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Calling Sylvia Browne
January 4, 2008 7:06 AM   Subscribe

James Randi to end the Million Dollar Challenge in 2010. Nobody's won it in 10 years, and the money would work better if it wasn't tied up waiting for the impossible. Many have tried, none have succeeded.... and just so this isn't a single link, here's Randi owning Uri Geller, and Randi owning James Hydrick (using only styrofoam!) [YouTube links].
posted by SansPoint (116 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Typical. Trying to weasel out of things before the machine elves return from the supercontext in 2012 to lead us to enlightenment.
posted by Phlogiston at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2008 [16 favorites]


If living to be two hundred isn't proof of the supernatural, I don't know what is. Award yourself that money, James Randi, you fucking mummy.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:20 AM on January 4, 2008 [5 favorites]


It could never be beaten anyway, because he always stacked the deck. He would move he goalposts. I mean, frauds and hucksters have to be exposed, but this guy is at least as nuts as the people he exposes. Randi was always only about Randi, never science.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:20 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


It could never be beaten anyway, because he always stacked the deck

Stay tuned for "there was never any money anyway" and "Randi's negative thoughts prevented the applicants from using their powers".
posted by splice at 7:26 AM on January 4, 2008 [20 favorites]


because he always stacked the deck. He would move he goalposts.

Riiiiight.

You can, of course, provide an example of this notorious shifting of goalposts that isn't merely enforcing the nature of a double-blind experiment, which is the entire fricking point.
posted by Sparx at 7:27 AM on January 4, 2008


There was never any money anyway. Besides, Randi's negative thoughts prevented the applicants from using their powers.
posted by hermitosis at 7:28 AM on January 4, 2008 [22 favorites]


I never understood this challenge. Everyone knows psychics and magic tricks aren't real. That's why they're called "tricks". The fun is in watching them and wondering how they did it. And what is even more ridiculous is Randi trying to show how clever he is by demonstrating that magic and psychic tricks performed on television are faked. Wow, you can fake things on TV?

Come to think of it, Randi is on to something. Just the other day I was watching Star Wars. You know that movie? Well, I was watching it when I realized that I could hear the lasers "pyoo pyoo" sounds and the spaceships whooshing when they were flying in space.

And then it hit me - there's no air in space!* We shouldn't be able to hear the pyoo pyoo lasers because there's no air to make the sound! THOSE SPACE BATTLES WERE FAKE!

but there is an Air and Space Museum, yes yes we know
posted by Pastabagel at 7:30 AM on January 4, 2008


That was amazing, Splice! Apply while you still can.
posted by Phlogiston at 7:30 AM on January 4, 2008


Randi moved the goalposts... with his negative thoughts.
posted by ook at 7:31 AM on January 4, 2008 [4 favorites]


It could never be beaten anyway, because he always stacked the deck. He would move he goalposts.

Evidence, please.

Do you know anything about the MDC? What you say is simply not possible, because as part of the challenge, Randi has people; state what they do (and with what accuracy), then come up with a test. And the test protocol must then be agreed to by both parties.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:35 AM on January 4, 2008


I never understood this challenge. Everyone knows psychics and magic tricks aren't real.

It's a long, long way from everyone who knows that.

A 2005 Gallup Poll shows 41% of people believing in ESP, 31% in telepathy, 25% in astrology, 21% in talking to the dead.
posted by malphigian at 7:38 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Every time I hear Randi's name, I instantly think of Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne.

The fact that his name is inseparable from theirs by association is probably not what he intended, but probably serves him right.
posted by hermitosis at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2008


Everyone knows psychics and magic tricks aren't real.

So Huckabee won Iowa by having nobody voting for him?
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2008


How do you know Randi moved the goalposts without evidence?

It's magic.
posted by grouse at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2008


The fact that Randi is a big influence on Penn Gillette is reason enough to dislike him.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel, the point is that many people don't know that psychics and magicians are just (shady) showmen.

Real people get duped out of real money, really often, paying some jerk to flip over a stack of tarot cards to shed light on their future. Real people in real police departments get taken in by supposed psychics who claim to know where the body is buried or that their baby is still alive, causing real grief for victim's families and real headaches for detectives.

The purpose of Randi's crusade is to 1. expose frauds for being frauds and 2. help to educate the public against such nonsense so they don't get taken in by frauds (see 1.)

Here's an example: http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2006/12/dubois_wrong.html
posted by device55 at 7:44 AM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]


Do an iTunes search for his podcast The Amazing Show. He tells some fun stories, including 2 episodes about his tour with Alice Cooper. (The host/interviewer of the show annoys me a bit as being overly fawning, but ignore that if you can.)
posted by The Deej at 7:45 AM on January 4, 2008


because he always stacked the deck. He would move he goalposts.

Riiiiight.


Randi did a TV show in the UK in the 90s that had some really nasty examples of biased editing. Ok, the show was entertainment not science, and that's fine, but he wasn't exactly offering all-comers a fair crack of the whip.
posted by Leon at 7:50 AM on January 4, 2008


And to get back on track... A while ago Randi modified the challenge a bit. It was no longer open to everyone & anyone. Now, you have to have a "media precense" (I believe the term is). And the rationale to this change was so he could concentrate on going after the big offenders like Sylvia Browne and John Edward.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:50 AM on January 4, 2008


I never understood this challenge. Everyone knows psychics and magic tricks aren't real. That's why they're called "tricks".

Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.
posted by mullacc at 7:59 AM on January 4, 2008 [16 favorites]


Or cocaine.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:00 AM on January 4, 2008 [4 favorites]


Randi did a TV show in the UK in the 90s that had some really nasty examples of biased editing.

Aside from the fact that that was 1991 and thus seven years before the instigation of the challenge, I'd love to know what was biased about them. As I recall one episode even had a dowser meeting with an improbable (but not impossible) level of success. They must be on youtube somewhere...
posted by Sparx at 8:00 AM on January 4, 2008


And the rationale to this change was so he could concentrate on going after the big offenders like Sylvia Browne and John Edward.

Did he actually challenge John Edward face-to-face? As much as I find Randi to be an obnoxious, bleating, self-promoting dick, I'd have to give him points for that. I try to keep an open mind about these things, but Edward's act is such obvious bullshit -- and such absolutely appalling bullshit, the worst kind of emotional manipulation of the audience -- that he really deserves to have someone like Randi on his case.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:01 AM on January 4, 2008


So are you telling me that he (they?) had $1M sitting around waiting for someone to win the challenge? Like in a safe or something?
posted by ODiV at 8:04 AM on January 4, 2008


Here's a link to the YouTube videos of the 1991 shows.
posted by The Deej at 8:07 AM on January 4, 2008


As much as I find Randi to be an obnoxious, bleating, self-promoting dick...

Wha....

I try to keep an open mind about these things...

OIC.
posted by DU at 8:08 AM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


Real people get duped out of real money, really often, paying some jerk to flip over a stack of tarot cards to shed light on their future.

Okay, I know I've brought it up before, but that is a really stupid thing to say.

There are con artists out there. Storefront psychics tend to be greedy and manipulative. But as some jerk who flips over tarot cards to help people (though shedding light on the present is challenge enough) I can personally speak for the value of this service when performed sensitively and correctly, and the positive results it has. It does not require psychic abilities of any kind to use the tarot to help people, just a lot of knowledge of the cards themselves and an understanding of how our psyches react to symbolism. Insight, empathy, and discretion are also key.

You are talking outside the range of your knowledge, based on stereotypes. As someone who has to deal with those stereotypes firsthand, I know the blame rests on the frauds that perpetuate them. But really, keeping an open mind about things doesn't make you automatically a sucker or a target, it makes you a responsible thinker.
posted by hermitosis at 8:12 AM on January 4, 2008 [4 favorites]


So are you telling me that he (they?) had $1M sitting around waiting for someone to win the challenge? Like in a safe or something?

Don't be ridiculous. It was in an empty top hat, and only Randi could pull it out.
posted by cog_nate at 8:12 AM on January 4, 2008


@ODiv - I think it is held in some kind of trust fund or something....no wait. Bonds -- FAQ 3.1
posted by device55 at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2008


So are you telling me that he (they?) had $1M sitting around waiting for someone to win the challenge? Like in a safe or something?

The money is in bonds with Goldman Sachs (scroll down to "Prize Money").
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2008


Sparx: that long ago? Wow. It's was a segment with a psychic that stuck in my mind as having some really ugly cuts... but of course without watching it yourself you've just got my say-so.

BTW, that challenge has been around for years ("in 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his own money payable to the first person who could provide objective proof of the paranormal. Since then, the prize money has grown to the current $1,000,000" - Wikipedia).

The Deej: Thanks, I'll be interested to see how far out my memory is from reality.
posted by Leon at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2008


But as some jerk who flips over tarot cards to help people (though shedding light on the present is challenge enough) I can personally speak for the value of this service when performed sensitively and correctly, and the positive results it has. It does not require psychic abilities of any kind to use the tarot to help people, just a lot of knowledge of the cards themselves and an understanding of how our psyches react to symbolism. Insight, empathy, and discretion are also key.

Pastabagel, here's your answer.
posted by DU at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]


Did he actually challenge John Edward face-to-face?

As far as I know, no. I believe the JREF contacted Edward somehow (email?), but I'm not sure. Randi did challenge Sylvia Browne on Larry King. She agreed, but never followed through.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:23 AM on January 4, 2008


malphigian writes "A 2005 Gallup Poll shows 41% of people believing in ESP, 31% in telepathy, 25% in astrology, 21% in talking to the dead."

79% of people don't believe you can talk to the dead? Talking to the dead is easy. Getting a response is the unbelievable part.
posted by Mitheral at 8:40 AM on January 4, 2008 [9 favorites]


Love that Hydrick's Chinese outfit and matching tennis shoes.

"Well, everyone is born with it. [I learned it] through background and through trainin' from an old Chinese Master-- Martial Arts Gung Fu, Kung Fu, and, uh, the laws of nature.
Well it teaches you to recognize your self, inner and outer self to reach the fourth level of consciousness, matching the level of the absence of the mind to the motions of the body."

Absence of the mind indeed.
posted by eye of newt at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2008


I'm just curious, hermitosis. Do you charge for your services?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2008


A 2005 Gallup Poll shows 41% of people believing in ESP, 31% in telepathy, 25% in astrology, 21% in talking to the dead.

Although my claim of open-mindedness brands me as one of "them" (I'm sorry I can't join your faith-based initiative, DU, but I would be happy to receive your newsletter), meaning that I guess my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, I don't find this all that worrisome. This is all fairly ephemeral stuff that isn't easily quantified...how exactly does one prove that the dead don't communicate with people? If, on the other hand, 21% believed in zombies, I'd be concerned.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:46 AM on January 4, 2008


The money was always safe because everyone knows psychic abilities never work if used for one's own gain. It's the same scientific principle that explains why water won't freeze into ice if the ice is going to be used to cool your own drink.
posted by Legomancer at 8:46 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


It could never be beaten anyway, because he always stacked the deck.

Right, and if it wasn't for that deck stacking, some psychic would be living in Fat City as we speak because, you know, psychic powers really do exist.

Personally, I always wondered why a genuine psychic would bother with the Million, because they'd be richer than Gates already due to their weekly lottery predictions.

Insight, empathy, and discretion are also key.

See also: cold reading.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:47 AM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'll mefi-mail you, WinnipegDragon.
posted by hermitosis at 8:48 AM on January 4, 2008


I believe the JREF contacted Edward somehow (email?)

No, it was through Charlemagne.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 8:48 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks, I wondered what Randi of the Redwoods has been up to all this time.
posted by breezeway at 8:50 AM on January 4, 2008


See also: cold reading.

A rigorous study of psychology and mythology are more useful to me, particularly Jungian psychology. But by that particular comment I meant that people are more comfortable to talk candidly to you to about their problems if they can tell you're not an asshole.
posted by hermitosis at 8:51 AM on January 4, 2008


I predicted all this years ago... but did I get my money, did I hell!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:52 AM on January 4, 2008


So by decade's end, there'll be nothing to stop Paul Moller from building his flying car? HOORAY!
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:58 AM on January 4, 2008


As some jerk who flips over tarot cards to help people [...] I can personally speak for the value of this service when performed sensitively and correctly, and the positive results it has. It does not require psychic abilities of any kind to use the tarot to help people, just a lot of knowledge of the cards themselves and an understanding of how our psyches react to symbolism. Insight, empathy, and discretion are also key.

You are talking outside the range of your knowledge, based on stereotypes. As someone who has to deal with those stereotypes firsthand, I know the blame rests on the frauds that perpetuate them. But really, keeping an open mind about things doesn't make you automatically a sucker or a target, it makes you a responsible thinker.


hermitosis: Don't take this as an assault, because I'm genuinely curious. As a non-fraud, what services do you purport to offer your clients? If you use the symbology of the tarot cards to tell people what they want, or need, to hear you aren't exactly encouraging "responsible" thinking. If I understand your actions correctly, you tell open-minded people things about themselves or their life that are plainly visible to you, a stranger. By couching your observations in the symbols of the cards, your observations of that person are given more weight, as they are now coming from a higher place, entity, etc. instead of just some dude. Please forgive and correct me if I haven't correctly outlined your methodology.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:00 AM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]


Talking to the dead is easy

Especially when you use the international language.

Above link NSFW. Do not apply directly to the forehead. Your results may vary.
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:00 AM on January 4, 2008


SansPoint: I think you mean "pwn".
posted by papakwanz at 9:04 AM on January 4, 2008


Of moderately off-subject interest, to me, was the current picture of James Hydrick (this link is to his California sex offender page, and was on the Wikipedia entry for him, but has since been removed).

It's interesting to me to see the dumb kid in 1980-whatever turn instantly to the broken older man now.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:13 AM on January 4, 2008


Also related: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, occassionally featuring Randi.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2008


A 2005 Gallup Poll shows 41% of people believing in ESP, 31% in telepathy, 25% in astrology, 21% in talking to the dead.
posted by malphigian at 10:38 AM on January 4


Are these the same people who think there are 52 states and can't name the vice-president. But Randi is doing nothing to demonstrate that these things don't exist. He's simply showing that people who claim to have those powers are phonies. But that doesn't stop people from believing that they exist.

I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding of how most people view the world. Ask people how their ipod works, or how magnets work. They have no idea. They know that there are things called magnets and if you put them close to each other one way, they move closer together, and you flip one around and they move apart. If you ask them how that happened, they'll say "magnets!" and you'll be satisfied that they are intelligent people because they didn't blurt out "fairies!" but then ask them what a magnet is, how do they work. Why do they do what they do?

So people know the words for things, but all they know are the words. Magnetism is a word, and so is ESP. IF ESP is just tricks, in their minds, why aren't magnets, or more specifically, why aren't the tests used to prove or explain magnetism also tricks?

This is my point, burying deep within the flippant remark. To most people everything is tricks. TV is a trick. Randi has in no way helped to distinguish between phony phenomenathat are tricks and phenomena that is equally bizarre but also real.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:35 AM on January 4, 2008 [4 favorites]


While you raise an interesting point, Pastabagel, how deep should we expect everyone to know everything? I have a Ph.D in physics but certainly can't rebuild my iPod. I can explain how magnetism works, but I can't explain, for example, why we don't see magnetic monopoles--lots of reason to suspect they should exist, but no experimental sighting of one.

I don't think that everything is tricks to most people, I think that most people have a simplified model of how it works for everything. The beauty of the scientific models, no matter how simplifed (e.g. North Pole to South Pole of a magnet) is that, for a given level of sophistication, we can independently verify it and come to a universal agreement. You can't do that with ESP. Or at least, no one who can bothered to claim a million dollars. I'm of the opinion that we work to make as many people's models as correct as possible, regardless of their sophistication.
posted by stevis23 at 9:45 AM on January 4, 2008 [8 favorites]


A lot of people are jumping all over hermitosis, but if your replace "tarot cards" with "Rorschach inkblots" you'll also have to change "jerks" to "accredited professional psychologists".

For my part, I never thought tarot card readers held themselves out as having supernatural powers. I always thought they were used as prompts "Oh look the death card, have you lost someone close to you either physically or emotionally?" And the person answer yes and talks about it. It's not really a trick or an illusion, just a way to get the client to talk about the stuff that is happening in their lives.

I contrast that with someone who claims to be able to read your mind, e.g. "Your name is Bob? I'm sensing you like women,... or possibly men. Bob are you sexually attracted to either men or women? Bob: Why yes! I'm totally hot for humans!" etc.

Back to my question: does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


DU writes "Pastabagel, here's your answer."

I'm as much of a skeptic as anyone, but Tarot done properly has nothing to do with psychic claims. It's very much like casting hexagrams as per the I Ching and Taoist practice. The "answers" you get aren't supposed to be metaphysical, but rather a starting point for self-examination (which is partly why the I Ching and Tarot are so cryptic and open-ended). Of course charlatans use Tarot to scam people (but it could be anything, not just Tarot), and unfortunately it's not so easy for most people to tell the difference.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:52 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Terminal, this is perhaps a bad thread for me to discuss this matter in depth, but I will offer you a few thoughts, cobbled together from the conversation I've been having with WinnipegDragon in mail.

I think that during a reading, the cards illustrate and demonstrate the patterns in human consciousness (and reality itself) that we are unconsciously perpetuating or adrift in. In this way they function more like a magnifying mirror, narrowing your focus down to a manageable point, reducing the background noise of your thoughts, so that you are more likely to have ideas and make connections that are clear and accurate. In using cards, you have surfaces or concepts to project aspects of your problem onto so that you can play with them and see how they interrelate. The cards present an opportunity for individuals to detach from a familiar or troublesome state of mind and try on new ones, without being judged or censored. You could do this with ANY random data generator, but the fact that the cards are visual makes a greater impact on your unconscious mind, and makes it easier for the querent to feel engaged in the game you are playing together with them.

Now, for many this is such a personally meaningful experience that it is interpreted as a mystical one. It depends on what you believe. What's important to me (and how I have reconciled my own misgivings about the practice over time) is that whether or not anything supernatural or super-real is happening, it is incredibly valuable for people to learn to scrutinize their problems in this way, because often we simply can't do this for ourselves. Or won't sit and do it for, say, 45 minutes straight, which can make a big difference.

The cards are psychicly inert, of course, but they are not just a prop. Incorporating the cards themselves is a real skill. Most frauds (and I've gotten suckered myself) barely even look at the cards, and their hit-and-miss predictions certainly have no bearing on the actual cards drawn. I don't use the cards as a prop to say whatever I was going to say anyway; the way the cards work, thanks to their many layers of meaning, presents plenty of possible interpretations for each single card that change subtly from reading to reading. Hopefully a client walks away learning a little about their problem, and a little about the cards themselves.

I'm very straightforward about the services I provide, and I pass on opporunities all the time when I don't feel like this can occur. It's my own personal challenge to sense when I am slipping into "cold reading" mode, and to redirect myself toward providing service of real value.

I'd really not rather debate about this within this particular thread, I hope you understand. I do think it's valuable to point out that there's more to this practice than what people suspect, but I know that what I've chosen to share isn't going to satisfy a lot of people. Consider me just another frame of reference to consider, however wacky or pathetic a reference it may seem.
posted by hermitosis at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2008 [10 favorites]


I never thought tarot card readers held themselves out as having supernatural powers.

Well then you simply have not been exposed to the fantastic value that is the 2 Hour Tarot Tutor! As printed in bold on the back jacket, headline: "Seeing the Future Just Got A Whole Lot Easier!" All can be yours for $5!

I contrast that with someone who claims to be able to read your mind

So if you abstract the "mind reading" one level everything is clear cut? In Tarot the reader is a medium/prompt like you noted, and the cards do the "reading". I really don't see much of a distinction there, in terms of sophistry, it's all in application.

Anyone can claim anything, but apparently you'd be wasting your time offering money to them to prove it. Because people are retarded - to wit: To most people everything is tricks.

Zomg, how the fuck did this bread get sliced and on my table in a bag? BLACK MAGIC BURNNNN
posted by prostyle at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2008


Back to my question: does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?

No, and both of them are in fact friends of Randi's- most stage magicians are at least sympathetic to debunkery and skepticism precisely because they have an intimate knowledge of how such trickery works. Criss Angel, David Blaine, and the like are not targets of skeptics precisely because they do not present themselves as being in possession of magical powers. It's the people who claim to genuinely have supernatural abilities who are the target of Randi and his ilk.

And as to the "Well, he's only proving that everyone who claims to have supernatural powers is a fraud, not that there aren't really supernatural powers!", well, shit, are you that stupid or are you implying that we are? 'Cause I'm not sure whether to pity you or be offended.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?

Unfortunately, yes. I find myself in conversations with people who take the showmanship as reality. Smart people, of all ages. Although I am reluctant to give up any secrets, I try to persuade them to take it as it is intended: entertainment.

Now, what I'm referring to are the "supernatural" demonstration: floating, vanishing, appearing, etc. They both do stunts that, while difficult and even dangerous, are not supernatural, nor are they tricks. They are things that anyone with the proper amount of dedication, discipline, and, of course, staff, could also do. So although these things are real, they don't require any "special powers."
posted by The Deej at 10:01 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, yes. I find myself in conversations with people who take the showmanship as reality. Smart people, of all ages. Although I am reluctant to give up any secrets, I try to persuade them to take it as it is intended: entertainment.

You've got to be kidding me- I mean, those guys are both open about the fact that what they do is stage magic rather than the supernatural.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2008



Back to my question: does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?


Blaine has the power to be a whiny schmuck who can't pull off his own stunts, while maintaining a halfwit "mysterious" stare that most reminds me of a baby born with a little nubbin at the top of its spinal column and a sloping skull. Cris Angel (note the lack of H) has the power to make some pretty cool tricks seem very boring because of his "booga-booga" manner and to make me want to throw on a Black Crowes album.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:05 AM on January 4, 2008


While you raise an interesting point, Pastabagel, how deep should we expect everyone to know everything? I have a Ph.D in physics but certainly can't rebuild my iPod. I can explain how magnetism works, but I can't explain, for example, why we don't see magnetic monopoles--lots of reason to suspect they should exist, but no experimental sighting of one.

Isn't a Halbach array a monopole? And can you please explain to me how magnets work? I'm serious. I've got more EM theory than I can shake a stick at and I still don't intuitively get it. You can mefi mail me if you want.

Building an ipod is different. You understand how it works, generally. But I don't think most people do. The may remember that some things have certain properties because they were told that, but those same people might just as easily think crystals give healing powers.

I don't think we can address the question of how deeply we should expect people to understand things, because a lot of people don't understand them at all. They memorized a fact - magnets have a north and south and opposites attract, but they didn't arrive at that conclusion.

My point is that Randi isn't really thinking about the people who would have bought into Uri Geller or some other guy's gimmicks. All he's left them with is "why is ESP fake and not magnetism or electricity?" All he's doing is showing that Geller performed a trick. Of course it's a trick, how else would he do it?

Let me give you another (maybe better maybe worse) example. Are you familiar with the movie/cult propaganda "What the Bleep Do We Know?" At one point in the video they try to explain the double slit experiment and how merely observing quantum phenomena in an experiment affects the results of the experiment. At one point in the video, they say something to the effect of "How does the electron know it is being watched?" after which they embark on some hoodoo nonsense.

To you, the Ph.D., the question is retarded. Electrons don't "know" anything, and at the subatomic level, "watching" takes on a entirely different and active meaning compared to the ordinary passive meaning that it has. So the ordinary person, who once upon a time in high school memorized electrons, protons, and neutrons, the question isn't silly, and leads them to precisely the wrong conclusions about the world than it should.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:07 AM on January 4, 2008


Nobody's won it in 10 years

Did someone ever win it? Because I think he's been doing it for longer than a decade. Even that James Hydrick clip looks like it's more than ten years old.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:10 AM on January 4, 2008


Pastabagel: does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?

Yes.

Response of the singer in my last band, after I explained how Chris-David Angel-Blaine does his levitation trick (I saw the explanation elsewhere): "Yeah, well I've seen his other stuff, and he's messin with powers he probably shouldn't be messin with." And the other band members nodded sagely...

LOTS of people believe this stuff. Lots.

And besides, how the hell else would you explain this???
posted by LordSludge at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2008


Did someone ever win it? Because I think he's been doing it for longer than a decade. Even that James Hydrick clip looks like it's more than ten years old.

The Randi challenge goes back to 1964, when it was just a thousand dollars. The Million Dollar Challenge only goes back to (IIRC) 1997.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:15 AM on January 4, 2008


My point is that Randi isn't really thinking about the people who would have bought into Uri Geller or some other guy's gimmicks. All he's left them with is "why is ESP fake and not magnetism or electricity?" All he's doing is showing that Geller performed a trick. Of course it's a trick, how else would he do it?

A phrase you might want to become associated with, RTFA. Learn it, use it, abuse it.

Have you watched any of the videos? Do you not understand the immense amount of press coverage and fame Uri was receiving at the height of his popularity? Just watch the first goddamn 30 seconds of the Gellar video, and look at all those magazine covers he's on. Science Digest - THE PSYCHIC POWERS OF URI GELLER. This is the environment which James Randi reacted within, and he did it very well by deflating Gellar in person, live in a studio audience where he had previously and deftly performed his stagecraft without question.

I really have no idea what your false dichotomies have to do with anything, the fact that some people are less concerned or educated on any given subject has jack all to do with whether there is a cult of personality and misinformation surrounding an individual propagated upon them. Take one good look at the Copyright Claims section on Gellar in Wikipedia and come back here and tell us again what a foolish endeavor James Randi was presenting. As always you type while saying so very, very little...
posted by prostyle at 10:17 AM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]


Unfortunately, yes. I find myself in conversations with people who take the showmanship as reality. Smart people, of all ages. Although I am reluctant to give up any secrets, I try to persuade them to take it as it is intended: entertainment.
--
You've got to be kidding me- I mean, those guys are both open about the fact that what they do is stage magic rather than the supernatural.


Yes, but in the context of the show, they do their best to present the effects in a way that makes it appear supernatural. Angel wouldn't say "I'm going to find your card by sleight of hand, and using a trick desk." He says "I can look into your eyes, and see when you react to the card you selected. No matter how hard you try to avoid reacting, you will, and I will know your card."

Of course, this is a lie. But some people take it at face value, not taking into account that a magician is really an actor playing the role of a real magician. There is nothing unethical about a magician playing his character. And you are correct, they would be foolish to claim it was all real, because there are too many magicians who do the same effects and they would quickly be brought down.

It does, indeed, require a certain amount of gullibility to take it at face value. But even smart people can be gullible in some areas.
posted by The Deej at 10:18 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, Criss Angel's best moment ever was on that show he co-hosted with Uri Gellar. One of the contestants did a medium routine, but instead of acknowledging it as trickery, claimed that he really did have supernatural powers. Angel, ready for it, pulled an envelope from his pocket and said "Okay, screw the grand prize, I'll give you a million dollars of my money if you can tell me what's in this envelope."

The medium didn't, at that point, back down, or respond in any way that would indicate that he was genuinely psychic or whatever. Instead, he started screaming at Criss Angel, calling him all manner of nasty names.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:18 AM on January 4, 2008 [5 favorites]


Pastabagel--

The physics community deserves what it gets from What The Bleep -- they use the word "observe", along with deeply broken analogies like Shroedinger's Cat. It's because of this stuff that we still get things like "humans looking into the universe collapses the wave function shrinking it bla bla bla".

Very annoying. Worst explanatory mechanism of the last hundred years.
posted by effugas at 10:21 AM on January 4, 2008


"Well, he's only proving that everyone who claims to have supernatural powers is a fraud, not that there aren't really supernatural powers!", well, shit, are you that stupid or are you implying that we are? 'Cause I'm not sure whether to pity you or be offended.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:01 PM on January 4


Well, Randi very clearly isn't proving that supernatural powers don't exist. That isn't how the contest is set up. I don't think they exist obviously, but you are skating over the problem.

I saw a study in Nature a few months ago about how ESP and telepathy are real, but we just don't have the technology to achieve them yet. For example, it turns out that during periods of intense concentration, our brains emit a carefully attenuated EM field in which our present thoughts and a complex array of the possible thoughts we may have in the immediate near-term future are represented as signals (or oscillations, brainwaves if you will, but muc h more complex than that) within that field. With the right kind of very high resolution MRI machine, orders of magnitude higher resolution than we have now, we could read those signals, separate them, and perhaps even affect them. We could not only know what people are thinking, but also what they might think next.

Now all that is very clearly bullshit. There was no study and I just made all that up. But go find someone who isn't scientifically trained or doesn't have an interest in science, and tell them that. End it with "Doesn't that sound cool?" That's going to sound a lot more plausible to them than "I can read your mind by staring at you", but it is equally false. Randi's little PR stunt isn't going to help people parse through all this bullshit.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:23 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Isn't a Halbach array a monopole? And can you please explain to me how magnets work? I'm serious. I've got more EM theory than I can shake a stick at and I still don't intuitively get it. You can mefi mail me if you want.

Nah, it's just a particularly clever arrangement of dipoles (well, magnetic flux, really).

I'd have to dive back into E&M pretty hard myself to address your concerns, if you've had a lot theory--I'm not a theorist don't really work on that stuff day-to-day. Feel free to call me on wussing out on that, because I am.

Building an ipod is different. You understand how it works, generally. But I don't think most people do. The may remember that some things have certain properties because they were told that, but those same people might just as easily think crystals give healing powers.

I don't think we can address the question of how deeply we should expect people to understand things, because a lot of people don't understand them at all. They memorized a fact - magnets have a north and south and opposites attract, but they didn't arrive at that conclusion.


You're probably right. But the answer is to get the public to engange in critical thinking. Maybe Randi doesn't do that as well as he should, but hopefully, as people watch the debunking process, they'll pick up hints of that along the way.

I'm going to avoid thinking about What the Bleep Do We Know? as I need to keep my blood pressure down.
posted by stevis23 at 10:28 AM on January 4, 2008


And then it hit me - there's no air in space!* We shouldn't be able to hear the pyoo pyoo lasers because there's no air to make the sound! THOSE SPACE BATTLES WERE FAKE!

PastaBagel, you shouldn't be able to see the lasers either. How's that bake your noodle?
posted by Dantien at 10:29 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


The physics community deserves what it gets from What The Bleep -- they use the word "observe", along with deeply broken analogies like Shroedinger's Cat. It's because of this stuff that we still get things like "humans looking into the universe collapses the wave function shrinking it bla bla bla".

Very annoying. Worst explanatory mechanism of the last hundred years.


The whole point of Schroedinger's Cat is that it doesn't work that way- that quantum rules do not apply above the quantum level.

...which is, incidentally, what every "quantum = magic!" (or its bastard cousin "quantum = free will!") idiot misses.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2008


Pope Guilty: You'd be amazed at the stories some magicians can tell, particularly mentalists, of people who remain firmly convinced that they do have genuinely paranormal abilities even when the performer steadfastly insists it's a trick. They seem to assume that the performer is simply trying to hide the true nature of their abilities.
I'm not sure how one is supposed to persuade these people. Sure, you could reveal the secret and explain how you did it, but what's to stop them deciding that the next trick they see must be paranormal because it couldn't have been a trick desk as they did it on your dining table?
posted by edd at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2008


The problem, Pastabagel, is that you're demanding that Randi do something that's impossible. He can't prove there are no psychic powers conclusively, because no matter how many times he shows they don't exist, someone else can claim them. He has no other method of attacking than by demolishing each claimant, one at a time.

I think you may be somewhat young, and don't remember the sheer wave of magical thinking that swept this country in the late 1970s. Chariots of the Gods, pyramid power, Uri Geller, UFOs... it was a profound and mainstream thing. Randi stood up and said, clearly and strongly, "This is bullshit", and pretty much singlehandedly broke the back of the supernatural thinking of the time.

Yes, it still exists. Yes, there are still credulous people. There will always be credulous people, because we humans like to fool ourselves. That doesn't make Randi's contribution any less significant. All he can do -- all he can ever do -- is take on each fraud, one at a time, and demolish them. Eventually, many people will figure out that new claimants are also frauds.

Some won't; some will cling to their illusions forever. That does not make Randi useless.
posted by Malor at 10:40 AM on January 4, 2008 [7 favorites]


Penn & Teller's "Bullshit" series on Showtime... just recommending it for a good rental/watch if you like to skim the surface of the mucky supernatural pond. (My library has season of the DVDs.)
posted by not_on_display at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2008


The existence of psychic powers is like the proof of intelligent design. The environment is such that if either of these could be even remotely proven to be true (or hell, just one PART of it was factual), then the person responsible for the discovery would be hailed as a genius. A true psychic would have stepped up and proven, through repeated example, that he or she had a real gift. Where are such giants of science and mentalism?

The fact that we still see psychics making money on TV, or folks like Ben Stein arguing that intelligent design is being ignored by the scientific community, is almost proof that neither are valid. Imagine if you conclusively found evidence that psychic powers were real. Would you really regulate yourself to cable TV or would the news media go apeshit over your evidence? If you could disprove evolution, wouldn't you be as famous as Darwin or Crick or Pasteur?

The competitiveness inherent in our systems (scientific and fame) seem to be ignored as a validating factor in these so-called "discoveries". Man, if I had psychic powers, I'd be the richest man on earth already and you all would know it.
posted by Dantien at 10:52 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Back to my question: does anyone actually think ordinary magicians, guys like David Blaine or Chris Angel, have special powers?

Yes. Check out the Derren Brown threads on this very site and you'll find that the majority of MeFites who expressed a preference are convinced he's using psychology to perform his illusions.

It's all in the presentation; physical mediums a century ago, clairaudience in the 70s, and a magician "telling you how he does it" today. Why a particular presentation works at a particular time is something I'd love to know.
posted by Leon at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2008


I'd have to dive back into E&M pretty hard myself to address your concerns, if you've had a lot theory--I'm not a theorist don't really work on that stuff day-to-day. Feel free to call me on wussing out on that, because I am.

I'm not a theorist either, and I certainly am not going to call you out on anything. My point is that after spending years buried in the equations, I still want to pick up a little magnet and scream "What the hell are you?!"

Just watch the first goddamn 30 seconds of the Gellar video, and look at all those magazine covers he's on. Science Digest - THE PSYCHIC POWERS OF URI GELLER. This is the environment which James Randi reacted within, and he did it very well by deflating Gellar in person, live in a studio audience where he had previously and deftly performed his stagecraft without question....Take one good look at the Copyright Claims section on Gellar in Wikipedia and come back here and tell us again what a foolish endeavor James Randi was presenting. As always you type while saying so very, very little...
posted by prostyle at 1:17 PM on January 4


Wow, Science Digest, really? From the wikipedia page on Science Digest:

"In November 1980 the magazine was expanded to an 11 x 8 inch format with full-length articles and color pictures targeted at a college educated reader. It was issued bi-monthly with circulation of about 500,000 copies. At first it tended to favor breathless cover lines, and often turned to pseudoscience topics, including spontaneous human combustion and UFOs."

The problem is not Uri Gellar. Gellar does not believe he is psychic, obviously. The problem is the countless TV shows and magazines that knew he was just doing a trick and presented him as the real thing. As I understand it, the reason he looked dumb on Carson is because Carson wouldn't let Gellar use his own props, and instead the show supplied its own. So all those TV shows he was on knew he was just using trick spoons (or pre-bent or whatever) and they let him on anyway.

But Randi has done nothing to address this aspect of it, why were networks and media willing to facilitate Gellar's ruse outside of the entertainment context?
posted by Pastabagel at 10:56 AM on January 4, 2008


Pope Guilty: You'd be amazed at the stories some magicians can tell, particularly mentalists, of people who remain firmly convinced that they do have genuinely paranormal abilities even when the performer steadfastly insists it's a trick. They seem to assume that the performer is simply trying to hide the true nature of their abilities.

This was exactly my experience in high school when Uri Geller was at his most popular. As a performing magician at the time, I would offer to show my classmates the same things Geller did, in order to convince them it was a trick. Most people accepted my demonstrations as intended, but some people refused to believe it was a trick, and accused me of lying about it. I actually stopped the demonstrations because of that.

But the problem with just "showing how it's done" was that people didn't want to believe the explanation either. The necessary psychology and misdirection takes years to hone, so when I would try to explain that I bent their key on the seat of my chair when they were not paying attention, they would insist that couldn't be true, because they watched closely, and I never touched the keys! I would have to explain that I did it before they thought the demonstration had started, and I handed them back their own keys after "checking them for a second to see if they might work" and then told them to not let me touch them. Too late!
posted by The Deej at 11:01 AM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of the contestants did a medium routine, but instead of acknowledging it as trickery, claimed that he really did have supernatural powers.

Jim Callahan. (AKA Jack Galloway). He is a member of a magician's forum I post to as well. He keeps up the supernatural act even in his posts in the forum, which really pisses off a lot of the members. He also tried to call Randi out in the forums to accept his challenge to Randi. But then he will discuss various gimmicks and methods in other posts. I opined that he was "living his act," like in the movie The Prestige, so whatever. At least he does present his "powers" in the context of a stage show billed as entertainment. The main sticky issue is that he insists he is in communication with the spirit of deceased author Raymond Hill.
posted by The Deej at 11:08 AM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, Criss Angel's best moment ever was on that show he co-hosted with Uri Gellar. One of the contestants did a medium routine [...]

Love it. I am a member of a magician's online forum. The contestant in question is actually a member there, and treated as a sacred cow by most denizens of the mentalism forum. When the episode aired everyone in that section of the forum fell over themselves demonizing Criss and congratulating the contestant, posting videos on youtube insulting Criss Angel, made threads making fun of him, ad infinitum. All through this they kept insisting that any publicity is good publicity, every time people would hear "Criss Angel" they would think of this contestant and how he supposedly owned Criss on stage.

Now here we are two months later and someone discussing the show can't even remember who the contestant was. And for all that "any publicity is good publicity", they sure did spend a lot of time talking about Criss Angel over there...
posted by splice at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2008


Ahh, Deej, why'd you have to name him. Now people will actually go look him up.

His forum personality just turned me right the fuck off mentalism. That Jack/Jim shit was just surreal as well.

And now back to your regularly scheduled threadjack....
posted by splice at 11:16 AM on January 4, 2008


I'm not a theorist either, and I certainly am not going to call you out on anything. My point is that after spending years buried in the equations, I still want to pick up a little magnet and scream "What the hell are you?!"

I think sometimes this can be a result of spending too much time pouring over equations. It's unfortunately common, if you ask a physicist a conceptual question (like "why does the ball fall off the table?" or "why do magnets work?") to get equations in response. IMO, that is always the wrong answer, but some physicists do it because they're so steeped in notation that (in some cases) I think they actually begin to confuse the models with reality itself. (Or even if they aren't actually confused themselves, they present the material in a way that easily induces confusion.)

A ball does not fall off of the table and accelerate towards the ground because y(t) = -1/2gt^2, and giving an equation as an explanation for a 'why' question is incorrect. The actual explanation for why the ball falls is much more complex -- it has to do with the gravitational interaction between the two masses, something which is frankly quite poorly understood on a fundamental level. (Most theories involve gravitons but the exact method of the interaction isn't known, or at least it wasn't the last time I looked into the topic.) But really, what physicist wants to say "I don't know" to such an apparently basic question? It's easy to fall into the trap of pointing at a model, particularly one that produces accurate predictions, and saying "that's why." No, it's really not.

Now, I'm not saying that pointing to an accurate predictive model, and a un-falsifiable theory ("it's fairies doing it") are the same thing. But I think at some level they're both driven by the same basic need -- to slap an explanation on something that, at least at the moment, we don't understand.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:59 AM on January 4, 2008


I'm very much in favour of Randi overall though I think the whole Skeptical Enquirer thing is a bit relentless.

I do magic tricks myself. I'm pretty good and I fool people but no one ever thinks I'm a real magician -- however, at the same time I sometimes baffle them and you know, I've been doing magic for 40 years but it still looks magical to me sometimes.

Randi is definitely NOT saying that people do not generate exceptional skills that appear to be mindreading. Take muscle reading for example, a perfectly legitimate skill that has amazing results (I think it was Kresgin who would have the manager of the theatre hide his check before the show, and then find it by holding the manager's wrist -- if he didn't find the check, he didn't get paid and he only missed once...)

The Deej: what's this magician's online forum!? I used to be in the Electronic Grymoire but I dropped out when it went pay...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:02 PM on January 4, 2008


This is all fairly ephemeral stuff that isn't easily quantified...how exactly does one prove that the dead don't communicate with people?

The challenge is to prove that the dead do commuicate with [living] people. It is provably impossible to prove that they don't.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:50 PM on January 4, 2008


See? See??? YOU CAN'T PROVE THEY DON'T!! YOU JUST SAID IT!!!

Actually, speaking of supernatural proof, skepticism, etc., I'm amazed that religion/God/FSM hasn't been brought into this conversation.

oops.
posted by LordSludge at 1:22 PM on January 4, 2008


I offered to eat a plate of spaghetti within a 20 minute period at ANY resturant (that serves it) using a fork and a spoon and periodically making use of a beverage for the MDC but they wouldn’t go for it. I even offered to mainfest myself in the resturant using only the powers of a machine I own powered by internal combustion. But we couldn’t come to terms. Something about ‘sacrilege.’
posted by Smedleyman at 1:47 PM on January 4, 2008


Do not invoke His Noodly Name in vain.
posted by grouse at 1:52 PM on January 4, 2008


The first one was linked upthread, but really.. ya gotta experience the whole trilogy.

Wanna see some maaagic? *stare* *stare* *stare* What tha EFFFF?!?
posted by miss lynnster at 1:52 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, speaking of supernatural proof, skepticism, etc., I'm amazed that religion/God/FSM hasn't been brought into this conversation.

oops.


Dun dun DUN!!!

Actually, really, let's hope it doesn't happen -- I don't know about you guys, but my last couple weekends were robbed of hours by MetaTalk callouts that were just too trainwrecky to ignore, and I actually have things I need to get done between now and Monday. Uh...but still, somebody MefiMail me if it happens (dammit, I am so weak).

The challenge is to prove that the dead do commuicate with [living] people. It is provably impossible to prove that they don't.

There isn't a good way to prove or disprove it, is my point -- nothing that will always work, in every situation. Yeah, if I say that I can channel Fatty Arbuckle, you can ask "Fatty" questions and attempt to get me to betray myself some way or another, fuck up some biographical detail, what have you. If I say that I regularly experience psychic visions in which my dead relative imparts wisdom from beyond...? You can believe that or not (I would advise you don't), but I don't know how I could prove it, or you could prove I was lying.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:56 PM on January 4, 2008


Wow, Science Digest, really?

I know you'd like to deflect the point by slighting the referenced publication, but it really doesn't change anything about the context Gellar was experiencing at the height of his fame. You think it was a shitty magazine at the time, whatever, it's easier to poke holes in that than accept the fact that it was yet another data point you have completely overlooked in your rush to scream into the wind repeatedly.

As I understand it, the reason he looked dumb on Carson is because Carson wouldn't let Gellar use his own props, and instead the show supplied its own.

Which is funny, because as you understand it is completely incorrect unless maybe you only read the first sentence of every paragraph you come across:

Geller was unable to bend any tableware during a 1973 appearance on The Tonight Show in which the spoons he was to bend had been preselected by Johnny Carson.

Yeah, you probably stopped right about there.

Earlier in his career, Carson had been an amateur stage magician, and consulted James Randi for advice on how to thwart potential trickery.

Wow, not looking so hot anymore, and only two sentences in! Goddamnit!

Randi explained in a 1993 "Secrets of the Psychics" for the NOVA television series: "I was asked to prevent any trickery. I told them to provide their own props and not to let Geller or his people anywhere near them." A clip of this incident was televised on the NBC show Phenomenon; however, this two-minute clip, which has been widely circulated on the Internet since James Randi acquired permission to use it from NBC (videotape transfer paid for by Carson)[29] in his television special Secrets of the Psychics only shows Geller failing at psychic "hand dowsing," not metal bending. Geller's full, unedited appearance on the talk show has to date not been made available.

It's ok though, continue with your ranting and ravings about people being idiots, it's completely relevant at this point.
posted by prostyle at 2:04 PM on January 4, 2008 [3 favorites]


Of course it's a trick, how else would he do it?

Uri Gellar DID say he was a psychic. I have a poster form 1973. It says "World renown psychic Uri Gellar" on it. He had it printed. On it he is bending a spoon. And rays are shooting out of his head. So I guess it was psychic power that bent spoons.

I cant believe perfectly rational people are attacking Randi and defending fucking Tarot cards (comapring equally with psychotherapy? pah-leeeeze) and Uri Gellar.

Up is down in this place sometimes.

All this kind of shit are the tools con artist use to get money from people dishonestly pure and simple. If you believe otherwise well... let's discuss it over a therapeutic game of Three Card Monty. I get to deal. $50 minimum.
posted by tkchrist at 2:59 PM on January 4, 2008 [5 favorites]


Whoa! Uri Gellar can shoot rays out of his head!? Cool. Ahmana send him some money.

Yeah, why don’t religious folks get pissed off at people with ‘psychic powers’?
Used to be they drowned ‘em and set ‘em on fire and stuff.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:44 PM on January 4, 2008


A lot of people are jumping all over hermitosis, but if your replace "tarot cards" with "Rorschach inkblots" you'll also have to change "jerks" to "accredited professional psychologists".

Oh my.
posted by glycolized at 3:48 PM on January 4, 2008


accredited professional psychologists

Yeah. That's the part that doesn't quite translate does it.

I'm pretty sure I could set up a Tarot Card stand in the market and no matter what I'll not get shut down or have my Tarot accreditation pulled by the ATCRA (American Taro Card Reader Association). The cool think about getting your Doctorate in Tarot is peer review happens before you even publish... or write!. They just KNOW.
posted by tkchrist at 3:59 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ahh, Deej, why'd you have to name him.

I didn't name him. I was overtaken by the spirit of a deceased smartass. It was automatic writing, but, you now with a computer. Sometimes it just happens. Prove it doesn't!!!
posted by The Deej at 5:28 PM on January 4, 2008


That Jack/Jim shit was just surreal as well.

No no, it's not Jack it's J ack.
posted by The Deej at 5:32 PM on January 4, 2008


"The problem is not Uri Gellar. Gellar does not believe he is psychic, obviously. The problem is the countless TV shows and magazines that knew he was just doing a trick and presented him as the real thing. As I understand it, the reason he looked dumb on Carson is because Carson wouldn't let Gellar use his own props, and instead the show supplied its own. So all those TV shows he was on knew he was just using trick spoons (or pre-bent or whatever) and they let him on anyway.

"But Randi has done nothing to address this aspect of it, why were networks and media willing to facilitate Gellar's ruse outside of the entertainment context?"

Randi was a "consultant" to Johnny Carson when Geller appeared on the Tonight Show. Carson who was an amateur magician himself, asked Randi how to ensure that Geller couldn't pull any of his usual bullshit. I actually saw that show when it first aired and Geller came off as a pathetic fake.

For the record, as Randi says in his newsletter this week, only amateurs use self-bending spoons for the trick. It's normally done via simple distraction (the "psychic" bends the spoon when you aren't looking). I'm proud to say that I send Randi links to a lot of stuff I know he'll be interested in, much of which ends up on his website (I'm the one who directed him to the $7,250 audio cables he got a lot of attention for ridiculing earlier this year, for example). This week he posted a link I sent him to a British company which sells the self-bending spoons, along with a few other things I informed him about.
posted by Cranky Media Guy at 5:34 PM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd really like to know what the Magician's forum is, too, if you don't mind providing the link!

I love watching magic shows, and knowing there's a secret behind the trick, and trying to discover it, and I especially enjoy it when the magician (or are we calling them "illusionists" these days?) is so good I can't even figure it out how it was done. Those that are really talented at sleight-of-hand always earn my admiration as well.

I used to love, back in the day, watching Doug Henning and David Copperfield, too.

You know who I don't like? The modern-day "magicians" who ask audience members to think of, say, a color or a number, and then pretend to "know" what it is, when all they have done is narrow down all the possible answers until there is only one logical choice left. Posers. I don't want magic to be so transparent!
posted by misha at 6:33 PM on January 4, 2008


hermitosis -

Just out of curiosity, do you have a preferred deck?
posted by Samizdata at 7:02 PM on January 4, 2008


But Randi has done nothing to address this aspect of it, why were networks and media willing to facilitate Gellar's ruse outside of the entertainment context?

What the frak does that have to do with Randi? He's shown that the people are blowhards, and now you're blaming HIM for the fact that NETWORKS are credulous?

You seem absolutely determined to attack this guy at every turn. You're blasting him for not proving that psychic phenomena don't exist, which can't be done, and now you're blaming him for the policies of network television?

Dude, I don't know what your real beef is with Randi. I think he must have attacked some sacred cow of yours. If that's the case, I would strongly suggest re-evaluating your belief system, because betting against Randi is a low-probability wager.
posted by Malor at 7:27 PM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everything is not tricks. I can't tell you how magnets work without doing some research, but I've first-hand experience of their properties. They can still surprise me, but they don't ever contradict what I understand of them and I don't feel they're deceiving me in any way.

Magicians, however... But they are happy to admit it's all smoke and mirrors (and perhaps magnets). I don't feel deceived by magicians, instead cheerfully misled. That's the point. That's why I pay money to see them perform their art.

My iPod works according to a great many processes that are known and explained in detail elsewhere. I don't think my iPod is in any way *magic*. It is terrific, certainly, and entertains me on the dreary walk to work, but it's not supernatural. And nor do I want it to be. That perhaps is the other point.

I always thought that Randi was challenging folk who proclaim a unique *power* to prove that power is what they say it is: Mr Whatshisname who can bend metal by rubbing it with his magic thumb, whereas I cannot; the "medium" who can talk to my dead grandmother, while I cannot, however much I implore the thin-air to conjure up some sign of her watching over me. They are the ones under scrutiny, not entertainers who I insist continue to delight me (amongst them Ben Burtt and the other folk that created sounds for Star Wars - an acknowledged fiction that has nonetheless led to "religions" and "beliefs" based on Lucas's imagination. The pyooo sounds in space are it's most delightful deceptions and fully intended as such; a belief in the "Force" was only meant for the films' characters).

Tarot seems to offer some people comfort, though why you need someone else to interpret the cards is a mystery. Maybe they do offer a magnifying mirror of the situation, but if you go with the whole Tarot thing, why not take your own reading? In the meantime, there's a prophecy at the bottom of every teacup if you're so inclined.

Pastabagel's attempts at fooling us could indeed be plausibly delivered. Stories work like that. That's their point. Science Fiction has that label for a reason. Doesn't mean it's not fun or relevant.

Randi was trying to expose as fake those who profit from other people's faithful belief in their authoritive "abilities". Or at least, that's what I always thought Randi was attempting.
posted by 4eyes at 8:10 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


The problem is not Uri Gellar. Gellar does not believe he is psychic, obviously. The problem is the countless TV shows and magazines that knew he was just doing a trick and presented him as the real thing.

Gellar insists at every turn that he is, in fact psychic, though Randi is presently gathering quotes from Gellar to back up a current thesis that Gellar is transitioning from "I have powers given me by God" to "Yeah, it's a trick."
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:26 PM on January 4, 2008


From Randi: Gellar has long claimed to be genuinely magical.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:34 PM on January 4, 2008


Benjamin Franklin was an early debunker, of someone who claimed to cure people with mysterious hypnotic techniques and magnets-- Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, from which the word 'mesmerize' comes from.

And yet still, to this day, you can buy miracle curing magnets.


Uri Geller was once tested by Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and was found to have psychic powers! A report was even published in Nature. (There are a number of videos of these tests on Youtube, but I haven't bothered to check them out). There are still people who use these experiments to bolster their belief in his psychic powers.

The SRI researchers were too trusting, often giving him unsupervised access to their equipment. Later, several people, including Randi, would subject Uri to similar experiments in a more controlled manner and somehow his power would seem to elude him.

Steven Wright, the somewhat off-base comedian once said that he sat in front of his fireplace and stared at the carpet to try to make it move with his mind. He stared at it for hours, and it never moved. Then he looked up and noticed that his house was gone.
posted by eye of newt at 8:49 PM on January 4, 2008


The whole point of Schroedinger's Cat is that it doesn't work that way- that quantum rules do not apply above the quantum level.

Whatever the point of Shroedinger's cat was, it's led to this horrifying confusion in which physics seems to imply that consciousness matters. Apparently, Einstein was originally happy to replace the cat with explosives -- but the cat seemed so much cooler, because it was conscious.

The cat was not cooler. The cat is a monstrosity, the worst pedagogical instrument of all time, a generator of myth and legend that needs to be apologized for and constrained every time it is mentioned. As Hawkings apparently said, "Whenever I hear of Shroedinger's Cat, I reach for my gun."

Given the source, and the difficulty of such an action, that's saying something.
posted by effugas at 11:32 PM on January 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


A 2005 Gallup Poll shows 41% of people believing in ESP, 31% in telepathy, 25% in astrology, 21% in talking to the dead.

That's 118%! That proves ESP is bogus.
posted by JackFlash at 11:45 PM on January 4, 2008


Man, that James Hydrick thing sure is depressing me. I dislike charlatans as much as the next guy, but that clip of him being put on the spot in front of an audience with his goofy clothes and moustache and failing so completely was kind of tough to watch. Then I found this wired blog about his eventual confession, with this comment from James Randi:
An important part of Hydrick's story is that he was an abandoned/adopted child who lived in several foster homes, where he was psychologically and physically abused. He had permanent scars on his legs caused by cigarettes applied to him by these loving foster care-givers. This man suffered a lot, and this "psychic" gimmick gave him an importance, a presence and a profile he needed.
The wired blog links to a transcript of Hydrick's confession:
KOREM: Why did you feel that you had to tell people that you had powers that you didn't have?

HYDRICK: Because I wanted attention. My parents would never give it to me. I would always be ignored or kicked around. I had to do this to make me feel good. It gave me confidence. Everytime someone thought what I did was very good but I'd never tell them
what it was. I'd tell them it was something else. Because if I told them what it was they would say "Fine, it's just a trick." But I would always tell them it was something else so I would continue to get recognition.
Poor guy.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:53 PM on January 4, 2008


My point is that after spending years buried in the equations, I still want to pick up a little magnet and scream "What the hell are you?!"

I'm an object with blurry edges.
posted by flabdablet at 2:17 AM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is how Tarot works.

You place the cards out in some preconcieved 'tableau' and take what each card is supposed to represent symbolically, then you superimpose that over your own life and look for comparisons. You will inevitably find them. This allows one to look at their subjective life in an objective manner. It's like being on the outside looking in at your own life. This is not magic. It's psychology.

However, telling ourselves it's magic intensifies its effect. See "placebo" for why that works. Belief in what we can't see is as much a part of the human psyche as a belief in what's tangibly there. When you look through a window that has blinds which are half open, we can only see half of what's on the other side of the window. However, our brain automatically fills in the gaps with what it guesses is behind it, and attempts to fill out the picture so that the conscious mind can discern what's back there. Oftentimes it's successful with confidence.

Ever since Man has looked up at the moon, we have been trying to mesh what we do know with what we don't know. Our brain fills in the gaps with whatever it can. Sometimes it's right. Sometimes it's wrong, but the fact it must fill it with something is intrinsic to how the human mind works.

Randi has endeavoured to convince people to only accept what they see, and not fill in the gaps with stuff that can't possibly be there. Is Gellar a snake oil salesman, or are there some people in this world who like to fill in those gaps with brighter colors, to give an illusion that life is more vibrant or exciting or scary or dangerous or fun or mysterious or wondrous than it actually is? Or maybe, just maybe, when we fill the Unknown before us with awe and wonder, we're underlining that awe and wonder of what IS there for ourselves.

Why do people go into (usually charity-operated) Haunted Houses every Halloween, when everybody knows it's never haunted, or usually that it's never even a real house? Cuz it's fun! Sometimes we enjoy the lie.

Then again, maybe we should just tell Virginia there is no Santa Claus. She's been a bad girl this year anyway.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:24 AM on January 5, 2008


A day late and a dollar short, as usual: old but good article about neuro-tarot.
posted by sneebler at 10:09 AM on January 5, 2008


I kind of just scanned upthread so apologies if this is a dupe, but someone who claims to be able to transmit images into people's brains is going for the challenge - and he's going to do the preliminary testing at Randi's skeptic conference The Amazing Meeting in late January. I wonder if the closing of the challenge will bring challengers out of the woodwork?
posted by nanojath at 12:21 PM on January 5, 2008


I kind of just scanned upthread so apologies if this is a dupe, but someone who claims to be able to transmit images into people's brains is going for the challenge - and he's going to do the preliminary testing at Randi's skeptic conference The Amazing Meeting in late January. I wonder if the closing of the challenge will bring challengers out of the woodwork?

What I wonder is if he'll have any better luck than the woman who claimed she could make a guy have to pee.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:48 PM on January 5, 2008


Pastabagel, you wrote "But Randi has done nothing to address this aspect of it, why were networks and media willing to facilitate Gellar's ruse outside of the entertainment context?" and I just had to respond.

The line where the entertainment context ends and the information / journalism / academic contexts begins is ever more blurry. Everything's a product, most especially the news.

Randi is just here saying "It's all a trick, and if you can prove it isn't then here's a million dollars." He obviously doesn't think he can make gullible people into shrewd ones. That is something everybody has to do for themselves. Isn't Randi doing enough for you already?
posted by Sukiari at 10:30 PM on January 5, 2008


Did no one else see that James Hydrick is serving time for child molestation?
CA Offenders Site
posted by allen8219 at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2008


Why do people go into (usually charity-operated) Haunted Houses every Halloween, when everybody knows it's never haunted, or usually that it's never even a real house? Cuz it's fun! Sometimes we enjoy the lie.

But rational people generally understand when a lie is, indeed, a lie. There are lots of people that actually run their lives on crystals, crosses, and superstition.

Then again, maybe we should just tell Virginia there is no Santa Claus. She's been a bad girl this year anyway.

If Virginia is 5 years old, then let her believe in whatever magic she wants. If, rather, Aunt Virginia is a 48 yo virgin who is trying to be "good" for Santa, then... yeah, somebody really ought to tell her.
posted by LordSludge at 6:41 PM on January 6, 2008


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