The parapsychology con game.
Para-review investigates parapathology
P.T. Barnum, that past master of the con game, would have had some interesting insights into the modern hocus-pocus, like “parapsychology”, that so many seemingly rational people in this obsessively rationalistic age have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. To be sure, parapsychology and similar superstitions flourished in earlier times as well, but it is only in the recent past that psychics have sought (and in a few interesting cases, received) the endorsement of scientists, who have themselves become icons of superstitious faith for many people. This has put the whole game on a different level. It has enhanced the credibility of parapsychology for many people, and it has helped to make it a lucrative profession for a few.
It has also given our culture some classic monuments of stupidity, and gullibility, suitably emblazoned with the name of “Science”. And most important, perhaps, it has engulfed the whole wretched psychic carnival in a sticky, and virtually impenetrable morass of fraud and foolishness, rumour and conjecture, error and confusion. Trying to make sense of what is happening in the never-never-land of parapsychology is virtually impossible. And if any chance you do succeed, you find that you would have understood the operations of the psychic miracle workers a lot sooner if you had looked at parapsychgology as, a case study in applied sociology, illustrating the old motto: “Never give a sucker an even break”. It might well be the motto of the career “psychic”.
In fact, poor Barnum must be kicking. himself right now in that Great Circus in the Sky. He was born a century too late. Nowadays, there are more suckers about than old P.T. could have wished for in his fondest dreams. And today's sophisticated suckers have a lot more money to spend than the simple country folk of Barnum's day ever did.
Imagine what heights he could have risen to in today's world. Guru Maharaji Barnum. There would have been no stopping him.
But I like to think that Barnum wouldn't have done it. I think he had too much integrity, and I think he might have been out of his depth in a world where society and the circus are one and the same. His was a simpler world. When you were being had by P.T. Barnum, you knew you were being had. You could go home afterwards, shaking your head, feeling a bit sheepish, your pocket-book empty, but your self-respect and identity still fundamentally intact. Barnum was after your money, not your soul.
The humbug of the 1970's seems to be different. What a “psychic” like Uri Geller plays the old shell game with you, he is after your soul. The game is played for keeps, and that makes it vicious and totalitarian.
Parapsychology is so confused and contradictory that it's difficult to get a grip on it anywhere. As an example, look at the two articles, of October 27 and February 11, both of them breathlessly (and mindlessly) favourable, that The Varsity was somehow suckered into carrying this year.
In them, sprouting up like so many toadstools, you'll find magic mushrooms (of course), faith healing, ESP, people who can bend metal without touching it, levitation, messages from various dead saints (curiously, all of them Greek Orthodox), Kirilian photography, attempts by the CIA to read minds, and a conspiracy between the Rockefellers and the Rochschilds, entered into in 1888, to control the English and American governments “all through the 20th century” (“Oddly”, says one of the articles, “both the Birchers and the Weather Underground have published documentary exposes of this ‘conspiracy.’”) You'll find contact with UFO's, white magic, black magic, bioenergetic fields, Timothy Leary, and the hint of an “occult Watergate”. (This at least is probable, to judge by the regularity with, which alleged evidence for paranormal phenomena disappears.) You'll even find things that go bump in the night. And you'll find all this nonsense compared in importance to the Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Theory. These two particular articles have no mention of teacup reading, astrology, talking plants, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Bermuda Triangle, or the tooth fairy. But then space was limited. Another thing you won't find in these articles,or any other parapsychological literature, for that matter, is a single solitary shred of hard evidence. And that is not for lack of space.
This is not to say that I think that all of these things are equally nonsensical. I am prepared to entertain the possibility that some of them, like ESP and UFO's, may in fact exist. But I am saying that at present no evidence exists, that the way they have been investigated is generally laughable, and that the case for them has been weakened by the way most of their proponents have uncritically lumpec together anything “occult” as equally probable.
Yet the people who like to entertain themselves with this kind of thing have managed to make so much noise that many people are under the impression that there is in fact evidence for some parapsychological occurrences, even if most of them are transparent quackery.
This is understandable. Confusion, deliberate and otherwise, is the hallmark of parapsychology. Its practitioners are remarkably adept at shifting ground. So-and-so is exposed as a fraud? Ah, well, but you should see such and such. A psychic failed in a set of tests? Oh, but he succeeded in somebody's living room last year. Psychology Today says Uri Geller is a fraud? Never mind, The Berklely Barb says he's for real.
Obviously, it is impossible to refute all of the claims of parapsychology. It's rather like trying to disprove the existence of Santa Claus. Every year, tens of thousands of men claiming to be Sanfa appear in the department stores of North America. Any particular Santa who has been investigated has turned out to be an impostor. But no one in their right mind is going to investigate all of them. So one of them may be for real, for all we know. Nevertheless, most adults would place the burden of proof on those who would try to persuade us of his existence, Let them produce a jolly fat man with eight tiny reindeer and a house at the North Pole, and who'll have him throughly checked out. Then we'll talk. Otherwise, forget it.
That would be the common-sense approach.
Common sense does not apply to parapsychology. If there are thousands of people running about claiming to be psychic, we are expected to believe that some of them are the real goods, even though no given psychic is ever able to do anything paranormal under controlled conditions. As near as I can make out, this reasoning (if that is the word) is justified by some sort of strange interpretation of the law of averages. Along the same lines, if we picked a number of apples from a bushel which we had been assurred was full of good apples, and found that every single one we examined was thoroughly rotten, presumably the parapsychologists would have us conclude that by the law of averages there must be some apples somewhere in the bushel that perfectly edible. This kind of logic is beyond me.
So in this article I propose to concentrate on one particular alleged psychic, Uri Geller, a former Israeli stage magician who now claims that his feats are for real. He is a likely choice because he is acknowledged to be one of the top superstars (or “superminds”, as the devout like to call them) in the psychic big leagues. He has been featured on radio and T.V., had books written about him, been tested by scientists. If his claims can be shown to be fraudulent, then it is clear that claims of lesser psychics, resting on much flimsier foundations, are placed in question, to say the least.
Geller is the subject of a book by a professional stage magician, James Randi (“The Amazing Randi”) entitled The Magic of Uri Geller. Randi's book is a devastating expose of the way Geller has hoodwinked many well-meaning but credulous people.
Geller, as many people know, claims to be able to perform a wide variety of psychic feats, such as bending spoons and keys, sending and receiving psychic impulses over distances, reproducing drawings that have been sealed in envelopes, starting stopped watches, and the like.
Randi explains how Geller is able to perform his feats using the techniques of the performing magician, techniques which have no “paranormal” component to them whatever. He also cites numerous occasions on which Geller has been caught while resorting to trickery. In fact, Geller left his native Israel when the press courts there exposed him as a fraud, ending his profitable career there as a psychic. Included in the Israeli accounts are descriptions from former assistants and his former girlfriend of the way Geller planned and rehearsed the tricks he used to create his psychic illusions. In fact, his former chauffeur now performs many of his tricks!
The explanations of how the various tricks are done are interesting, although most of them have been described In the literature of magic before. But especially fascinating, and frequently hilarious, are the accounts of how Randi and other magicians have themselves imitated Geller and done “Gellerisms” to prove how easy it is to fool those who have presented themselves a sauthorities in the field. For example in 1975 Randi presented himself as a bona fide psychic from Canada (Randi was in fact born in Toronto) to Psychic News, a leading psychgic newspaper in England. He went to their offices, and proceeded to give the “experts” a demonstration of his powers they found so convincing that they featured Randi on the front page as a new “discovery” with marvellous powers. There was no possibility of deceit, they assured their readers!
Around the same time, Randi also performed in a laboratory at the University of London's King's College before a committee of eminent scientists headed by Nobel Prize Winner Maurice Wilkins, co-discoverer of DNA. Although they knew in advance that Randi was a performer who would try to trick them, he was able to do a whole routine of Gellerisms so effectively that they didn't know what he had done until he explained it afterwards. They were later happy to endorse his contention that an investigation of apparent paranormal phenomena is useless unless a qualified conjurer is present.
Randi also paid a visit to Professor John Taylor, a mathematician who has authored a splashy book on parapsychology entitled Superminds. Taylor's contributions to the “science” are nothing short of comical. For example, he has discovered something called the “shyness effect”: the fact that psychics are often unable to bend spoons, etc. through psychic means while being observed, but are able to do it when they're not observed. In fact, Taylor has let “psychics” he was testing take spoons home with them and bring them back bent, never doubting for a moment that the cutlery had been bent by psychic brainwaves. Pandi performed a whole series of “Gellerisms” for this “trained observer” without him being any the wiser.
The so-called scientific controls used to test psychics are in fact nothing short of a scandal. Randi's book is sprinkled with examples. For example, there is the famous “steel room” in which Geller was tested at one point, which was not soundproof, which was not checked for bugs, which had a large unguarded hole on one side, and the lock of which was found to have been tampered with. Or the tray of cutlery which Geller was to bend, which was left unguarded in his dressing room! Or the fact that during tests Geller's assistants are allowed to roam at will among the props used for the experiments. Or the fact that Geller's mentor, Dr. Puharich, holds several patents for microelectric devices for the deaf, which are designed to be implanted in the mouth or elsewhere on the body, to receive messages which are not audible to others! Or the fact that during tests Geller's every whim is catered to, that he is allowed to run about at will, refusing or postponing attempts at any test, returning to abondoned ones, and in general doing everything he can to misdirect attention.
The reports of test results reveal not only a lack of basic experimental skill, but a considerable lack of candour as well. Randi cites a number of examples of dishonest reporting of key tests.
The whole question of authenticiation has been hopelessly, and deliberately muddied by his followers and by Geller himself. For example, he claims to be able to reproduce drawings in sealed envelopes without looking at them. In fact, he has been able to do this trick only under informal uncontrolled conditions which lend themselves to fraud. Under controlled conditions, he has never been able to do it. Yet in boasting of this ability, Geller will claim that he has been rigorously tested! The situation is similar for all of his feats. Not a single one of Geller's alleged psychic feats has been performed under controlled conditions that meet scientific standards. In fact, Randi has a standing offer to pay $10,000 to Geller or any other person who can perform a single paranormal ad under controlled conditions. There have been no takers.
The handful of scientists who believe in Geller (notice that you rarely hear anything about the vast majority who don't) have been severely criticized for their lack of experimental skill, and for their inability to devise acceptable ways of testing psychic phenomena. This is no surprise, as Randi points out. Most of them have come from fields, such as mathematics and physics, that have had nothing to do with the phenomena they have been investigating. They have been no more qualified to investigate these phenomena than you or I, or my grandmother. Yet they have assumed, with the arrogance typical of scientists, that they are infallible, and incapable of being fooled. They have ended by making fools of themselves.
In the process of doing so, they have also managed to junk most of the basic rules of scientific method, and to construct a whole set of “special” rules for investigating parapshcyology. One of these rules is that psychic phenomena can only occur in an atmosphere where the “sensitive” feels trusted. This means, for example, that a psychic like Geller who claims to be able to deflect compasses may not be searched for magents. It also means that suspicious people are not allowed to be present. It is because professional magicians give off “negative vibrations” that Geller absolutely refuses to have them present while he performs. (it has nothing to do with their being uniquely equipped to detect trickery, of course.) Yet Geller has performed in the presence of Randi and other magicians when he has not known who they were. On those occasions, he has produced “paranormal events” without noticing any “negative vibrations”, with the result that at those times, he has been caught using. trickery.
But the proven use of trickery is of no concern to the scientists who have investigated Geller. In fact, they have constructed another “scientific rule” that actually justifies it. According to them, the psychic, because of his need to be trusted, feels compelled to cheat whenever he can. In other words, when he does tricks without being caught cheating, they are proof he is psychic. And when he is caught, that's also proof he is psychic.
The parascientists have similarily turned failure into its opposite. They say that the fact that Geller's stunts often fail is proof of the fact that he is not a mere performer, for a performer would succeed every time! Thus, for example, the fact that Geller was unable to do anything on the Johnny Carson show (Carson, a former magician himself, made sure that conditions were tightly controlled so that there was no room for cheating) is proof of the erratic nature of psychic phenomena! A refinement of this insight was developed in a series of experiments in which astronaut Edgar Mitchell attempted to transmit psychic messages from the moon. The experimenters failed even more often than one would have expected from the law of averages. They immediately proceeded to claim a “significant” “negative success” because their results had deviated from the average!!
It should be apparent by this time that reason plays no role in the investigation of psychic phenomena. Consider, for example, the logic of investigators who are perfectly satisfied that Uri Geller is a psychic because he can perform certain feats in their presence. They are unwilling to admit that Geller might have tricked them, even though The Amazing Randi, for example, can perform identical, and even more difficult feats in their presence under more tightly controlled conditions using mere trickery without them being able to detect that trickery. Yet they are unwilling, of course, to maintain that Randi is also a psychic.
There is an amusing story in Randi's book that sums up the psychic circus beautifully. It concerns a young psychic James Pyczynski who appeared on a radio program hosted by Long John Nebel. He was reported to have uncontrollable supernatural powers, which had resulted in paranormal events happening in listeners' homes when he appeared on an earlier program. Listeners were asked to call in if strange things started happening to them while he was on the air.
For the next hour, the switchboard was flooded with reports. The calls only ceased - and quite suddenly, at that - when Randi joined the broadcast, revealing that Pyczynski was his assistant, and that the whole thing had been a hoax to prove a point.
We may safely assume, however, the most of the listeners learned nothing from their experience. The precedents are there. Some years ago, Margaret Fox, one of the founders of modern spiritualism, confessed that she had been a fraud. Most of her followers simply refused to believe her confession.
We can go even further back for another historical parallel, to the time of early Christianity, when Tertullian proclaimed what has ever since been the ultimate canon of faith: Credo quia absurdum. I believe because it is absurd. In these words is captured the very quintessence of the irrational in its glory - unblushing, majestic, and self-satisfied beyond redemption, Unreason proclaims its kingdom. “Nothing remains” as Bakunin once said, “but the triumphant stupidity of faith”.
The Magic of Uri Geller
The Amazing Randi