Go See ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’

December 18, 2009

It isn’t just that it has a great cast (George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Ewin McGregor, “and goat”), a skilled director (Grant Heslov, who co-authored Clooney’s movie about Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck ), and a script based on a non-fiction bestseller (by Jon Ronson). The Men Who Stare at Goats should please skeptics of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims for this reason: it is an inspired, absurdist satire—not just on modern warfare (like Dr. Strangelove ), But on the hole New Age silliness. Think about it: a special unit of “soldiers with super powers”—like psychokinesis.

Hence, staring at goats. The top-secret unit of “psychic spies” experiments with telepathic assassination: attempting to knock off goats (people are more sentimental about dogs) with mere stare power. The would-be psychic “Jedi Warriors” seek guidance from a book that actually emerged in 1970 to promote the idea that the Soviets were outdistancing the U.S. on the parapsychological front. Provocatively titled Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain , it was written by Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder.

The book capitalized on the Cold War, promoting belief in such potentially militaristic paranormalities as the supposed ability to “see” without sight. This is shown in the movie in the form of driving while blindfolded (a magician’s stunt I have occasionally done—see my Adventures in Paranormal Investigation , 2007, 215).

Other New Age pursuits satirized in The Men Who Stare at Goats include psychokinetic spoon-bending, firewalking, and more, including clairvoyance that is restyled “remote viewing.” The latter was actually embodied in the United States’ own secret project code-named Stargate (see my The Mystery Chronicles , 2004, 61–72). In one instance in the film, remote-viewing is attempted via a psychic medium’s spirit guide named Maude.

Of course, The Men Who Stare at Goats is not the place to learn the secrets behind all such paranormal claims. For that, you of course subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. But effective satire, and this movie is very effective satire, has a way of making a direct hit on the emotions—in this case, with fitting irony, beating psychics at their own game. It is a must-see for skeptics.


#1 Andy (Guest) on Friday December 18, 2009 at 2:49pm

I’ll have to strongly disagree with you here. As far as the film goes, it was okay, but not nearly as good as I’d hoped.

But as far as inspiring skepticism through satire, I can’t say the movie did that at all. Sure, there were references to New Age “techniques,” etc., but I don’t recall any satire. It seemed to me that the filmmaker was simply telling this story of psychic spies that is apparently based on actual events.

So what, specifically was the film satirizing and how is it applicable to the skeptic pursuit?

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