Bending Spoons and Bending Minds

Mini-Science logoGuest columnist Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, puts the sense back into common sense. On April 7, his talk “Science and the Paranormal”  opens the 2010 series of Mini-Science, “Pseudoscience: From Quirks to Quacks.”  Mini-Science registration opens March 1.

Everyone should go to a magic convention at least once in their lives.  You’ll be fooled and entertained as coins vanish, selected cards rise out of decks and ten dollar bills float in mid-air in front of your eyes.  But most important, you’ll never look at the world the same way again.  Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to foster critical thinking than to be fooled by the honest charlatans at a magic convention.

So what is an honest charlatan?  We better start by defining what a charlatan is.  Simply put, a charlatan pretends to have some power, skill, or knowledge that he actually does not possess.  Claims can range from the “ability” to remove tumors without making an incision to causing spoons to bend by psychic means.  An “honest” charlatan can produce the same effects but freely admits that it is all done by trickery.

The Dean of honest charlatans is The Amazing Randi, one of my idols.  He is a world famous magician, but more significantly, he is the superman of rational thought, fighting for truth, justice and the scientific way.

What a delight it was for me to finally meet the Amazing One at Montreal’s annual magic convention!  For two hours we chatted about the current widespread belief in various types of silliness and the importance of exposing fraud wherever it exists.

Randi has built a formidable career on such exposures.  And he has put his money, currently $1.1 million, where his mouth is.  Anyone can claim the money, providing they can produce a paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions.  Let them telepathically determine the contents of a sealed envelope, move an object by “psychokinesis” or bend a spoon by mental power.

While many challengers have been tested, no one so far has walked away with the money.  Uri Geller hasn’t even applied for it.  Oh yes, Uri Geller.  It is virtually impossible to discuss Randi without talking about Geller, the psychic superstar who for nearly three decades has been bending spoons, and bending minds for a living.

Geller, a seemingly charming, former Israeli magician claims to have abilities that he himself doesn’t understand.  He gently rubs keys and they bend, he runs his hands above sealed cannisters and determines which ones contain water.  Strangely though, he cannot do these things with Randi around.

When Geller first came to the U.S., he guested on the Tonight Show.  The appearance was anticipated eagerly because Geller had already captivated huge live audiences with his psychic feats and now millions of TV viewers would finally get a chance to see the phenomena that science could not explain.

The appearance was a total fiasco.  Geller was unable to produce anything.  He didn’t feel right, he said, the energy just wasn’t there that night.  But it was quite apparent that the psychic powers had actually failed Geller earlier.  Otherwise he would have known that Johnny Carson was an amateur magician and that the show’s producers had consulted Randi about how “psychic” feats could be carried out using magicians’ tricks.

Geller couldn’t bend the spoons supplied by the show, he couldn’t determine which sealed film cannister contained water because on Randi’s advice the cannisters were firmly attached to the table.  Geller’s usual trick of imperceptibly shaking the table to see which cannister moved did not work.  Only Geller was visibly shaken.

Strangely, the psychic flop did not destroy Geller’s career.  His next appearance was on the Donahue Show, and everything worked!  Proof, Geller said, that he was not a magician, he was for real.  If he was just doing tricks, they would work all the time!

Eventually numerous articles and books appeared explaining how Geller performed his stunts and North American interest in the spoon bender declined.  He moved to England where he now claims to help companies find gold and oil by psychic map reading and markets Uri Geller’s Mind Power Kit with crystal quartz for psychic healing.

Belief in psychic spoon bending may seem harmless enough.  But it is not.  If you can believe that metal can be bent by thought processes, you can also believe that tumors can be removed from the body without any trace of an incision being left.  Such “psychic surgery” is performed by standard sleight of hand tricks and looks very impressive.  But what about actual cancer patients who are taken in by the ruse?  Might they be foregoing some effective therapy?

Randi’s purpose is not to uncritically debunk.  It is to fairly evaluate claims.  He, like any scientist, would be thrilled if our scientific sphere could be expanded.  How exciting it would be if we could send messages to each other telepathically, if we really were being visited by aliens, if we could treat disease by therapeutic touch!

Therapeutic touch is the supposed ability to affect body processes by moving hands over the body at a distance of roughly 8-10 inches.  The explanation offered is that the body is surrounded by an energy field which can be altered by the therapist’s energy field.  Practitioners, nurses in many cases, claim to actually feel the presence of this field and describe it like “spongy rubber.”  There are numerous accounts of patients being helped.  But is the energy field or the placebo effect at play?

Randi described how he had recently advertised in nursing magazines for anyone who could detect the human energy field, offering the standard reward.  A sleeve would be constructed in such a way that an arm could be placed in it without the therapist seeing whether the sleeve was “armed” or not.  The goal was to determine, in a statistically significant fashion, when the arm was in the sleeve by feeling for the energy field.

In spite of the heavy advertising and offer of the reward, only one lady showed up at the Philadelphia hospital where the experiment was to be performed.  She got the arm placement right half the time.  After, she blamed jet lag for the failure, despite having signed a form previously that everything was to her satisfaction.  Randi told me that his offer of course still stands.

Two hours had flown by and I couldn’t monopolize the Amazing One any more.  Anyway, I had to go and check out the magic dealers.  My psychic key bender had worn out and I needed a new one.  I also found a new spoon effect.  “Spoon Spinner” allows the magician to charge an ordinary tea spoon with his “aura” and use it to pick up another spoon.  Of course no one else can repeat this.  I had to have it.

I could hardly wait to get home and demonstrate my acquisition.  But when I took the spoons out of my pocket, one of them was bent!  Could it be that I have some unrecognized psychic power?  Maybe.  Or maybe I just sat on the spooon.

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