Fork Over The Truth!

by Michael Shermer

Uri Geller on The Tonight Show

On New Years day I had this momentary flash of insight that with the new year perhaps things were going to change and that the nonsense and silliness that passes for serious claims in our culture might actually begin to attenuate and we at the Skeptics Society could concentrate our efforts on more mainstream scientific controversies.

Alas, I was hallucinating. Just days into the new year I was jolted back into reality when none other than the 1970's spoon-bending sensation Uri Geller appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the number one late night talk show with something on the order of 10 million viewers. We were tipped off that he was appearing, and for two days we did everything we could to warn Leno to apply some basic controls to prevent Geller from using standard magic tricks that he could pass off as psychic powers. To no avail. Even our videographer who works at NBC, who spent hours trying to get to the right people, kept hitting brick walls. No one at NBC cared or wanted to hear from us. This is an entertainment show, Geller was going to entertain the public, so what difference does it make what he claims and what is true? Leno opened the segment with the usual disclaimer: "Some say he is just a magician, others say he has special powers. You be the judge."

"You be the judge." Those four simple words have become the ultimate statement of irresponsibility. Here is what that phrase means: "We hereby disclaim any and all responsibility for what the next guest claims. It is our purpose to get viewers to watch our show between and through commercials and nothing else. If our guests hoodwink us and bamboozle you that's tough luck for you. Buyer beware. That's entertainment so enjoy the show!"

What was truly amazing about Geller's "performance" was how unoriginal it was. He did the same act he's been doing for a quarter of a century--starting broken watches and reproducing a hidden drawing. That says a lot about American audiences, doesn't it? Americans can be fooled over and over again by the same tricks. You don't even need to be creative. Professional magicians work hard to come up with new routines and original presentations so as not to bore audiences. Apparently you don't have to do this when you are claiming to have special powers.

To the undying credit of Leno's predecessor, Johnny Carson, when he had Geller on he first consulted with James Randi, who prepped Carson and the producers on how to prevent Geller from using magic tricks to perform his "psychic" power demonstrations. Lo and behold, wouldn't you know it?--no magic tricks allowed and Geller's psychic powers mysteriously disappeared. Apparently Leno would have none of that.

I will grant Geller credit for being an entertaining guest. He is light and funny, laughs a lot, has a big toothy smile--all the stuff TV talkshows like. And I will confess to laughing out loud with his little story about how he got a letter from a woman who said she got pregnant because Uri psychically bent her IUD. I even suspect Uri may be telling the truth about getting such a letter since, although it is possible he made it up, there are enough goofy people out there that someone might just have written him such a letter.

First Geller demonstration: reproduce a drawing made by a guest of the show (the original drawing was made backstage of course). We were told that actor Tim Robbins had made a drawing and carefully folded it and put it in his back pocket. Geller made it clear that he and Robbins were not working together. What is not disclosed, of course, is what the circumstances were of the making of the original drawing. (In the next issue of Skeptic magazine Pat Linse will present James Randi's greatest moment on television when he duplicates a drawing made by Barbara Walters right there live on stage, just as well as Geller had just done moments before.)

After the show I was surprised by the number of e-mails and calls I received from skeptics and scientists who don't know how this simple trick is done. One of my board members told me "I have to admit what Geller did was really spooky." Another reader speculated that perhaps Geller can watch the eye movements of his subject, and that when the subject is thinking about the drawing his eyes trace out the drawing! Alas, explanations of magic generally follow Occam's razor: no need to multiply beyond necessity the complexity of the explanation, AKA parsimony.The drawing duplication is one of the simplest, and there are numerous ways to do it:

1. Use psychic powers to read your subject's mind. Geller may do it this way, but he might have also chosen to . . .
2. Have the subject make a drawing on a pad of paper. Instruct him to tear off the top sheet and fold it and hide it so you can't see it. When he gives you back the pad the impression of the drawing is on the sheet below. You can say something like "be sure to make it clear so everyone can see it" to get them to press hard on the pad. Or . . .
3. We all have checks chemically treated so that they leave an impression on the next sheet below. You can get special pads of paper like this. Or . . .
4. Get a special clipboard with a carbon sheet beneath the top layer that you peel back after your subject makes his drawing on top of it. Or . . .
5. Peek when the drawing is being made. Or . . .
6. Watch the top of the pen as it traces out the drawing. Or . . .
7. Use a confederate to help you get the drawing. Or . . .
8. The psychology of people: most will draw a house or a happy face.

These are all in magic books, as well as others, but since so many people out there were wondering how Geller can do such "spooky" things I thought it would be instructive to share just a few of these with you.

Second Geller demonstration: Start broken watches. Jay presents Geller with a tray of watches. We do not know where the watches came from or if they are truly all "broken." Geller grabs a handful of them and commands them to "work," then commands the audience to yell "work," then tells the viewing audience to get their broken watches, hold them in their hands, and yell "work." Geller then exclaims that one of the watches he has is working. Was it one of the original watches or did he just have a watch of his own that he added to the bunch when he grabbed them? Jay exclaims when he looks at the watch that it is indeed working. But did Jay check before to make sure that all the watches were marked so that Geller could not add his own to the batch? There appeared to be no controls. But, frankly, it isn't even necessary to cheat on this one. When shaken lots of old watches will start ticking again for a few seconds or minutes--long enough to get a TV talkshow host very excited.

Overall Leno seemed genuinely impressed with Geller's performance and, if I am correct in my interpretation of television ethics and integrity, that made for a successful show.

NOTE TO MARCELLO TRUZZI: Truzzi, when you forward this posting to Uri with your suggestion that he consult with his attorneys, be sure to tell him that I welcome his feedback and that I would be happy to post his reply to this group. I guarantee they would be most interested in what he has to say for himself. Perhaps Uri would even be willing to tell us which technique he used to duplicate the drawing: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, or 8. Which technique do you think he used Truzzi?

Had I been there I would have insisted that Tim make a drawing right there on stage out of Uri's sight, and then have Geller try to "see" the drawing on his mental "TV screen." My hypothesis is that under controlled conditions Geller's "psychic" powers would have suddenly disappeared. Of course, I could be wrong. Since Geller apparently has no interest in Randi's million dollar challenge, I'll offer him my $3,000 titanium racing bicycle. If Geller takes up my challenge and passes the test under controlled conditions, I'll have to go back to my old rusty steel bike. Uri, I'll even throw in my heart-rate monitor. If you pass the test I won't be needing it.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER FOR GELLER AND HIS ATTORNEYS: This analysis does not prove, of course, that Geller used one of these techniques of magic. He may very well have used number one and applied psychic power to read the mind of Tim Robbins. Yes sir, technically speaking, there is a chance that this is how he did it. But if he did, as Randi says, he is doing it the hard way.

The best disclaimer ever written in this regard comes from Penn and Teller's book HOW TO PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD, in their section on spoon bending:

"In these descriptions, any particular bumbling spoon-bending has-been may pop into your mind. I guess it might be possible that the example you happen to be thinking of might-could-maybe-possibly be the one-in-a-kachillion-outside-chance-of-a-snowball-lasting-a-month-of-Sundays-in side-a-burning-gas-kiln-in-hell be real. We haven't seen every spoonbender on every second of his or her life. We just haven't seen or heard of one of them doing anything that seemed to us like anything other than bush-league sleight of hand. We have to be careful though. When these twerps lose their ability to support themselves with public and private 'experiments' (they never call them 'shows,' we guess because they're not entertaining enough), they can decide to turn to litigation. So, let us say right here, Penn and Tell haven't seen or heard about any real psychic spoon-bending, but if we do, we'll happily change our collective mind. We'll want to see it done in front of a panel that is educated in magic, and it should be on videotape and we'd love to see it under oath in a court of law. Maybe by the time this book comes out some of these swine will have had their days in court and proven they have supernatural powers. We'll be red-faced but we'll admit we were wrong. You may not notice our embarrassment, however, because everyone will be too busy throwing out all scientific knowledge and starting over. Our lawyer says we need to make it clear that spoon-bending COULD be proved to be a real power. And maybe that same day Porky Pig will appear incarnate and fly around the courtroom. Hey man, it could happen."

Hey man, amen!