A magician will instantly see the truth behind any colleague’s illusion. But we have a bit of an advantage: We know we are being fooled. Scientists are instinctive doubters who employ a rigorous method to zero in on the truth, but they aren’t necessarily trained to expect deception by subjects and collaborators.
We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to — but we can help scientists “think in the groove” — think like a magician. And we should.
For most of my life I’ve pecked away at a certain type of swindler: faith-healers, mystics, mind-readers. Those of a certain age may remember my appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson — a skilled amateur magician himself who introduced my exposure of flummery to a huge television audience.
Mine was a lonely voice back then, but I’m not alone anymore. The immensely talented and popular Penn & Teller long ago joined me as foes of harmful deception, along with other magicians; the president of my foundation, D.J. Grothe, has a background in magic, and many of our associates are professional magicians, as well. They all agree with me that the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians should re-establish their once very active investigations of the fakers who claim supernatural powers.
It’s not something that is generally done, or maybe at all – I’d love to see one funding grant that has a line item for the services of a magician, if somebody out there has one. But it is long overdue that my peers in the conjuring profession try to take a more active role in the elimination of nonsense science by joining forces with scientists, and that scientists be open to the proposition.
Please bear with me while I offer you a peek behind the curtain, a cursory glance at what we magicians are — and aren’t. First, we’re entertainers, actors, showbiz people who have as our primary objective the delight of our audiences. We’re deceivers, yes, taking on roles and characters to express our art, just as any actor does.
We are not scientists — with a few rare but important exceptions, like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But our highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false conclusions by calculated means — psychological, physical and especially sensory, visual being rather paramount since it has such a range of variety.
“If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way.” —James Randi
“Because a good magician can do something shouldn’t make you right away jump to the conclusion that it’s a real phenomenon.” —Richard Feynman
“Geller is at his ingenious best in laboratories where he is being observed by scientists who believe he has extraordinary ESP ability and think—without justification—that they have ruled out every possibility of fraud.” —Milbourne Christopher
Uri Geller is most famous for his claim to be able to bend spoons and keys with his mind. An international star in the psychic circuit, Geller is a Hungarian/Austrian who was born in Israel and lives in England. He claims he’s had visions for many years and may get his powers from extraterrestrials. He calls himself a psychic and has sued several people for millions of dollars for saying otherwise. His psychic powers were not sufficient to reveal to him, however, that he would lose all the lawsuits against his critics. His arch critic has been James “The Amazing” Randi, who has written a book and numerous articles aimed at demonstrating that Geller is a fraud, that he has no psychic powers, and that what Geller does amounts to no more than the parlor tricks of a conjurer.
Geller has been performing for many years. The first time I saw him was in 1973 when he appeared on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. He was supposed to demonstrate his ability to bend spoons with his thoughts and identify hidden objects, but he failed to even try. He squirmed around and said something about how his power can’t be turned on and off, and that he didn’t feel strong right then. Randi had worked with Carson’s producer to change the spoons and metal items Geller planned to use, as there was a suspicion that Geller likes to work (i.e., soften) his metals before his demonstrations, as would any careful conjurer.
View Geller’s Tonight Show lack of performance (courtesy of James Randi):
I have always been fascinated and puzzled by the attraction of Uri Geller. I suppose this is because nearly every one of our household spoons is bent and what I would like to see is someone who can straighten them, with his mind or with anything for that matter. Likewise with stopped watches. I have several of those and I would love for someone to use his powers, psychic or otherwise, to make them start running again. Of course, even I can get my stopped watches to run again for a short while by shaking or tapping them, but a permanent fix would be appreciated. There is something mysterious, however, about a person who has built a career out of breaking things.
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