BOOK REVIEW: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ronson investigates the US military intelligence community’s forays into extrasensory perception (ESP) and mind control. Those who’ve seen the movie loosely based on this book will be aware of the quirky-humorous tone it takes. (If the title wasn’t enough to convey that the author was aiming for quirky humor.) Ronson’s style, favoring punchy simple sentences, offers a kind of deadpan delivery that supports the tone of the book.

That said, the book also has a sad edge as it can be seen as a commentary on military officers who came back from the war in Vietnam damaged and grasping at straws as to how to prevent history from repeating itself. It’s as if what these men experienced made some eager to believe because they so wanted to believe they could win with the mind and avoid the carnage of war.

While the book’s sixteen chapters are not divided by the author, they can be roughly divided into three parts. The first is the pursuit of ESP starting in the late 1970’s. This includes remote viewing and the titular psychokinesis (i.e. starring goats to death.)

The middle section is the resurgence of these esoteric approaches in the late 90’s and, especially, after 9-11 (also speaking to how dire blows to the psyche lead to wild approaches.) Much of this section is about mind control rather than ESP. One may remember the news story of the “I Love You, You Love Me” song from Barney [i.e. the purple dinosaur] being played over and over again to break terror suspects. The question remaining unanswered is whether there was anything else going on besides torture by Barney song (i.e. subliminal messages or sonic / ultrasonic frequencies [as used in non-lethal weapon technology.])

The latter section deals with the famous case of a scientist who jumped from a hotel room window to his death. It was later admitted that the scientist had been the unwitting victim of hallucinogen experimentation as part of the famed MKUltra project, and his death was written off as a trip gone bad. Ronson presents the story of the scientist’s son, a man who firmly believes that the story copped to was neither the full story nor the true story.

This book is interesting and entertaining, despite the fact that many of the questions that Ronson sets out to answer remain unanswered and probably always will. While the author got several key people to talk to him, the projects discussed are highly classified and the possibility of disinformation is ever-present.

Ronson manages to walk a fine line throughout the book. He presents all this quirky and bizarre activity in a way that neither comes across as mocking nor even particularly skeptical. (His punchy delivery does hint at this intention on occasion.) He lets the reader do the mocking and be the skeptic. At times he comes across as a believer. That is, while many of the happenings of the book reflect bat-shit crazy behavior / decisions, he suggests that all but the most hardened skeptics would believe that some of the people involved had inexplicable gifts.

I’d recommend this book. If you’re interested in government sponsored esoteric activities like psi and mind control and related scandals / conspiracies, you’ll find it fascinating. On the other hand, even if you’re not, it’s still an entertaining read that provides a sort of commentary on the effects of war on the psyche.

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BOOK REVIEW: Unbelievable by Stacy Horn

Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology LaboratoryUnbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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For 50 years a laboratory operated at Duke University that studied extra-sensory perception (ESP), ghosts, and other paranormal events. Today one can’t imagine an academic laboratory devoted to paranormal activity surviving, especially at such a prestigious university. Horn’s book takes one through the life of this lab. It describes phenomena debunked as either fraud or poor methodology, but it also discusses events and outcomes that have remained unexplained.

The central character in the book is J.B. Rhine, Director of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. Rhine was a botanist by training, but he developed an interest in parapsychology– eventually becoming the foremost expert in the, albeit dwarf, field.

When the lab opened in 1930, the universe of unknowns was much greater than when it closed in 1980. This was exemplified by Albert Einstein’s correspondence with Rhine, and the author of relativity’s attendance at a séance on one occasion. By 1980, having recorded some unexplained phenomenon, but having produced neither well-validated results nor explanations, the lab was looking increasingly like a boondoggle.

The phenomena studied included some that could be systematically studied  in the laboratory, as well as others that could only be observed in the field. The former being exemplified by the use of cards with shapes on them to study telepathy (as depicted by Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters.) The latter included the study of poltergeists or interviews of children about the lives of people who lived before their time (e.g. as Tibetan lamas are selected).

One of the questions confronting the investigators was whether those phenomena that could be studied in the lab were best studied there. While telepathy studies sometimes showed a weak but positive result, some thought that more robust results could only be attained under real world conditions.

In the 60’s, Timothy Leary came to call on Rhine. Leary, of course, thought hallucinogens were the key to unlocking the hidden powers of the mind. Rhine apparently took LSD on a couple of occasions before concluding that there was nothing but vivid chaos coming out of the experience. Still, there remained adherents to the notion that mind-altering drugs might unlock hidden potentials. Horn devotes several pages to the work of Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the CIA parapsychology program. It should be noted that the government programs were not stopped until the mid-90’s, fifteen years after Duke’s Parapsychology Lab shut down.

The last gasp of parapsychology was an attempt to determine if quantum entanglement might have any ramifications for ESP. Quantum entanglement is the situation in which two particles separated at great distance can influence each other instantaneously. Could the particles in two minds behave accordingly, and, if so, to what result?

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