I recently read this article (or at least the opening paragraph, as it’s behind a paywall), entitled ‘Declassified CIA report claims psychics are real’. This didn’t surprise me; Whilst US government research in this area from the 1970s to the 1990s (best known in the form of ‘Project Stargate’) had concluded that there was no reliable intelligence value in psychic phenomena, they stopped short of actually debunking any of it. Their interest was whether psychics and remote viewers could obtain useful intelligence, not how this might be possible (that is, a small ‘psi’ effect was as much use to them as none at all). No doubt many involved believed (emphasis on believed) that there was some real effect going on here. This has led a lot of believers to wield this as proof that such things have been proven to exist. This could not be further from the truth, as there is still no evidence for ‘psi’. The article title is also (unintentionally) misleading, because although the document in question was part of a recent release of declassified CIA files, it was already widely available. The article, ‘An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning’ by Jessica Utts was classified at all (only the copy held by the CIA was). It was actually published in 1995, and was quite the media sensation. It was also roundly debunked in a CSICOP article the following year, and I suggest that anyone interested in this subject reads the whole thing. Utts was hired by the group contracted to research psychic phenomena for the US government, but Ray Hyman, who authored the debunk, was the other evaluator. He does not agree with his former colleague, to put it mildly. None of the evidence that they reviewed proved significant. Utts claims are based in statistics, sure, but it’s a meta-analysis. This might seem more valuable than a lone study, but in fact there are a number of reasons why one meta-analysis should not be trusted. As Hyman puts it;
‘…drawing conclusions from meta-analytic studies is like having your cake and eating it too. The same data are being used to generate and test a hypothesis. The proper use of meta-analysis is to generate hypotheses, which then must be independently tested on new data. As far as I know, this has yet to be done. The correlation between quality and outcome also must be suspect because the ratings are not done blindly.’
All we know is that the analysis produced results slightly better than chance. We don’t know why, and in the absence of any supporting evidence, we should not assume it’s anything paranormal. There’s another good assessment on The Straight Dope, where they point out that even if Utts was right that there was a statistically measurable psychic effect, it was woefully unsuccessful;
‘Utts said the “psychics” were accurate about 15% of the time when they were helping the CIA. Fifteen percent? Is this supposed to convince us to pay them to help the United States government? Utts says she thinks “they would be effective if used in conjunction with other intelligence.” My intelligence tells me that 15% accuracy isn’t much help no matter what it’s used in conjunction with–that’s an 85% failure rate! So 85% of the time, spies would be wasting their time and resources on incorrect information. We’re supposed to be happy with that? And that’s presuming she’s right about the 15%.’
Far from seeing this new release of detailed material as somehow proof that ‘psi’ is real, I take it as a tacit acknowledgement that the US government no longer has any interest in this area. If they did, I’m sure they could find a way to keep it classified for longer.