(Investigator 1, 1988 July)
The Scene; Dick SMITH's office in Sydney.
The dramatis personae, Dick, his secretary, half a dozen camera crews from the various network news and public affairs programs, plus yours truly, and, of course, our star, professional Ghost Buster, James RANDI.
It's about six years ago and we've invited Randi to Australia to wreak havoc among the shonks and shysters, the psychic surgeons and Doris Stokes. Randi's reputation, St. George to Uri GELLER's Iguana, has preceded him and, within a few hours, he will be thrown off the Don Lane Show by a compare screaming "piss off" at the merest suggestion that Mrs Stokes is not spiritually superior to Mother Teresa.
(Stop Press: Randi tells me that there are now moves to seize the deceased Doris's considerable estate as it turns out that she never got around to donating all that money to the orphanage she kept talking about. Indeed, there's no evidence that she gave any money to any orphanage at all. Had journalists checked her claims more thoroughly they'd have found out, with Doris, charity most certainly began at home.)
As the press conference begins, Randi sees I'm about to light a cigarette and grabs it from my fingers. Not from disapproval, but in the interests of dramatics. Dropping it on Dick's desk he suggests to the cameramen, "You might like to look at this...a new form of energy." Whereupon he starts rubbing his fingertips on various items of apparel worn by the crews. "I need the right fabric and texture," he explains.
Satisfied by a woolly jumper, he applies friction to fast moving fingertips and advances on the cigarette. Zoom lenses converge, focusing on the space between fingertips and fag. At no stage are the fingers closer than four or five inches and, for a few seconds, nothing happens.
Then, mysteriously, the cigarette begins to tremble. Lenses are refocussed. They push in for closer close-ups. The cigarette begins to roll this way and that, faster and faster, betwixt telephone and pen stands one cameraman, suspecting a trick, is actually under Dick's desk, presumably looking for magnets.
Finally Randi withdraws his fingers and the cigarette rolls to a stop. In the atmosphere of breathless astonishment he asks the witnesses to speculate on what they've observed. "Static electricity", says one provoking half a dozen other scientific theories. Randi listens quietly and then says, "Sorry, you're all wrong. I was simply blowing it."
During the demonstration, Randi had kept talking, mumbling encouraging words to my cigarette. And during and between those words, he’d simply been giving skilful little puffs. And not one of us had noticed. Because all of us had been looking at elsewhere – at fingertips and fag.
It was the simplest demonstration imaginable, yet one of significance. "That's how magic works’, says Randi. ‘It's all a question of distraction. Whenever you're with someone who claims to be a psychic don't let yourself be distracted."
Randi's warning, and demonstration, comes to mind a few days later when we're studying videotapes produced by a Dr Charles OSBORNE at the Preston Institute of Technology in Victoria. Osborne claims to have discovered a number of acned Uris, a host of pubescent Gellers who, not content with bending spoons and keys with mind power, are adept at psychokinesis.
That is, they can move objects around by paranormal means: think of the boon to mankind if such motive power could be harnessed. No more energy crises, no more pollution. A world full of mentally driven monorails and telepathic Toyotas.
Dr. Osborne's video tape is a bit amateurish, but you don't expect Oscar-winning cinematography from a scholar of parapsychology. On the screen, murky images of little polystyrene rafts bobbing in a water tank. On each, a slug of metal. In the corner of frame, one of Dr. Osborne's supernaturally gifted children who is staring fiercely at the little rafts, exuding psychic energy so that they’ll be set into mystic motion.
After much theatrical trembling, the little rafts do indeed, start moving, whereupon Randi freezes the image and points to the corner of the frame. Sadly, Dr Osborne has missed a small detail. Shades of fingers and fag, his paranormal protege is blowing.
But does this revelation take the wind from Osborne's sails? Not for a moment. He's got half a hundred kids who can curl keys and convolute cutlery simply by agitating the neurons in their frontal lobes. We beg to study these prodigies under test conditions, just in case (and we acknowledge it's wildly improbable) that they're being naughty kids.
Oddly enough, Osborne declines our kind offer. Even more oddly, the kids turn us down, even when we proffer them $100,000 for a successful demo. (This figure is made up of a number of $10,000 cheques, the signatories including Dick Smith, James Randi, Richard Carleston, yours truly and a team of other skeptics.) Naturally Osborne defends his mental metal fatiguers, saying they wouldn't be able to operate in such a hostile environment.
It is the first of many disappointments. For those who do present themselves to be tested for precognition, telepathy, dowsing and sundry forms of clairvoyance all are revealed to be totally lacking in talent. Either they're self-deluding dears who, having agreed on a set of protocols, entirely fail to perform, or they're greedy frauds trying to trick us out of our dollars. Either way, their shortcomings are dramatically revealed.
Which is sad, given that Dick, Jim and I would be only too glad to hand over the cheques to anyone who could manifest anything that wasn't instantly explicable or, thanks to Randi, duplicatable.
Why had Dick Smith and I brought Randi, our own personal Ghost Buster, to Australia? Both of us had, for years, been fascinated with paranormal phenomena and seen things we couldn't comprehend or explain. Both of us had, independently, come upon a wonderful magazine called The Zetetic, the official journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims for the Paranormal, a New York-based operation whose membership was packed with Nobel Laureates, plus minds of the quality of Carl SAGAN and Isaac ASIMOV. It was a journal devoted to careful study of a variety of alleged phenomena, beginning with astrology and going through the entire counter cultural smorgasbord from iridology to UFOs via the Loch Ness Monster.
Now renamed The Skeptical Enquirer, the magazine goes from strength to strength, as does CSICOP – so with the help of a young Melbourne lawyer, Mark Plummer, we decided to establish an Australian branch. Thus the Australian Skeptics came into being and we began our proud tradition of therapeutic mischief making.
The tragedy of Jonestown was fresh in our minds. It was a story that had begun in a little church in San Francisco called The People's Temple, where Mr JONES had a wonderful party trick. Yay, verily I say unto you, he would raise the dead. Once a week a hospital trolley, containing a cadaver, covered with a sheet, would be wheeled in front of the altar and Mr Jones would murmur some intense prayer. Whereupon the cadaver would sit up, toss off the sheet and say, "Thanks Jim, I feel absolutely wonderful." All very innocent and amusing, until Jones led his entire congregation to the monstrous Shangri-La where he persuaded parents to murder their own children and then commit suicide. Eight hundred bodies in a jungle clearing.
In Australia we were dealing with similar problems, albeit on a smaller scale. In particular we were concerned by the then popular pastime of psychic surgery which had umpteen cancer patients scurrying off to the Philippines for miracle cures, while a couple of these mystical medicos from Manila were operating in our cities. You know the sort of thing – the psychic kneads the bare flesh with his or her fingers, suddenly producing a bleeding scar. From within the gore, a piece of malignant tissue is miraculously produced and then, astonishingly, the sear seems to evaporate. Once the blood is mopped up with a little cotton wool, not a scar in eight.
Watching film taken of these procedures by ga-ga tourists and with a little help from Randi, the trick became abundantly clear. Indeed, should any reader like to volunteer by laying on a table and proffering a bare tummy, I can do it brilliantly. Well, adequately.
All it needs is what's called a magician's thumb, a condom type device that fits over the appropriate digit, in which a small amount of blood, usually obtained from the local vets, is concealed. By folding over a little flab, you're able to create the illusion of an incision which you promptly fill, and camouflage, with corpuscles from the condom. You then "palm" some tissue which has been concealed between your fingers. Bits of chicken giblets are popular, though some psychic surgeons prefer to tease out the fibre from a cigarette filter which compresses very tightly and looks great when it's absorbed some blood.
All pretty harmless, you might think. Except when a parlour trick is presented as a cancer cure.
Until quite recently, entire jumbo loads of cancer sufferers left Heathrow each week for the Philippines in search of miracle cures. Granada Television followed a planeload and, a year later, reported on the outcome of their desperate and extremely expensive junket. They showed the passengers climbing down the gangplank at Manila Airport and, repeatedly, froze the frame. Dead, dead, dead.
And if that wasn't bad enough, their families were broke into the bargain. Our research has showed that a great many cancer victims would still be alive had they trusted orthodox medicine.
Incidentally, Randi's latest book focuses on the faith healing phenomenon in America. With a foreward by Carl SAGAN, it tells how Randi and his team have revealed the obscene frauds of charlatans who make the televangelists like the Bakkers and the Swaggarts seem comparatively saintly. Using every form of trickery, including surreptitious radio transmissions from backstage stooges, these ostensibly Christian vultures have been exploiting the most vulnerable of people. One whom Randi recently exposed and drove from the faith healing circuit had been making $2 million a month. This from America's poorest most ill-educated groups. Yet apart from a few rib-tickling pieces of satire in the American media, they've been left pretty well alone. So much for the tentacles of investigative journalism.
So, year after year we cook up another scam. Remember the Steve Terbot affair? Skeptics in Australia and San Francisco created that fishy character and paraded him around Australian television where he performed his various wonders. As usual, a couple of phone calls from a conscientious researcher could have blown our gaff, but they were never made. It was we who revealed the stratagem, not the media.
And the lessons go far wider than the parade of paranormal confidence tricksters. In almost every sphere journalists concentrate on the gap between the fingers and the fag and fail to focus on the source of the puffery. Our message is a simple one.
just conjurers who
claim to be God, not just Avon ladies who claim to be 35,000 year old
not just gurus who take Diner's Club...but question everything you read
and everything you see on the telly. It's not just mystic manipulators
who are out to get you but politicians, pundits and publicists. Puff,