Saturday, 14 February 2009

Spoon bending, faith healing, cold reading and other trickery.

As my few devoted readers will attest, this blog is much like any other insofar as it's merely a place to indulge in sharing/venting thoughts, grievances, annoyances etc. It was not started with a mind to write exclusively or even regularly about one topic. It's an intellectual and emotional purgative covering whatever happens to be floating through my head on a particular day.

There is a subject, though, that does frequently cross my mind: the so-called 'psychic, supernatural and paranormal'. Over the coming weeks I'll devote a little more bigmouthery to these very interesting, captivating 'phenomena'.

Let me begin by saying that I have no wish to rule out completely the existence of such 'forces' in our lives. I've had a few experiences that defy explanation, so it would be churlish to state unequivocally that the 'supernatural' is pure myth. Why? Because they 'defy explanation', certainly by me and, from what I can gather, by everyone else. But it's as important to point out that, just because something appears to have no immediate, logical or easy answer, we're not justified in inventing an answer out of some desire to have our lives appear to make more sense.

Herein lies one of the problems. As humans, we have immense curiosity and an overarching need for every question to be answered. This is one of our great strengths. Alongside that, though, lies the potent desire for answers and within that, the potential for creating an answer with no reasonable basis in fact.

We cheat because the questions are often so perplexing, it hurts our heads to the point where inventing an answer, no matter how ludicrous, goes some way to providing a measure of faux-peace. Of course, it has to be done on a grand scale in order for it not to appear as cheating. If one person cheats, it's regarded as reprehensible. But if huge swathes of people are in on it, cheating is transformed into a truth. An ugly, perverted truth. This is one of our great flaws.

It's very sad, and it holds us back. But we're all prone to it at's not a trait that's going away anytime soon. So, y'know...I'm not going to judge it too harshly.

This rather clumsily brings me to the people who DO piss me off (we had to get there eventually), namely, those who prey on this flaw in our make up.
I am referring to people who falsely claim some kind of mystical, supernatural power, not only for financial profit, but also to win the adulation (and I'm sure in some cases, adoration) of an easily gulled and answer-hungry public. It's bad enough that they're money-grubbing attention whores, but possibly worse, they jolt us away from looking for real answers to life's imponderables.

In our first wee delve into the lucrative world of the 'miraculous', let's have a look at one of the Western world's most famous 'mystic': Uri Geller.

Geller has been internationally known since the early 1970s, and is perhaps most famous for his ability to bend spoons, allegedly with 'mind power'. After a stint of national service with the Israeli army, Geller spent the last part of the 1960s as a male model and nightclub magician. He is also famous for his supposed gifts as a dowser & psychic. Geller has claimed that his 'abilities' were received at the age of four when he was hit by a bolt of light from the sky. Soon after this event, he was eating a meal and his spoon bent in his hand and broke.

Geller has made some large claims during his 40 year career. He's successfully dowsed for mining companies, he possesses alchemical powers, he can make compass needles move with only the power of his mind, he received his amazing gifts from a being called 'IS' ('Intelligence in the Sky') that hailed from a distant (and hitherto unknown) planet called 'Hoova', he has the ability to bring about world peace and...well, lots more. When you claim to possess such abilities as the latter, why bother outlining them all?

This man has been fĂȘted by some almost to the level of demi-god. But is this all there is to know about Uri Geller?

Geller made his name and fortune traipsing all over the world destroying cutlery and claiming to fix watches and move compasses, all with mind power. He appeared on countless talk shows worldwide, peddling the line that everything he did was as a result of a special ability outside of the very clever skills possessed by avowed magicians.

He's even claimed to have been scientifically proven as having genuine psychic abilities. In the early 1970s he was 'tested' by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). They came to the conclusion that Geller demonstrated genuine psychic abilities. More on that later.

Here's Geller bending a spoon on Swedish TV in 2003:

There were (and still are) many people completely mystified and enthralled by the 'powers' of Uri Geller, but he's had his detractors, going all the way back to the point where Geller started to make a name and career for himself internationally.

Enter Canadian-born American James Randi, magician, escapologist and most importantly, scientific skeptic. Randi is probably the most famous investigator of 'psychics', 'paranormalists' etc. and has for many years offered a cash prize (once US$10000, for the last few years US$1 million) to anyone who can provide proof of psychic abilities under controlled conditions. Many have taken the challenge, but Randi still has the million bucks (incidentally, the offer runs out next year, so if you're a miracle worker, get your skates on or you'll have to settle for lesser amounts offered by others).

A skilled practitioner of his art, Randi first challenged Geller's claim to special abilities in 1972.

How? He duplicated Geller's demonstrations with what is commonly known as 'trickery'. He bent spoons, keys and moved compasses and said it was all magic tricks. He's famously quoted as saying, "Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons; if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way." (Source.)

Obviously Geller has considered Randi a bit of a fly in the ointment (if not the bane of his existence) and has sued him a number of times, and with one exception, it has proven costly for Geller, who has built as much of a reputation for litigious behaviour.

It also did not help that Geller's former manager, Yasha Katz, alleged on an Italian TV show that Geller cheated.

None of this seemed to have much impact on the public, though.

The first widespread evidence that Geller might not be imbued with such powerful 'gifts' came in 1973 when he appeared on the late, great Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show'. Mr. Carson was well-known to have been a magician in his earlier days, and more well-known as having a low tolerance for fakery masquerading as the genuinely supernatural.

Here's what happened (the meaty bit starts at 5:39, with commentary by James Randi, ends at approx 8:00):

This, of course, is not proof of a lack of psychic ability. And as stated earlier, Geller was tested by the SRI, specifically Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ. Both men were convinced of Geller's abilities as a 'remote viewer'.

However, the veracity and accuracy of their observations were called into question by many colleagues in the scientific community. This alone does not prove their findings false and I can find no concrete evidence that the findings are false.

Having said that, there are pointers to a certain amount of possible flim-flammery on Geller's part and wishful thinking on the part of the SRI researchers.

Again, this does not prove Geller was faking or that the scientists were in on anything. Re-enter Randi, quietly. He set out to show that even scientists could be easily fooled...with Project Alpha.

Geller enjoyed many years of success in his chosen field, but genuine or not, if you can't offer much more than spoon-bending and remote viewing to an audience, your act will become pretty stale. Especially if you're spending a good deal of time fighting off the skeptics (and losing).

It's interesting to note that, even as early as his Israeli nightclub days, Geller was the subject of court action. A man was awarded costs and the refunding of his ticket price when he complained that Geller's abilities were magic tricks and not psychic, as apparently advertised. Through all of the investigation, claims of fraudulent behaviour, skepticism, lawsuits and inability to perform on cue, Geller breezed along, attracting more and more fans willing to believe in something that cannot rationally be explained.

Now, this has all appeared so far to be a nice little nostalgia trip back to the 70s and early 80s. Man claims supernatural abilities, makes a lot of money, certain people attempt to expose him as a fraud with good evidence but limited success, man fades from view.

But Geller appears, slowly, to be priming the pump for a major comeback. And it is this This time though, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the road might be a little more rocky.

In 2006, Brian Sapient,a member of a group called the Rational Response Squad posted a video on Youtube featuring footage from --well, if you've read this far, you've already seen it. It's the 'James Randi Exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff' video above.

Geller issued Youtube with a takedown notice in early 2007, claiming eight seconds of the footage shown infringed copyright under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Sapient bringing an action against Geller, which was settled out of court. Rather than go into boring detail you can see a summary here. You don't really need to read anything to know who effectively won the case; the video, as you can see, is readily and legally available all over the Intynuts.

Geller obviously saw plenty more on Youtube that displeased him, such as:

Busted bending:

Busted bending:

Having the compass moving trick duplicated:

Busted with a magnet (my favourite, watch his hands and left thumb from 1:19):

It's possible the posting of these videos went some way to Geller saying in late 2007, "I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed." As this was in a German magic magazine (Magische Welt), it didn't receive much attention. I suppose the fact that Geller was only a saleable commodity in Germany and Israel in 2007 didn't help to get the word out either.

This 'reversal' suggested that Geller might have finally admitted he had no special abilities outside of being a good magician. A stark contrast to the many amazing claims he'd been making for 35-plus years that he never involved himself in trickery or magic.

Problem is, the guy, despite his admission, still seems to be flogging the line that not only has he special gifts, but that all of the people watching videos of him looking very 'un-special' on Youtube are really providing him with a career boost. This is akin to saying that everyone watches serial killers out of adoration. If you read his post, it's apparent that, like self-confessed fraud James Hydrick, adulation is very important to Geller.
Could it be, though, that many of the people who've watched the Geller 'debunking' videos over the past few years are doing so 1) they can have a good laugh at his expense and/or 2) to show others how easy it is to be taken in by spurious claims?

This is why I'm singling him out. Geller uses very different language on his new website, calling himself not 'psychic' but 'mystifier'. His biography still says he has 'unusual powers', though. He also says that he's lining up big TV deals for franchising his little Israeli and German TV shows.

It's fine for someone like a Blaine, Copperfield, Angel or Mumford to make a lot of money as a magician. People are still blown away by magic tricks and will be for a long time to come. But to use the same magic tricks and pass 'em off as being genuinely supernatural? Sickening. There should be no elbow room allowed for Geller to make any kind of comeback to a wider audience. It would be nice to say we've grown up a little bit since the 1970s, and roundly reject Geller's brand of 'entertainment'.