Jan 28 2008

Uri Geller’s Confession and Human Fallibility

Uri Geller is a mentalist – a magician who uses trickery in order to simulate psychic or paranormal ability. He is a performer of modest talent – his signature trick that of bending spoons while no one is looking. But he has become an international celebrity by crossing a line most mentalists only flirt with, claiming that he performs his feats with true psychic ability and not trickery. Fellow magician, James Randi (scourge of all charlatans) has made an ongoing effort to expose Geller’s tricks for what they are, largely by reproducing them with slight of hand. As Randi says, “If Geller is using supernatural powers to perform this feat, he’s doing it the hard way.”

In an interview with me (not yet published) and in his online newsletter, Swift, Randi reported that recently, in an interview with German magazine Magische Welt (Magic World), Geller is quoted as saying:

’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.

That is quite a revelation. Taken at face value it is a confession that all these years he has been nothing but a garden-variety mentalist and that he lied about having psychic power. I don’t know if this is the last word on the matter from Geller (he may have second thoughts about this reversal) but it confirms what skeptics and magicians have always known – it is not necessary to postulate paranormal powers in order to explain Geller’s feats.

Meanwhile, Geller has convinced millions of the authenticity of his powers. This provides a potential object lesson – that people can be profoundly fooled. Everyone knows that we can be fooled, but most people grossly underestimate to degree and ease with which it can be done. In fact the gulf between skeptics and believers is mostly filled with such lessons in human fallibility. Magicians are often skeptics because their profession is built upon the knowledge of deception and how to exploit the many weaknesses of human perception and memory.

I recently received an e-mail (excerpts below) which illustrates how easily people are deceived and how this can lead to bizarre beliefs firmly held.

One night years ago, I sat up late watching the Tomorrow Show…a late night talk show that you may be familiar with yourself, depending on your age. ( I am 54) The host, Tom Snyder, introduced a guest…the ‘well known’ psychic Yuri Geller. Now before you grab the keyboard and start writing to tell me what a charlatan Mr. Geller is…let me finish… :-)On this night as I watched, Mr. Geller provided several effects that ranged from simple mind reading to making some broken watches and clocks resume ticking and keeping accurate time…and he also caused some keys, forks and other flatware to bend…literally bend into a u shape…simply by gently rubbing them with his finger tip…this happened on-camera, up close. Some of these were provided by the host and others on the set, out of their own pocket. This got my attention…nothing truly illuminating or shocking…but then Mr. Geller decided to show his ability to ‘send’ information with his mind. I was watching now, with renewed interest. Mr. Geller proceeded to take a sketch board of paper and a pencil, and he situated himself where no one on the set could see as he drew. He then looked at the host and then at the television audience and he said that he was going to attempt to ‘send’ this picture that he had drawn to everyone on the set AND to everyone in the viewing audience…thousands of people…and as he turned and looked at the host…I suddenly had what I can only describe as a bright…but very brief…flash of light that seemed to start and end in my forehead…leaving behind the image of an elephant’s head, complete with the large ear and trunk. No one could have been more astonished, because of course I did not believe he could do such a thing, or that at the very least I would not receive it in any case. I was even more astonished when he turned the paper around…and it was the exact image I had ‘seen’ in my head. … And I was not the only one…everyone on the set ‘saw’ what he had drawn, and they received mail from around the country of many others who received it as well.

Now I’m not saying here that all ‘psychics’ are real…or that even very many are real…I’ve never been to a John Edward show and probably wouldn’t go if the opportunity arose…but I KNOW that what happened to me that night was real…and I also know that the implications of the simple parlor tricks that Mr. Geller produced are quite dramatic from the point of view of physics, if they could be produced with the proper scientific safeguards.

I offer this story to you not to attempt to convince you of anything…but to explain why I stated earlier that you are simply wrong (if you lump all psychic phenomena into a group and dismiss it as charlatanism.) I assure you there is something there…in some cases. What it is, I don’t know and probably can’t know. Psychic abilities may be impossible, by their very nature, to ‘prove’ via the ‘scientific method.’ However, if you keep up with the scientific literature on advances in theoretical physics…it is truly beginning to take on the feel of the very type of effects that you seem eager to dismiss as charlatanism. I ask only that you keep an open mind and not be fooled by your own keen sense of what common sense really is.

The e-mailer “knows” with utter confidence that what he experienced was a genuine psychic event. And yet Geller now informs us that he is a mere entertainer. How could this person (and many others) be so wrong? Well, first we must acknowledge that we know from historical examples that people can be profoundly wrong about such things. It would be extremely closed minded, in fact, to dismiss out of hand the possibility that this person simply perceived and remembered the event incorrectly.

In his e-mail he hit upon the key point when he wrote: “if they could be produced with the proper scientific safeguards.” There’s the rub. So far, no one has done so in a rigorous repeatable fashion. Geller can only perform his tricks under conditions that allow for trickery. Randi famously shut down Geller’s powers on the Tonight Show by telling Carson what safeguards to put into effect.

In the elephant drawing trick specifically, this is a common mentalist trick. (It is no coincidence that Geller’s powers all imitate established mentalist performances). Mentalists pretend to project information psychically – numbers, pictures, words, etc., by using various methods, firstly by picking a target that is common and statistically what many or most people will choose. So mentalists use understanding of psychology and statistics to create the impression of psychic power. Some mentalists will also use suggestion to influence the audience to make the choice they want. When projecting to a large crowd the mentalist only needs to get enough people to choose correctly to make it seem as if the odds are being defied -but in reality the mentalist is playing the odds and counting on the audience’s ignorance of those odds.

The mentalist also counts on the fact that the audience is likely to remember the hits and forget the misses. Those viewing Uri Geller that night who were not thinking of an elephant (or whose watch did not start ticking again) don’t remember and recount their story – it was a non-event. For some of those who were thinking of an elephant, it was probably a strange experience (depending up their inclinations and knowledge of mentalism). The sudden shock of seeing what they were thinking of appear on Geller’s sketch pad likely had a powerful effect of how they remember their experience. Suddenly their spontaneous imagining of an image takes on weird characteristics – conforming to the belief (the desire to believe) that the image was placed in their mind, as opposed to just being conjured up from the imagination.

Also, over the years their interesting story of a psychic event will morph so that the details conform better to the overall theme of the story. This phenomenon is well established – we remember the emotional content and the significance of events, not so much the details. The details are slaves to the story. So years later we have a tale to tell, with all the details pointing in one dramatic direction, and we are absolutely certain of the reliability and veracity of our memories, but in reality it can all be a fiction.

Years later the man who we were certain had psychic powers may confess to being a charlatan – only an entertainer with no supernatural powers. The skeptic has come to terms with this reality of the human condition. Most people, not being immersed in the psychology of deception and the failings of human memory, recoil from the implications of such stories. They dismiss the possibility of error while accusing the skeptics of being dismissive.

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