Is psychokinesis real? Can people move objects with their minds or is it even scientifically possible? Explore the history of telekinesis and learn how even some of the greatest psychics in history have been exposed as frauds.
How psychics tricked scientists on three separate occasions. Uri Geller, Steve Shaw & Michael Edwards, and Ronny Marcus managed to dupe scientists at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), The McDonnell Laboratory at Washington University, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory respectively. Here’s how, as well as how skeptics James Randi (magician), Dr. Ray Hyman (psychologist), & Martin Gardner (science communicator) responded to the psychic trickery.
“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.
Uri Geller is an Israeli illusionist, magician, television personality, and self-proclaimed psychic. He is known for his trademark television performances of spoon bending and other illusions. In his Mind-Power Kit he claims to to share with the reader the secrets of his extraordinary powers. The kit also contains a crystal that Uri was personally empowered and a tape with instructions.
The world-wide appetite for paranormal stories is a magnet for hoaxes. Some hoaxes are simply light-hearted fun but others have more serious consequences such as contaminating genuine research, wasting public money and destroying careers. Love them or hate them, here is our pick of the top ten paranormal hoaxes of all time […] …
# 10 • King Tut’s Curse
When Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered early in the 20th Century, a curse was found inscribed over the entrance: “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king”. Before long, stories were being told about unnatural deaths of workers on the site. “King Tut’s Curse” eventually found its way into popular culture and set the stage for a whole sub-genre of horror stories and movies.
In 1980 the security officer for the original excavation site admitted that stories had been circulated to scare away thieves. Historical records show that most excavation workers went on to lead long and healthy lives.
# 9 • The Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 and 1920, young English cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith produced a series of photographs depicting themselves interacting with fairies. In modern times it is hard to imagine how anyone could be fooled by these obvious fakes, but in the early 20th Century they were convincing enough to attract a huge following and dupe such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was not until 1981 that Wright and Griffith admitted the hoax, although they continued to claim that they had indeed seen fairies and that one of the photos was genuine.
More info: The Cottingley Fairies
# 8 • The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, workers digging a well in Cardiff, New York, uncovered what appeared to be the petrified remains of a giant 3-metre (10-foot) man. Archaeologists declared the body to be fake but the public reaction was more accepting, especially among those who considered it evidence in support of biblical history. The body became a business asset as crowds paid for a glimpse. Showman P.T. Barnum tried to acquire the body but eventually made his own replica, causing additional controversy over which was the genuine giant.
In December 1869, tobacconist George Hull confessed to the hoax. The body was sculpted from concrete and buried a year prior to the well-digging.
# 7 • Uri Geller’s Spoon-Bending
During the 1970s Uri Geller enjoyed huge success with his mentalism acts, based largely on his alleged ability to bend spoons with his mind. Geller staunchly defended his claim to supernatural powers until hard evidence finally caught up with him. A 1982 book by James Randi exposed Geller’s tricks, and Geller was caught numerous times on camera manipulating stage props (e.g. pre-bending spoons). He has since earned a reputation for frivolous litigation after a series of failed lawsuits—mostly against people who publish unflattering material about him.
Despite never officially “outing” himself, Geller has tacitly confessed to the hoax. In 2007 he expressed the following change of heart: “I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer….My entire character has changed.”
More info: Uri Geller
#6 • The Amityville Horror
In 1974 Ronald DeFeo Jr shot and killed six members of his family in Amityville, New York. A year later the Lutz family moved in, only to move out 28 days later claiming they had been terrorized by ghostly presences. Their story became a best-selling book by Jay Anson and the basis of a series of films. The franchise has been highly successful, banking on the claim of being a true, verifiable story.
On closer investigation, however, it seems that not much if any of the story can be verified. Police and other records contradict the book’s account and many holes have been found in the story. In 1979, lawyer William Weber claimed: “I know this book is a hoax. We created this horror story over many bottles of wine.”
Can people move or alter physical objects simply by using a hidden power of the mind called psychokinesis? I have encountered many claims of such powers in the course of my work (since 1969) as a paranormal investigator. And I have pretended to have such ability myself—both as a professional stage magician and mentalist (a magician specializing in apparent psychic feats). In the fall of 2012, I attended a workshop that enabled me to investigate the latest popular expression of psychokinetic metal bending.
The term psychokinesis (formerly telekinesis), or PK, derives from the Greek words for “mind” and “motion.” Together with extrasensory perception (ESP), it constitutes what parapsychologists refer to as “psi” to describe the two seemingly closely related phenomena. However, the existence of psi has never been proven and, indeed, according to a sympathetic source: “Despite decades of research, psi continues to elude physical and quasi-physical theories of how it functions; it operates outside the bounds of time and space” (Guiley 1991, 468).
PK describes the alleged power of mind over matter, including such “micro-PK” acts as subtly influencing how thrown dice will land, or “macro-PK” feats like levitating a table or producing so-called “poltergeist” effects (actually, typically the tricks of children1). Psychokinetic metal bending is another alleged macro-PK phenomenon.
Geller the PK Marvel
It appears that the first major performer of apparent PK metal bending (PK-MB) was Israeli-born former fashion model and nightclub magician, Uri Geller (b. 1946) (Figure 1). Claiming to be guided by super beings from a distant planet, Geller appeared to read minds, bend keys and cutlery with PK, see while blindfolded, and perform other feats—all of which skilled magicians easily duplicate. (I, for example, have driven a car while blindfolded [Nickell with Fischer 1992, 77].) He typically refused to perform when magicians were observing but, nevertheless, was occasionally caught cheating.
Renowned American magician and psychic investigator James “The Amazing” Randi once observed Geller up close. Posing as an editor when Geller performed in the offices of Time magazine, Randi saw the simple tricks behind Geller’s wonderworking. For example, while Geller pretended to cover his eyes as a secretary made a simple drawing, he actually peeked, thus enabling him to appear to read her mind and reproduce the drawing. Again, while supposedly bending a key “by concentration,” Geller had instead bent it against a table when he thought he was unobserved. (For more on Geller’s methods, see Randi 1982.)
Geller was soon imitated by other “psychics” who discovered that they, too, could bend keys and spoons. One was Judy Knowles, who impressed London physics professor and parapsychologist John Hasted with her apparent ability. Hasted invited James Randi to observe tests of Knowles in a lab at Bath. Randi arrived with colleagues and his checkbook, offering Ms. Knowles $10,000 if she successfully passed the test, which was designed by Harry Collins of the University of Bath. Collins had tested other spoon benders, but none had been successful, and some children had been caught cheating.
Briefly, the test involved Knowles holding the spoon in a . . .
By Jamy Iam Swiss via randi.org
The secret is out: professional storefront psychics are mostly comprised of fakes, frauds, cheats, and con artists. Step into a psychic storefront – especially in New York City or Southern Florida where organized criminal elements of the Romani (gypsy) culture is a significant presence – at your own extreme risk.
Well, maybe that doesn’t seem like a secret to many skeptics, but the fact is that since the inception of the modern skeptic movement, skeptics have pursued and possessed specialized knowledge in the realm of paranormal claims such as psychic phenomena. Of course, skeptics are interested in a vast panoply of pseudoscience – a glance down the list of subjects at the Skeptic’s Dictionary [skepdic.com] will produce an alphabetical list of nonsense, from the doofus to the deadly, “From Abracadabra to Zombies,” as it says on the home page.
But the paranormal is a special area of interest and expertise, partly because of the so-called science of parapsychology, which for more than a century-and-a-half has attempted to establish the existence of psychic phenomena in the laboratory. Unfortunately, this science has yet to produce so much as a single replicable, paradigmatic experiment (as compared with even a “soft science” like psychology which has hundreds of such examples that can be readily replicated by new students and scientists alike).
Another reason for this interest is the role of magicians in the skeptic movement, who themselves possess specialized knowledge not only of deception and illusion in general but also in particular of the methods of psychics, which often encompass techniques that magicians and particularly “mentalists” routinely use in their own work. Thus the magician has been a key player in parapsychology investigation since the first committee on psychical research was organized by “Scientific American” magazine, with Harry Houdini as a member.
And finally – surely far from least – there is the terrible predation and damage that professional psychics do. Whether it is a television talk-to-the-dead medium who entraps people in their grief rather than helping them to return eventually, as they must, to the normal living of their own lives, despite the loss of their loved ones – or professional storefront fortunetellers-and-takers who use their traditional finely honed psychological weaponry to rob people of their dignity and self-respect, their self-control, and often their life savings.
In 1993, the “Nova” television series devoted an entire program, entitled “Secrets of the Psychics,” to James Randi and his work as a psychic investigator and consumer protection advocate. Although this episode of the famous science documentary series has been available in various recorded forms, including in segments on YouTube, the program has just been posted in its entirety [here (illuminutti.com) and] here.
The show covers the gamut of psychic claims, and Randi’s investigations and insights. He looks at Russian psychics who claim to be able to gain special knowledge about a person just from examining a photograph. He tries to test specially psychically altered water, which seems to (rather hilariously) possess the special quality of being untestable. He looks at claims of the alleged psychic power to alter people’s blood pressure and brain waves. The program provides a synopsis of Randi’s legendary investigation of the faith healer Peter Popoff, and also provides a useful overview of Randi’s debunkings of Uri Geller during Geller’s metal-bending heydays.
Oh, and a young long-haired magician with a waxed moustache offers a brief original demonstration of psychokinesis in the first three minutes of the show. Go take a look!
The show is twenty years old but its principles and subjects are as fresh as today’s headlines, and literally so.
- (Psychic) Staring Effect (illuminutti.com)
- Whatever Happened to Parapsychology? (illuminutti.com)
- Mediums, Psychics – Snakeoil Salesmen (illuminutti.com)
- Psychic Secrets (randi.org)
- A History of Parapsychology and Psychical Research by George Hansen (disclose.tv)
- James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff (ritholtz.com)
This program is not to be confused with a later UK documentary Secrets of the Psychics, which was transmitted under this title as well as Secrets of the Super Psychics.
- Psychics and Alternative Medicine Practitioners: Who is worse? (illuminutti.com)
- Whatever Happened to Parapsychology? (illuminutti.com)
- James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff (ritholtz.com)
- Psychic Sally? (paranormalee.wordpress.com)
- Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions read online (iydifusu.wordpress.com)
- Newsweek Features James Randi and The Amazing Meeting in Latest Issue (patheos.com)
- James Randi (renjiveda.wordpress.com)
- What magicians can teach scientists about skepticism – NewsWorks (richarddawkins.net)
- James Randi, The Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police – Newsweek and The Daily Beast (richarddawkins.net)