Uri Geller, the Paranormal, and Psychokinesis
Perhaps nothing illustrates the conflict between believers in the paranormal and debunkers of the paranormal so clearly as the dispute between celebrated psychic Uri Geller and celebrity stage magician and paranormal debunker James Randi. From the middle of the twentieth century through today, researchers across the great divide between hard-core debunkers and true believers in the paranormal have engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the general public. The story of Uri Geller and James Randi, best represents a microcosm of this battle.1
For many years before Uri Geller appeared on the scene, psychokinesis (PK), or mind over matter, was of serious interest to researchers such as Dr. J. B. Rhine at the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory. In 1944, Rhine wrote in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, “Thought, define it as you will, exerts a control over material things.” Rhine experimented with PK by “investigating claims of a gambler that the state of mind can influence the fall of dice.” He concluded that PK was “closely related to ESP.” But then, as now, there was no scientific theory or evidence to explain what might cause PK, since it “operates without leaving any conscious record of its working,” Rhine said. “Common physical laws do not govern the operation of the psychical processes that produce the test results.” Some of that would change in the 1980s, however, according to army remote viewer Paul H. Smith in his book Reading the Enemy’s Mind (Tom Doherty Associates, 2005), when the scientists at Stanford Research Institute found themselves searching for a hard science explanation as to how remote viewing worked. Prior to that, RV and PK were considered “pseudosciences,” which many skeptics still consider them to be.2
Between the 1930s and 1980s, though, professional parapsychology journals of both the ASPR and the SPR periodically published papers about PK. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research reported that between May and December of 1946, “three extensive series of PK tests were undertaken in which 132 subjects performed a total of 76,032 die throws.” But the exact mechanism for how PK operated could not be determined.
Ironically, around that same time, in December 1946, Uri Geller was born in Tel Aviv, in what was then still considered Palestine, but which became Israel after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. Friends and family remember he brought the hands on watches and clocks to a dead stop without touching them, even when he was a young boy, and throughout his growing-up years. He was also able to bend spoons although he barely laid a finger on them. Some who remembered him as a toddler and witnessed his demonstrations were convinced he was gifted with an inexplicable ability.
The first incident occurred when Geller was only three years old. As he held a soupspoon, it bent and broke. Uri’s mother assumed there was something defective in the metal that caused it to separate into two pieces. She never dreamed her young son could be responsible. Might Uri, as a child, have had the cunning of a skilled magician to create such effects? It seems highly doubtful that he or anyone that age would be able to. When he was six, Uri made a friend’s watch move forward a full hour, according to one account. How was a youngster capable of causing that?
“It wasn’t something he could really do, but rather something that was happening to him,” Jonathan Margolis quoted a childhood friend of Uri’s as saying.3 Years later, the friend still held the same opinion “that what Uri showed him was an example of a true psychic gift rather than a rehearsed trick.” It would be an important point when Geller was an adult and an acclaimed psychic performer. He was accused by avowed debunkers of manufacturing a phony psychic act when he was in his twenties, and only after he’d read a book about magic. That allegation could not have been accurate if, in fact, Geller had been displaying psychokinetic ability since early childhood. There is another incident Margolis reported in which Uri once repaired a teacher’s four broken watches by simply passing his hands over them. Years later, when Uri was famous, one of his teachers wrote to say she remembered that when Uri was twelve years old, he demonstrated bending forks and even mind reading. Uri demonstrated this same feat in 2007 when he repaired watches and clocks while on a live Coast to Coast AM radio show with George Noory.
As are all able-bodied Israelis, Geller was required to serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from the time he was eighteen until he was twenty-one. While in the army, he did his best to maintain a distance from anything that would brand him a magician, such as card tricks, at which he was quite accomplished. As for purported psychic feats, he demonstrated few during his service, some of which was spent as a paratrooper.
In the summer of 1967, Geller met a youngster who would become a very important part of his life and career. His name was Shimshon Shtrang, but he was always called Shipi, and he was only thirteen, about eight years younger than Uri. At the time, Geller was recuperating from wounds he suffered after being shot in Jordan during the Six-Day War. It was a wound he remembers well because he often told the story of encountering a Jordanian soldier on the West Bank. They both shot at each other. Uri was wounded, but he killed the enemy soldier. During his recuperation, he took a position as a children’s camp counselor.
Shipi attended the camp and was enthralled by Uri’s flair for storytelling, mostly tales of science fiction. The boy also was fascinated by Geller’s demonstrations of telepathic ability. For example, Geller would invite the kids to draw or think of something. Invariably, he would know telepathically what the children had thought of. The mind reading never failed to hold the group’s attention, especially Shipi’s.
Geller also discovered that Shipi had a remarkable psychic rapport with him. If Uri wrote down numbers and placed them in sealed envelopes, Shipi knew telepathically what they were. In turn, when Shipi drew pictures, Uri could psychically describe them. Geller also showed the children his ability to bend metal, and insisted that his skills were enhanced when Shipi was nearby.
Their psychic interaction, while mutually advantageous, resulted in considerable controversy for Geller in the years ahead. Shipi would become Geller’s business manager, closest friend, confidant, and later brother-in-law, when Geller married Shipi’s pretty sister, Hannah, six years older than Shipi. But debunkers would repeatedly attack Geller for having Shipi close by, alleging that Uri could only perform metal bending, telepathy, or any other extrasensory perception (ESP) ability if Shipi was present. This implied that Shipi was Uri’s confederate in some way, although it was never made clear how. Perhaps they had a secret code or a set of signals between them? This would cast doubt on a paranormal explanation for Geller’s ability.
Debunkers have persisted in that fallacious version of events, despite the fact that Uri can and does demonstrate mind reading and PK even when Shipi is not nearby. What’s more, debunkers ignored Geller’s childhood abilities, claiming the two had dreamed up Uri’s “psychic act” only after they read a book on magic the summer they met.4
By the time Geller was twenty-two years old in 1969, the slender, good-looking young man with dark hair and piercing eyes was employing his paranormal abilities as a “professional performer” in Israeli nightclubs, private parties, and the kibbutzim. And he quickly became a “psychic superstar” throughout the country. Even the late and renowned Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, once asked by reporters to predict the future of Israel, quipped, “I don’t predict. Why don’t you ask Uri Geller?”5
In fact, Geller had purportedly foretold the death of Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, shortly before it occurred in 1970, a major event throughout the troubled and politically volatile Middle East. As you might expect, Geller’s prognostication attracted widespread attention in Israel.
We should hasten to add that not every Israeli was enthralled with Geller. He had his share of critics and skeptics who denounced him as a fraud, even a “menace.” One of Israel’s popular magazines skewered Geller in an “exposé,” claiming his psychic abilities were a hoax made possible by the use of some chemical that bent metal. Only much later did the magazine back down from what were outright falsehoods and unsubstantiated allegations.
It was during the summer of 1971 that an eccentric American physician and parapsychologist named Dr. Andrija Puharich (1918–1995) visited Tel Aviv and first observed Geller’s performance. Puharich had already been responsible for bringing the Dutch psychic Peter Hurkos to the United States in 1965, who became well known for working with law enforcement in criminal and missing persons cases. But now Puharich was ecstatic. He exclaimed that he’d spent years searching for someone like Uri Geller. The two men quickly formed a professional relationship. Puharich tested Geller’s abilities and, once convinced that his psychic powers were authentic, helped Uri and Shipi come to America. Puharich’s goal was to arrange funding for Geller to be scientifically examined here. Uri understood the significance of this, and that if he were successful, it would add greatly to his credibility as a psychic. However, should he fail in America, his career would likely suffer a fatal blow. His opportunity soon came, and the pressure on him must have been intense.
By November 1972, Geller was at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, located only several miles from Stanford University in Palo Alto. There his task would be to demonstrate, under tightly controlled test conditions, his psychokinetic power to bend metal and other ESP abilities, including telepathy. The Stanford Research Institute, commonly known as SRI International, an “independent nonprofit corporation,” was one of a handful of facilities across the country where the paranormal was being seriously investigated. Experimentation was also conducted at SRI in physics, bioengineering, electronics, and remote viewing under contracts with government and industry to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually.
At SRI, Geller would meet scientists with substantial credentials. One of them was Dr. Harold Puthoff, a physicist in his mid-thirties with a PhD from Stanford University. Puthoff was an expert in laser physics research, held several patents, had also been in naval intelligence, and worked with the top-secret National Security Agency. After researching biofeedback, Puthoff became interested in psi—the preferred word for parapsychology—by the 1970s, especially among scientists. For the record, psi is the twenty-third letter of the Greek alphabet. (The word psi is pronounced as if it were spelled “sigh.”) Puthoff teamed up with a colleague, Russell Targ, also a physicist and an inventor with a curiosity about the paranormal. He had another interest that would prove useful in psychical research. Targ was an ardent student of stage magic. The pair, along with their early test subject and consultant, psychic Ingo Swann, later became well known in their own right for extensive CIA-funded research about remote viewing, for which they achieved impressive results. Among these results, according to one of the original remote viewers, army major Paul Smith, would involve being able to perceive events taking place in the future. In effect, the remote viewers had discovered a method of psychic time travel.
Meanwhile, Targ and Puthoff turned their attention to testing Uri Geller’s alleged abilities. They observed Geller’s psychokinetic (PK) power to bend and even break metal, although he had not applied any “direct physical pressure,” in their words, and dubbed what they saw as the “Geller effect.” They also extensively studied Geller’s facility for mental telepathy. Former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who had a strong interest in parapsychology since the late 1960s, oversaw some of the Geller tests. By then, Mitchell had conducted his own ESP experiments from outer space.
The Geller tests at SRI continued for nearly six weeks, and results depended on who reported them. Targ and Puthoff, among other scientists, pronounced them successful, and Geller considered that the experiments validated his PK and ESP powers. But debunkers spun the outcome differently. They regarded the experiments as inconclusive or a failure in proving Geller was a genuine psychic, attacking SRI’s “research methodology,” that is the way Geller was tested, and further impugned the scientists’ reputations, suggesting one motive was to enhance Targ and Puthoff’s status as parapsychologists, possibly to gain them more funding.6
Uri Geller was an immediate sensation in the American media, as more people became familiar with his purported psychic powers. There was something fascinating about watching him on TV barely touch a spoon or fork, and then seeing the utensil bend, curl, or break as if it had been heated by some potent but unseen energy. He also demonstrated the same PK effect on keys and even metal nails. In fact, when he appeared on British television, it was not unusual for viewers to claim they, too, experienced similar PK effects at home on their silverware and house keys. Had Geller somehow transmitted his ability to those watching? What explanation might there be for viewers who insisted their broken timepieces and clocks began working again?
Geller’s stunning celebrity success had not gone unnoticed by a variety of skeptics looking to debunk any claims of the paranormal. Among the skeptics who raised serious doubts about Uri’s ability was the celebrated stage magician James Randi. Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Canada, in 1928, he changed his professional name to The Amazing Randi, and built a career dazzling worldwide audiences with stage illusions and escape artistry on many network TV programs, on late-night talk shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and on college campuses. Randi insisted that Geller was a magician or conjurer, not a true psychic with paranormal abilities, something he said he wanted to demonstrate. He persistently and publicly discredited any claims people made about Uri’s gifts.
Debunkers can be in their own ways very deceptive, as was Harry Houdini when he sought to debunk the paranormal after his fight with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The late Phil Klass was also deceptive, going to great lengths to discredit any UFO sightings and the witnesses who reported them. Debunkers, whether through their own rigid system of disbelief or whether they’re paid by some other entity, like agencies of the government, tend to start from their belief first and then force the facts to fit their belief. In some cases, the distortion is so intense that it looks, upon examination, like the debunkers themselves are bending the truth to fit their arguments.
Few would argue that an open-minded watchdog or consumer advocate isn’t useful to protect the public from the charlatans posing as psychics and mediums that have long bilked the gullible, parting them from their money. What easily come to mind are the “1-900” psychic phone line operations that reached their peak in the 1990s, and then seemed to collapse when investigated. Skepticism is healthy, even rigid skepticism. But debunking for the sake of discrediting someone without looking at one’s own motives skeptically is a different story.
Perhaps Randi, practicing the art of illusion and stage magic, saw himself as a modern-day Houdini going after every paranormal claim in any way he could. But debunkers, who long ago elevated Houdini to a mythic status as their hero, have misrepresented the great illusionist. Houdini had not denied the possibility that an afterlife existed. His bitterness arose from the frustration of never finding someone who could communicate with his mother in the hereafter.7 That’s a far cry from debunkers who seek to lash out at anything smacking of a supernatural character, including psychic phenomena in any form encompassing, but not limited to, a spirit world.
So it was that Randi appeared to have become obsessed with Geller’s reputation as a representative of a true supernatural world, a world he could enter and exit and a world whose existence Geller could demonstrate. Perhaps it was Geller’s seeming effortlessness in his demonstrations that provoked Randi to try and expose what he saw as Geller’s ability to create a grand illusion. Ironically, it was the conflict between Uri’s demonstrations and Randi’s challenges that cast Randi into a spotlight.
In point of fact, Randi was nowhere near SRI when Geller was undergoing tests there in late 1972, and again the next year. It seemed that Randi drew his own conclusions about what went on at SRI, conclusions that, predictably, were negative. Perhaps, they had to be because Randi, often described in the media as a skeptic, behaved, for all intents and purposes, like a debunker and was one of the founders in 1976 of a national organization of psychic debunkers, called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, often referred to as CSICOP.
What is the difference between a skeptic and a debunker? They are not the same. A skeptic is one who doubts psychic phenomena. He or she will question or investigate fairly before arriving at a conclusion. Debunkers have no need to query or consider paranormal claims. Their goal is to deny all psychic events, arguing that psychic claims have no real test of evidentiary credibility. By seeking to duplicate a psychic event, debunkers claim that conventional explanations trump psychic explanations. Thus, by eliminating even the remote possibility of psychic causality, the debunker’s conclusions have already been drawn, and any evidence to the contrary is discounted.
According to debunkers, paranormal phenomena do not exist. They maintain psi is the product of hallucination, superstition, irrational thinking, pseudoscience, outright trickery, deception, or fraud. Never mind that many millions of psychic events occur, and have played a role in every society and culture since human beings took their first steps on earth eons ago. At the very least, that suggests the history of psi should be of interest to psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. CSICOP maintains it has never found or validated even one psychic experience, which seems unbelievable and statistically untenable until one realizes that CSICOP sets the rules and then establishes which alleged psychic or paranormal event satisfies those rules.
The attitudes of debunkers raise the question, “Why would there be such hostility and negativity to even the possibility that the paranormal exists?” The answer may be deceptively simple. In large part, debunkers are secular humanists or atheists. For them, therefore, God does not exist, and religious beliefs are “irrational,” even dangerous. Consider the many centuries of wars, killings, and repression in the name of one religion or the other. Look at the religious wars taking place right now in the twenty-first century and by the way, here in the United States, so-called religious values become political policy for candidates running as conservative fundamentalists. It’s not surprising skeptics blame religion for the world’s ills.
Nevertheless, according to the debunkers’ credo, psychic phenomena and New Age beliefs are just other forms of religion that cannot be accepted or condoned by such self-proclaimed, clear-headed, and rational-thinking people, as the members of CSICOP and “The Amazing Randi.”
Randi first met Uri Geller at the New York offices of Time magazine where Randi and a colleague pretended they were reporters, with the help of a friend who worked for the publication. That gave him an opportunity to observe Geller demonstrate his metal-bending ability.8 It didn’t take Randi long to reach his conclusion. Randi said what he saw was a “transparent sleight of hand performance.” What’s more, he said that Geller was not a “psychic superstar.” What was he? “Geller is a clever magician, nothing more and certainly nothing less,” Randi wrote. Then, assuming a more self-righteous tone, he continued, “I am proud of my profession [performing acts of magic]. I am even jealous of it and resent any prostitution of the art. In my view, Geller brings disgrace to the craft I practice.”9
Essentially, Randi’s long-held contention was that the paranormal is not scientific. It is entirely a trick. Therefore, why bother scientists? All you needed was a skilled magician—especially The Amazing Randi—to reveal the deception perpetrated by Uri Geller and his ilk. Randi said he could not “forgive the damage done to respectable men of science and the press who chose to board [Geller’s] comet and who may well have to face, in the end, the ridicule of their colleagues.”10
What Randi overlooked in his highly exaggerated and dire prediction about “damage to respectable men of science” were the opinions of the scientists, themselves. Apparently, those who examined Geller and found evidence of genuine paranormal ability had all been fooled, according to Randi. In fact, because scientists were so intelligent, schooled, and trained, it was easier for them to be duped by a phony masquerading as a psychic. “No matter how well-educated, alert, well-meaning, or astute men of science are, they are certainly no match for a competent magician. Fooling people is his stock-in-trade,” Randi proclaimed.11
Dr. Andrija Puharich was a brilliant engineer and physician, not withstanding his eccentricities and some genuinely strange conspiracy theories involving UFOs and the CIA.12 After he’d tested Geller informally, and to his satisfaction, he’d arranged through his connections in intelligence circles for Geller to be tested at SRI.13 For a long time, no one was certain who paid for those tests. Years later it was revealed that it had been none other than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The tests were conducted toward the end of 1972, and again the following year. Largely, they centered on Geller’s purported telepathic abilities.14 Although Harold Puthoff, Russell Targ, and other scientists at SRI witnessed Uri’s metal bending, those experiments had not been conducted under what Puthoff and Targ considered sufficiently strict scientific controls. So, when the “SRI Report,” as it came to be called, was released, Geller’s metal-bending prowess was only mentioned, but not detailed. However, the SRI Report was published in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature in October 1974.15
Limits on space prevent repeating the full report here. However, some highlights should give you an idea of the tests Geller underwent. To determine the extent of his telepathic ability, Geller was placed in a “double-walled steel room” that was shielded from exterior sound, sight, and anything conducting any electrical signals. Parapsychologists know it as a Faraday cage, an enclosure that is used for testing subjects. The tightly sealed steel room was set up for only one-way audio communication, from Geller to the experimenters outside.
The Faraday cage, made of copper mesh with double walls, is designed to prevent any interference from magnetic fields or radio waves. It is named for the great British physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867), highly regarded for his dazzling scientific findings concerning electromagnetism and chemistry. Although Faraday created the concept for the cage, on the subject of psychic phenomena, he was deeply skeptical all his life.
In one SRI-conducted test, Geller was instructed to draw the same pictures the scientists had, without seeing them, of course. He was also asked to apply his telepathy to draw pictures that were kept in the memory of a computer. Another test required Uri to replicate drawings in sealed envelopes that the scientists conducting the tests had not seen. Every precaution was taken to prevent any deceit or trickery, or accidentally providing Geller with any visual or verbal cues or clues. The tests lasted a full week and consisted of thirteen drawings.
When Geller’s telepathic accuracy was evaluated, it showed his correct answers far exceeded that which could be obtained by chance or guessing. There was a one in a million chance that Uri could have guessed accurately. In other words, because Geller’s results were more than 50 percent accurate, the preponderance of evidence indicated that he was performing beyond the level of chance and was most likely using a mental power. This was tantalizing scientific evidence that Geller had demonstrated genuine telepathic ability.
Another round of tests were set up to determine Geller’s clairvoyant powers. Apparently, in these, he scored no better than chance, meaning the results, statistically, were no more or less than someone who had guessed the “test object,” whatever it might be, such as a drawing, numerals, something written, or a photograph, and so on. Unlike telepathy or mind reading, in examining for clairvoyance, the test object is completely unknown to all the participants, scientists, and subject. Thus, if the subject—in this case Geller—is accurate, the information had to be psychically transmitted or communicated in some manner other than telepathically. In Uri’s case, the SRI results showed he was more telepathic than clairvoyant.
Geller was also tested with dice, the purpose being to determine if he could ascertain the face of a single die placed in a sealed steel box, and shaken by the person conducting the test. That individual had no idea what number would show face up. Geller responded accurately eight out of ten times. Twice he “passed,” meaning he chose not to answer, remarking that he was not psychically perceiving the die. But of his eight predictions, he was correct all eight times. The statistical probability of chance on Geller’s part was one in a million. The die test was later repeated, but “informally,” and Uri was correct ten out of ten times, a one in a billion chance.
Based on the more than five weeks of tests in late 1972, SRI released a press statement that said, “We have observed certain phenomena for which we have no scientific explanation.” That was a tempting tease for the media. When in October 1974, Nature published the SRI Report about Targ and Puthoff’s tests of Uri Geller, the magazine anticipated a controversial response among scientists. That prediction did not require any psychic ability. But Nature, in an editorial preceding the SRI Report, reminded readers that despite the sharply disputed scientific opinions about psychokinetic and telepathic abilities, the magazine felt it was incumbent upon it to publish “the occasional ‘high-risk’ type of paper,” and opt to “stimulate and advance the controversy.”
The editorial went on, “The issue, then, is whether the evidence is of sufficient quality to be taken seriously.” Puthoff and Targ’s paper was criticized as “weak in design and presentation [and] details given as to the precise way in which the experiment was carried out were disconcertingly vague.” But the magazine hastened to add that Targ and Puthoff were both “qualified scientists writing from a major research establishment.”
Nature made an important point reminding readers that the SRI paper would motivate those scientists interested in parapsychology to discuss and debate ESP, allowing those who were interested in “researching this arguable field” to assess the “quality of the Stanford research,” and determine “how much it is contributing to parapsychology.” Finally, there was the following caveat: just because the paper about the paranormal was published did not mean Nature was giving the subject its “stamp of approval.”
As the Nature editorial candidly pointed out to the scientifically conservative, phenomena such as telepathy—or any other manifestation of ESP—“is beyond the laws of science, and therefore necessarily unacceptable.” That about summed up the attitude of traditional scientists to parapsychology in the 1970s, and if it was possible to ignore the entire field, they would.
The Stanford Research Institute also released a film of the Geller experiments with demonstrations of his psychokinetic abilities, including spoon bending. The visual depiction elicited the same response; each side saw what it wanted to. Probably, few minds were swayed, even by the film’s ending, which showed curled utensils.16
All the while as this flurry of activity was going on around Geller, The Amazing Randi was eagerly in pursuit. He complained that neither scientists nor Geller wished to have him present during their experiments because he was a magician, and he pronounced the SRI test controls, “flimsy.” Randi’s conclusion was to suppose that Geller had somehow cheated, perhaps he received “hand signals” from Shipi. There was also an accusation from Randi that in the SRI’s film, Geller employed a tiny hidden magnet to cause a compass needle to move. “The Geller tests at SRI were utterly useless except as examples of inept and biased research,” Randi unhesitatingly announced.17
Remember that Randi had seen Uri demonstrate at Time magazine’s New York office, and pronounced Geller’s abilities tricks that any competent stage magician could duplicate. What most Time readers were likely unaware of was that Time’s then science editor, Leon Jaroff, was a friend of Randi’s, and a die-hard skeptic. Therefore, it was no surprise that Time’s story about Geller and the SRI tests was brutally critical. But you have to wonder how many Time readers—it is an influential newsmagazine—believed they were reading an objective article about what went on at SRI, rather than a preplanned hatchet job to debunk Geller.
Other print media weren’t quite as harsh. Newsweek, for example, was more temperate as were several important newspaper articles. Geller, meanwhile, continued his meteoric success in the United States. Metal bending was a big hit. There were network TV appearances, newspaper and magazine interviews, public appearances—at up to five thousand dollars a shot—and enough street buzz, academic interest, and scientific debate so that Uri virtually became a household name. Bending spoons and keys, and stopping and starting watches was paying off handsomely for Geller, who was seeing his dreams of wealth and fame come true.
But the question everyone wanted answered was how did Uri do it? Did Uri have genuine psychic powers, or was The Amazing Randi onto something when he flatly accused Geller of being a charlatan? One theory that long made the rounds of skeptics was that Geller engaged in some form of mass hypnosis to convince observers that they’d witnessed something they had not. But upon closer examination, it was a specious argument. For one thing, subjects cannot be hypnotized unless they are willing. In fact, many who’ve studied the subject consider hypnotism simply the “power of suggestion,” and that Geller could not have accomplished it upon those not amenable. There’s also a certain irony about claiming hypnosis as an answer for Geller’s feats, since some of the most intractable debunkers have argued that there are no such states as hypnosis or trances.18
Besides Randi’s relentless pursuit, Uri had another problem—and potential embarrassment—to deal with. That was his mentor and friend Dr. Puharich, a Chicago native of Serbian ancestry whose hero was the equally eccentric inventor and scientific genius Nikola Tesla. There was no question about Puharich’s accomplishments in electronics, in transistors, and as an inventor; one of his creations was a “micro-hearing aid.” However, as time went on, his ideas veered further from the mainstream to what many considered the far fringe of the paranormal. For example, he had taken a serious interest in a largely spurious practice called psychic surgery, through his examination of the Brazilian peasant Arigó, whose feats as a psychic surgeon leave more questions than debunkers care to admit.19
After studying Arigó, who accurately predicted his own death in an automobile crash in 1971, Puharich next discovered Uri Geller. Without Puharich, who knows where Geller’s destiny would have taken him. For all his eccentricities, Puharich brought scientific and public attention to Geller that might not otherwise have happened so that by 1974, a London Daily Mail poll found that 95 percent of readers believed Uri had “psychic powers.”
It was hard enough convincing Americans that Geller had genuine PK and telepathic abilities. But in 1974 Puharich wrote a book titled Uri, in which he claimed that Geller’s abilities had originated with extraterrestrials, and they communicated to both him and Uri here on Earth. Puharich also added another psychic talent to Geller’s repertoire. He insisted Uri could levitate, although no one had ever witnessed him performing the feat. None of this helped strengthen Geller as a credible psychic. His actual abilities were hard enough for many to swallow, without Puharich adding what sounded like unbelievable science fiction tales. Uri remained loyal to Puharich, but the flights of fantasy created by the good doctor were not helpful. Puharich increasingly spun stranger and stranger stories; and they fed right into the hands of the debunkers who hoped that the less credible Geller appeared, the more his popularity would sink, and that he’d be gone from the media spotlight.
When you met Puharich, who lived at one time in a lovely house in Ossining, New York, in affluent Westchester County, a suburb of New York City, he was bright, complex, and gracious—that is, until you disagreed with him. Then out came his increasingly paranoid conspiracy theories, and the possibility he’d accuse you of being a CIA spy or operative who was out to get him. In fact, he became convinced the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were following his every move. His thinking had become increasingly bizarre, “neurotic, and obsessive; even self-destructive,” author Jonathan Margolis noted. Even his appearance changed, from neat and precise in the 1960s to somewhat less so a decade later, when he resembled a disheveled Einstein-cum-hippie with his unruly hair and mustache.
Puharich never intentionally meant to hurt Uri or his career, but the potential was there unless Uri tactfully distanced himself. Puharich had an enormous ego, and no matter how far beyond reality you concluded his ideas were, at some level you had the distinct impression that he actually believed his stranger theories. For example, after he’d personally tested Uri and became convinced of his genuine PK and telepathic powers, Puharich hypnotized him in late 1971. That’s when Puharich claimed extraterrestrial intelligences spoke to him through Geller, and said they would guide his career in the years to come. Puharich was fascinated by the hands of his watch reacting to Uri’s PK powers, which he believed had some form of extraterrestrial connection. Puharich’s experiences with Geller, including their alleged teleportation, were told in Uri, the book based on Puharich’s meticulous note taking, but the weighty manuscript was difficult to decipher, and it strained credulity.20
Uri’s primary goals were to become very famous and make lots of money. He was an entertainer, and show business was where he liked it best. Scientific tests and experiments of his psychic powers had to be endured, but he was often impatient about the scrutiny. During the early 1970s, Geller’s abilities were extensively examined at no less than a half-dozen laboratories throughout the United States, as well as in several foreign countries. The large number of tests he underwent were well detailed in The Geller Papers, written by Charles Panati in 1976.21
Uri Geller recognized when it was time to present his own version of his life and career, at least in part to temper some of Puharich’s wilder claims. In 1975, he wrote the autobiographical My Story.22 It was around that time that Joel Martin first met Geller and personally watched him demonstrate his professed psychic abilities, recording an interview with Geller for his late-night radio show, which dealt with paranormal phenomena and UFOs.
Joel’s background as a schoolteacher in some of New York City’s toughest schools and his years going to college at night and having to walk through crime-ridden neighborhoods is relevant to his appreciation and understanding of Geller’s abilities, especially in light of what James Randi said about the intellectual attributes of scientists in comprehending Geller. According to Randi, and other magicians and debunkers, Geller had duped even some of the brightest scientists with his alleged sleight of hand. By this reasoning, only a magician would be clever enough to catch what Randi described as Geller’s illusionist’s tricks. To a degree, Randi might have been correct. A scientist may not be looking for signs of deception. However, one magician is likely to recognize another, according to Randi. Of course, he was only referring to conjurers who, like himself, discredited Geller. But Randi and other debunkers were never certain how to react to those magicians who closely observed Geller and concluded he was demonstrating a paranormal power.
Although neither a scientist nor a magician, Joel’s experiences as a teacher and an all too frequent late-night subway rider attuned him to an environment where to survive required street smarts, the instinct to be aware of danger by watching very carefully anything and everything one could. This meant drawing quick conclusions from the way a stranger makes—or doesn’t make—eye contact; how someone is dressed, right down to whether a young man is wearing a wedding band or bling jewelry, also matters. Knowing which subway car looked relatively safe became instinctive after a while for Joel, who on more than one occasion saw a fellow whose nervous fumbling with something in his coat pocket mentally tipped him off that he was carrying a gun.
Joel’s street smarts taught him to be careful when buying into any story calling itself paranormal just because it called itself that. When he interviewed those who purported to have psychic ability, he was deeply skeptical, even cynical, as he watched and listened for anything that might be a visual or verbal clue to a person’s deception. For example, he’d keep a close eye on the manner of dress, body language, and facial expressions of a subject of a psychic reading to determine if a psychic or medium was picking up on any inflection in the way a person answered, or even winced at a question or comment from the psychic.
When Joel met Uri Geller for the first time to witness him demonstrate his alleged psychic powers, he didn’t leave his city upbringing, or radio and TV news reporting skills, parked at the curb. He watched Uri’s every move carefully and, ultimately, thought it quite arrogant that Randi made the assumption that only he could detect Geller’s fraud, if in fact there was any. The implication that we’re all ill-prepared and delusional if we experience something paranormal is insulting and condescending. It’s not unlike some of the debunking crowd who for years argued that airline pilots in flight were as prone to error as the rest of us terrestrial simpletons when they glimpsed UFOs whisking through the sky, therefore they were no better UFO witnesses than anyone else. Candidly, airline pilots had better be more observant. That is what they are trained and paid for. Having said all that, here’s what happened when Joel observed Uri Geller demonstrate his abilities.
Joel was invited into Geller’s apartment by his assistant. Moments later, Uri walked from another room and greeted him warmly. He was personable, trim, and good-looking, not yet thirty years old. While producer Chris Moleta23 set up the recording equipment for the interview, Joel explained to Geller what he hoped to do. Asked if he would demonstrate his abilities while Joel narrated what he was doing, Uri readily agreed.
Joel explained that he’d brought along from home his own objects for Uri to bend, which included a metal ring of sturdy keys. They were personal keys to several offices, radio and TV studios, and a house key. A couple of others opened classroom doors where Joel had taught when he wasn’t broadcasting. In all, there were no less than a dozen keys on the bulky ring. Joel admitted later that he didn’t expect Geller to bend them, or if he did, Joel would surely spot how he was doing it and reveal his trick right there during the interview. Joel fantasized the headline in his mind: NY TALK-SHOW HOST EXPOSES FAMED PSYCHIC AS FAKE.
Joel and Uri sat at a dining room table, diagonally facing one other across microphones. For several minutes they talked about Uri’s upbringing and abilities. Then the demonstration began. Joel pulled the ring of keys from his jacket pocket. The listeners would hear them rattle when the show aired. “You brought all those keys?” Geller asked, his voice rising.
He asked Joel to pass them over, which he did. Uri held them in the palm of one hand while he lightly ran the other hand over the keys, barely touching them. At first the sturdy keys just sat there, and then, in a matter of seconds, they began to bend, as if something had melted them. All of them curled in the same direction. One didn’t need to be a physicist to realize that it would take a tremendous amount of heat to soften twelve pieces of unyielding metal as if they’d been liquefied. No sooner had they seemed to move themselves than they stopped, and Geller handed the key ring back to Joel.
“They bent! All of them bent. Did you see that?” Geller exclaimed excitedly, describing the action perfectly. Joel acknowledged for the listening audience that, yes, they’d bent. The keys were inexplicably contorted. They were now also useless as keys. Then Joel realized that they were cold. In other words, if Geller had somehow applied a hidden chemical or device, those keys should have warmed up at least a little. But they hadn’t.
There was no possible way Uri Geller could have instantly curled or bent the keys all at once by barely touching them without Chris and Joel seeing him do it. Chris, by the way, was far more street-savvy than Joel, and equally skeptical about the paranormal.
Geller resumed the interview, and Joel peppered him with questions about every conjuring trick that might explain what we’d just witnessed. Geller remained calm, although the questioning style sounded like a courtroom interrogation. Next, the questions turned to his purported ESP abilities. Several minutes later, Uri asked if he could perhaps demonstrate his supposed telepathic powers that people had heard about through news reports and stories about him.
“Now, it’s better for me if you believe I can do this. If you don’t believe that I have this [ESP] ability, I can’t promise it will work,” he said. His caveat was surprising. Joel answered by saying only that he would remain open-minded, no more or less, until the results were clear. From behind the recording equipment, Chris watched him, but from where Uri was seated he could not see her. Uri asked Joel to draw something relatively simple, and not show it to him. He would try to tell Joel what he’d drawn. This is a well-known magician’s trick. The skilled conjurer needs only to follow the movement of the pen or pencil to decipher, more or less, what the subject has sketched. Perhaps this was how he’d pretend he was endowed with some supernatural or ESP power.
As the taping of the show continued, Joel took a pad and pencil and placed them in a way on his lap so that Geller could not see the top of the pencil moving, thus preventing Geller from seeing the direction of the sketching. Joel purposely did not tell Uri that he’d spent years in art school, majoring in cartooning. It took Joel only a few moments to draw a scene, not quite one as simple as Uri had requested. It was Joel’s intent not to draw a stick figure, on the chance that many people did, and Uri might guess Joel had done the same. Joel hurriedly sketched a log cabin with a window and a smoking chimney, included several pine trees, some bushes, a bird flying, clouds in the sky, and a boy walking toward a small pond to the right of the cabin. Joel drew the child carrying a pail. Then he quickly turned the pad upside down so Geller had no way to see what he’d drawn, during or after the process.
“Okay. You’ve drawn the picture,” Geller said, seeming to momentarily stare in space. Perhaps he was concentrating. Then he took a piece of paper and a pen to sketch what he telepathically thought Joel had drawn. After a few moments, when he’d finished, they showed each other their respective drawings. Uri Geller had drawn nearly the identical picture Joel had: a house, a tree, a pond, and a boy carrying a rectangular box with a handle. He’d even reproduced the bird correctly. There had been no one else in the room to communicate to him what Joel had drawn. Unless Geller had a complicated system of mirrors or a hidden confederate watching through a secret camera or a hole in the wall or ceiling, who whispered to him through a hidden earpiece, he could not have known what Joel had sketched unless he somehow discerned it telepathically.
There was one more Geller demonstration to come during the program. Joel had asked around the radio station the previous week for anyone who could lend or give him a broken watch or small clock. Geller’s claims in his book and TV appearances included his ability to apply his PK or psychokinetic power to repair nonworking timepieces. Joel had borrowed a wristwatch from the president of the radio station that aired his talk show for many years. It was a small, inexpensive white plastic watch that had belonged to the station president’s son. The hands on the watch had been overwound so they could no longer turn. Nor could the watch be reset, since the stem couldn’t be moved. Joel had no expectation that Geller could possibly do anything with it, and he anticipated that Uri would do what many psychics did, offer some mumbo jumbo about why his psychic vibes were fading or that Venus was no longer aligned with Mars.
Joel handed Geller the broken watch. Uri took it in one hand, turned it back and forth, and moved it from side to side, then returned it to Joel. He had held it for less than a minute and never even touched it with his other hand. To Joel’s shock, the watch was working! The stem now turned, and the minute and second hands moved. Most incredibly, the watch was somehow set to the correct time. If Joel had just witnessed tricks, they were among the best he’d ever seen, and this from a person who’d interviewed magicians before. Yet, those experiences had an entirely different feeling about them than Geller’s demonstration. After giving that day’s events a great deal of thought, Joel admitted that despite his skepticism going in, he had no answer.
Though an eyewitness to Uri Geller’s abilities, Joel faced another problem when he returned to the radio station. No one believed Geller had bent the dozen keys, repaired a kid’s broken watch, or read his mind. His colleagues reacted to his description of the Geller interview and demonstration with looks that ranged from rolling eyes to condescending smirks. A station engineer told Joel flatly that it was impossible for Geller to use the power of his mind to bend metal or to repair watches and clocks, implying that Joel was either a liar or that he’d hallucinated and failed to see how Geller performed his clever trickery. The worst skeptic was the radio station’s president, a sometime cantankerous attorney in his mid-sixties. Although Joel and his boss had always gotten along well, and he’d been at the station since he was a teenager, this time there was no persuading him. He told Joel there was no such thing as psychic powers that could mentally affect a watch. Nor did he believe that Joel had seen the keys behave like molten wax and then freeze into the bent position he was looking at. When asked how the wristwatch was repaired, the president said that Joel must have taken it to “someone” to fix it. What about the keys? Those, Geller or Joel bent themselves. Why? It was to benefit the show. Then he asked for his son’s watch back—it was still keeping time—and he walked away without another word. Although Joel was angry at the implication that he’d been dishonest or deceived, he decided to reserve his decision until after he’d seen a magician or two who could explain or duplicate what Geller had done.
Joel’s chance came only a few months later, in November 1975. Using his professional name, The Amazing Randi, the Canadian magician had earlier that year written The Magic of Uri Geller, a blanket denunciation of Geller. Randi left no doubt about his opinion: Geller was not a psychic. He was a fraud, and anything Uri could demonstrate, so could Randi. He was promoting his exposé, and so Joel and Randi arranged an interview. To accommodate Randi’s busy schedule of appearances, they met at his publisher’s office in Manhattan. Now Joel would have an opportunity to compare Geller and Randi. Both had made news debating the question of whether Geller was a gifted psychic or a skilled conjurer, and separately, they’d appeared on many major TV talk shows at the time, including the shows of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Tom Snyder, and Barbara Walters, to name a few.
Randi was small and bald, with a full beard and a mustache that was quickly turning white. His eyes burned with intensity, and he was obviously enthusiastic about his role as America’s premier paranormal debunker. He was cordial and seemed likable as they took their seats behind microphones, facing one another in a quiet room where they would tape the one-hour radio interview. Once underway, they devoted a segment to Randi’s book and the reasons he thought Geller was a magician, not a psychic. Randi was a compelling and articulate speaker—he’d once hosted a New York radio talk show. He warmed quickly to his subject, passionately dissecting Uri Geller’s career as the “psychic wonder” of the decade. Randi proclaimed he was defending the honor of magicians whose good name Geller had “sullied.” Why, even the eminent scientists at SRI had been “hoodwinked” by the “Israeli nightclub magician.”
Then came the time when Joel requested of Randi, as he had of Geller, to demonstrate his abilities. That was Randi’s major argument: Geller’s metal bending and mind reading were magician’s tricks that Randi could easily duplicate. His friend Leon Jaroff, then a senior editor at Time magazine, wrote that Randi had been able to “duplicate all of Geller’s feats, demonstrating that only fast hands and clever psychology were necessary.”24
Joel had brought kitchen utensils, a man’s broken watch he’d found buried in a dresser drawer at home, and a few spare keys he no longer used. Geller had irreparably bent Joel’s first set of keys, and since he’d had difficulty replacing some of them, he didn’t want a repeat performance. Joel passed a spoon and fork to Randi. He took each in turn, and he rubbed his fingers back and forth at the part where both curved. Joel could see he was exerting pressure on them to bend. Then with his other hand he quickly forced each to a noticeable angle, and announced that he’d bent the silverware just as Geller did. Joel, who had witnessed Uri do something entirely different, suggested to Randi that he had not. But he let the incident pass, hoping to return to it momentarily, while Randi persisted that he accomplished by sleight of hand exactly what Geller had.
What about the keys? Randi explained that he’d have no problem replicating Geller’s key bending “trick.” All the while Randi was quite animated and talked rapidly in his clipped Canadian accent. Then what Joel saw nearly left him speechless. Perhaps Randi didn’t realize how closely Joel was watching him when he took each key and quickly slipped it into a small space in his belt buckle until it bent. Then, without missing a beat, he proclaimed he’d done exactly what Geller did. Was he serious? Joel had no partiality to either Randi or Geller. But in all honesty, Randi had bent the keys by obvious trickery. Joel was almost embarrassed for him, and pointed out that is not what Geller did when he curled Joel’s ring of keys while barely touching them. Randi insisted he’d performed the same “trick.”
The two went back and forth a few times, and Joel realized to go any further would make him seem rude and overbearing. So he let Randi have the last word, and they moved on to the broken watch portion of the show.
Randi took the thoroughly nonworking watch. He looked at it studiously for a few moments, then turned it up, down, and around, just as Uri Geller had done. Randi resumed his on-air conversation, enthusiastically denouncing Geller, and while he apparently thought Joel was distracted by their interview, Joel saw him move hurriedly to pull the stem on the watch so the hour and second hands appeared to turn. But that only moved the two hands on the watch in unison. It did not restart the timepiece. When he reluctantly returned it to Joel, it was as dead as when he first held it in his hand. Nonetheless, Randi pronounced that he’d successfully repaired the watch and that it was again running. Joel told him, as graciously as he could, that the watch remained broken. Again, that wasn’t what Geller had demonstrated. Randi remained adamant that he’d demonstrated exactly what Geller had. He had not, but Joel allowed him the final word in the interview. Incidentally, Randi never offered to duplicate Geller’s feat of being able to reproduce an unseen drawing.
Randi had been true to his word when he said that what he demonstrated were the tricks stage magicians employ. The problem was he hadn’t been a very good magician. Perhaps he’d just had an off day, despite his boasts. Joel realized that just because he’d seen the way Randi performed each demonstration, that did not lead automatically to the conclusion that while Randi was a magician, Geller was a phenomenal psychic. It was possible that Geller was a far better magician than Randi. However, Randi had not told the truth. He had not replicated Geller’s feats as he promised, no matter how loudly he insisted otherwise. Joel’s experience with The Amazing Randi had been a disappointment.
But it was obvious that James Randi was bright, glib, quick, and obsessed to win to his side anyone he could, in order to steamroll over Uri Geller who’d ironically made Randi a lot better known than he was. Randi had no intention of slowing his crusade. Debunkers can be mighty determined fellows, convinced of the righteousness of their cause that paranormal and religious beliefs must be eradicated. If Randi had to bend metal—or the truth—on his self-appointed mission to explode the paranormal into tiny little pieces, so be it. He’d openly bragged that he was a trickster and illusionist, and he meant it.
A couple of words in Randi’s book, The Magic of Uri Geller, were disturbing, and neither had to do with his opinions of Geller as a psychic fraud. Perhaps they were more a reflection of Randi’s biases then any arguments about the paranormal. Throughout his book, Randi reminds readers often that Geller is Israeli, raising the question for some about whether Randi was revealing unconscious anti-Semitism with using such derisive expressions as the “Israeli Wonder,” although it is unclear what relevance Geller’s nationality would have to claims of the supernatural. Another frequently used word was “miracle,” implying that Geller’s PK and telepathy somehow sprung from a religious experience. The word miracle is verboten in the language of debunkers who consider themselves rationalists. A miracle falls within the realm of the supernatural, and, therefore, as with any religious belief, it cannot be tolerated. It must be discredited.
Curiously, debunkers have dealt far more harshly with Geller than have many scientists. One of those who commented on his experience with Geller was the late, noted rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, long ago dubbed “the father of the U.S. space program,” who had worked for NASA, and during World War II played a major role in the development of the German V-1 and V-2 rockets when he worked at a missile facility on the Baltic coast that was also a concentration camp. His scientific credentials were extraordinary, and author Jonathan Margolis included the following quote from Braun in his biography of Uri Geller: “Geller has bent my ring in the palm of my hand without touching it personally. I have no scientific explanation for the phenomena.”25
Margolis also told about another scientist, Dr. Wilbur Franklin, physicist at Kent State University in Ohio, who, after testing Geller, commented, “The evidence based on metallurgical analysis of fractured surfaces produced by Geller indicates that a paranormal influence must have been operative in the formation of fractures.”
Then there were various members of the media who’d each watched Geller only lightly touch silverware, and saw their metal utensils weaken and droop, as if they’d melted. For others, Geller caused their keys to bend or curve. But magicians and debunkers were ready to refute any and all eyewitness accounts: those who believed that Geller had paranormal powers were gullible, naïve, ignorant; they’d fallen for Geller’s tricks. How could anyone possibly trust the observations of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun when The Amazing Randi assured the public he knew so much more? But, not even all magicians shared Randi’s negative opinion of Geller. One frequently told incident concerned well-known Danish magician Leo Leslie who’d tested Geller in Denmark, and concluded he was a legitimate psychic.26
John Taylor was a noted British mathematician and author of Superminds. In that 1978 book, Taylor said he believed Uri Geller was genuine. He theorized that when “metal is ‘paranormally’ bent,” it could be the result of a “redistribution of ‘strain energy,’ and most probably, a lowering of the energy in the area of bending.” Later, for reasons that were unclear, Taylor reversed his opinion about Geller’s abilities.27
Few of us were raised to believe psychic powers are genuine. Therefore, when they occur, we are psychologically and intellectually unprepared, and we seek explanations that fit more comfortably within the limits of our respective belief systems. Often, that becomes a search for some “rational” explanation, assuming we’ve been duped or somehow deluded by a paranormal incident. Perhaps we were hallucinating or imagining a so-called psychic experience. That is what we’ve been taught and, in turn, we teach our children. Debunkers have long worked to reinforce our doubts about the paranormal, doing their best to trample it, on the way to their larger goal: humanism, their nonreligious philosophy. In other words, marginalizing religion, if not erasing it completely, is the ultimate intent. A secular society would have no need for traditional religious or spiritual beliefs that many skeptics and debunkers regard as nothing more than magical thinking or medieval superstition.
Author Jonathan Margolis, who candidly admitted his skepticism, attempted his own test of Uri Geller’s telepathic abilities when they met for a demonstration. Margolis was accompanied by his fourteen-year-old son, David. Geller asked the youngster to draw a picture of his choice, and then place it “face down” so Uri could not see it. Next, Geller instructed David, “Try to transmit the picture to me mentally.” It was very similar to the mind-reading demonstration Geller had done for many others.
However, Margolis thought of a novel way of satisfying himself that Geller was psychic by attempting to “sabotage the supposed ESP demonstration by thinking of spurious images and beaming them in Geller’s direction,” he said. If Geller were truly telepathic, would “signals” from Jonathan interfere with those from his son? Whose mind would Geller read, the son or the skeptical father—if either of them? The elder Margolis thought intently about “hippopotamuses, dollar signs, and Stars of David,” apparently the first random objects that came to him.
To Jonathan Margolis’s surprise, Geller unexpectedly told him to stop “all that junk” because it was interfering with him reading young David’s mind. Then Uri proceeded to tell the boy what he’d drawn: a stick figure. It seemed to Margolis that Geller had read the minds of both him and his son. Incidentally, when Margolis looked at Uri’s drawing, it was so identical to the one his son had sketched that when they were measured, the two drawings were exactly the same size. Geller’s next demonstration was not unlike so many others, a spoon Margolis brought curled. He and his son were stunned as they watched the silverware bend after Uri held it lightly between two fingers. When Margolis took back the spoon, there was no evidence that any corrosive chemical had been applied, nor was it warm or hot to the touch.
There is an interesting story Margolis told about Geller’s apparent precognitive abilities. He predicted an earthquake on the Pacific Coast, just a day before there was a sizable one on Mexico’s west coast. Geller also foresaw a plane crash and explosion only a couple of days before the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island that killed all aboard in July 1996.
Debunkers summarily dismiss reports in which a psychic or medium successfully demonstrates a genuine paranormal ability, even when it is for someone both skeptical and observant. To combat such credible eyewitness accounts, debunkers have developed their own pat response that serves a two-fold purpose. One is to convince people who’ve had paranormal experiences that they are victims of self-deception or chicanery on the part of a psychic or medium. The second objective is to prevent or discourage serious consideration of parapsychology by maligning and ridiculing all psi events as irrational and anecdotal, saying they were based on superstition, pseudoscience, trickery, or hoax, and that they should be vehemently challenged and opposed by any means necessary.28
A prime example of this were Randi’s many appearances as Johnny Carson’s guest on The Tonight Show. There are several versions of how James Randi met the late TV personality Johnny Carson (1925–2005). What’s most important is that they took a liking to each other, and the famed Tonight Show host offered Randi an incredible platform to reach millions as the “Grand Inquisitor” against the heresy of all paranormal claims. Randi made more than thirty Tonight Show appearances, a remarkable number. He’d obviously impressed Carson, who was once a magician himself.
Johnny Carson, as a boy growing up in Nebraska, had a fascination with magic. He became an accomplished amateur magician in his teens, and the interest remained all his life. Randi ingratiated himself with Carson, and that led to the national celebrity Carson afforded Randi, not as a magician but as a psychic debunker.
Without question, Randi’s proudest achievement was the night in 1973 when Uri Geller was Carson’s guest, and Randi, although he wasn’t present, arranged to unsettle Geller so that in his appearance on The Tonight Show, which ran more than twenty minutes, Geller was unable to perform so much as one psychic feat. It seems curious in retrospect that Geller did not realize he would be facing hostility from Carson, a self-professed skeptic. Uri had been warned in advance by friends about Carson’s predisposition against the paranormal. But it’s likely the idea of appearing on the immensely popular Tonight Show was irresistible. The occasion proved to be a major embarrassment for Geller, and although he bravely moved ahead, his lack of success that night impacted him negatively, somewhat diminishing the public’s belief in him. It didn’t help that Carson, a master of comedic facial expressions, rolled his eyes in ridicule as Geller failed.
How Randi was able to bring about Geller’s failure on The Tonight Show is not certain, since we have only Randi’s explanation. But making a giant leap of faith and assuming Randi was truthful, he’d arranged with Carson’s staff to exert the tightest controls possible. One demand that Randi issued concerned Geller confidant Shipi Shtrang. Randi had long alleged that Shipi was Uri’s confederate—although it was never clear how—and without Shipi nearby, Geller failed to perform. Randi constantly harped about some secret code or tricks the two had concocted. Take Shipi away, he said, and Geller became professionally impotent. But that wasn’t true. Many people who’d witnessed or tested Geller swore he demonstrated successfully without Shipi anywhere in sight. But Randi was adamant, and Shipi was not allowed on the set of the Carson show.
Curiously, some of the abilities that Geller was unable to demonstrate on The Tonight Show were ones he’d been successful with at SRI. What would explain his achievement there, and his failure with Carson? During Joel’s interview with Geller, he asked him that question. Uri answered that he sensed Carson’s hostility from the outset, and perhaps that contributed to his discomfort. He also suggested that if he had accomplished PK and telepathic feats through trickery or deception, they would have worked during the Carson show. For example, one Randi allegation was that Geller had small but powerful magnets and other “micro devices” hidden on his person that aided in creating the PK effect on metal objects. The fact that he was unsuccessful in such an important venue, Geller said, proved he was genuinely psychic, and sometimes his ability foundered.
This also suggests something that has long frustrated parapsychologists: the unpredictability of psi. Debunkers have repeatedly seized on that to attack psychic phenomena, contending that if it were truly of a scientific nature, it would be consistent and repeatable, a fallacious argument. There are innumerable scientific phenomena that do not respond on command, as quantum physics reveals, and many that are still inexplicable.29
Randi said he’d controlled every aspect of Geller’s Tonight Show appearance, and since the magician was not present at the Carson show, his directions were conveyed long distance. Uri’s failure was sufficient for Randi to boast that it was because he’d prevented Geller’s trickery. The implication was that he’d “exposed” Geller, another falsehood.30 Ironically, while Randi constantly alleged collusion between Geller and Shipi, he conveniently overlooked whether he and Carson had conspired to discredit Geller in the context of discrediting the paranormal. In fact, Carson, through his own charitable foundation, later donated one hundred thousand dollars to Randi’s debunking efforts.
While his fellow debunkers were ecstatic about Geller’s failure and heaped praise on Randi, the Tonight Show debacle left Geller understandably depressed. But despite Randi’s exaggerations that the episode ended Geller’s celebrity and credibility in the United States, Uri did not cut and run. He continued making appearances, and while it is true that he later kept a lower profile as a psychic, he remained in the United States until the mid-1980s. He said he stepped back from the grind of constant psychic work because he’d grown tired of the pressure, pace, and travel, as well as the frequent and unfair attacks against him. By then, however, Geller had the satisfaction of achieving “super-celebrity” status—a rare accomplishment for any psychic.
Left unanswered were questions about the extent to which Geller’s powers were employed by the CIA or the Israeli top-secret intelligence agency, Mossad. Whether either or both governments were simply curious about Geller’s abilities, or were sufficiently impressed to employ him is not certain; he has never said. However, over the years, Geller and others have hinted at some connection between him and intelligence work. At the very least, the U.S. government had funded the tests he underwent at SRI. But it is probable that his involvement with the CIA went beyond that, and interest by the Mossad would not be a surprise.
In addition to the SRI, Geller was also tested at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California, one of the nation’s top-secret nuclear weapons research installations. According to the book Remote Viewers: The Secret History of America’s Psychic Spies, by Jim Schnabel, Geller had once been secretly tested there. Livermore scientists and engineers, working on their own time, were especially attentive to his purported PK powers. According to Schnabel, there was some uneasiness that Geller might pose a threat to national security. How? What if his psychokinetic energy was genuine, and capable of moving or dislocating even a small amount of nuclear substance by only a few inches? That could be enough to trigger off, or sabotage a nuclear weapon. Remember, at SRI, Geller’s metal-bending tests were inconclusive. At Livermore, the outcome was decidedly better. Uri not only curled metal, he also erased computer disks by merely touching or holding them.
In his book, Schnabel also told of several Livermore personnel who experienced strange psychological phenomena, including “hallucinations and visions” they felt were a result of Geller’s visit. The most bizarre incident concerned an audiotape recording found to contain a “metallic” sounding voice that could not be identified or deciphered. One of the few discernible words apparently mentioned a secret code for a classified project. Was it the result of some psychic manifestation—or something more mundane? Perhaps it was a hoax—someone’s idea of a joke or a trick. But who was responsible?
When Geller moved permanently, it was to London, where he settled comfortably with Hannah and their two children, Daniel and Natalie. He now had the wealth that afforded him the freedom to delve into other projects and interests. Once he’d given up the spoon-bending business, debunkers were quick to proclaim, “Geller is through.” That was wishful thinking on their part. To the contrary, Geller remained busy writing books and columns, among myriad other projects, including TV specials and a popular Web site.
One new enterprise Uri engaged in was dowsing, the ancient practice of psychically detecting underground deposits of water and other substances. He was employed by a number of companies that sought subterranean accumulations of oil and minerals, work that was largely kept confidential because of the concern that using a dowser might not sit well with many conservative corporate types. However, there were several published articles, throughout the 1980s and 1990s that supported Uri’s claims of success. “I use my dowsing skills to locate mineral and oil deposits, and have become a multimillionaire as a result,” Geller told Psychic World magazine in 1997.
In 1997, a British TV documentary titled Secrets of the Psychics dealt with Uri’s abilities. As is typical when network TV approaches anything about the paranormal, for purposes of what is considered “balance,” skeptics and debunkers are included. In the case of a TV show about Uri Geller, it was no surprise that the opposition included appearances by several of Britain’s top skeptics—and America’s premier Geller debunker, The Amazing Randi. They said what they always did, that Geller was a fraud.31 It should be noted that despite the constant barrage of accusations, Uri Geller was never “debunked.” His ability to bend metal remains a mystery. In that way his story is similar to the nineteenth-century medium D. D. Home, against whom there were always accusations of trickery, although no deception was ever proven.
Sometimes, The Amazing Randi displayed a tendency to carry his zealotry too far, and one adventure backfired on him. Still flushed with national recognition that he debunked Geller, Randi created something he called “Project Alpha.” His idea was to take two young magicians and train them to pretend they were psychics, capable of psychokinesis, the ability that had put Geller on the map. Randi’s hope was to embarrass the entire field of psychical research, once it was revealed that a couple of youthful conjurers had hoaxed supposedly trained parapsychologists. The two Randi cohorts cultivated a relationship with inexperienced staffers at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St. Louis. Then they spent the next two years continuing their charade, by design, deceiving the researchers in every way they could.
When the results of testing the two hoaxers were presented to a national convention of parapsychologists, the group, like worthy bloodhounds, overwhelmingly detected the fraud. The parapsychologists were furious at the deception, and the waste of time and resources the magician had cost. Randi had not fooled them. Even The New York Times, no friend of the paranormal, questioned the ethics of Randi’s attempted hoax. But instead of acknowledging that some of America’s best parapsychologists, many of them scientists and professors, had recognized psychic chicanery, Randi doubled down. He actually held a press conference, sponsored by Discover magazine, to claim he’d bamboozled the parapsychologists. It apparently did not bother him one bit that he had not. In actuality, he’d failed to show that psi researchers would buy any psychic claim thrown at them. The parapsychologists had displayed their integrity, much to the dismay of Randi and his fellow debunkers.
Randi wasn’t exactly banished to a remote island for his bungled hoax. He had plenty of support within the ranks of skeptics, and many applauded him, calling Project Alpha, “a daring but important exposé.” Some reinvigorated debunkers boldly stated that parapsychology must be “stopped at any cost.”32
Uri Geller moved to England, but his story didn’t end once he left the United States. Nor did Randi disappear off Joel Martin’s map. Joel was destined to speak to both Randi and Uri again in that curious, synchronistic way lives cross when it’s least expected. In 1983, Randi’s publisher called to ask that he be a guest on Joel’s then nightly radio show to promote something he’d recently written. However, when Randi was told that nationally recognized parapsychologist Stephen Kaplan (1940–1995) would be on the same program, he canceled his appearance. Randi and Kaplan had a long-running feud, not unlike the verbal battle Kaplan had throughout the 1970s with anyone who supported the Amityville Horror alleged haunted-house claims. So instead, Joel invited Randi to appear alone but to no avail. Perhaps Randi expected a Kaplan ambush at the last minute, but Joel would never have allowed that.
Prior to the aborted appearance, Kaplan said that he and Randi had had an unpleasant incident on a boat ride, a publicity event arranged by a then popular network TV series both had appeared on. As the two spoke, the physically imposing Kaplan pressed in against the much smaller Randi until Randi was leaning backward over the boat’s railing. Kaplan asked the magician why he refused to admit that any psychic phenomenon was genuine. Randi’s answer was abrupt but revealing, “Kaplan, you do your shtick, and I’ll do mine!” Randi then pushed past Kaplan and angrily walked away.
One evening, Randi found himself at a social function, where among the guests was a psychic who’d demonstrated remarkable ability. Randi did not know or recognize the young man, who attempted to introduce himself to the bearded magician, and then made the mistake of offering Randi several pieces of information of a deeply personal nature that he said he’d obtained through ESP. Randi stared and told him, “Go to hell,” then turned and hurried off.
In retrospect and in all fairness, James Randi did perform a valuable service when he called out several self-described faith healers, especially such “televangelists” as Peter Popoff, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson. Psychic and faith healers have long been a controversial subject, and Randi moved to reveal what he believed was “deception and chicanery” on their part. In pursuing faith healers, Randi was positioned to hit two home runs. Psychic healing and faith healing are not identical, but are certainly sufficiently similar, so that at the same time psychic fraud was being uncovered, a mighty swipe was taken at Christian fundamentalism, where most faith healers are ensconced.
The exposé of the Reverend Peter Popoff arguably earned Randi his most well-deserved attention during the 1980s. Popoff, a California-based televangelist, professed to be a faith healer, and his success was no doubt aided by his stunning ability to call out in advance the names of people in his audience and exactly what ailment each suffered. Then, with a great display of emotion, he would pray, exhort out illnesses, bless, and miraculously heal those he called before him—and raise millions of dollars in donations for what he said was his ministry in the process.
Popoff contended that the information came to him directly from God. But Randi suspected fakery was responsible for the reverend’s seemingly supernatural gift, and this time he was correct. Randi discovered that Popoff wore a small hidden earpiece secretly connected to his wife, who fed him the data based on cards that audience members filled out before taking their seats at Popoff’s claimed “healing crusades,” which drew as many as several thousand people at a time. Thus, by knowing beforehand a person’s first name, based on where they sat, and what their specific malady was, thousands came to believe that Popoff had a remarkable divinely-inspired ability.
When Johnny Carson gave Randi the opportunity to show a videotape of Popoff’s activities on The Tonight Show, it meant millions of viewers were able to see the deceit on network television. Popoff rode out the storm of criticism; in fact, he claimed the publicity was helpful. He may have been correct; two decades later Reverend Popoff’s ministry—and its “miraculous healings”—were still going strong.
However, as he often did, some said Randi went too far. No serious parapsychologist or clergy with an ounce of ethics would defend Popoff’s charade. But Randi used the Popoff revelations to claim that all faith and psychic healers were fraudulent; that is not what the evidence has shown.
Likely because of the dishonesty he uncovered about some faith healers, in 1986, Randi was a winner of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant, often given to scientists and scholars. The award amounted to $272,000 tax free, no questions asked. Randi, who lived in New Jersey for many years, relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to continue his debunking work, under the auspice of his own educational foundation.
By the 1990s, Uri Geller had become more aggressive against those who’d made careers by attacking him. Geller called the psychic debunkers “miserable people.”
The conflict between Geller and Randi had dragged on for two decades into the mid-1990s. In many respects, this conflict mirrored the larger conflict taking place between debunkers and spiritual believers as well as UFO researchers since the 1950s—inspired, we believe, by national security organizations looking to discredit anything that smacked of personal empowerment. In 1980, Randi himself published a book called Flim-Flam!, reprinted by Prometheus in paperback in 1982 with an introduction by famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, about his opinion on all psychic claims, in which he predictably again attacked Geller and the scientists who dared test him. The Asimov connection, as well as the Carl Sagan connection in The Faith Healers (Prometheus, 1989), is very interesting when looked at through the prism of ufology. Some UFO researchers argue that Carl Sagan was inside the loop of highly classified Special Access Projects regarding the UFO phenomenon, but could stay inside only by debunking UFO claims to the public at large.
Isaac Asimov is another story. There are those UFO researchers who believe that extraterrestrials (ETs) are not just out there, but down here among us, unseen because they operate to control our society completely beneath the radar. Taking positions of key influence, these extraterrestrials, some UFO researchers say, are able to manipulate events on a macro scale, maneuvering human society to a point of their own choosing. This is exactly the plot of Asimov’s seminal and brilliant original trilogy, Foundation (Doubleday, 1963). Although Asimov later wrote additional novels to the story, the original three books detail how the Foundationers worked to bring mathematician Hari Selden’s plan of psychohistory to fruition. It’s also funny that Asimov’s two major fictional theories, robotics and psychohistory, actually turned into academic pursuits. Yet, if Asimov was not writing fiction at all, but reality because he had been brought into the inner circle, perhaps by the ETs themselves, then what better cover than to fictionalize it. This is all speculation, of course, but it would make sense that a national security organization or a nongovernmental organization (NGO) tasked to deal with ETs here on Earth would use scientists and popular writers like Carl Sagan—who also wrote the intriguing novel Contact (Pocket, 1997), later a feature film starring Jodie Foster—and J. Allen Hynek and Isaac Asimov to marginalize the truth by fictionalizing it or straight-out debunking it by calling a 1966 UFO sighting in Hillsdale, Michigan, nothing more than “swamp gas.”
Curiously, neither in Flim-Flam! nor in any of his other books, did Randi ever satisfactorily or specifically explain how—if it was a trick—Geller bent metal. Nor could Randi ever duplicate Geller’s feats in exactly the same way he did. In fact, as author and army remote viewer Paul H. Smith explains in his book, Reading the Enemy’s Mind (Tom Doherty Associates, 2005), when Army Major General Albert N. Stubblebine III, was first introduced to the concept of psychic-driven spoon bending, he delighted party guests by demonstrating the feat with his mind and teaching others to do it. These were not tricks, Paul Smith wrote, but a skill. If Randi truly believed that Geller had tricked the world into thinking he could bend spoons with his mind, Randi never was able to demonstrate it in the same way that Geller did. Subsequently, there was a reasoned answer to Randi in a book by the late D. Scott Rogo, a prolific writer and thoughtful parapsychologist, in Psychic Breakthroughs Today, in 1987, that was supportive of Geller’s PK and telepathic abilities. Rogo also explained in a radio interview that there was continuing animosity between Geller and Randi.
Back in 1995, an old friend in Hollywood had become engaged to Ben Webster, the man who introduced Velcro to North America and who was one of Canada’s wealthiest and most successful venture capitalists. He always had extensive involvement in paranormal research, largely behind the scenes. At this time Geller was still in an ongoing battle against the debunkers. By then, Randi had resigned from CSICOP because his ongoing litigation made it more prudent to separate himself from the debunkers group. Both Randi and Paul Kurtz agreed that this would prevent CSICOP from being drawn into Randi’s legal issues.
Ben Webster had a quiet, but persistent, involvement in the paranormal. More than a passing interest, psychic phenomena had long been a personal passion and intellectual journey for him. He was a visionary, a man who saw the potential of Velcro, an original investor in everything from the Internet and dot-com businesses that mushroomed in California’s Silicon Valley to several pharmaceutical companies, and held financial interests in valuable real estate, vineyards, mountain bikes, nuclear energy, a textile museum, and media, including the creation of a major Canadian TV station and an American video company. He’d also been involved in the initial planning of the Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s major league baseball team.
Tall, handsome, and patrician, as befit a multimillionaire—or billionaire, no one could say how much Ben Webster was actually worth—he could be aloof and distant. But when he relaxed and opened up to share his incredible life and accomplishments, the paranormal was at the top of the list. Because of Ben’s involvement with mainstream financial companies and his dealings with investors and investment bankers, he purposely kept a low profile as a paranormal researcher to avoid the inevitable criticism and ridicule from the staid business world that he was “weird” for his interests in the occult and supernatural. For example, few knew that he often utilized such ancient divination tools as the I Ching for employment decisions in his enormously successful venture capitalist business. His wife, Margaret Wendt, herself highly sensitive and intuitive, brought her psychic skills to the corporate table, advising on everything from investments to personnel.
A Princeton University graduate in engineering and a convert to Buddhism, Ben Webster, with no publicity attached to it, had for years been one of the major private benefactors of monies for serious psychic research. The impressive list of those he endowed is too long to name, but it included investigation of mediumship, healing, psychokinesis, divination, ESP, and ancient mysteries, among many other disciplines. He had long friendships with such famed twentieth-century mediums as Arthur Ford and Eileen Garrett, and personally knew the Dalai Lama, among other world leaders, and famed literary figures such as Aldous Huxley. He was also the founder of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research (TSPR) and the New Horizons Foundation, which quickly became among the most prestigious and respected organizations of its kind in North America, attracting major scientific and academic figures to convene for the serious study of psi for more than twenty years, from the 1960s through the 1980s.33
In addition to his personal involvement with major figures in the world of the paranormal, Webster also had a long and close friendship with Uri Geller. Apparently Ben had supported Uri’s efforts to sue James Randi. As part of his efforts, Ben had arranged for an investigation into James Randi’s past in an attempt to impugn his credibility as an objective expert about paranormal claims. The investigation found leftwing links and evidence of at least one arrest in Randi’s past. Was it possible that Randi’s crusade against the paranormal was motivated, at least in part, and perhaps even unconsciously, by a desire to appease government interest at a time when charges of leftwing associations could destroy careers? Although this was unproven and perhaps unprovable, it is clear that the government would also have had an interest in debunking the paranormal, seeing a threat if the abilities Geller claimed to possess were present, or were widely believed to be achievable (to one degree or another) in all citizens.
Indeed, there is wide latitude for rampant speculation about political conspiracies to debunk the paranormal, especially the question of UFOs. First of all, apart from the military and political paranoia about the threat of Soviet or Maoist Communism that threatened the United States around the world during the Cold War, a paranoia corroborated by the release of the KGB documents after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was another paranoia that spiritualists were a sect of “one worlders,” people who were so naïve politically they would have rolled over for self-proclaimed egalitarian worker states in the interests of world peace. Paradoxically, Communists were hardly spiritualists. Religion is an opiate, Karl Marx, wrote, and in China, Mao Zedong was often referred to as “the living God.” Accordingly, atheism had become a firmly held tenet of Communism by the 1950s, and a ripe field for any government agency to plow when it came to enlisting debunkers in the cause of fighting Communism by also fighting spiritualism because in their minds Communism and spiritualism were anti-Christian. For American debunkers, as we mentioned earlier, the paranormal and religion are virtually one and the same. For many, neither has a place in their vision of a secular society, the dream of humanists and atheists.
Secularization is the “process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols,” wrote Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy (Doubleday, 1967). What philosophers and writers have called “secular theology has deep roots in the great intellectual and social forces that forged twentieth-century experience: Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx,” noted author Robert Elwood. “Religion is an illusion,” Freud had said. Obviously a stubborn one, since repeated surveys and polls reveal that nine out of ten Americans believe in God, and three of every four believe in the paranormal, according to a Gallup poll.34 Since no one is forced to have a particular religious belief in America, you are as free, under the First Amendment to the Constitution, to be an atheist as you are to practice Christian fundamentalism, Orthodox Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. The First Amendment, under its Establishment Clause, expressly prohibits the federal government from imposing any religion upon U.S. citizens.
However, for some reason, American debunkers have been unable or unwilling to separate parapsychology from theology, unlike the former Soviet Union where psychic research continued for decades, and was never confused with religion or God, since both were officially banned. That does not suggest support for totalitarian, state-sponsored paranormal inquiry. It simply suggests that Paul Kurtz never intended for CSICOP to objectively examine psychic phenomena. He’d headed the American Humanist Association prior to founding CSICOP. His practice was to use the paranormal as a whipping boy, a subterfuge to preach the creation of a rationalist secular humanist society that scorns the belief in any otherworldly devotional exercise. He was free to do so, of course, but his demonizing of those who wanted to consider the “normal” in the “paranormal” was more irrational than rational.
Debunkers have repeatedly referred to psi as “pseudoscience.” But they have purposely obfuscated the definition of science. Not all branches of science can fit the narrow confines assigned by debunkers. If the paranormal is “junk science,” because it is difficult to replicate and measure, what is to be said about psychology? That is defined as the “scientific study of the human mind.” Yet we cannot predict specific behaviors on a daily basis, nor do courts routinely allow the citing of prior bad behaviors to influence a jury regarding a current behavior.
Chemistry, for example, allows for rigid experiments with repeatable results. Can one say the same for meteorology? Weather forecasting is hardly as precise a science as we would all like. What about seismology, the study of earthquakes? That also is a science that wrestles constantly with the difficulty of predictions. Not even the seismologists were able to predict the earthquake that struck the Northeast from Washington, D.C., through New England on August 23, 2011. And the engineers building the nuclear facility at Fukishima in Japan never took seriously enough the prospect of an earthquake and resulting tsunami that not only closed the plant down but also caused a meltdown and the resulting release of deadly radiation. Obviously, every branch of science cannot be identically defined or subjected to the same test conditions.
The posturing by debunkers against psi as “junk science” or “pseudoscience” is disingenuous. Worse, it has often become an obstruction to serious scientific research into the nature of psychic phenomena. Equally frustrating is the considerable amount of time wasted answering and justifying psi to a group that will never be satisfied with any evidence because they have prejudged the outcome. Why look at the scientific evidence, the physical trace and photographic evidence substantiating claims of UFO encounters when you have already said the UFOs do not exist and therefore there can be no evidence?
For no matter how strict the conditions are for any test or experiment of the paranormal, debunkers will immediately deride the results and insist that “tighter scientific controls” were needed. Thus, no matter how far parapsychologists go, the debunkers will demand it is not far enough. They move the goalposts at their convenience. Their repeated criticism of test conditions as never sufficiently rigorous implies that positive results for psi can only be achieved by some deception or fraud, a charge that modern debunkers rarely support with actual evidence. In taking that rather dark and cynical approach, debunkers who march to the tune of CSICOP have raised as many questions about their own integrity as they have about paranormal claims. It is no stretch to argue that if an obdurate skeptic or debunker has a psychic experience, he will not hesitate to deny it.
Dennis Rawlins, an astrophysicist and one of the founders of CSICOP in 1976, who later exposed the “Starbaby scandal,” came to the same sorry conclusion. Rawlins became disenchanted with CSICOP’s eagerness to debunk all paranormal claims, regardless of the evidence. When statistics meant to debunk astrology instead seemed to favor it, something Paul Kurtz never anticipated, he falsified the data about the so-called Mars Effect. That prompted Rawlins to reveal the CSICOP disgrace in a Fate magazine article in October 1981. He wrote: “I now believe that if a flying saucer landed in the backyard of a leading anti-UFO spokesman, he might hide the incident from the public.”
Another misleading technique frequently employed by debunkers is to blur past and recent history. Because spiritualism was rife with fraud during the nineteenth century, debunkers say we can assume the same is true today. But there are vast differences between séances during the Victorian era and the readings or consultations given by psychics and mediums in the past several decades.
For example, in the séance parlors of the 1800s, lighting, at its best, was poor. Neither oil lamps nor gaslight could illuminate a room to anywhere near the brightness that electricity later provided. A disreputable psychic or medium in, say, the 1870s had a far better chance of fooling paying customers with such wondrous physical phenomena as flying bugles, bouquets, tipping tables, and even alleged spirit materializations. Clever trickery in dimly lighted rooms persuaded many gullible people that they’d witnessed genuine psychic or spirit phenomena. But, even in that simpler era, countless charlatans were exposed.
Compare that with Uri Geller, or one of several mediums in recent years who have demonstrated their paranormal abilities to millions of people watching them on TV or in personal appearances. It’s difficult to fathom how Geller, for example, could have repeatedly fooled both live and TV audiences over a period of many years. The same is true for mediums such as George Anderson, whose accuracy in countless thousands of predictions has been seen by millions on TV, and repeatedly tested and scrutinized.
When Anderson was on a Boston TV program in 1988 promoting Joel Martin’s book about Anderson’s life and career, We Don’t Die, Dr. Ray Hyman, a psychologist, a frequent CSICOP spokesman, and a founding member, challenged him. Hyman insisted he could imitate Anderson’s so-called cold reading, an expression used by debunkers to explain away mediums’ abilities as little more than clever guesswork. There on live TV, Hyman gave it his best effort but failed, in stark contrast to Anderson’s remarkable accuracy with anonymous subjects. That’s the same Ray Hyman who in the mid-1990s, at the government’s behest, evaluated many years of CIA-funded psychic research, and found the CIA’s efforts a failure. Whether or not his conclusions were colored by preconceived notions, they advanced two government objectives. First, it would get the government out of the psi business. Second, even if the CIA did remain in the psi business, debunking it and publicly shutting it down was the best way to confuse the Soviets into thinking we were no longer practicing psychic spying.
It’s also not hard to understand why most traditional psychologists, especially those in clinical practice, reject claims of the paranormal out of hand. If one looks in the psychologist’s diagnostic handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), one will see there are no itemized billing codes for anything having to do with the paranormal. Medicine, psychology and psychiatry are medical practices, about diagnosing pathological conditions. No pathogen, no cause for medical treatment. Consequently, those seeking medical help for paranormal or otherworldly experiences either have to fit into a medically defined condition or be accused of faking, and that, too, could be a medical condition. See a ghost? Either you’re suffering under some delusion or have eaten a piece of underdone potato, as Ebenezer Scrooge once described it to the ghost of Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve. Experience an alien abduction? Probably sleep paralysis, many academics will tell you.
As for Kurtz, he was once asked by Omni magazine to comment on Anderson’s startling psychic gift. The magazine’s reporter said Kurtz was “evasive,” apparently not eager to confront the mountain of evidence in the medium’s favor. Finally, the persistent reporter forced a reply from Kurtz to the effect that Anderson likely employed “mass hypnosis” to convince subjects he was accurate. That explanation was as ludicrous as it was untrue. The reporter said she had the distinct feeling that CSICOP really did not want to answer. Was it because the Kurtz group couldn’t bring itself to admit that Anderson was repeatedly tested and genuinely psychic?
Another CSICOP founding member, Martin Gardner, was a columnist for Scientific American for many years, and long an outspoken critic of psychic research. In their book The Mind Race, authors Russell Targ and Keith Harary told how Gardner “was invited to discuss his accusations in a public debate with a psi researcher.” But Gardner turned down the invitation, saying he “did not know enough about psi experiments, was not up to date on the subject, and therefore would certainly lose the debate.”
With respect to what paranormal researchers call eyewitness evidence, debunkers dismiss all psychic experiences as “anecdotal,” belittling its scientific value even though eyewitness evidence, if deemed credible by a finder of fact, can send an accused party to prison. But statistics tell us there are millions of paranormal incidents of many types taking place. It’s hard to fathom that hundreds of millions of Americans have all lied, hallucinated, or fabricated such psi episodes as apparitions, spirit phenomena, telepathy, clairvoyance, premonitions, precognition, near-death experiences, UFO encounters, and even photographic evidence, among others. Equally curious is why innumerable psi incidents bear striking similarities to each other, regardless of where they take place or to whom. The commonalities suggest that something more than imagination is at work. Many millions of so-called psi anecdotes form a substantial body of evidence that something is occurring that should not be ignored.
Curiously, while debunkers and skeptics insist that hundreds of millions of paranormal experiences are worthless as evidence, in the criminal justice system, one witness is sometimes sufficient to convict someone of a crime. So, we are willing to take the word of a single individual in a court of law, while at the same time, ignoring multitudes of witnesses to the paranormal.
Admittedly, parapsychology has long suffered a serious problem with language, much of which is stigmatized. For skeptics and debunkers this has provided a convenient opportunity to reinforce blatant negativity by lumping vocabulary together, until there is utter confusion on the part of the public and many in the media. For example, most debunkers continue to employ the pejorative word occult, knowing that is rarely if ever used anymore by serious parapsychologists. The use of such words as miracle and supernatural to describe paranormal events is meant to blur the line with religious experiences. Neither is to be tolerated, according to the skeptical worldview. On the subject of confusion, professional debunkers have purposely made a hodgepodge of the paranormal so that “fortune teller,” “medium,” “monsters,” “UFOs,” “astrology,” “alternative medicine,” “near-death experiences,” “ESP,” and “extraterrestrials,” all become part of one mixed-up mess. Serious paranormal researchers are usually ignored, lumped together with supermarket tabloid fiction, or passed off as “spooky” Halloween ghost hunters.
The term supernatural can be particularly onerous when applied to psi. The word implies some force that operates above the laws of nature, suggesting the occult, or magical forces, a stigma the paranormal has long endured. It is more accurate to suggest that rather than supernatural, psi is natural and normal, but not yet well understood by science. Even the well-intentioned word paranormal can be misleading. The prefix para means “beyond,” suggesting that psi is beyond or outside that which is normal, a negative connotation.
Some have taken issue with the word parapsychology, since it also does not accurately describe the subject. It is a word that dates back to the late nineteenth century, and was popularized by J. B. Rhine as a way to define the serious study of and experimentation with ESP and PK, so they would be more academically and scientifically acceptable. Most people, unsure of what to call psi, still use the expression “psychic phenomena,” for lack of a better term. Not only is the subject elusive, so is its terminology.
Often, topics that have little or no connection are stirred together, like mismatched ingredients in a bad recipe, to the delight of debunkers. In fact, parapsychology, ufology, and cryptozoology are distinct and separate fields of study. By bunching them together, debunkers hope to sink all unexplained and anomalous phenomena at one time, while they often add ridicule and sarcasm to further befuddle and discourage the public, suggesting that to entertain anything psychic is to mark oneself as a delusional misfit or unscientific rube. Never mind that the history of parapsychology, as well as its contemporary research, includes a long list of bona fide scientists, physicians, psychologists, and other professionals with substantial and impressive credentials. Rarely do books and articles by skeptics and debunkers mention the serious and distinguished individuals who’ve long devoted time and energy to exploring the paranormal, often in the face of wilting criticism.
A belief suggests an element of faith, such as a religious conviction. To reinforce the premise that psychic phenomena are the equivalent of “junk” science, superstition, or so-called magical thinking, debunkers nearly always bolster their arguments against the paranormal by referring to it as a “belief.” For example, how many times have you heard—or asked someone—“Do you believe in ghosts, mind reading, UFOs, or life after death?” But the paranormal is more than a belief. When the late psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung, an unwavering proponent of psychic phenomena, was asked whether he believed in such experiences, Jung typically answered, “No. I don’t believe; I know.”
Still it is common to hear people talk about the paranormal in terms of a belief, rather than as fact. It is understandable, to an extent, since we are dealing with the “invisible world.” However, once a person has had a psychic encounter, he or she often has a change in thinking, and considers the experience as more than imaginary. Paranormal incidents are experienced by thousands of people, unknown to each other, every day, whether they “believe” in them, or not; and regardless of what debunkers and skeptics say.
A well-regarded psychic, with a national reputation, made the mistake of appearing on a talk show on a major Midwest radio station. The host, an admitted skeptic, had secretly arranged before the program with a CSICOP debunker to cause the psychic to appear to be a fraud. The plan was to have the debunker phone in, pretending to be an anonymous listener, and no matter what information the psychic’s telephone reading provided, the debunker would vehemently disavow its accuracy.
The devious setup worked. The disguised debunker adamantly denied any of the psychic’s information was correct. That was a lie; but it was more important that the well-known clairvoyant be discredited, even if he did not deserve to be. The next day, a major newspaper in that city carried the story about how inaccurate and inept the highly touted psychic was, a blow to his credibility. But what purpose was served? Deception by a debunker should be no more acceptable than when chicanery is committed by a fraudulent psychic or medium.
How do professional debunkers, such as the founder of CSICOP, Paul Kurtz, rationalize and explain their animosity toward the paranormal? Consider some of his remarks that appeared in an article he wrote in 1997. Kurtz was a longtime professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, an author and publisher, and an atheist. Bear in mind he was never a scientist per se, although he long led the fight against psi under the pretense that “the huge increase in paranormal beliefs is symptomatic of a profound antiscience attitude.”
Debunkers have noted correctly that the American attitude toward science has changed. Even as science and technology have grown by “leaps and bounds,” and profoundly altered society in ways our ancestors could never have dreamed, to quote Kurtz, “a strong antiscience counterculture has emerged.” But others reply that we have not become “antiscience” as much as we’ve become more discerning about what science can—and cannot—do.
The CSICOP argument that attention to psi lowers our scientific IQ is utterly without merit. In fact, even debunkers’ groups have had to admit that interest in the paranormal and ufology in recent years has grown most significantly among the best educated. The X-Files, a highly popular TV series during the 1990s and early 2000s, featured storylines about the paranormal and conspiracy theories, and drew a large viewing audience that included many college students and graduates, a substantial number of them with a scientific or technological bent. In fact, by 2006, several studies found that “children as young as seven are using technology—computers, digital cameras, cell phones, and video games,” and most of these youngsters had a profound interest in such things as UFOs, evidenced by the high viewership among school-aged children for History Channel’s reality series UFO Hunters.
Debunkers have impeded serious paranormal research by presenting it as an “either-or question.” In other words, by that reasoning, either you are scientific and rational or, if you “believe” in the paranormal, you are “antiscience” and presumably irrational. That black or white choice is both unfair and inaccurate. There is more than enough evidence that psi phenomena are both scientific and genuine; interest in it does not require us to surrender “critical thinking” or toss test tubes, computers, and other scientific tools to the winds. Melissa Pollack, for example, an admitted skeptic, was a researcher with the National Science Foundation in 2001 when she wrote an article for the CSICOP magazine Skeptical Inquirer. According to Pollack, there is a correlation between “paranormal beliefs” and “a decline in critical thinking skills among Americans.” There is absolutely no empirical evidence that proves a connection between psi and a decrease in “critical thinking,” an impressive sounding but ill-defined phrase.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Americans were positively giddy with wonder and optimism that science and technology could provide answers and opportunities the world had never before known in medicine, transportation, and communications, and that they held the promise of longer and healthier lives. It was the age of electricity and the invention of the automobile and airplane. The spellbinding science-fiction stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells promised to become science fact. And the discoveries of Nikola Tesla are still coming to fruition today with such things as the wireless transmission of information, robotically controlled devices, and even messages beamed as well as launched into space. One might well ask, why beam or send messages into space aboard craft if no one is there to receive them? Are NASA scientists believing in the paranormal?
Once the euphoria inevitably settled in the middle of the twentieth century, science and technology were viewed from a slightly more sober perspective. There was more than one way to consider scientific achievements, and they were not the answer to every problem. In fact, we became painfully aware that the wonders of science and technology also had their downsides and raised ethical questions. Einstein, a pacifist, was appalled that his theories in physics became the basis for the atomic bombs that instantly killed tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. The same chemicals that have made modern life easier and more convenient have also been the subjects of great concern about their potential dangers to the environment. The ominous threat of nuclear and biological weapons in the wrong hands is perhaps science’s darkest side. Ancient prophecies of cataclysmic climactic changes, often scoffed at as superstitious nonsense, have suddenly become a serious concern worldwide. Glaciers melting in locations such as Greenland and elsewhere are a result, scientists say, of human-created global warming. Many claim that we are at least partially responsible due to the use of chemicals and emissions that have released an overabundance of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The idea that any thinking person seeks a return to the pestilence and drudgery of past centuries is ridiculous. But, exploring, experiencing, or testing the paranormal will not send us on a backward slide to the Middle Ages, as some debunkers have actually alleged. Few people reject the marvels of modern medical care, or want to revert to a time when remedies were crude, often barbaric, and sometimes more dangerous than the ailments being treated. Laser surgery, DNA testing, cloning, and organ transplants are only a few of the medical wonders that would have been science fiction a century ago. But today we are also conscious of potential—and sometimes lethal—side effects and medical mistakes, just as most of us are aware of such contentious issues as stem-cell research, artificial life support, and the agonizing question: When does life itself begin and end?
Debunkers have also attacked the surge of interest in alternative medicine in recent decades, alarmed at the prospect that they might replace traditional physicians and treatment modalities. However, some unorthodox medical approaches and herbal remedies have provided patients with added choices, “last resorts,” and certainly more attention from practitioners than many doctors who hurriedly dart in and out of examining rooms, spending too little time with their patients. Whatever their worth, alternative methods have become a multimillion-dollar business annually.
One example of an alternative medical practice based on non-Western science is the long-standing debate about acupuncture. When the ancient Chinese technique of inserting very thin needles into a patient’s body as an analgesic or pain reliever was first introduced in the United States in the early 1970s, many skeptics railed against it as quackery, perhaps psychosomatic in nature, and at odds with conventional Western medical treatments.
Especially noxious to debunkers is the centuries-old Asian belief in the chi, an energy or “life force” that is said to flow through every human and members of other animal species, and that acupuncture is believed to influence. It was not a concept consistent with Western science, and was criticized by skeptics as more New Age silliness. However, science now suggests that the tiny needles, no wider than a hair, inserted correctly in a patient release endorphins, neurotransmitters occurring in the brain that act as the body’s own pain relievers.
Debunkers still attack other alternative techniques such as chiropractic, homeopathy, and vitamin therapy, and certainly there are pro and con arguments for each. Perhaps the one that grates at them most is prayer as a healing method. Prayer, of course, is a component of religious belief, and mediums often suggest it is a means to communicate with deceased loved ones. Suffice it to say here, that for debunkers and skeptics who hold to humanist or atheistic beliefs, prayer is nonsense. Science, in recent years, has found otherwise.
As debunkers argue, do American students need more science education? Probably. But they also could use a good dose more of history and geography. Neither, however, has any relationship to the large numbers of people who report psychic or paranormal experiences. There is a need for healthy skepticism about many situations in our lives, from phony fortune-telling to disreputable home contracting, political promises, and even fraudulent charities. There are quacks and fakers in every field, science included, unfortunately. That doesn’t mean a wide range of paranormal experiences need to be discarded on the word of self-anointed debunkers who, with evangelical fervor, are dedicated to the destruction of everything psychic, mystical, or spiritual.
It’s been a bit tricky for the CSICOPers to appear on network television with their true agenda. After all, nine out of ten Americans believe in God. So, by posing as protectors against psychic fraud, and proponents of so-called scientific and rational thinking, they are usually able to dance around their secular humanist agenda, avoiding discussion in the media about their abhorrence to religion.
Once, in a debate on an Ohio radio talk show, parapsychologist Stephen Kaplan confronted The Amazing Randi about religion, specifically, whether the magician believed there was a God. Randi was incensed by the question, and protested it had nothing to do with his crusade against the paranormal. However, he adamantly refused to answer. It was likely one of the few times that he’d had been publicly confronted on the question of religious belief as it related to the paranormal.
Randi is skilled in promoting himself as a celebrity, as are most performers. He is responsible for one of the cleverest and most enduring public relations stunts ever in the history of psychic debunking. For years, Randi claimed he carried a ten-thousand-dollar check to give to anyone who could demonstrate “genuine paranormal ability.” That sounded fair, his fellow debunkers and many others said. But there were few takers.35 Then, in the 1990s, Randi raised the amount to one million dollars. There were still no winners. That gave Randi bragging rights—since no psychic successfully met his challenge, it proved they were all frauds.
Actually, most psychics and mediums had caught on to the catch-22 in Randi’s criteria for the demonstration of a true psychic experience. And if Randi actually had a check for that huge sum of money, he seemed convinced that he would never have to part with it. But the offer attracted immense public and media attention over the years. It sounded quite straightforward. If one claimed to be a genuine psychic or medium, why not simply demonstrate the ability, and walk away a million dollars richer? The truth was that Randi’s test conditions were designed so that no psychic, medium, or healer could ever satisfy them. As the sole arbiter or judge, how could Randi—and his cohorts—possibly admit they’d been wrong for decades? Unfortunately, many people have been fooled into believing it was a genuine offer—which it never was.
Among the recent crop of debunkers is Michael Shermer, a California-based college professor and editor of Skeptic magazine. In 1997, he wrote the book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. That title should tell you everything you need to know about his objectivity in examining paranormal claims. Shermer has never had a problem stepping up to the podium, smirking, and proclaiming, “The existence of psychic ability has not been proven.” That, as he well knows, is not true, although by his criteria, nothing paranormal is ever permitted to pass the debunkers’ test.
For example, Shermer, who has become something of a media personality, dismissed some fourteen thousand psychic readings given by Edgar Cayce. The testimony of anyone who received a Cayce reading does not count, he said, because it “does not represent a controlled experiment.” What’s more, Cayce’s unorthodox remedies, “read like prescriptions from a medieval herbalist.” Herbalist, indeed. When one considers that Cayce was the principal means of communicating with President Woodrow Wilson, who had been debilitated by a stroke, in his second term, it is anecdotal evidence with a great credibility.
Similarly, the great number of ESP tests performed at Duke University by pioneer parapsychologists J. B. and Louisa Rhine were equally debunked by Shermer. What appears to be statistically significant evidence of ESP received this explanation, “Statistics tell us that given a large enough group, there should be someone who will score fairly high.” Synchronicity is coincidence, not “psychic communication,” according to Shermer, apparently no fan of Dr. Carl Jung or the idea that “God signals us through coincidences,” as was put forth in a 2006 book, When God Winks, by Squire Rushnell. For instance, if the phone rings and it’s a person you were about to call, “it’s an example of statistical coincidence,” Shermer concluded. And so it goes. For every psychic or paranormal event or test there must be a nonpsychic explanation; no evidence of psi is ever sufficient. For the record, Shermer is not a scientist.
Today there are no less than eight around-the-clock all-news and talk cable TV networks. That does not include the broadcast networks, public television, virtually unlimited sources of news and information on the Internet, supersize bookstores, libraries, newspapers, magazines, and all-news and talk radio stations. America is hardly suffering an information drought. It’s more of a glut. Combined, there are more sources for learning than the world has ever known. Whatever percentage is devoted to the paranormal could not possibly be responsible for any deficit in “critical thinking” or alleged “scientific illiteracy.” Perhaps other factors are responsible for why more people can name the most popular TV reality shows than the three branches of the federal government and what they do? Might CSICOP and other debunkers’ groups be oversimplifying their insistence on a lack of critical thinking—just a bit?
One more point about the media. If films and TV shows about the paranormal and occult are such a pervasive and negative influence, why don’t reports of psychic experiences reflect the sensationalized plots of movies about the subject? The fact is that thousands of dream visions, apparitions, premonitions, synchronicities, and a multitude of other psi incidents are typically brief and considerably less spectacular than what we see on motion picture and TV screens. If debunkers were correct about the mass media’s negative impact, what accounts for centuries of supernatural events occurring long before there were any allegedly mind-polluting electronic media?
Incidentally, it’s highly unlikely that psi will ooze through the doors of America’s secularized public schools, like some crawling, otherworldly entity. The paranormal is a no-no in official school curriculums; it is never taught. You will never find it in a textbook. The only exception is at Halloween when ghosts, goblins, and witches are treated as “creepy and spooky” fun in some communities. Even at the college level, there are few courses and programs about parapsychology, with only a handful of universities treating it seriously, if at all.
Another clichéd argument against psi concerns those who read horoscopes. While overdependence on psi or astrology is as unwise as any other excess, it’s difficult to picture students bolting from the classroom, throwing their hands in the air, and forgoing careers in science or technology simply because they peeked at a horoscope in a newspaper, magazine, or on the Internet.
Debunkers and skeptics often bemoan the amounts of money they say is needlessly spent on psychics, mediums, and astrologers. While it is true that there are people who’ve been unfairly bilked by bogus fortune-tellers and “1-900” phone-line psychics, there are many others, especially the bereaved, who consider that paying for a reading by a medium brings a measure of comfort, in the belief that they’ve made contact with departed loved ones. Rightly or wrongly, some say a medium is more immediate and affordable than months or years of psychotherapy, and while some seek pastoral or grief counseling, many do not.
Nowhere have skeptics shown more insensitivity and cruelty than in their mockery of bereaved people who seek help from mediums. Debunkers tip off their true agenda when they condemn mediums for providing “false hope.” The phrase is virtually meaningless, but hurtful to those grieving for deceased family and friends. Dismissing all mediums during the past several decades because Houdini supposedly debunked them in the early twentieth century is both callous and preposterous. What the debunkers really mean is that they do not believe in an afterlife; it’s a religious concept, so it’s useless to “hope” that we survive physical death in any form.
Also denied by groups like CSICOP is the fact that countless paranormal incidents occur directly to people; there is no expense involved when someone experiences a premonition, has a precognitive dream, or witnesses an apparition, and so on. Many psychic healers charge modestly; rarely does a medium or psychic ask for payment to work with law enforcement, and a handful of adult education courses about divination or developing psychic ability, among others, require only a nominal fee. No person should ever be intimidated or manipulated into paying an exorbitant price to any psychic practitioner, or be subjected to frightening or dire predictions. Incidentally, for those so inclined, prayer is free, and so are practicing meditation and yoga.
Americans have not exactly been forced to embrace psychic phenomena, let alone pay what they cannot afford. New Age types do not go door to door, in the manner of Jehovah’s Witnesses, seeking converts. Why have surveys in recent years shown a steady increase in paranormal beliefs? Perhaps more people are confident in acknowledging their psi experiences, with less fear of ridicule: Books and media can certainly take some credit. Network television was long reluctant to treat psi seriously; it was the public’s interest that pushed TV toward more programming about the subject in recent years. Polls that repeatedly revealed that better educated people are more open to psi than people with less education were contrary to the debunkers’ arguments that psychic phenomena have contributed to a nation of fuzzy thinkers, desperately in need of skeptics to straighten out their gullible minds.
Of course, psi should be held to a scientific standard, but one that is fair, even-handed, and without bias. The late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, “The best antidote for pseudoscience, I believe, is science.” He was correct; however it is not clear where the line between the two is drawn. In 1979, in his bestselling book, Broca’s Brain, Sagan referred to “understanding human limitations,” an ability he said “skeptical magicians” grasp since they are “able to perform similar effects by sleight of hand.” But, who can say with certainty what the limits of perception and ability are?
Sagan recognized as much when he said, “The history of science is full of cases where previously accepted theories and hypotheses have been entirely overthrown, to be replaced by new ideas that more adequately explain the data.”
Sagan had nothing but praise for Randi’s efforts to debunk Uri Geller, although he’d never actually seen a Geller demonstration. Imagine how he stunned some hard-core debunkers, when he later wrote the bestselling book Contact in 1985, which was made into a successful motion picture in 1997. In it, Sagan’s opinion about such taboo subjects as faith, intuition, and even the question of a God seemed to have changed, to the disappointment of many skeptics for whom Sagan was an icon. He even suggested that scientists might want to investigate paranormal claims before they summarily dismiss them all. He also questioned why so many disparate people have had similar psi experiences—something he thought was worth considering. Most surprising was his willingness to seek explanations for why some very young children seem to have uncanny and detailed knowledge of past lives. Sagan remained a skeptic, but he became more open-minded about psi in the last decade of his life, to the chagrin of the debunkers.
Another skeptic who became disenchanted with CSICOP hard-liners was the late sociologist Marcello Truzzi, an expert on parapsychology and the occult. He departed the group when he realized it had veered from its original promise to examine psi claims, and instead became an organization dedicated only to debunking the paranormal. Truzzi preferred the term “anomalous phenomena” to describe psychic events.36
Perhaps of all the criticisms of the paranormal, one of the strangest, raised in the Skeptical Inquirer, is that the paranormal can cause “harm.” Exactly how and what substantiates the blanket accusation is unclear. But when there are instances of psychic fraud or psychological or physical harm as a result of the paranormal, skeptics would do well to expose and warn people of the specific danger, rather than attacking all of psi as unsafe or impossible. “Parapsychologists have nothing to fear from responsible criticism,” noted Richard Broughton in Parapsychology: The Controversial Science.
Debunkers are fond of insisting the paranormal cannot be scientific since it is unreliable; it is elusive; it cannot be measured, repeated, or tested under “strict” controls; and witness accounts of psi experiences are anecdotal, and therefore, potentially undependable or inaccurate. Coauthor Joel Martin once asked CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz, “How do we explain dreams?” No rational person denies that we all experience them—dreams are universal—and many of us attempt to analyze and interpret their meaning. However, there is no possible way that one person can “show” another the pictures or events in his or her mind during sleep. Why, then, do we believe other people also dream, since no one can ever see someone else’s dreams? Kurtz did not appreciate Joel’s curiosity; he told him it was a “trick question,” but had no answer beyond that. However, he did promise that he’d never talk to Joel again; and he never did.
If there was ever a rematch, we might ask psychic debunkers about “love,” one of the most important and powerful emotions humans have. Do we know what arouses the feelings that attract one person to another? Science can neither measure love, nor predict the longevity or outcome of a relationship. Yet there are biological and hormonal factors involved, such as pheromones, which are chemicals that, when secreted, release a scent that contributes to the attraction. What we know is that “falling in love” is not a very rational process, and sadly, it sometimes proves to be dangerous. It seems the paranormal isn’t the only human experience that can’t be submitted to so-called strict test conditions.
John Stossel, best known for his long association as a reporter and anchor for the ABC-TV newsmagazine 20/20—he’s the fellow with the dark, curly hair and mustache—is proud of his skepticism. Stossel once raged so vehemently against a 20/20 appearance by George Anderson, one of the most successfully tested mediums in the country, that the proposed segment was canceled. In 2006, Stossel wrote a book titled Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity—even though he’d done no research about psi. Nonetheless, Stossel offered his opinions as fact, telling readers that psychics and astrologers are bunk. What about police who use psychics for crime solving? “Police get suckered too,” Stossel concluded. A quote by Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer described psychic powers as “magical.” Homeopathy was branded as “absurd,” and chiropractors offered “dubious treatments.” Finally, with a straight face, Stossel dredged up The Amazing Randi’s tired million-dollar offer to anyone who could demonstrate that paranormal ability is genuine. Incidentally, Stossel identified Jim Randi as a “skeptic,” overlooking or purposely ignoring that Randi is a debunker.
There’s also a suggestion of gender bias in the debunkers’ thinking. It’s acknowledged by both sides of the acrimonious psi debate that women have more psychic experiences than men. Therefore, the constant hammering against anything paranormal suggests that those who are psychic are naïve, irrational, unscientific, and perhaps deluded; an implication that is obviously sexist. Nowhere is there a reference by debunkers that perhaps women are more sensitive to and aware of psi phenomena. Incidentally, CSICOP and its affiliated groups and “fellows” throughout the country include very few women among its leadership and members.
By the 1980s, it was apparent that professional debunkers were losing the fight against the paranormal, as polls and surveys showed the enormous growth of interest in the subject. Perhaps that is why many debunkers seemed so strident, even belligerent. The CSICOPers had every reason to feel defensive as the rising tide of the New Age seemed poised to overwhelm them. In the past several years the number of TV programs about the paranormal has grown immensely, from Unsolved Mysteries and Sighting in the 1980s and 1990s, to the more recent Medium and Ghost Whisperer. That’s not including reality shows starring mediums, and a slew of documentaries featuring every imaginable aspect of psi experience from haunted houses, to the psychic experiences of U.S. presidents, UFOs, crime-fighting psychics, life after death, and the prophecies of Nostradamus, among others. If they were not drawing large audiences, they would not be on the air.
Besides Randi’s rants, of all the self-proclaimed psychic debunkers who’ve gained a measure of recognition in recent years, one deserves special mention for lowering the standard of decency in public discourse on the question of psi. No psychic debunker has made the issue so bitterly personal as Penn Jillette, one half of the team of gifted stage magicians, Penn and Teller. They had their own TV series on the Showtime network for several seasons, titled Bullshit! If you’ve ever seen them, Penn is the large one with glasses and a ponytail, who does all the talking for the pair. His partner, Teller, smaller in stature, never speaks.
Penn has very definite opinions about the paranormal, religion, alternative healing, and New Age ideas. They’re all, well, bullshit. About Uri Geller’s metal bending, Penn has described it as “a lousy trick for lousy people.” On condition of anonymity, a friend of Penn’s told Joel Martin recently that the magician’s anger and frustration is quite genuine. Whether Penn was bellowing about the Bermuda Triangle or the Bible, a psychic medium or a weeping icon of the Virgin Mary, obscenities were generously sprinkled throughout his diatribes; his favorite was the word “fuck.” How mean-spirited tirades and insults will bring converts rushing to the side of skeptics is more of a mystery than the origin of the Shroud of Turin or whether there really was an Atlantis. It’s an odd approach to take for someone claiming the high road to so-called rational thinking in the United States where three out of four people believe in the paranormal, and nine out of ten believe in God.37
To sum up, as the history of the paranormal has shown, there is a need for honest and open-minded skepticism, but debunkers have not always acted in the best interests of the public or science. As we’ve said throughout this chapter, their ultimate goal is a secular society, as has already occurred in some parts of Europe. However, it is possible to separate paranormal events from religious belief. It must have been terrible news for skeptics and debunkers in recent years when physicists posed quantum theories consistent with the possibility that psi exists. Worse, probably, was the discovery by neuroscientists of the “God spot,” a specific part of the human brain, in the right temporal lobe, that appears hardwired for psychic, religious, and mystical experiences.
In a typically disingenuous comment, CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz said, “The emergence of a paranormal worldview competes with the scientific worldview.” Actually neither side is a threat to the other; they are two spokes of the same wheel. Similarly, religious belief need not be at odds with paranormal phenomena, although there is a certain irony in the fact that fundamentalist Christians, conservative scientists, and atheistic debunkers are all on the same side in opposing psi.
The authors of this book, as have millions of others, each witnessed events and incidents that cannot be explained, but leave no doubt that something more than the limits of our five senses exists.38 The amount of research and evidence supporting the existence of psi since the late nineteenth century is staggering, despite what debunkers would have us believe. Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer and author Deborah Blum, who has also written about the subject, pointed to a number of psi tests that reveal statistical evidence for telepathy and after-death communications far beyond chance. A century ago, parapsychologists did not have the advantage of the technology that exists today to examine psi, including highly sensitive devices to detect evidence of apparitions, brain imaging, and even voices from the beyond. Science has an opportunity to prove debunkers have made errors, some deliberately. The fear, as Deborah Blum wrote, is that if science continues to ignore what millions have experienced, “there is the risk of failing to investigate the world in all its dimensions.”39
Copyright © 2013 by William J. Birnes and Joel Martin