The spoons resisted, but CIA minds were easily bent
A dossier declassified last week reveals the hold Uri Geller had over US agents. Nigel Hawkes, who has followed the illusionist’s progress since seeing his former boss almost hand him a small fortune, explains how the mind games work.
How little it takes to transport us back to the mad world of the early 1970s. Britain was enjoying a three-day week. Chariots of the Gods? was high in the bestseller lists. Alien abduction was afforded enough credibility for the mayor of a Texas town to issue a proclamation inviting extraterrestrials to land. “No one has ever made those fellas welcome,” he explained.
And now, documents published online last week suggest that American intelligence sources truly believed Uri Geller was psychic. Oh joy!
It is good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. Geller was — and remains, for all I know — an extraordinarily gifted illusionist who convinced a lot of people he had powers beyond the natural. His pièce de résistance was bending spoons, or keys, without appearing to exert any force. An awful lot of people fell for his claims. The Times’s letters page pullulated with views pro and con, one correspondent outraged that the paper had not cleared its front page for the story.
Geller, now 70, never bent a spoon for me, for which I am grateful, as otherwise I might have been swept up in the fervour. My editor, David Astor of The Observer, had one of his keys bent in the Ritz hotel and came back to the office afire with enthusiasm, proposing to spend £50,000 (£600,000 in today’s money) on buying Geller’s then-unwritten autobiography. He brushed aside my feeble remonstrations. I was saved by the paper’s business manager, Tristan Jones, an eccentric who kept a coffin in his garage filled with chocolates. He told David there was not £50,000 in the kitty, and that was that.
There was plenty in the kitty of the US intelligence services, which had somehow been persuaded that the Soviet Union was spending lots of money on extrasensory perception (ESP) and getting results.
Two parapsychologists, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, began a programme of research at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, recruiting Geller for a series of experiments in August 1973. In these Geller was sealed in a room connected by intercom to the scientists outside, who picked words at random from a dictionary and made drawings representing them. Our spoon-bender had to think deeply, pick up the spirit signals through the ether and make his own drawing to match theirs.
He got some right, as you would expect by sheer chance. Others could be interpreted as right by the already half-convinced experimenters. They concluded he had demonstrated his paranormal ability “in a convincing and unambiguous manner”.
However, that was not the end of the matter. Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at Oregon University, was asked to investigate the SRI experiments, and felt Geller was a fraud. So did US intelligence really believe in him? It seems unlikely, though the programme that started with Geller went on for a couple of decades under the codename Stargate and took in some seriously batty projects.
Perhaps the maddest of all was the idea that some soldiers with psychic powers could kill goats stone dead just by looking at them. This was turned into a book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, and a 2009 film starring George Clooney that took nearly $70m (£57m) at the box office.
Why did Geller persuade so many people? He was clever, and arranged to fall among people half ready to believe in the outlandish. The history of ESP is riddled with claims that are hard to disprove in themselves but impossible to reproduce. Many positive results published in the literature rely on the strange nature of randomness. If you toss a coin a hundred times, it will come down 50% heads and 50% tails, more or less, but this does not rule out long runs of successive heads or tails.
If the experimenter is canny enough to stop before the laws of probability reassert themselves, such runs can be made to look like evidence for some sixth sense. Failed experiments, on the other hand, can be blamed on unfavourable circumstances, such as the presence of hostile witnesses who put the psychic off.
Truly honest psychic researchers, and there are some, tend not to get any positive results at all. The late John Beloff was one such. He set up the parapsychology unit at Edinburgh University (funded by Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon) and in a long career never — as far as I know — published a positive result. Yet he remained convinced that psychic phenomena exist. It is almost touching that such faith survived the steady drip of disappointment.
The American psychics never provided US intelligence with a single useful piece of information, but they did provide some New Age fun. It made a change from talking to our plants or swapping stories about the aliens who came to tea. And about as much sense.
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