CBS is one of America’s premier television networks. It practically invented television news. It was the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And its ninety-minute Sunday morning news and feature program, appropriately titled Sunday Morning, is likewise well regarded. It tends to emphasize cultural fare such as music, art, film, dance, and lifestyle trends, but whatever it takes on, you can expect it to do a fine job.
That is until its program on March 18, 2018. Oh, it started out promising enough. That particular Sunday’s overall theme was “Genius,” and there was Walter Isaacson talking about Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Einstein, and other brilliant people he has chronicled in best-selling biographies. All good.
Then came segment four. Its topic—“ESP: Inside the Government’s Secret Program on Psychic Spies.” What? That subject might fit into a program on popular delusions. But in a program on the subject of genius? Are they implying that some people have extraordinary powers and that psychic claims are legitimate? I hoped not, but, sadly, I was wrong.
They set the tone at the very beginning. There was Uri Geller before the camera, doing his “psychic” stuff. James Randi and countless others long ago exposed Geller as a clever but mediocre magician doing the kinds of things magicians (or conjurors) have done for eons. But Geller of course claimed his feats were real, and he initially fooled a lot of people, including some scientists. But that was back in the 1970s and early ’80s, and all that changed once his trickery was exposed and explained countless times.
They showed him bending spoons and divining the contents of sealed envelopes. It implied his abilities were genuine. I kept waiting for some video clip of Randi debunking him. No. The most skeptical they got on Geller was that he proved to be “unreliable” and that on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson he failed (but the video clip they showed was very short and unclear).
“Geller had caught the eye of the intelligence community,” intoned the narrator with great seriousness. And from then on we were in fantasy world. This took them into remote viewing and Project Stargate and the secret government-sponsored experiments in the 1980s that University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman (a founding member of our Executive Council) has thoroughly examined and critiqued.
Here pro-paranormal journalist Annie Jacobsen was their guide, plus Dean Radin, identified not as a parapsychologist but as a “scientist.” Radin was on camera a lot. Jacobsen touted the experiments in remote viewing of Soviet military activities as a big success. Of the secret research program, Radin claimed bluntly: “It did work.” He offered not a scintilla of scientific skepticism toward it.
Then they brought on a psychic, Angela Ford, promoting her claims of helping authorities find a fugitive. She had said he was in a particular town in Wyoming. When he was found a hundred miles from that town, it was touted as a great success. (See Joe Nickell’s critique of that specific claim elsewhere in this issue.)
Then Radin, of the pro-paranormal Institute of Noetic Sciences, put CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Erin Moriarty herself through an ESP test. “This experiment is going to see if your body responds before you see an emotional picture as compared to before a calm picture.” Hmmmm. That’s a legitimate test for ESP? Radin seemed to think so. They proceeded. Moriarty’s eyes supposedly reacted five seconds before seeing the emotional picture. Radin said with a straight face that she demonstrated precognition.
“Whoa, I sure didn’t see that coming!” Moriarty exclaimed. “Which is why I have my doubts.” But she was clearly impressed.
There were only a few other minor moments of skepticism. Midway through the segment, noted Caltech physicist Sean Carroll was brought on. Asked if such a thing as ESP exists, he was allowed to say on camera, “No, I think we know enough about the brain to say, no, it really doesn’t work that way. We’d be able to test it, be able to put a little receiver next to your head and pick up those signals if they were actually coming.”
But those few seconds of skepticism were far outweighed by all the statements and imagery promoting paranormal powers. For instance, Angela Ford was asked if ESP exists: “Yes, it does. Yeah, of course.” Radin (essentially showing us why CBS included this segment in an overall program on “Genius”): “What we’re talking about is something like a talent, similar to musical talent or sports talent. So, there will be some people who are the Olympic levels; most of us aren’t there.”
The segment ended, contrarily but honestly, with Jacobsen saying, “There is no proof. It does not pass scientific muster.” Yet the whole thrust of the segment, the whole idea of its being part of an overall theme on “Genius,” was that such paranormal powers probably indeed do exist.
The segment prompted the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), copublisher of the Skeptical Inquirer with the Center for Inquiry, to issue a statement the next day strongly criticizing that segment’s lack of journalistic and scientific care. See the text of the statement on page 5.
Subjects such as these are notoriously difficult for most reporters and news organizations to handle correctly. They are filled with pitfalls. Producers and reporters, even good ones, who do not make themselves fully aware of the long history of deceptions and delusions by many paranormal claimants and of the gullibility and desire to believe of other well-meaning proponents, even some researchers with credentials, can fall into those pits of misinformation. Such stories require rigorous scientific thinking and lots of expert advice by scientifically trained and skeptically inclined experts.
When the next day the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science tweeted criticisms of the program, stimulated by CSI’s statement, reporter Moriarty did offer one tweet reply in her defense, but it was a weak one: “We reported on government experiments with the paranormal—supported by declassified Govt documents. We gave time to both those involved and scientists.”
And that leads us to emphasize again that just because some part of the government initiated a bizarre little research program at some point in the past, that is not itself a validation of the claims it was studying. The whole point of research is to find out what is true. And the Stargate program, in contrast to Radin’s claim, had at best mixed results. It was shut down in 1995. Another point: all such efforts tend to have a few strong proponents, often believers, within the agency pushing them strongly, and unless those people are counterbalanced by good outside scientists and skeptics, the outcome can be misleading. Also, just because a program is, or was, labeled “secret” doesn’t necessarily make it any more valid. Reporting on “secret” programs appeals to the news media, but the Skeptical Inquirer had been writing about and publishing critiques of Stargate since at least the early 1990s. It isn’t exactly news in 2018.
As for Moriarty’s assertion that the segment was balanced, the Center for Inquiry’s Stephanie Guttormson timed a videotape of the segment and found it more than 97 percent pro-paranormal and only 3 percent skeptical.
As skeptic Jay Diamond sarcastically put it in response to my Facebook post about it the evening it aired:
Seems quite balanced … I mean they had Sean Carroll on for 5 seconds saying it was nonsense, then 6 minutes of [others] making extraordinary, unsubstantiated but science-sounding claims. Now THAT’S good journalism!PLUS – we discovered that reporter Erin Moriarty has psychic abilities! Wow – no psychics saw THAT coming!
Two other posts said simply, “It was infuriating” and “I was mortified.”
Skeptic Steven Novella blogged the next day about the segment, and the text of that appears on page 15.
Statement by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on the CBS Segment
The segment on ESP and the paranormal on this week’s CBS Sunday Morning nationally aired television show (March 18) was a regrettable lapse in the CBS network’s usually objective and reliable coverage. We call on CBS and the Sunday Morning show to take steps to correct the record and provide a more truthful and scientifically accurate view of the topic.
The segment provided a scientifically inaccurate and journalistically irresponsible treatment of the subject of alleged psychic powers. With only one too-brief exception, the people who appeared on camera are strong proponents of the paranormal. The segment’s few moments of skepticism were overwhelmed by anecdotes, claims, and assertions that portrayed psychics as genuine and paranormal powers as a likely reality, in contrast to the scientific evidence. In the context of the overall theme of this particular Sunday Morning show, “Genius,” the clear impression given was that some unusual people possess paranormal powers, a conclusion contrary to all reliable scientific evidence.
This segment was remarkably uninformed by journalistic skepticism or by the decades of reliable scientific studies that have failed to find evidence of paranormal powers. It seemed almost a throwback to an earlier time before most responsible TV networks and news organizations learned to treat such topics with great caution and to obtain and heed reliable scientific advice before airing such dubious claims. This is very troubling in such a controversial area. We hope it is an anomaly.
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a group made up of distinguished scientists (including three Nobel laureates), scholars, investigators, and science communicators that publishes the magazine Skeptical Inquirer and is part of the nonprofit Center for Inquiry, calls on CBS to take steps to correct the record.
We ask the network and Sunday Morning to provide a more truthful and scientifically rigorous view of this topic. Producers and reporters should become familiar with the real scientific evidence and not allow paranormal proponents to use CBS’s great and well-deserved journalistic reputation to advance their agendas.
—Issued by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, March 19, 2018
(The statement is online at https://www.csicop.org/news/press_releases/show/cbs_esp_paranormal.)
Further Background on These Psychic Claims
Ray Hyman, “The Evidence for Psychic Functioning: Claims vs. Reality.” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1996. It’s available on our website at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/evidence_for_psychic_functioning_claims_vs._reality.
The recent media frenzy over the Stargate report violated the truth. Sober scientific assessment has little hope of winning in the public forum when pitted against unsubstantiated and unchallenged claims of “psychics” and psychic researchers—especially when the claimants shamelessly indulge in hyperbole. While this situation may be depressing, it is not unexpected. The proponents of the paranormal have seized an opportunity to achieve by propaganda what they have failed to achieve through science.
CSI Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell, in “Mind Over Metal” (Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2013), offered a good summary about metal-bending claims, starting with Uri Geller and how they’ve been shown to be simple tricks. It is online at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/mind_over_metal.
In “Remotely Viewed? The Charlie Jordan Case,” in Skeptical Briefsback in 2001, Joe Nickell provided his review and evaluation of the Stargate program and his critique of the claims that a psychic found a fugitive in Lovell, Wyoming. It’s online on our website at https://www.csicop.org/sb/show/remotely_viewed_the_charlie_jordan_case.
In summary, the Charlie Jordan case, touted as one of the most successful examples of remote viewing in the U.S. government’s psychic-spying project, is not convincing evidence of anything—save perhaps folly. Not only was the case actually an example of alleged spirit contact rather than extrasensory perception but it also illustrates the limitations of anecdotal evidence: conflicting versions, selective reporting, and lack of documentation, together with additional manifestations of faulty memory, bias, and other human foibles.
A critique of Dean Radin’s book Supernormal appeared in the January/February 2014 Skeptical Inquirer, “When Big Evidence Isn’t: The Statistical Pitfalls of Dean Radin’s Supernormal.” It is online at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/when_big_evidence_isnt_the_statistical_pitfalls_of_dean_radins_supernormal.
Ray Hyman’s article “Anomalous Cognition? A Second Perspective” appeared in the July/August 2008 Skeptical Inquirer and is online at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/anomalous_cognition_a_second_perspective.
James Alcock’s critique of the book Extrasensory Perceptionappeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2016. It’s online at https://www.csicop.org/si/show/heavy_with_praise_light_with_skepticism.
Also relevant: Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal, edited by James Alcock, Jean Burns, and Anthony Freeman, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2003, and Alcock’s brand new book Belief, Prometheus Books, 2018.