Jul 10 2023

Apologizing for Uri Geller

A recent New York Times article tries to rehabilitate the reputation of Uri Geller, famed spoon-bending magician, by simply telling a one-sided narrative. From my perspective as a skeptic, this was a terrible article that missed the real issue, glossed over glaring defects in Geller’s behavior, and essentially just apologized for fraud. I know my perspective is not always mainstream, at least when it comes to popular culture, but shouldn’t good journalism at least represent all sides fairly? This piece was the equivalent of covering a contentious political topic only from the perspective of one political party.

Uri Geller is a magician who came to fame in the 1970s as a spoon-bender. He became what all entertainers hope to become – a pop-culture figure that is larger than life. I would argue that it was partly spoon-bending as a phenomenon (the idea of bending cutlery with one’s mind alone) that became a true pop-culture icon, but Geller was the face of spoon-bending. Geller, no doubt, became famous and wealthy off his schtick. He sold it well, and successfully.

But here is the controversy surrounding Geller – was he being unethical in terms of the degree to which he presented himself, not as a magician, but as a true psychic? It is pretty clear (in my opinion – don’t sue me, Geller), that Geller is nothing but a stage magician. He is using tricks that any skilled magician can do. As James Randi was fond of saying, if Geller is using real magic to achieve his results, then he’s doing it the hard way. Randi stated it this way, because Geller sued him for defamation (three times) when Randi said that Geller was using magic tricks.

Some may still consider that there is also a controversy over whether or not Geller has true power, but again, in my opinion there is no real question there. Everything Geller does is easily replicated by magicians, and Geller has not been able to perform any feats under conditions sufficiently controlled to prevent magic tricks. Geller famously bombed on The Tonight Show when Randi helped Johnny Carson set up some controls to prevent the techniques Randi suspected Geller was using. He has been caught in the act of cheating. Confederates of Geller’s tricks even confessed he was cheating.

The real controversy involves how magicians present the illusion magic they are performing for entertainment. All magicians use some degree of misdirection, and part of the act is to convince the audience that a trick is being done one way when in fact it is being done another way. What several professional magicians have told me is that, if you think a magician is doing a trick using a certain method, the only thing you can be sure of is that they are not doing it that way. One method is to convince the audience that you have some highly developed skill, such as manual dexterity, heightened senses, a phenomenon memory, or the ability to read people. But in reality the trick is all technique, and does not require preternatural skill. But if you think it does, you won’t look for the trick. If you knew how simple it was, the illusion would be broken and you would be disappointed.

David Copperfield told me in an interview that the real magic in stage illusions is that you would never imagine how much time and effort magicians invest in figuring out how to pull off some trick. The illusion is in the preparation.

In any case – where controversy comes in is when magicians go a step further in their misdirection, when they claim or imply to an audience that the method they are using to pull off their feats is actual magic. Admittedly, this is a very fuzzy line. Some magicians feel strongly that this is a line not to be crossed. They also complain that it’s lazy, and a truly skilled magician does not have to pretend magic is real to entertain an audience. Banachek is another good example here – he is always very clear that his tricks are just that, but he is still the most impressive mentalist I have ever personally seen. I have also seen The Amazing Kreskin, who claimed real psychic powers.

What David Segal, the author of the NYT article, misses is that Geller took this approach to a new extreme. He claimed, adamantly, that he was a true psychic, and he sued Randi just for saying that he was doing magic tricks. Geller was not being coy, not just putting the mystery or implication out there – he claimed psychic powers. This is why other magicians criticized him. Geller crossed over a line from magical entertainer to charlatan.

When Geller’s fame waned a bit in the 90s, Geller turned to an even more lucrative business – he made millions selling his dowsing ability to mineral companies. Segal just glosses over this entire affair, saying only that Geller has not disclosed how much he charged. But in my opinion this is pretty solid evidence that Geller is a charlatan. He charged millions for a service based on his claims to psychic powers.

And Geller is not relenting. In a 2020 interview he stated:

“While many have doubted my abilities, my achievements cannot be dismissed as trickery or illusions,” said the Israeli, who became famous in the 1970s for performing telekinetic feats on television, such as bending spoons without touching them. “In my intelligence work I assisted with Operation Desert Storm, helped to locate secret tunnels in North Korea, and used my skills to erase crucial diplomatic discs on their way to Moscow,” he said.

Working for government intelligence agencies is not some benign trick.

The premise of Segal’s piece is that Geller essentially “won” (whatever that means) and his skeptics have relented and now accept him. But I have to wonder if Segal spoke to a single skeptic. Some magicians may now embrace Geller, but I think they are wrong to do so. Geller made his career and his fortune as a charlatan, not as an magician. Yet Segal summarizes the Geller phenomenon thusly:

And the point is that Mr. Geller is an entertainer, one who’d figured out that challenging our relationship to the truth, and daring us to doubt our eyes, can inspire a kind of wonder, if performed convincingly enough.

Wrong. He did not encourage his audience to doubt. That is was good stage magicians do. They are “honest liars” who tell you they are going to trick you, then they trick you, and you know you can’t trust what you see. Geller encouraged his audience not to doubt, but to believe. To believe that he had real magical powers, that other magicians who could replicate his effects with tricks were defaming him, and that psychic powers are real. He encouraged marks to believe he could use his powers to find minerals, or to erase sensitive information from computer disks, and made millions in the process.

Geller did not just flirt with the line between entertainment and deception, he obliterated the line. Trying to rehabilitate this charlatan now misses the actual story and the real controversy. It’s just apologizing for fraud.

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