Exploiting people’s belief in superpowers

Spiritualists used to be quite the rage back in Charles Darwin’s day and even he was persuaded to attend a séance with one of the leading practitioners of his time. He was not impressed with the obvious theatricality and trickery involved in producing the noises and movement, but many people were duped into thinking that spirits existed.

With modern technology, it should be possible to convince gullible members of the public that some people have mysterious powers that can harness forces unknown to science, even without going to such elaborate extremes as shown in the video below (via David Drumm).

I am a bit surprised that such tricks are not being used more to fleece the rubes. I suspect that the danger with being too spectacular is that in this day and age, if word got around that you could do extraordinary things, others would start to investigate and debunk you. It is better for such people to keep it low-key and vague, with faith healings and the like.

This is what happened with Uri Geller when he became a big hit and was invited by Johnny Carson to show his stuff. Unfortunately for Geller, Carson (who had also been a magician earlier in his career) was a skeptic and was more interested in actually seeing if Geller was genuine and so he invited James Randi to help him make sure that no trickery was involved. As a result of those precautions, Geller couldn’t do anything and was laughed off the set. In this clip, we see Randi explaining how frauds like Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff do their stuff.

Unfortunately you can’t keep these people down, however much they are debunked. Like a whack-a-mole, they pop up somewhere else later. After lying low for a while Geller seems to be back, now claiming to gullible people that he uses his psychic powers as a spy for the CIA and Mossad. Popoff is also back, now hawking ‘miracle water’.

These people exploit the desire of people to believe that there is something other than this world and those mysterious forces can be used for their benefit.


  1. trucreep says

    The most impressive is a magician (or, excuse me Gob, “illusionist”) that can perform so well as to baffle the mind on how its done. You KNOW it’s not real magic, but HOW is it done!? That to me is far more entertaining than some asshole that pretends to have superpowers.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The sick ‘n’ twisted part of my personality awaits with glee some superstitious Al Qaeda wannabe deciding to take the new claims seriously, and really putting Geller’s “psychic powers” to the test with sneak attacks.

  3. says

    So it turns out that Popoff’s scam works like this: You request a vial of miracle water which he sens you for free. Then he sends you “instructions” on how to use it. Those instructions involve anointing your hands with the water, and then anointing a gift of $17 which you send to him.

    He’s very specific about the $17 gift – he says it must be exact – no more no less – because 1 is the number of God the Father and 7 is Gods number of perfection.

    Curiously, no explanation is given as to why the gift couldn’t just as well be 17 cents. Or 17 checkles. Or 17 yen. Or 17 post-it notes with dollar signs drawn on them.

  4. sailor1031 says

    Nothing new about “miracle water”. RCC Inc. has been hawking it for centuries and taken in billions of gullibles.

    PS: they’re reviving their old, lucrative trade in indulgences too. How gullible do you have to be to buy that one?

  5. mnb0 says

    “the desire of people to believe that there is something other than this world”
    Around 1975 Uri Geller was on Dutch television with his spoon bending trick. I remember that I was quite impressed and tried it myself, without success of course. I was 10, 12 years old. A few weeks later his “spiritual skills” were exposed and for a long time that was the last we heard of him in The Netherlands.
    Even at that age I was not disappointed. Apparently even then I hadn’t a strong desire for “more than our world”. Now I simply don’t understand such a desire.
    Still I think the spoon bending trick funny and cool, like to hear ghost stories (the vast majority of horror bores the hell out of me though) and read some fantasy novels now and then (but don’t especially admire them). Oh, and I can recommend some songs by master guitarist Steve Hillage. Otherworldy things are fun to me now and then, but nothing more.

  6. says

    Rush has a song called “Mystic Rhythms” that deals with our innate desire to suspend our disbelief, even if only for the sake of amusement. You can find it on YouTube.

  7. filethirteen says

    I despise those kind of pranks (Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise). I loathe the way they attempt to make people believe nonsense, even if only for a short time. Enough people want others to believe rubbish as it is. I’d just love to be present during one, so I could be the one who stands up, advances into camera shot and says loudly “Yeah right, what a load of bullshit”, spoiling the stunt and sending the stupid amount of money that was spent contriving it down the drain.

  8. jamessweet says

    Heh, I wonder how I would have reacted to the coffee shop prank. The effects were well done, and the lack of any apparent motive would probably have muted my bullshit detectors somewhat. (e.g. if this woman showed off her telekinetic powers and then tried to mug people by threatening to use her powers, I probably would revert to natural skeptic mode pretty quickly, heh…) My reaction probably would have been one of confusion more than anything — have I accidentally stumbled on a movie set? heh…

  9. Steve C says

    Wow, all that work to fool a few customers… I wasn’t surprised to see that it was a promo for something bigger in the end. Still, impressive work; it reminds me of the kind of stuff British magician Derren Brown does. His Apocalypse special is something to see if you enjoy this kind of elaborate staging.

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