With the movie version of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats hitting cinemas, there are plenty of news stories floating about focusing on the U.S. Army's 'Stargate' psychic-spying program and other similar 'woo-woo' ventures. 'Skeptics' have often referenced the book in the past, with its satirical look at psi-related research - Richard Dawkins has mentioned it in his lectures, and in his best-selling The God Delusion - but how much skeptical thinking did they apply to Ronson's tales? With the new public attention on the story, a number of the individuals involved have thrown some doubts on the veracity of Ronson's account.
John Alexander has long disputed a number of the claims in The Men Who Stare at Goats, and in a recent article ("They Stared at Goats Because...") states that even the title is incorrect, as the goat in question actually died after being struck using a martial arts move. Meanwhile, Stargate remote viewer Paul Smith, in an Amazon review of the book, says that while Goats is an entertaining read, it is not an accurate summation of the actual history - and at times, uses plenty of 'artistic license' in presenting material. And Jim Channon, whose 'First Earth Battalion' idea is central to much of Goats (and who has been very sporting and good-humoured about his treatment in the book), has a press release on his website which says that "Ronson’s tongue-in-cheek account is classified as a work of ‘non-fiction,’ but it is so loaded with speculation and inaccuracy, it sets the stage for much of the confusion."
If all that didn't put the Goats story under enough of a spotlight, the Monroe Institute has now come to the party with a little poke in the ribs courtesy of an audio file recorded during Jon Ronson's visit there while researching the book (and accompanying documentary). The Monroe Institute's Fred 'Skip' Atwater - who was also involved in the Stargate program - tells how the Goats author took part in a remote viewing experiment while at the Monroe Institute. And, funnily enough, given the satirical and skeptical edge to the book, was fairly successful in describing the 'target'. It's a 6-part YouTube video, with the first part being the introduction and then the rest being most of the audio recorded during Jon's session (it should all autoplay, but if not head to YouTube and search for Monroe and Ronson):
Regardless of the Goats context, I found it very interesting just to hear the process of relaxation and guided visualisation that leads up to the remote viewing test - so if you've got the time, then it's worth listening right through for an insight into the techniques used. If you want the super-concise version though, click here.
The audio won't convince any remote viewing skeptics, but it does have to be admitted that in this particular case, Jon Ronson was pretty close to the mark (it would have been interesting to see his choice if given 4 images to choose from). There is some minor 'leading' by Skip Atwater, but nothing that gives too much away. For his part, Ronson has said that in his recollection "the out-of-body portion of the day worked a treat. I really had some kind of OBE at The Monroe Institute. But I was less sure about the success of the remote-viewing section. It took me a long time to identify the target, and though I got there in the end, I had some wrong guesses along the way."
But just to put a nasty edge on what has mostly been just good-humoured "he-said, she-said" between people involved, journalist and author Jim Schnabel has this week raised questions about the origin of the material in Ronson's bestseller. Schnabel - one of the first to write about 'Stargate' in his book Remote Viewers - claims that Ronson 'borrowed' material from his book without giving due credit:
Sorry — do I sound bitter?
I found The Men Who Stare at Goats at the library recently after someone tipped me off about the forthcoming Goats movie and its connection to my book, Remote Viewers. I went through Ronson’s book in amazement at his extensive borrowings - of stories from which he built up some of the major themes in his book, starting on page one with the adventures of General Stubblebine as head of Army intelligence.
I don’t deny that Ronson’s book contains a considerable amount of original reporting. But when it comes to the paranormal/government angle, too much of it is derivative, in my view, and I wonder whether Ronson could have sold his project in any of its forms, if his sources had been fully specified.
Personally I think a lot of authors over-react to what is pretty standard fair-use of information previously made public (and is something they themselves did in writing their own books), but to his credit Schnabel does go on to detail some particular instances which he claims are evidence of plagiarism of his material. I can't say either way (e.g. perhaps the similarities come from referencing the same earlier resource), but it will be interesting to see if anything further results from Schnabel's attack. In Jon Ronson's defence, I did see in the Acknowledgements at the end of Goats that he mentioned Remote Viewers, saying that "this book gave me invaluable background information for chapters 5 and 6." Schnabel though addresses this point in his article and also in this letter to the Guardian).
Edit: As Kamarling mentions in the comments, Alex Tsakiris has posted an excellent interview with Jon Ronson over at Skeptiko discussing Goats and various elements of psi research and skepticism.
Edit #2: Jim Schnabel has also pointed out to me this story about John Sargeant, who did much of the research leg-work for Goats and is unhappy with the lack of credit he has received.
Previously on TDG: