Documents released by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have revealed the CIA’s usage of University of Edinburgh research papers on parapsychology (paranormal activity).
The documents were released following a Freedom of Information campaign against the CIA, which resulted in the forced publication of 13 million pages from the CIA’s databases.
The University of Edinburgh research on paranormal phenomena utilised by the CIA dates back to the 1980’s Star Gate program.
Dr Caroline Watt, the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology, spoke to The Student about what the Star Gate Program was, and why the CIA might have been interested in it.
“The Star Gate program was in part an attempt to evaluate whether any useful intelligence information or practical advantage could be gained through the use of so-called psychic abilities (such as alleged ‘remote viewing’ and ‘psychokinesis’ abilities). Their conclusion was ‘no’,” Dr Watt stated.
However, Edinburgh psychologist Drew McAdam posited that the CIA’s interest in the paranormal was driven by a motivation to compete with Russia during the Cold War period.
McAdam was quoted by iNews to have said that “they [the CIA] were interested in anything because they got information that the Russians were into it.”
One of the papers found in the CIA documents included a study done by Dr Deborah Delanoy of the University’s parapsychology department in which she researches a 17-year-old named Tim from 1983-1984 who claimed to have paranormal abilities. Under controlled conditions, he attempted to deceive researchers into believing he was able to bend a metal spoon with his mind, an ability he claimed to have gained at age four.
According to the report, “Tim confessed to deceptive behaviour. He said that he was a practicing magician who had wished to see if it were possible for a magician to pose successfully as a psychic in a laboratory.”
The larger implication drawn by the report was that a subject could always deceive researchers. Speaking to The Student, Dr Watt emphasised this commitment to critical evaluation.
“Regarding our educational activities, we know that lots of people have experiences that they believe are paranormal. We also know that there are many individuals who make money out of falsely claiming to have psychic abilities. It’s important to help the public think critically about these experiences and claims,” she said.
Dr Watt characterised Delanoy’s study as “background research” for the CIA. “I am not surprised that an institution that was investigating possible ‘psychic abilities’ would collect relevant previous scientific literature on the topic. That would be showing due diligence,” Dr Watt commented.
When speaking to The Student, Dr Delanoy, who has since moved from her position at the University of Edinburgh to the University of Northampton, declined to comment.
Other research included in the documents concerned extrasensory perception (ESP). Dr Watt explained that “there are many possible pitfalls when conducting research in this area, and we are seeking to devise increasingly rigorous methods of evaluating claimed psychic abilities.”
“The published research testing performance on ESP tasks show an overall positive and statistically significant effect. However, we also know that a publication bias exists, so that researchers are generally more likely to report studies that find evidence supporting their hypothesis.”
According to Dr Watt, many have questioned the legitimacy and necessity of parapsychology research. However, she commented, “History shows that the challenges of conducting parapsychological research can drive methodological advances that have wider scientific benefits.”
Presently, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit is an active department at the University of Edinburgh, with a public debate involving Dr Watt, Dr Stuart Ritchie, and Dr Thomas Bak at the Edinburgh Science Festival on 14 April.
Image: Kim Traynor