Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen
Phenomena is about the decades-long dance of the US military with the idea of anomalous mental phenomena and the psychics who say they have these skills.
Much is made of the author, Jacobsen, being a Pulitzer prize nominee. Generally, the book reflects a lot of work gaining interviews and exploring declassified documents but I think the end product was rushed, a bit sloppy, and certainly not the “definitive” book it claims to be at all. The narrative doesn’t hang together and, according to people who know of this time in history, it is woefully incomplete and skewed.
From the first page, we are provided with the framing that will follow throughout: psychics exist and science “rejects” them. Jacobsen provides a false choice – the psychics are truly gifted or they were skilled magicians (p. 7). She even invokes Galileo suggesting that those who rejected exploration in these topics had no sound basis to do so because it could be revolutionary. The critical evaluation of the various military psi ops projects is given short shrift. Those who rated the book highly on GoodReads were those who took everything at face value and did not consider counter arguments or flaws in stating such “facts”. Those that were less positive noted that much was left out of the narrative.
There were a few interesting stories in the book. I found the stuff on Edgar Mitchell, Ingo Swann, and even Uri Geller to be fascinating. In between, there was some unnecessary filler (the book is 527 pages), unresolved ideas, and various characters left unfollowed.
By page 73, the reader understands that we are in a psychic arms race with the Soviets and the military has some seriously naive ideas about what does or doesn’t make sense to pursue. The military is not immune to believing things that are demonstrably untrue. Because there is no peer review and little debate in a hierarchical environment like this, dumb ideas can get promoted. The deep belief in dowsing by the military is one example of this.
The majority of the book content is derived from interviews. The reader has no means to judge the veracity of these claims. The psychics and officers involved say the tests were remarkably accurate, but no records were kept to cross-check these statements. I’m not that naive; I know that it’s highly plausible that the stories were told in the best possible light, making them seem more impressive. Also, memory is selective.
The conclusion writes itself as these programs fell apart from the inside out. The message I got loud and clear was that the Army and Defense department personnel pushing these programs were gullible and too wrapped up in their biases to think critically. Plenty of money went towards these experiments that delivered no reliable or accurate knowledge or help to intelligence systems. Even if a psychic effect is real, it is undeniably small and undependable and can not be used to gather useful information remotely.
Finally, the end notes are not flagged in the text but listed by pages at the end. These are not helpful and the whole thing comes off as messy and poorly arranged. I can’t recommend this piecey, unpolished, and skewed volume.