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Mar 21 2007

Charlatans of the paranormal

The magician James Randi (whose stage name is ‘The Amazing Randi’) is quite a remarkable person. In addition to his day job as a professional magician, he has a secondary career debunking those whom he sees as charlatans and who use ordinary magic trickery to enrich themselves by fooling gullible people into thinking that they have supernatural powers.

I saw Randi in person when I was in graduate school where he gave a performance of his magic to the student body, and then gave a colloquium in the physics department. In each case, he first did various impressive tricks such as bending spoons and changing the time on people’s watches without seemingly touching them, and escaping after being chained and put into a sack. He ended with a talk warning everyone that what he did was due to pure sleight of hand and deception, and that anyone who claimed to be using powers such as telekinesis, spiritual energy, and the like to do such things was simply lying.

At that time, one of Randi’s targets was Uri Geller who claimed that he had paranormal powers that enabled him to bend spoons without touching them, to see what was inside sealed envelopes, identify which of several closed identical containers had water inside, and so on. Geller had made quite a name for himself and was invited in 1973 to show his prowess on NBC’s The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. But Carson was no fool. He had started his own entertainer career at age 14 as a magician called “The Great Carsoni” and was well aware of the possibility of trickery. So Carson hired Randi as a consultant for the show and Randi advised him what he should do to make sure that if Geller did what he claimed he could do using paranormal powers, they were not due to simple trickery. You can see the clip of Geller’s appearance here. Thanks to Randi’s advice and Carson’s vigilance, Geller’s performance was a total bust. He could not do anything and ended up pleading that he was ‘feeling weak’ that day. He disappeared in disgrace for awhile but seems to be coming back again, hoping that people have forgotten that fiasco.

Another Randi/Carson expose in 1987 was that of preacher Peter Popoff who bilked gullible and poor religious believers out of millions of dollars by claiming that god spoke to him and told him things about them that enabled him to heal them. It turned out that the voice he heard was not that of god but that of his wife speaking through a receiver hidden in his ear who was telling him things that she had learned about the people Popoff was supposedly healing. After being exposed on Carson’s show, Popoff too lay low for awhile but recently he is also back with the same swindle, preying on the gullible.

In his long-term quest to show that people’s claims of having paranormal powers are a fraud, Randi has set up an educational foundation, and an anonymous donor has offered a $1 million reward to anyone who passed a test to identify the genders of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers, and getting at least 16 right. In 10 years, no one has succeeded with the best result being 12 right. Some prominent psychics have stayed away and one can understand why. Their fame and fortune depends on gullible people believing in them and they are unlikely to risk being exposed as frauds.

But suppose someone did come along who got 16 right? Would that prove that they had paranormal powers? No. Since there is a 50-50 chance of guessing right for each diary, the probability of getting at least 16 out of 20 right is 0.006 or 6 in 1,000 or about one chance in 167. This is unlikely but not that rare. To convince a skeptic like me to believe in the paranormal would require evidence that approaches certainty. To provide convincing proof of the paranormal, a person claiming to have such powers should be able to get everything right and be able to do it at any time.

This question of repeatability of such proofs is important. It is quite possible to have even an extremely unlikely event occur by chance and that would prove nothing. It is possible to get hit by lightning even if Zeus is not deliberately aiming thunderbolts at you.

What is interesting is that psychics around the world keep claiming to have supernatural powers but can never produce them under scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, we had our own rationalist champion named Abraham Kovoor who in his day also offered a monetary reward to the many ‘god-men’ in the region (people who claimed that they had supernatural powers because they were an incarnation of god) if they could read the serial number of a currency note in a sealed envelope. Kovoor went to his death at a ripe old age with his money safe.

Because of the lack of any confirmed positive evidence, I think that the logical and rational thing to do is to assume that every kind of paranormal phenomenon that has been postulated simply does not exist, just as an afterlife does not exist.

Of course, true believers in the existence of the supernatural will find all kinds of excuses for the absence of any evidence for it. For example, a common demonstration used by the ‘god-men’ in India and Sri Lanka to convince their devotees that they had supernatural powers was to wave their hands and produce, seemingly out of thin air, ‘holy ash’, the kind which devotees rub across their foreheads, similar to what some Christians do on Ash Wednesday. I have friends who believe in one of these ‘god men’ (famous in South Asia) called Sai Baba and they tell me stories like this to persuade me that their belief is rational. (See this site for exposes of Sai Baba.)

I recall a time when Kovoor staged a public demonstration where he did the very same thing that the ‘god men’ claimed they could do using divine powers. But true believers were unfazed. One person wrote to the newspaper that Kovoor’s display did not prove anything at all because while the ‘god-men’ produce holy ash, Kovoor had only succeeded in producing ordinary ash!

As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

POST SCRIPT: How the ten commandments came about

Sometime ago, I wrote that the ten commandments looked like something cobbled together by a frustrated committee struggling to come up with a round number of items. It turns out that this is exactly how they came about, with the committee consisting of god, his personal assistant Larry, and Jesus.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Shruti

    I am also skeptical of “god-men” but whether or not I term them as charlatans sort of depends on what effect they have on the lives of their believers. In the case of Sai Baba I think that following his teachings sincerely improves the lives of believers in many ways and encourages them to do such things as community service. In other words, he’s not hurting anyone, any more than your typical church.

    A branch of my family believes in another one of these “god-men” and since coming to this belief they have been able to handle some really horrible life events with a great deal of peace of mind. They’re not being exploited in any way, and they have found a sincere and caring community, so to me it doesn’t matter what the intentions of the “god-man” is.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    Shruti,

    I see your point. But if the god-men are using trickery to get people to believe them (however benign the reason), they are opening the door for other god-men with evil intent to take advantage of people, because people will not be skeptical of the whole idea of superpowers.

    I think the question is whether you believe such phenomena are real or not.

  3. 3
    Alex T Carpenter

    I doubt whether this post will make it live as I work within the very industry in dispute and where Mr Randi wants to wield his power to debunk the charaltans.
    Guys, it is not going to work, there have always been and always will be paranormal activity. Claims if not actual provable and there is a place in the world for this. In the same way as a medical professional has a duty of care, I firmly believe so does a psychic, medium, clairvoyant (the list of names is endless but you get the overall idea).
    Yes, it has been shown numerous times how easy it is to “fool” someone. Yes to a degree is this also not what counsellors and other therapists do? Psychic lines for example are a form of talking therapy and the costs are substantially less than hiring a therapist, those costs can spiral out of control for years.

    I would also state that some of the “psychics” do have some abilities that are off the radar in terms of what and how they do things, it is far more exceptional than just a clever and dedicated “cold reader”.

    There are many questionable business and practices, if you believe in God, the word there that holds the power is “belief”. Do you have self-belief or do you restrict your own abilities? I do not think that tests are the way forwards, never have, performance is best left for circuses after all. Even if someone, someday ran the Randi test and got 100% success rate, would this change your minds? No, because that is a single phenomenon and it could be put down to a number of factors.
    The Uri Geller incident made me chuckle, but stepping aside from the levels of fakery that this piece claims to have revealed – as a performer, he enhanced his performance, no question yet this is a man who has made substantial money. Not from his media personae but from dowsing – and finding diamond mines………….

    Just an opposing viewpoint from someone who thinks all is not terrible in the world and ultimately those who see to help in time of great distress should not be attacked as frauds when many do not believe that to be the case.

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