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"If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he's doing it the hard way." —James Randi
"Because a good magician can do something shouldn't make you right away jump to the conclusion that it's a real phenomenon." —Richard Feynman
"Geller is at his ingenious best in laboratories where he is being observed by scientists who believe he has extraordinary ESP ability and think—without justification—that they have ruled out every possibility of fraud." —Milbourne Christopher
Uri Geller is most famous for his claim to be able to bend spoons and keys with his mind. An international star in the psychic circuit, Geller is a Hungarian/Austrian who was born in Israel and lives in England. He claims he's had visions for many years and may get his powers from extraterrestrials. He calls himself a psychic and has sued several people for millions of dollars for saying otherwise. His psychic powers were not sufficient to reveal to him, however, that he would lose all the lawsuits against his critics. His arch critic has been James "The Amazing" Randi, who has written a book and numerous articles aimed at demonstrating that Geller is a fraud, that he has no psychic powers, and that what Geller does amounts to no more than the parlor tricks of a conjurer.
Geller has been performing for many years. The first time I saw him was in 1973 when he appeared on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. He was supposed to demonstrate his ability to bend spoons with his thoughts and identify hidden objects, but he failed to even try. He squirmed around and said something about how his power can't be turned on and off, and that he didn't feel strong right then. Randi had worked with Carson's producer to change the spoons and metal items Geller planned to use, as there was a suspicion that Geller likes to work (i.e., soften) his metals before his demonstrations, as would any careful conjurer. [View Geller's Tonight Show lack of performance.]
I have always been fascinated and puzzled by the attraction of Uri Geller. I suppose this is because nearly every one of our household spoons is bent and what I would like to see is someone who can straighten them, with his mind or with anything for that matter. Likewise with stopped watches. I have several of those and I would love for someone to use his powers, psychic or otherwise, to make them start running again. Of course, even I can get my stopped watches to run again for a short while by shaking or tapping them, but a permanent fix would be appreciated. There is something mysterious, however, about a person who has built a career out of breaking things.
Geller may have suffered defeat in the law courts but he appears to be doing quite well in the world as a consultant for psychic detection. He claims he is paid goodly sums of money to use his special gift as a psychic geologist, dowsing for oil or whatever. In the 1970s, Geller was tested at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) by Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ. Randi refers to Puthoff and Targ as "the Laurel and Hardy of psi," which is an insult to Laurel and Hardy (Randi 1982a: 131).* Puthoff and Targ deemed Geller such a gifted psychic that they invented a term to describe his powers: the "Geller effect." For a detailed account of how easy it is to demonstrate incompetence and to commit fraud in this area, read James Randi's account of the Uri Geller experiments designed and executed by Targ and Puthoff. See either chapter 7 of Flim-Flam! or The Truth About of Uri Geller.
Geller's own version of his colossal talent is told by Uri himself at Uri-Geller.com. He even features an interactive page where the visitor can try to bend a spoon Geller has placed somewhere. A live cam transmits a picture of the spoon. If you bend the spoon, you get a million dollars. If you are successful in bending Uri's spoon, you may have a difficult time proving your claim. You may even have to go to court to collect, but don't expect too much sympathy from judge or jury. Geller has been there and he knows what courts can do to people who claim they have psychic powers capable of bending teaspoons. He may publicly cast doubt on your psychic powers, causing you great humiliation. You may sue him. But, remember; he's been there, done that, and he knows who will win. And he doesn't even have to use up any psychic energy to make the prediction.
Geller has also ventured into the lucrative New Age self-help/personal growth industry. For sale is his Mind-Power Kit for about $30. The kit includes an audio tape, a crystal, and a book with topics such as how to develop your ESP, dowsing, crystal power, color therapy, and, of course, psychokinesis.
Many magicians do what Geller does, but they call themselves magicians, conjurers, or mentalists. Good magicians are good tricksters and good tricksters can fool the smartest of people. They can amaze people with their ability to seemingly move objects with an act of will, suspend objects in space, view objects that are hidden, read minds, predict the future, identify the content of hidden messages or drawings, and the like. What is amazing is that they don't amaze people by winning the lottery or finding a cure for cancer. Why don't they bypass airports and paranormally transport themselves to their next gig? Why do they take their cars to a mechanic when they break down? Why do they waste their time moving a wire in a glass bottle instead of moving a waterfall over a forest fire? The answer is obvious. Such useful feats would require more than distraction and legerdemain.
Why do parlor tricks convince even very intelligent people that they have witnessed a paranormal event rather than a bit of magic? Because even many intelligent people are too foolish to realize that they are not so intelligent as to be beyond being fooled. One really intelligent person who would not be fooled was Richard Feynman, who met Uri Geller. Feynman said "I'm smart enough to know that I'm dumb." Feynman was intelligent enough to realize that a good magician can make it seem as if the laws of nature have been violated and even a great physicist sometimes can't figure out the trick.
See also law of truly large numbers.
* For a detailed account of the incompetence of the work of Puthoff and Targ see chapter 13 of C.E.M. Hansel's The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited. (Prometheus Books, 1989). See also chapters 2, 3, and 13 of David Marks's The Psychology of the Psychic, (Prometheus Books. 2000) and chapter 7 of James Randi's Flim-Flam! (Prometheus Books, 1982). After reading these accounts of the work done by Puthoff and Targ, the reader will understand why Randi refers to them as the Laurel and Hardy of psi.
Watch a video clip of Randi exposing Geller and Peter Popoff from NOVA's "Secrets of the Psychics."
Watch Michael Shermer bend a spoon.
books and comments
"Geller Caught Red-Handed" by Massimo Polidoro