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January 19, 2007


 "...the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it." - Jonathan Swift

Table of Contents:
  1. Another Fabulous Failure
  2. Geller Redux
  3. Please Call Us
  4. Those Challenge Changes
  5. All In The Mind
  6. Sensitive Snakes Revisited
  7. In Conclusion

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ANOTHER FABULOUS FAILURE

Back in February, 2003, “psychics” Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh were consulted by the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck – Pam and Craig Akers. That young man just recently turned up – very much alive and well, in rather sharp disagreement with the prognostications of the humbug artists. The Hornbecks had talked February 11th with Sylvia Browne on the Montel Williams television show, where she informed them that Shawn was "no longer with us," which means “dead.” She said his body was in a wooded area “about 20 miles southwest of Richwoods, Missouri.” She said it would be near two large, jagged boulders that “seem out of place in that area,” and she added that the bicycle he was riding when he disappeared, is in a dump "in another state." As a result of Browne’s fruitless guess, intensive searches by hundreds of volunteers were conducted in the general area described by her, but naturally, with no success. Not even “jagged boulders” showed up, let alone the kid – until he was found and returned home on Friday, January 12th. He’d been gone for 1,559 days!

But there was more specific drivel from Browne, She said that Shawn had been taken by a "dark-skinned man, he wasn't black – more like Hispanic." She said the kidnaper had long, black hair worn in dreadlocks and was "really tall." He was driving an older model blue sedan, she said, a car with fins like in the late 1950's and early 1960's Chevrolets. All of this drivel was wrong, from the description of the man – he is not Hispanic nor dark-skinned, he’s Caucasian, he’s heavy and not tall – and his car was quite the opposite of Browne’s invented notions: it was a white pickup truck.

The Akers also appeared in television segments on “Beyond” with James Van Praagh, another equally accurate “psychic.” He led the search in an entirely different direction, suggesting that a person who worked in a railroad car plant was involved, and that the body “might” be concealed in a railway car. Again, totally wrong, in all respects. This fatuous guess-fest also led to numerous detailed searches, including a railroad yard – all a waste of time and money, at the expense of the frantic parents.

This is yet another glaring example of how these leeches eagerly fasten onto grieving and vulnerable persons, exploit them, and profit from their situation. And it won’t stop. Larry King and Montel Williams will continue to give the scam-artists time and publicity – BECAUSE THEY JUST DON’T CARE!




GELLER REDUX

A recent fuss caused by an Uri Geller TV series in Israel has also stirred up the legitimate magicians there. He claims that he’s seeking a successor (?!) and he shows off a parade of young magicians who carefully avoid saying specifically whether they are displaying genuine miracles, but manage to drop in references to Kabbalah, Indian mysticism, and various popular modes of sorcery. Many of the Israeli magicians are of the opinion that they should not support belief in paranormal powers, and they are dismayed that the president of their own association is instructing them on what their opinions and public statements about Geller’s claims should be. They wrote and telephoned to ask me to prepare a statement giving my views on the matter. Here it is:

Within the last two weeks, several Israeli magicians have urged me to provide a statement on conjurors’ ethics that can be used to explain our concern over the endorsement and support of Uri Geller’s claims by Dahlia Pelled, the president of the Israeli Society of Magicians.  Ms. Pelled has instructed members of the Society that they should support the mythology that Geller does not perform tricks, but is genuinely psychic.

Unless Ms. Pelled’s knowledge of the conjuring art is only rudimentary, I cannot believe that she really looks upon the spoon-bending, compass-moving, and sealed-drawing demos that Mr. Geller does, as genuine examples of supernatural powers.  If she does so, it means she is not familiar with simple routines that have appeared in children’s magic trick books, for generations. But, if she is aware of the methods used by Geller, I look upon her acceptance and support of his claims as, first, unethical, and second, damaging to our profession.  Other magicians around the world, in great number, agree with me.

Mr. Geller is fond of citing the names of befuddled scientists who have – at least temporarily – supported his claims of genuine supernatural powers, even though most of them are now deceased. It is well known among conjurers that scientists are relatively easy to deceive simply because they think logically and rationally, and are the perfect dupes for basic magic tricks. They are very poor judges of whether or not they have been fooled; such endorsements are of no value whatsoever. However, the president of a national conjurers association surely has appropriate knowledge of whether or not a performer is doing tricks – one would think.

Dishonesty has no place in the conjuring profession.  We are not swindlers taking money under false pretences.  We do not lie to our audiences to change their perception of the real world.  Yes, we use hyperbole and misdirection, but in the same way that all actors do – to create admitted illusions, not to mislead the public into dangerous acceptance of pseudoscience and irrationality.  As conjurors, we have the obligation to be honest with the public – because we have the potential to exert strong influence on their thinking processes and even mislead them in their decision-making.  That’s what scam artists – not conjurors – do.

This is not a frivolous matter.  Belief in the supernatural has led to grief, financial and academic ruin, disillusionment, and even illness and death, for the public.  A brief study of my web page at www.randi.org will provide examples of this damage. Is Ms. Pelled willing to continue to be a part of this process of deception?  If so, in my opinion, she abandons her responsibility and her duties as a human being, and should not be representing the Israeli Society of Magicians.

Had Uri Geller undertaken to be an entertainer and to level with his audiences, I and other legitimate conjurors would have had no problem with him. Instead, he has firmly stated, on many occasions, that he uses no trickery, and that he has genuine supernatural abilities.  This is untrue; he is a conjuror – of very limited repertoire – and he now manipulates people in his homeland – with the support and endorsement of the Israeli Society of Magicians!

Incidentally, I belong to the Israeli Society of Magicians, myself, so I have more than a passing interest in this situation. I was granted membership back in September of 1986 during a visit to that country. Back then, the organization was known as The Israeli Society for Promoting the Art of Magic. That’s more than 20 years ago. Has Mrs. Pelled been a member for that long…?

One letter from a young Israeli magician gives an opinion:

My name is [deleted]. I'm 19+ years old – from Israel. If you know Israeli people, you probably know about Uri Geller's TV Show where he looks for his [successor] – "The Next Uri Geller" kind of thing.

This whole show is a joke, plus Uri himself. He just made his character in Israel go down. On the latest show (if you haven't heard yet) he made a compass move, like he did before in many shows across the globe. BUT THIS TIME it was obvious that he put a magnet on his thumb. You can definitely see it. He did wrong by doing that LIVE on TV.

The video of this was on YouTube the minute it happened but, the problem is that he (Uri) had it removed from YouTube so the only place you can see it is on Keshet Site (the TV company who made the show) and the whole site is in Hebrew, so I'll hope you get something. It's at www.keshet-tv.com/geller/lobbyvideo.aspx and in the video list right now it is the second from the top. You can see the compass in the picture. Uri is a good performer, but NOT a super-power. You know that, of course.

Randi comments: The video shows an obvious move by Mr. Geller which appears to be the placing of a sort of thimble on his left thumb. This could easily conceal a tiny neodymium magnet more than sufficient to deflect the compass as shown. You’ll notice that Geller – at first – very purposefully waves his hands over the compass several times, showing that it doesn’t budge. Then he makes the “thimble” move, and immediately after that, the compass reacts to his left hand. Mind you, he can have such a tiny – 4mm diameter – magnet, concealed anywhere – in his mouth, behind his ear, taped to his hand with flesh-colored adhesive tape, or on his knee underneath a table at which he sits! Folks, we used to do this trick at summer camp to fool the newcomers. It’s a very tired old trick, but one of the half-dozen that constitute the Geller routine.

The day following a Geller appearance on American TV, on “The View” in January of 2000, I was a guest. I duplicated this simple trick for the hosts. See www.randi.org/jr/01-26-2000.html.

Another correspondent wrote:

This is just to let you know that Keshet, the company airing Geller's current show, asked (and got) YouTube to remove the magnet-compass clip. Here's the story (though in Hebrew) saying Geller feels he got caught and is embarrassed by the whole thing. It’s at www.nrg.co.il/online/4/ART1/529/517.html.

I must mention that Ms. Pelled has demanded that I reveal the identities of those magicians who have contacted me, particularly those within her country. I refuse to do so; we already know how litigious Mr. Geller is. This lady insists that I have the story all wrong, but gives no details. Methinks she has created a monster, and cannot control it… Her latest declaration seems to indicate that she’s abandoned support of Geller, though. She now says that (a) the contestants on the TV show are regular magicians without any “special” powers, and that Geller himself is a magician! Just what is her opinion, please?

Through a close friend with connections in Israel, I obtained a translation of the newspaper story:

Some kind of ban

All around the world a ban might be declared on Israeli magicians. The reason: an attack by the well-known magician James Randi on Uri Geller and the president of the magician's committee in Israel. "He's doing manipulations, I find it hard to believe the president of the committee believes all the spoon bending"

Sunday, January 14, 2007.

Magicians around the world are starting to lose their patience. The spoon bending mind tricks done by Uri Geller in his show, especially the cooperation he's getting from the magicians committee, made one of the most senior magicians in the world take action against the Israeli magicians.

Well known magician James Randi, now an accounted world known trickery revealer within the “paranormal" field, has aggressively attacked Israeli magic committee president Dahlia Pelled. This, following the cooperation between Geller and the committee which provided most of the contestants in his show "Uri Geller looking for an heir."

"I find it hard to believe a magicians committee's president believes all the spoon bending and compass moving Geller does. If she believes that, she should be directed to children's magic books. But if she understands this is trickery, I find that her behavior is unethical and harmful to the profession of magic,” stated Randi.

Lately there were a few investigations revealing Geller's contestants and Geller himself using optical tricks and simple magician tricks, to create an illusion of super powers. Although this is known, committee members competing in the show continue to deny the claim they are magicians and state that all things done by them are done by "Kabala powers," "Chinese medicine," and "special abilities."

"Uri Geller insists on saying he has super powers," says Randi, "and now he is manipulating the Israeli public, with support from the Israeli magicians committee. Pelled's support of Geller and the mythology around him, worries us a lot. This isn't just something over nothing. Belief in paranormal powers created a world of ignorance, poverty and sometimes even sickness and death.

“Is the Israeli magicians committee's president willing to take part in such deceit?" rages Randi. Dahlia Pelled says she got an angry letter from Randi, but she claims he only heard one side of the story. "He really over-reacted. All the details he claimed are untrue. He got a very one-sided, distorted picture," she said.

Another well-known American magician said, "coming from Randi, this could be a deadly blow for the relations between the Israeli magicians committee and the rest of the magicians. No respected magician would dare to associate his name with this committee." He added that "the names of the people participating in the show have already been marked by magicians committees as names to be banned and outcast from the international magic industry."

Israel's magic committee said "the committee hopes and believes this is an entertainment show, and things shown on that show are not being done by paranormal powers."

That is a strange statement indeed, since Geller says he’s the real thing… I must comment: I cannot imagine any possible “ban” on Israeli magicians resulting from this fuss, nor am I “against the Israeli magicians” in any way.  I just believe that they are being poorly represented.

Another article:

On James Randi, By Eran Swissa

The acclaimed magician that took Uri Geller down.

James Randi is one of the most important magicians of the last century. Randi's name is known all over the world not only as an influential magician, but also as the first man to uncover Uri Geller's tricks. Randi is the one who killed Geller's career in the USA, when he set him up on Johnny Carson's famous show. Following that show Geller had to shift his career to England, where he resides until today.

Randi also wrote many books, one of which is the best seller "The Truth about Uri Geller," where he revealed his secrets. James Randi is today identified with authenticity and integrity all over the world, both for the world of magic, and the world of science and academia. He nurtured many of the world's most famous magicians, for instance "Penn and Teller", who are considered his followers.

And finally, from Ma’ariv newspaper:

Uri Geller bends YouTube – again

A clip showing Uri Geller wearing a magnet on his finger in order to move a marine compass was removed from YouTube at Keshet's request.

January 11, 2007

A clip from Uri Geller's show was removed from YouTube's site after Keshet contacted them. In the clip Geller is spotted putting on his finger an object known in the magic world as a “magnetic fingertip” in order to move a marine compass, while claiming it is done by the power of thought and with the help of the crowd. The clip still appears in Keshet's website "The Bath."

Web surfers from Israel and around the world who wanted to watch the clip in the last few days discovered that the site's administration told them the clip was removed at Keshet's request, since they owned the rights to the clip.

The clip caused a massive media racket. In Raffi Reshef's show the clip was shown and Reshef called it "the most embarrassing moment of his career." According to different publications, this isn't the first time embarrassing Geller clips have been removed from YouTube. A candid camera clip showing Geller bending a spoon with simple arm action was also removed from that site on Geller's request.

One of the surfers told NRG-Ma'ariv: "I wonder why Keshet asked to have that clip removed from such an international site. They could have a lot of publicity from around the world on viewing of its programs, maybe they aren't interested because this successful format would seem like a bunch of tricks. We are talking about a site with many different clips from all around the world. Asking to remove a clip from such a site is very unique. Anyhow there's nothing to worry about, as a simple Google query with the words ‘Uri Geller caught’ will find the famous clip under many sites."

A source close to the production told NRG-Ma'ariv: "the magnet-on-thumb revelation was traumatic for him. Geller is currently trying to do business as usual, but even he knows there's a true problem with public confidence in him."

Keshet responded: "Any content taken from 'Keshet' programming can be found in 'Keshet's' site."

Uri Geller's response was unavailable.

Meanwhile, in the email Ms. Pelled sends to friends, she says "What Randi has done is great for our society's PR." She exults to members, "I am now being invited to TV shows and interviews everywhere. I am very happy about this article!"

Happiness is fleeting…




PLEASE CALL US

Our good friend Michael Feldman sent us this interesting quotation from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to John Adams in 1816:

We are destined to be a barrier against the return of ignorance and barbarism.

Jefferson was referring to the two of them, which seems to be taking on a lot of responsibility. And, where are these guys, now that we really need them…?



THOSE CHALLENGE CHANGES

Regarding the announced changes to the JREF Challenge rules, I should mention that any would-be applicants who cannot – yet – meet the “media” and “academic validation” criteria are eligible to take the preliminary stage of the JREF test procedure by contacting their nearest skeptics group. Just put the group in touch with the JREF so that a protocol for a test can be negotiated and agreed upon. There are also skeptical organizations around the world who offer their own – rather lesser! – prizes. The JREF will be happy to provide a local group contact for any such potential applicant.

We’ve had much strong and favorable input regarding the proposed changes, and the general opinion is that the new arrangement will better promote our stated goals, as well as those of education about critical thinking, and will provide a more visible and active public profile for skepticism.



ALL IN THE MIND

Reader John MacDonald in Dubai, UAE, writes:

I think this article (see below) from the on-line Glasgow Herald will interest you – and Swift readers. It illustrates quite clearly why believers in homeopathy, magnets, crystals and allied quackery sincerely claim benefits from the “treatment.” It's all in the mind, even if the “remedy” per se is totally ineffectual.

I have had some personal experience of this. A few years ago I was involved in the marketing of new medication for erectile dysfunction. At the clinical trials stage, as many as 25% of the control group receiving dummy pills reported "excellent results"! Astonishing. I can therefore understand why homeopathy has so many praise-singers. They believe it works, and therefore it does. The Herald article illustrates how the reverse is also true: believe that something will do you damage, and it will. Even if it is innocuous and harmless.

Randi comments: John, it would be more correct to say, “They believe it works, and therefore they experience relief from symptoms.” It’s the old question: “Do you want to only feel better, or do you want to actually be better?” John continues:

You and Swift do an excellent job in promoting reason, but how can we counter the frailties of a brain where logic does not function? What angers me is how this human fallibility is cynically exploited by quacks for financial gain.

Here is an excerpt from the Glasgow Herald article: 

Is your pain a trick of the mind? …a group of Australians took part in a medical trial to see what effects steroids have on the body. As expected, many volunteers found they experienced the familiar side-effects of steroids – acne and bouts of ill-temper, known as “'roid” rage. But when the study organizers looked more closely, they made a surprising discovery. Many members of the control group – who, unwittingly, had been taking a dummy pill instead of steroids – experienced the same unpleasant side-effects of anger and skin complaints.

What the mind expects, it often gets. This phenomenon is known as the "nocebo effect." Nocebo is placebo's evil twin.

With the placebo effect, the expectation that something will make us [feel] better means that it does. With the nocebo effect, the belief that something will make us ill actually does make us poorly. For example, in a study in Naples, patients were given a dummy pill and asked to report whether it made them feel ill. Amazingly, 27% said they experienced side-effects such as itching, malaise and headaches. This was not a freak result. On average, 25% of patients who receive any medical treatment will experience unwarranted psychologically induced symptoms of pain or illness.

As a result of the nocebo effect, millions of pounds are spent on changing drug prescriptions every year. It also undermines the healing process: patients recover from surgery more slowly if they go into an operation expecting there will be adverse side-effects. The rise in allergies and food intolerances is another example: an astonishing one in five of us now believes that eating wheat or dairy products makes us feel bloated.

This may all sound like hypochondria, but psychological illnesses are not to be underestimated. The symptoms that sufferers experience are real and often extremely unpleasant. Treating illness like this has always been impossible, because the biology behind it has been elusive. But now Italian researchers believe they have discovered the source of the nocebo effect. Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin has discovered a chemical in the brain that turns anxiety into pain…

The Glasgow Herald web site has the entire story…



SENSITIVE SNAKES REVISITED

Reader Michael K. Watters of Valparaiso University remarks on the item at www.randi.org/jr/2007-01/010507phil.html#i6, saying:

My wife lived in Seattle when St. Helens [volcano] blew its top. She had guinea pigs at the time and tells me that the little fellas went totally berserk in their cage shortly before they heard the blast. From her description, they must have lost it after the mountain blew, but before the sound of the explosion reached Seattle. That’s certainly consistent with the “low-frequency vibrations in the Earth” notion you mention since those waves travel much faster than sound.

I also seem to recall that following the recent tsunami there were stories of many of animals moving away from the ocean before the waves hit.

I suppose while I think the premise with the snakes is plausible, I would strongly suspect that the amount of warning time would be pretty minor at best.  Maybe enough time to run out of the house, but not soon enough to evacuate an office building.

Well, I’m told that guinea pigs and snakes get on very well, for a short time, at least – but I’m not about to set up a zoo to test this matter. I’ve enough trouble with the bees, possums, woodpeckers, raccoons, mice, termites, and other wild critters that eat up my home…



IN CONCLUSION…

As you read this, I’ll be in Las Vegas in the company of the Shallenbergers, Hal Bidlack, Jeff Wagg, Scott Romanowski, the Hursts, the Feldmans, the JREF Volunteer Team, and so many others who make it all possible. We’ll of course have a full report for readers. Some 779 registrants will be there, along with Todd Robbins, Jamy Ian Swiss, Banachek, Penn & Teller, one or more MythBusters – Adam Savage for sure, that mystical pair from South Park – Matt and Trey, Eugenie Scott, NPR’s Peter Sagal, Neil Gershenfeld, Lori Lipman Brown, Margaret Downey, Robert Todd Carroll, Diane Swanson, Ray Hall herding his paper-presenters, Scott Dikkers from The Onion, John Rennie from Scientific American, Christopher Hitchens, the irrepressible Julia Sweeney and Jill Sobule, Phil Plait & Richard Wiseman, Nick Gillespie of Reason, the unique Jerry Andrus, and – of course! – Michael Shermer.

How I got to have so many good friends to gather in one place to celebrate the JREF, I just cannot figure. It only remains to see if we have the same happy proportion of male/female, young/old, and student/teacher that we’ve come to expect. This is a mix that makes the TAM projects so unique and valuable, in my opinion.

Next week…?

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