Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi
Original broadcast: October 19, 1993
Description via PBS.org:
Can psychics predict the future? Many people seem to think so. Others argue that, in most cases, so-called psychic experiences are really misinterpretations of events. In this episode of NOVA, magician and confirmed skeptic James Randi challenges viewers to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of psychic phenomena.
Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers. The program highlights some of the methods and processes he uses to examine psychics’ claims. Using his own expertise in creating deception and illusion, Randi challenges specific psychics’ claims by duplicating their performances and “feats,” or by applying scientific methods. His goal is to eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the psychic phenomena. He also looks for evidence that they are not merely coincidental. His arguments can motivate your class to discuss the differences between psychic performances and legitimate cases of unexplained phenomena.
Some say they are tools by which demons can influence us; others regard them as mechanisms for communicating with the deceased; still others dismiss them as toys that can be used to fool your friends. But however we regard them, Ouija boards have left an indelible mark on our culture. But of most interest is the question they raise: Can they indeed be used to reveal information unknown to any of the participants whose hands rest on the pointer? Today we’re going to find out what the science has revealed about Ouija boards.
Historically, these are called talking boards, and they’ve been around in spiritualism almost as long as spiritualists. They all involve a planchette, which is the pointer that seance participants all place their hands on, which then moves. How does it move? Well, that’s the fun if it’s a game, and it’s the spirit if it’s a seance. The planchette can either point to letters, numbers, or symbols written on the playing surface; or it can hold a writing implement that moves over paper to produce so-called spirit writing, or automatic writing.
The Ouija board is the name of the most successful talking board that’s been manufactured commercially, first by the Charles Kennard Novelty Company in 1890, then by Parker Brothers since 1966, and by Hasbro since 1991.
It’s true that name Ouija is the French and German words for yes, oui and ja. That’s officially what the game’s publisher will tell you it means, and that comes all the way down from one of the original bosses of the company, William Fuld. But Fuld wasn’t the first, and before he came along, the founders had their own explanation for the name.
The story goes — and it is just a story, there’s really no record telling us how much truth there may or may not be to it — that two of the four founders, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, were hanging out at the boarding house where Bond’s sister-in-law lived, Helen Peters, and they were, of course, playing with their new invention.
By Elizabeth Palermo via LiveScience.com
People who believe in ghosts may be more afraid of actual, real-world dangers — things like violent crimes or nuclear war — than are people who don’t hold paranormal beliefs, a new survey finds.
The Survey of American Fear asked people in the United States to divulge the terrors that keep them up at night. For the survey, nearly 1,500 participants responded to questions about 88 different fears and anxieties, ranging from commonplace phobias (like fear of heights) to less tangible concerns (like fear of government corruption). The survey also asked participants about their beliefs concerning paranormal and mythical things, like ghosts, Bigfoot and ancient aliens.
“The reason we ask [about paranormal things] on the survey is that we’re interested in finding out what kind of clusters of beliefs tend to be associated with fear,” Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University in California and leader of the second annual Fear Survey, told Live Science.
Last year in the survey, researchers asked questions that gauged the respondents’ scientific reasoning. This was done to find out how the individuals’ knowledge of scientific ideas (how electricity works, why the sun sets in the west, etc.) related to those respondents’ fears. But this year, the focus was on supernatural beliefs, not scientific ones.
Bader and his colleagues found that quite a few Americans hold paranormal beliefs. The most common of these is the belief that spirits can haunt particular places; 41.4 percent of the demographically representative group of participants said they held this belief. A lot of Americans (26.5 percent) also think that the living and the dead can communicate with each other in some way, the survey found.
Many survey participants said . . .
The new supernatural horror film “Ouija” hits theaters soon, and is expected to scare up big numbers at the box office this weekend.
The Oujia board, also known as a witch board or spirit board, is simple and elegant. The board itself is printed with letters and numbers, while a roughly heart-shaped device called a planchette slides over the board. The game was created in the 1890s and sold to Hasbro in 1966. It began as a parlor game with no association with ghosts until much later, and today many people believe it can contact spirits.
“Ouija” is only the most recent in a long line of movies featuring the board. Since the Oujia board’s film debut in the 1920 Max Fleischer film “The Ouija Board,” it has appeared in hundreds of films including “The Uninvited” (1944);”The Changeling” (1980); “Witchboard” (1986); and “Paranormal Activity” (2007).
Speaking to the Dead
People in all cultures have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to speak to the dear departed. Ghosts and spirit communication shows up often in classic literature, including in mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare’s plays.
In Victorian England it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, and candles were used to try to contact the dead. A century ago mediums “in touch with the spirit” during séances would write pages and pages of “automatic writing,” the psychic’s hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.
Since that time ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write—or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?” The Ouija board seems to cut out the middleman and let you communicate directly with the dead.
Fearing the Ouija
There’s a reason that scary movies are based on the Ouija game and not, for example, Monopoly or Scrabble. Many evangelical groups believe that playing with Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession.
Also See: Video: What Makes Ouija Boards Move?
Science Says No-o-o-o
The Pseudoscience of Ghost Hunting
By Benjamin Radford via livescience
If you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone. Cultures all around the world believe in spirits that survive death to live in another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomena: Millions of people are interested in ghosts, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.
Ghosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from the Bible to “Macbeth,” and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Part of the reason is that belief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death and spirit communication.
People have tried to (or claimed to) communicate with spirits for ages; in Victorian England, for example, it was fashionable for upper-crust ladies to hold séances in their parlors after tea and crumpets with friends. In America during the late 1800s, many psychic mediums claimed to speak to the dead — but were exposed as frauds by skeptical investigators such as Harry Houdini.
It wasn’t until the past decade that ghost hunting became a widespread interest around the world. Much of this is due to Syfy cable TV’s hit series “Ghost Hunters,” now in its 10th season of not finding good evidence for ghosts. The show spawned several spin-offs, including “Ghost Hunters International” and “Ghost Hunters Academy,” and it’s not hard to see why the show is so popular: the premise is that anyone can look for ghosts. The two original stars were ordinary guys (plumbers, in fact) who decided to look for evidence of spirits. Their message: You don’t need to be an egghead scientist, or even have any training in science or investigation. All you need is some free time, a dark place and maybe a few gadgets from an electronics store. If you look long enough, any unexplained light or noise might be evidence of ghosts.
The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.
By Bobby Nelson via randi.org (JREF)
Coming up around Halloween is a new movie based on the Ouija board. Popular culture ideas have a great impact on social acceptability and spread of beliefs. You can guarantee that the popularity of Ouija boards and the volumes of strange stories people tell about them will increase precipitously in conjunction with portrayals of totally fictional events.
One of the most controversial tools ever used in spirit communication, still used today, is a simple wooden board. It comes in many different sizes, with a variety of beautiful painted scenes and symbols. They all share certain characteristics. The surface of these boards will have inscribed the words “Yes”, “No” and “Goodbye“, the letters A through Z, and the numbers 0 through 9. The pointer, a planchette, is most typically a triangular or heart-shaped device that will point to the letters, numbers or words, spelling out phrases, names and dates. The planchette predates these boards, first seen in China a millennium ago and also used with a pencil attached for automatic writing (a method used regularly during the spiritualist movement of 19th century America.) Now the planchette and this board go hand in hand.
The board goes by many names – talking board, a witch board, spirit board – but most of us know it as the Ouija board.
The Ouija board is infamous. I would bet that most people reading this have heard a terrifying story that has either happened to a friend, or a friend of a friend, that involves the Ouija board. What is the history of this fascinating and popular tool of devilish mischief? Was it constructed under candlelight in a dark dungeon sometime in the Dark Ages? Or maybe it was created by a witch who practiced black magic and satanic rituals. Nope. The Ouija board is fairly young and it was made as a novelty item.
On May 28th 1890, a patent was filed by Elijah Bond, Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin for the item developed by The Kennard Novelty Company. The first boards were stamped February 10, 1891. Kennard named the board Ouija. People say the name Ouija means yes-yes because oui is French for yes and ja is German for yes, but Kennard claims the board itself repeatedly told him that Ouija meant good luck in Egyptian and the name stuck. The company only produced the Ouija board for fourteen months but kept corporate control until 1898 at which time the Ouija board was appointed to a man that would revolutionize the board’s history, William Fuld.
Fuld said that he invented the board and that the name did in fact mean yes-yes. In 1919, Fuld bought the remaining rights and sold millions of these boards along with other toys. Fuld would die from a horrible accident when he fell from his company’s rooftop while supervising a flag pole replacement. Fuld’s children took over the business and the production of Ouija boards. In 1966, the business was sold to Parker Brothers toy company, which was subsequently sold to Hasbro who now holds the rights to the Mystifying Oracle. [Source]
So when did the Ouija Board turn evil? The history seems generally harmless, how did it go from a toy, a novelty item, to being associated with Satan and demons? While use of the board was always criticized by scientists and some religious authorities, the majority of “evil” reports relating to the board came about in the 70’s, after a novel was published which was made into a blockbuster movie two years later. The story was about a teenage girl who tells her mother she has been talking to a person named “Captain Howdy” through the Ouija board. Later this girl becomes possessed by the devil, which causes her body to contort, she spits up green vomit and her head spins 360 degrees (among other extraordinary events). This iconic film, of course, is “The Exorcist” (responsible for the current popular culture perception of demonic possession.)
The clash between the champions of scientific skepticism and supernaturalism.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was best known as the world’s most famous magician during his lifetime, and also as a tireless debunker of false mediums and dishonest claims of profit-driven supernaturalists. He followed a simple strategy, one that’s the fundamental basis of the scientific method: Work hard to falsify all new hypotheses, and maintain a mind open to all new evidence. Sadly for Houdini, this meant testing what could have been one of the most important personal relationships to the history of public understanding of science.
Much has been made of the friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur would seem to have been a man of science and rational thought, but he was a lifelong steadfast believer in the supernatural. In fact, it was something that was at the forefront of his attention much of the time. One of the most telling events in Sir Arthur’s career came when he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which is often criticized for being composed mainly of true believers in the paranormal, and not all that interested in objective research. In the 1920s, Sir Arthur led a mass resignation of 84 members of the Society, on the grounds that it was too skeptical. The staunchest of the resignees joined the Ghost Club, of which Sir Arthur was a longtime member. The Ghost Club made no apologies for being fully dedicated to the supernatural as an absolute fact. In addition, Sir Arthur’s wife, Lady Doyle, was a medium who often conducted séances appearing to be in communication with the dead, and Sir Arthur was absolutely convinced of the reality of her ability.
Despite a radical difference of opinion, Houdini and Sir Arthur managed to keep their friendship alive for some years, each often writing to the other of their mutual respect, their agreement to disagree, and the value of honesty and integrity in one’s own beliefs — neither man ever doubting the other’s sincerity; at least for a while.
In the spring of 1922, Houdini invited Sir Arthur to the home of his friend Bernard Ernst, a lawyer in New York, in an effort to show him that even the most amazing feats of mediums could be accomplished by skilled — albeit earthly — trickery. He had good reason to sway Sir Arthur if he could; Sir Arthur was passionately engaged in promoting the supernatural to his vast worldwide audience, a public disservice if there ever was one, as honestly intentioned as it was. Houdini prepared a magic trick, one that’s familiar to any practitioner of the art. He had Sir Arthur go outside in private and write a simple note that there’s no way Houdini could have seen; and then upon his return to the room, Houdini had a cork ball soaked in white ink magically roll around on a slate and spell out the very note Sir Arthur had written. Sir Arthur was aghast. Houdini wrote him: . . .
Also See: An Actual Recording Of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Spirit” From A 1934 Séance (io9.com)