The Witch-Hunters

In the United States, as in Israel, the anti-Geller witch-hunt began almost as soon as he arrived on the scene, and its stated purpose was identical: not to submit Geller to any kind of serious scientific study, but to save society from him.
Its early days were well witnessed at close quarters by John L. Wilhelm, a Time reporter and the author of The Search for Superman (1976). He named the chief hunters as Martin Gardner, a columnist for the Scientific American, amateur magician, and outspoken critic of anything he considered to be bogus or deviant science; the magician James Randi; and Wilhelm’s (then) colleague Leon Jaroff, the magazine’s science editor who later became editor of the Time-Life publication Discover.
‘For Martin Gardner and the others in his magic circle, the issue of Uri Geller is a deeply moral one,’ Wilhelm wrote in his book, quoting Gardner as declaring: ‘Belief in occultism provides a climate for the rise of a demagogue. I think this is precisely what happened in Nazi Germany before the rise of Hitler.’ He gave Wilhelm the impression that he thought it was about to happen again.
Stefan Kanfer, author of Time’s March 1974 cover story on ‘The Psychics’ was even more candid. According to Wilhelm, he believed that ‘SRI should be destroyed’ for having carried out research of any kind into paranormal matters. ‘That’s the way fascism began.’
Wilhelm soon discovered that separating legitimate criticism of Geller from ‘the barrage of debunkers’ moral outrage’ was just as hard as evaluating the claims of his supporters. ‘Regrettably,’ he wrote, ‘both sides argue on the basis of strong personal bias.’ Randi, for example, rejected the evidence of Puthoff and Targ at SRI out of hand although he had not observed any of their experiments himself, ‘I don’t believe this kind of thing can happen if there are strict conditions,’ he said.
The bugle-call that heralded the official start of the American witch-hunt was the Time article of 12 March 1973 by Leon Jaroff, and the circumstances under which it came to be written give some idea of the lengths to which the hunters were prepared to resort. On completing their research with Geller at SRI, Puthoff and Targ wrote on 28 December 1972 to Gerard Piel, publisher of the Scientific American, to ask if he was interested in printing their findings. A copy of this letter found its way somehow or other to Jaroff, as did a copy of the informal report to the Department of Defense by Ray Hyman, which he had written after his visit to SRI and also sent to his old friend Martin Gardner at the Scientific American. (I have been reliably informed that Gardner was not personally responsible for the report reaching Jaroff.)
At this time, according to Wilhelm, the ‘circuit’ consisting of Gardner, Randi, Jaroff and others ‘rings continuously with the latest Geller goings-on, trading news clippings on Geller as kids trade baseball cards’.
Wilhelm provides further insights into the origins of the American witch-hunt. On 18 January 1973, he told Geller that Jaroff had already decided that he was a fraud, and had even made a bet on it. This was before Jaroff had ever seen Geller. The two met for the first time on 6 February, in the Time-Life building in New York.
Randi also met Geller for the first time on that day, and his published comments on the event are confusing, to say the least. On the one hand, he found Geller’s telepathy demonstration ‘the saddest, most transparent act I’ve ever seen’, yet according to Wilhelm he found Uri ‘extremely clever’ and ‘a good magician’ with ‘a beautiful routine’. Randi later admitted, in his book on Geller, that he had a copy of Hyman’s letter to Gardner in his pocket at the time.
The crusade to save America from the menace of the occult took on new impetus with the founding in 1975 of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) by psychologist Paul Kurtz and sociologist Marcello Truzzi. Founder Fellows included Gardner, Hyman, Jaroff and Randi, in addition to those enthusiastic reviewers of Randi’s anti-Geller book, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. CSICOP’s promotional literature for its journal included this:
Are you curious about claims of paranormal phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle, precognition, UFOs, ancient astronauts, astrology, Bigfoot, astral projection, psychokinesis, cold reading, pyramid power, water witching and the like? . . . these and other similar interests are waiting for you to explore in the Skeptical Inquirer. This dynamic magazine . . . is bold enough to investigate carefully the extraordinary claims of true believers and charlatans of the paranormal world. Its findings are sometimes humorous, often sobering, always fascinating.
Of themselves, the Committee had this to say:
The more serious-minded among us are starting to ask what is going on. Why the sudden explosion of interest, even among some otherwise sensible people, in all sorts of paranormal ‘happenings’? Are we in retreat from the scientific ideas of rationality, dispassionate examination of evidence and sober experiment that have made modern civilization what it is? In the past, the raising and answering of such questions has been left to commentators and journalists. This time around, however, some scientists are beginning to fight back.
CSICOP’s first major attempt at careful investigation of an extraordinary claim was a total disaster. The claim was that of the French psychologist and professional statistician Michel Gauquelin, according to whom there was a statistically significant correlation between successful people in various walks of life and the position of the planets at the time of their birth. The extraordinary story of how CSICOP carried out a follow-up study, came up with results similar to Gauquelin’s, initially failed to report them and eventually pretended that this had never been an official CSICOP project was spelled out in full detail by one of its own members, astronomer Dennis Rawlins, in the October 1981 issue of Fate. His skilful debunking of the debunkers led, not surprisingly, to his resignation from CSICOP, and also to the defections of some of its more active and influential members, such as the late Richard Kammann and the veteran British psychical researcher Eric J. Dingwall.
Long before then, co-founder Marcello Truzzi had left to found his own journal, the Zetetic Scholar. (Its first issue in 1978 included a most valuable ‘basic bibliography’ of Geller, listing 192 items.) Later, he founded his own research group, the Center for Scientific Anomaly Research (CSAR), and soon won the respect of many of those whose claims he investigated. Although he has assured me personally that he is a sincere non-believer in psychic powers of any kind, he has shown that civilized co-operation between sceptic and believer is possible.
CSICOP, on the other hand, soon resorted to methods of a kind hitherto unknown in any kind of scientific research, reaching some remarkable standards of ‘dispassionate examination’ in the process. Randi, for whom the pursuit of Geller became something of a personal crusade, invaded scientific laboratories, newspaper offices and parapsychology conferences wearing a variety of disguises, claiming to be a spoon-bender and mind-reader and attempting to deceive a number of individuals who were wholly unprepared for such behaviour. He toured the United States giving lecture-demonstrations, a regular feature of which was his ‘I can do what Geller does’ routine. In 1981, he launched the annual ‘Uri Awards for Parapsychology’ for what he considered ‘the silliest and most irrational claims in relation to the paranormal’. Originally sponsored by Omni, they were taken over by Discover but have now been discontinued, no doubt as a result of the 1983 fiasco associated with them to be described shortly.
Randi even managed to sabotage a research programme by infiltrating a pair of young magicians, Steve Shaw and Mike Edwards, into the parapsychology laboratory funded by the late James S. McDonnell, a pioneer of the aerospace industry. There, as described in the Skeptical Inquirer (Summer 1983), they tried for nearly two years to trick the researchers into proclaiming them genuine Geller-type psychics. Randi revealed his hoax, dubbed ‘Project Alpha’, at a news conference in January 1983 sponsored by Discover, and in 1985 the laboratory was closed.
The public was encouraged to believe that since parapsychologists were so easily hoaxed, none of their claimed findings should be taken seriously. Then the inevitable happened: Randi and Jaroff were themselves taken for a ride. Shortly after Project Alpha’s termination, the newsletter of a small Minneapolis research group, The Archaeus Project, announced that a fund of $217,000 had been set up for a metal-bending research programme under Archaeus director Dennis Stillings, to whom gifted subjects should apply.
The newsletter was a fake, as Stillings made clear in his own news release. No such award had been made. Stillings printed just two copies and sent them to Shaw and Edwards, confident that they would promptly reach Randi. They did.
On 1 April 1983, a Discover news release signed by Randi had this to say about one of his Uri Awards:
Funding Category. To the Metronics Corporation of Minneapolis, who gave $250,000 to a Mr Stillings of that city to fund the Archaeus Project, devoted to observing people who bend spoons at parties. Mr Stillings then offered financial assistance to a prominent young spoon-bender who turned out to be one of the masquerading magicians of Project Alpha – a confessed fake.
Stillings could not believe it. Not only had Randi fallen for his bait – hook, line and sinker – but he had even managed to make a total of four mistakes in his brief news release: the non-fund had been increased from $217,000 to $250,000, the Medtronic Corporation had nothing to do with it at all, and was misspelled into the bargain, and Stillings had not ‘offered financial assistance’ to Shaw, Edwards, or anybody else.
To drive home the point that magicians can be fooled as easily as any other group, Stillings promptly did it again. An investment broker named Reid Becker wrote to Randi implying that some of his clients were somewhat concerned to hear of Medtronic’s involvement with psychical research, and requested further information. Randi replied with the extraordinary allegation that the naming of Medtronic had originated from Stillings, and suggested that Becker should contact him for clarification.
He had no need to do this, for it was Stillings himself who wrote the ‘Becker’ letter, on clumsily faked notepaper. He concluded, in his report on ‘Project ROTSUC’ (‘Randi Ought To Sell Used Cars’):
Project ROTSUC was designed as a simple, inexpensive two-hour exercise in replicating the original experiment of James Randi (i.e. Project Alpha). We find the implicit conclusion of Project Alpha confirmed, namely: that some, perhaps all, people can be fooled for shorter or longer periods . . . Now that we know this, what are we going to do with it? I suggest that we all start behaving like civilized human beings . . .
What, many will be asking, has all this kind of thing to do with ‘scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal’? Proving that people can be fooled is hardly necessary, since everybody who pays to attend a magic show already knows this. Proving that people other than Uri Geller can bend spoons by sleight-of-hand does not constitute proof in itself that he uses sleight-of-hand. As William James wrote, in the American Magazine (October 1909):
If we look at imposture as a historic phenomenon, we find it always imitative. One swindler imitates a previous swindler, but the first swindler of that kind imitated someone who was honest. You can no more create an absolutely new trick than you can create a new word without any previous basis. You do not know how to go about it.
James was referring to the physical phenomena of the Victorian seance room, such as table-tilting, but his words apply equally well to individuals such as Geller. Many conjurors have imitated him, but whom was he imitating the first time he bent a spoon? I will return to this question later. First, I must pursue my inquiry into the possible motivations of some of the more prominent members of CSICOP.
These become somewhat easier to understand if we regard the organization as a political rather than a scientific one, linked to the American Humanist Association by way of psychologist Paul Kurtz, a member of its board of directors and editor of its journal, The Humanist.
Humanism is a perfectly respectable philosophical movement dating back to the Renaissance, in which attention is focused on man and his potential abilities and away from theological or spiritual matters. In the United States, it has its roots in the writings of such social reformers and critics of the American way of life as Felix Adler and Irving Babbitt. The first humanist manifesto was published in 1933, and reissued forty years later, with a preface by Kurtz. Affirmation Fourteen reads as follows:
The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change . . . must be instituted. A socialized and co-operative economic order must be established to the end that equitable distribution of the means of life is possible.
Neither Marx nor Engels could have put it more plainly, though while the American Humanist Association stands for much that the ideological fathers of communism stood for, it must be stressed that it does so quite legitimately, and there is no suggestion that it has ever behaved in an undemocratic or subversive way. The fact that it survived much attention from Senator McCarthy’s infamous Committee on Unamerican Activities is, in my view, to its credit.
All the same, the most cursory of glances through the pages of The Humanist shows that it has consistently attacked anything that can be seen as a deviation from classical Marxist materialism, sometimes using the kind of language employed by Pravda when referring to capitalism. Targets have included religions of all kinds, from traditional Jewish cognitive wisdom (Vol. 22 No. 1, 1962) to Zen Buddhism (Vol. 19 No. 6, 1959). The magazine has even managed to lay down a humanist party line on quantum mechanics (Vol. 19 No. 1, 1959), insisting that it does not lead to any change in materialist concepts of nature. As for parapsychology, in an article on the late Professor J. B. Rhine (Vol. 15 No. 4, 1955), it referred to his department at Duke University as a ‘Super-Scientific Institute of Raciology’ and gave the clear impression that the pioneer of academic parapsychology was mentally deranged. (Time went even further in its anti-psi diatribe of March 1974, printing Rhine’s picture under the heading ‘A Long History of Hoaxes’ and alongside a photograph of the Cottingley Fairies.)
Suspicions that CSICOP no longer had any real interest in the scientific investigation of anything at all were raised at its 1983 conference, held in Buffalo, New York. As reported by a friend of mine who was present, there was an interesting exchange at question time between Kurtz and Dennis Rawlins. Rawlins wanted to know where all the money flowing into CSICOP from its journal’s 18,000 subscribers (at $16.50 each) was going, now that its original research activities seemed to have ceased altogether. After some delay, Rawlins was told that all of it (nearly $300,000) went on producing the journal and organizing conferences. ‘This’, my friend commented, ‘was patently absurd.’
It is a minor absurdity, however, compared with the principle that seems to underlie the actions of CSICOP and its parent body, the American Humanist Association: that widespread interest in the occult leads to fascism. It is true that the Nazis made clever and successful use of traditional magical ritual, symbolism, and propaganda with mystic overtones, but they came to power mainly by efficient organization and brute force. Interest in occult matters is widespread in West Germany today, yet there are no signs of any serious fascist threat in that country. It is also widespread in the rest of Western Europe, notably in Iceland, where would-be dictators will have a hard time seizing power since the country has no armed forces at all, other than its celebrated gunboats.
On the other hand, it may be no coincidence that the longest-serving dictator of this century, Enver Hoxha of Albania, banned all forms of religion altogether. One cannot escape the suspicion that CSICOP and the humanists would like to do the same, to judge from some of the published material I have mentioned. Serious occultists, at least those of my acquaintance, devote their energies to an exploration of any path that might lead them to a better understanding of the mysteries of nature, life and creation. The fact that many such paths lead to dead-ends is no excuse for not exploring them. However, if the humanists had their way, all such paths would be off limits.
The professional sceptic is for ever assuring us of his open-mindedness. Martin Gardner has written, ‘Modern science should indeed arouse in all of us a humility before the immensity of the unexplored and a tolerance for crazy hypotheses.’ He has shown no sign of either, indeed he has written a popular book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957), in which he tramples on every alternative hypothesis, crazy or not. Stefan Kanfer, author of the Time cover story of March 1974 already mentioned, ended his six-page diatribe against parapsychology with a ringing call for a ‘thorough examination of the phenomena by those who do not express an a priori belief’. One wonders why he did not attempt this himself.
It is ironic that while the humanists and CSICOP do their best to wipe the paranormal from the face of American society, the state of affairs in many communist countries is quite different. There is considerable interest in parapsychological matters in the Soviet Union and the Slavic countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, and to a lesser extent in Hungary and Romania. There has recently been a major explosion of interest in China as well. (Marcello Truzzi, who visited China and reported on its psychic scene quite fairly, was told off in public at a recent CSICOP meeting for even going there to look at what was happening!)
Soviet researchers have developed an entirely new scientific discipline, that of heliobiology, or the study of the influence of solar and cosmic radiation on biological systems. Its widespread acceptance and official approval has led to an interest in subtle interactions of all kinds, whether they be electric, magnetic or psychic. They have changed the terminology, preferring ‘bioinformation transfer’ to telepathy and clairvoyance, ‘biophysical effect’ to psychokinesis and ‘extrasensor’ to medium or psychic. They reject any suggestion of a spiritualistic interpretation of any of these, but they accept the facts and study them as enthusiastically as do their colleagues in the West, as I can testify from first-hand experience.
Bulgaria is the only country in the world known to have a state-run parapsychology research institute. It also had a state-run clairvoyant, a blind lady named Vanga Dimitrova, who died in 1985. A special hotel was built in her home town of Petrich, near the Greek border, to accommodate visitors. On arrival there they were presented with a sugar lump, which they were told to put under their pillows at night. When their turn came for a ‘reading’ from Vanga, they would hand it to her, and she would press it against her forehead for a moment, then embarking upon a detailed account of her client’s past, present and future. She was studied for several years by Dr Georgi Lozanov, director of the Research Institute for Suggestology in Sofia, who unfortunately has not made his findings public. He gave little away when I met him for an hour’s polite chat, except to make it clear that he regarded her clairvoyance as genuine, an opinion confirmed by every Bulgarian I met during a visit to that intriguing country.
Poland’s Psychotronic Society, with 4,000 members, is the largest of its kind in the world. During the lecture I gave at its 1983 conference in Warsaw I counted more than 800 heads in the audience, the largest number I have ever seen at an event of this kind. During one of the breaks a young Polish medical doctor startled a group of us by diagnosing the past and present physical conditions of everybody at the table without any kind of examination or even any questioning.
Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of interest in nonmaterial matters, which continues to this day. At a conference held in the smart new Trades Union Congress headquarters in Bratislava, also in 1983, I gave a talk on Victorian table-tilting, after which I was besieged by delegates from several Eastern bloc countries for more information – and immediate practical instruction. They wanted to go back to our hotel and get a table off the ground there and then. A young Soviet scientist told us that he had already attended table-tilting sessions back home, where such things seemed to be regarded as a normal weekend pastime.
In the Soviet Union, at least two individuals have made public careers out of their psychic abilities in much the same way as Uri Geller has done in the West. The late Wolf Messing brought telepathy and clairvoyance to every corner of the country with his stage performances, and his role was taken over after his death by one of his admirers, Tofik Dadashev, of whom Western visitors to a 1973 conference in Prague were allowed a brief and tantalizing glimpse.
In the course of many meetings with Soviet and East Europeans, most of them professional research scientists, I have never come across doubts as to the existence of psi phenomena. Their attitude can be summed up as: ‘There’s something interesting going on. Let’s find out what it is.’ On the other hand, a widespread attitude in the supposedly free Western world is: ‘There’s something dangerous going on. Stamp it out.’
Mud sticks. After fifteen years of the kind of debunking of which I have given several examples, it has become widely accepted that Uri Geller has been unmasked as a fraud. I have been assured of this personally by many who should know better, most of whom could not recall the source of this information. They seemed to remember reading it somewhere . . .
Geller has never been proved fraudulent. Nor has he ever been proved to have genuine psychic abilities beyond any reasonable doubt. It is possible that it never will be proved either way, and I suspect this is the way he likes it.
There was a time when scientific proof of a new hypothesis was a fairly straightforward procedure. You set up a controlled experiment, published your results, and waited for somebody else to repeat them. In recent years, some important new discoveries have been accepted very quickly, such as the structure of the DNA ‘double helix’ molecule, and the ‘Josephson Effect’ that contributed to the fastest technological revolution in history. Nobel Prizes were handed out to their discoverers in a very short time, once it was clear that nobody was going to disprove their claims.
Why was no prize awarded to Puthoff, Targ, or anybody else for the discovery of the Geller Effect? There are many reasons, the most important being that nobody can be sure exactly what this effect is. All that can be said with near certainty is that when Geller enters a laboratory, strange things are likely to happen. Nobody can expect a prize for announcing this. As Targ put it in his and Harold Puthoff’s book Mind-Reach (1977), ‘in the world of science no one at all cares what we think possibly may have happened. “Possibly” is not good enough.’
We cannot expect the human mind, the most complex thing in the universe, to behave as predictably in the laboratory as a microchip or a strand of DNA. Any experiment involving supposed psychic ability of any kind involves at least two minds: those of the subject and the researcher. If there is such a thing as psychic power, we can reasonably expect that it will be influenced by very subtle stimuli, and will only operate when conditions are exactly right. We can also expect that the researcher will be making use of it during the experiment, whether consciously or not. Moreover, it is almost inevitable that no psychic experiment can be repeated, since neither subject nor experimenter will ever be in precisely the same state of mind on more than one occasion.
One persistent critic of Parapsychology, Professor C. E. M. Hansel, declared in a 1983 television interview, ‘If anybody was telepathic, they should be able to quite easily demonstrate the effect to anybody. I would be completely satisfied by just talking to the person for a few minutes and asking him to say what I was thinking of.’ Such an argument (from a professor of psychology, moreover) is nonsensical. Suppose that we applied it to, say, falling in love at first sight? What would happen if we took a man and a woman off the street, placed them in front of each other and ordered them to develop an immediate and lasting passion for each other? In many cases, this would not happen. Yet there is no lack of testimony, from those who should know, that people have fallen in love at first sight and remained together until parted by death. The fact that many people have had no such luck is irrelevant.
Likewise, there is no lack of evidence for the existence of what are called psi phenomena: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. As William James remarked in the essay already quoted, written the year before he died after a lifetime of first-hand observation of a vast amount of well-documented phenomena of this kind:
The first difference between the psychical researcher and the inexpert person is that the former realizes the commonness and typicality of the phenomenon, while the latter, less informed, thinks it so rare as to be unworthy of attention.
There are other reasons, as I have indicated, why inexpert persons choose to reject the positive evidence for the existence of psi phenomena. The anti-psi community can be divided into honest doubters and ‘inexpert’ doubters. The former quite reasonably consider the phenomena to be inherently so improbable that they require exceptional evidence before they will consider them. The ‘inexpert’ doubters are not prepared to concede that the phenomena could exist, since there is no place for them in the model of reality they have chosen to adopt. Therefore, any evidence that they do exist must not be considered even theoretically possible, it must be destroyed.
As Artur Zorka put it, there is a contradiction here, and Uri Geller brought it into sharp focus. On the one hand, we have a long list of well-qualified professional scientists who study him in their laboratories and conclude that, at the very least, he is worth further study. On the other hand, we have the dishonest doubters who have not examined him at all, and have decided that even attempting to study people like him is out of order.
Three centuries ago, Johannes Kepler warned his fellow astronomers not to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’ when dealing with astrology, ‘the step-daughter of astronomy’. ‘The belief in the effect of the constellations derives in the first place from experience,’ he wrote, ‘which is so convincing that it can be denied only by people who have not examined it . . . That the sky does something to man is obvious, but what it does specifically remains hidden.’ However, the truth could be found if one looked for it, just as ‘the persistent hen will find the golden corn in the dung-heap’.
This is the attitude shared by the great majority of today’s professional parapsychologists. I have met most of them, and I have yet to meet one who is unaware of the vast amount of dung that has been strewn over the field ever since research into it began more than a century ago, not only by the fraudulent mediums and psychics but by some equally fraudulent researchers. These have at last been debunked in their turn by the historian Brian Inglis, whose well-documented book The Hidden Power (1986) reveals that almost every ‘unmasking’ in the history of psychical research, from Daniel Home to Uri Geller, has been carried out not by persistent hens, but by ruthless baby-killers.
It is worth mentioning here that both of the two major scandals of psychical research of recent years were revealed by members of the community without any help from the professional sceptics and debunkers. A member of the late Dr J. B. Rhine’s staff was caught fiddling a computer in order to produce spurious data and was promptly thrown out by Rhine himself, who equally promptly made the facts public. It was Betty Markwick, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, who produced the evidence that finished off the reputation of the late Dr S. G. Soal, author of some telepathy research once considered to be classic. Her findings were immediately published – by the SPR. One cannot help wondering if organisations such as CSICOP serve any useful purpose other than the satisfaction of its members’ lust for blood. The psychical research community has shown that it can handle its black sheep without any help from them.
Several examples of fraudulent debunking of Uri Geller have been given in this book, both by me and by him. The rest of them would fill another book, and the fact that he has survived them is strong evidence for both the genuineness of his abilities and the falsity of the charges made against him. I will give one final example of the depths to which his attackers have sunk in their efforts to finish him off.
As I have already described, attempts were made to debunk the first serious research involving him, that of Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ at Stanford in 1972, even before it was published. As I have shown, they were made on a basis of hearsay, unfounded assumptions, and unauthorized use of private correspondence. The research was first made public on 9 March 1973 in the form of a film entitled Experiments with Uri Geller, shown at a public meeting at Columbia University. By then, the issue of Time dated 12 March and containing the offensive and inaccurate diatribe entitled ‘The Magician and the Think-Tank’ was already at the printers.
Once the research was out in the open, James Randi set about attacking it in his book, The Magic of Uri Geller. Not content with denigrating the characters of Puthoff and Targ and dismissing in toto their research – none of which he had witnessed himself – he turned, in a later book, Flim-Flam, to the professional photographer who had made the film, a Stanford employee named Zev Pressman, with an extraordinary series of unfounded allegations.
Pressman’s name, said Randi, had been added to the film ‘without his knowledge or permission’. Part of the film was of a ‘reenactment’, and one whole segment ‘is now known to be a restaged and specially created one’. Pressman ‘knew nothing about most of what appeared under his name, and he disagreed with the part that he did know about’. The objects of unnamed Stanford staff members were based on ‘Pressman’s revelations about his part in it’ (i.e. the film). These quotations are from Flim-Flam, the subtitle of which – ‘Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions’ – suggests a difficulty in distinguishing between babies and bathwater.
If true, this would be a very serious matter and Pressman would be guilty of complicity in deliberate fraud. But it was not true. Pressman flatly denied all of Randi’s allegations in two public statements, neither of which was even mentioned in the 1982 reissue of the book. ‘I made the film,’ said Pressman, ‘and my name appeared with my full knowledge and permission . . . Nothing was restaged or specially created . . . I have never met nor spoken to nor corresponded with Randi. The “revelations” he attributes to me are pure fiction.’
‘Are we in retreat from the scientific ideas of rationality, dispassionate examination of evidence and sober experiment that have made modern civilization what it is?’ the founders of CSICOP asked in their promotional literature. Their own behaviour sometimes suggests to me that we are indeed.
Randi is at his most accurate when describing himself. ‘I’m an actor playing a part, and I do it for the purpose of entertainment,’ he said in the PM Magazine television interview of 1 July 1982. His role as scientific investigator was not one of his successes.
If I were to adopt the research methods of the psi-cops, I would have no difficulty in producing the following scenario, most of which is untrue and based on smears and assumptions:
As is well known, one of the purposes of the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) is to undermine Western society. It has frequently done this by infiltrating legitimate protest or dissident groups and using them for its own purposes, often without the knowledge of group members. What would be a more obvious target for penetration than the Humanist Association, many of whose members are known Marxists? What would be more convenient than to set up a publishing house to publish the propaganda of the Humanists and their CSICOP sub-agents? (Sample titles: Atheism – The Case Against God, Ethics Without God, The Problem of God, Sex Without Love.)
Why go to so much trouble and expense to discredit the whole field of parapsychology? To distract attention from the real work that is going on at somewhere like the tightly-guarded Institute for Cosmic Biology at Khodinsk airfield just outside Moscow, of course. Or one of those off-limits laboratories in Akademgorodok in Siberia, or Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan.
The above scenario (which, I repeat, is malicious nonsense) could be rewritten to ‘prove’ that the Central Intelligence Agency and not the KGB is calling the psicops’ shots. A well-known parapsychologist recently announced in public that eight years after one of his projects was completed, he learned that the money had originated from the CIA. The Company is just as good at this kind of thing as its Soviet counterpart, both of which know that anybody suggesting anything like the above will be denounced as a paranoid witch-hunter.
Allegations of CIA or KGB involvement would be denied in all good faith by CSICOP officials, as they were in the 23 June 1985 issue of the Sunday Times after columnist Henry Porter had mentioned them. If CSICOP was being manipulated by any intelligence organization, it would be the last to know.
Again, let me repeat that most of the above four paragraphs is nonsense. I include it merely as an example of how ‘careful investigation’ of the kind favoured by CSICOP could be used against them.
When criticizing Geller, anything goes. Even Reader’s Digest prefers magicians’ allegations to scientists’ testimony. In its book Mysteries of the Unexplained, we are told that Uri’s feats ‘have now been largely dismissed as fraudulent’. Tracking this unsupported statement to its sources, I found them to be a pair of magicians. One was quoted at second hand (from The Humanist), while the other, Milbourne Christopher, claimed that Uri used a palmed magnet to stop watches – something he has never attempted to do. Why should we believe anything else Christopher (or any other magician) alleges?
Fortunately, the entire case for the existence of useful and hitherto unexplained faculties in human beings does not rest solely on Uri Geller. As William James put it, these are both common and typical. Everything Geller has ever claimed to do has been done by others, although nobody has yet claimed to do all of them, or to do any of them with quite as much panache. So, before presenting some evidence and conclusions of my own, I will devote a chapter to the recent activities of some of the others.


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“The man is a natural magician. He does everything with great care, meticulous misdirection and flawless instinct. The nails are real, the keys are really borrowed, the envelopes are actually sealed, there are no stooges, there are no secret radio devices and there are no props from the magic catalogues.”

James Randi (In an open letter to Abracadabra Magazine)

“Absolutely amazing”

Mick Jagger

“Truly incredible”

Sir Elton John

“Eternity is down the hall And you sit there bending spoons In your mind, in your mind”

Johnny Cash

“I Have watched Uri Geller… I have seen that so I am a believer. It was my house key and the only way I would be able to use it is get a hammer and beat it out back flat again.”

Clint Eastwood

“Better than watching Geller bending silver spoons, better than witnessing new born nebulae’s in bloom”


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