr. Utts observed, "The odds against chance of 1/125 would be appropriate if 3 hits were required in just 3 trials, rather than at least 3 hits in 4 trials."Nothing said here is meant to criticize Dr. Wiseman for undertaking this commendable effort to demonstrate a remote viewing effect. We are pleased to see such research being conducted and stand ready to contribute advice or assistance when invited. We hope our comments above will be useful to future experiments, even if this one should turn out not to be as successful as we might like.
Paul H. SmithPresident, The International Remote Viewing Association