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The Financial Times - 17th October 1974


No proof for the man with a magic touch

The results of experiments aimed at testing some claims of Uri Geller are published to-day. David Fishlock weighs up the evidence



 ONE OF THE hazards of being a science writer last winter was that people tended to corner you and demand an explanation for a phenomenon called Uri Geller. His television appearances aroused immense interest in his apparent ability to communicate and even exert powerful forces telepathically. To be highly sceptical and at the same time admit that you had never seen Mr. Geller perform was no answer at all when so many believed unquestioningly what they had “seen with their own eyes.”
  His sensational claims fall so far outside the accepted laws of science that he had to submit to controlled experiments if he was to hold the attention of most scientists. For them, the results of one such series of experiments at a reputable Californian research centre in 1973 were awaited more eagerly than his next TV appearance.
 The results are published today in Nature, foremost of the learned journals of science. They are ambiguous enough for some to say categorically that the case for Mr. Geller’s authenticity remains wholly unproven. As the editor of Nature comments in a leading article: “The publication of this paper, with its muted claims … and modest data, is, we believe, likely to put the whole matter in more reasonable perspective.”

Heart-search

 The results appear simply as a “letter” to Nature; that is, a communication of observations or findings which, provided they satisfy referees chosen by the journal’s editors that they represent a genuine advance in knowledge, is published to establish the researcher’s right to claim progress. In this case the “letter” - disarmingly titled “Information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding” – caused the editor eight months of considerable heart-searching, for his three referees were by no means unanimous in recommending its publication.
 One, guardedly, said “yes,” one said “no,” and one had no strong feelings either way. All three were very critical of the experimental procedure, and each felt that the safeguards against cheating were, in a phrase used by one, “uncomfortably vague.” In short it was, in the words of Dr. David Davies, editor of Nature, “a ragbag of a paper,” despite the fact that it deals only with Mr. Geller’s ability to read thoughts and not at all with his far more sensational claims to bend metal objects by stroking them or to make timepieces stop.
  Why, then, did Dr. Davies decide to publish at all (and incidentally by doing so lead one Sunday newspaper to assume that he was giving science’s “seal of approval” to Mr. Geller’s claims)? Dr. Davies admits that his referees’ strictures would normally be enough to warrant rejection. But he took account also of such factors as the reputation of the laboratory where the experiment was done, of the need for more investigation of what to science are highly implausible phenomena, and of the publicity already attracted both to Mr. Geller’s claims and to assertions that those claims were being investigated by scientists.
 Hence, “we have decided to publish in the belief that, however flawed the experimental procedure and however difficult the process of distilling the essence of a complex series of events into a scientific manuscript, it was on balance preferable to publish and maybe stimulate and advance the controversy rather than keep it out of circulation for a further period.” But he chose to publish the “letter” without special prominence, merely as one of several dozen routine communications for research workers worldwide. And he is particularly anxious to dispel any idea that in so doing he has conferred upon Mr. Geller any “seal of approval” on behalf of science.
 What, then, are we left with? The central claim of Dr. Russell Targ and Dr. Harold Puthoff, physicists with the Stanford Research Institute – a large contract research centre – is that Mr. Geller is able to communicate at a distance. They popped him into cages of various kinds, designed to screen him against any known channel of communication by electromagnetic or acoustic waves.
  They carried out two kinds of experiment on Mr. Geller under different conditions over several months. One explored his ability to reproduce “target pictures” drawn by researchers remote from the subject, with Mr. Geller apparently unaware just who was “transmitting.” After a delay that varied from a few minutes to half-an-hour Mr. Geller would either pass or would make a sketch he was willing to submit to the scientists. On three occasions he passed; the results of the other eight are illustrated here.
  The second kind of experiment aimed at determining whether Mr. Geller could really read the contents of a sealed envelope. One hundred pictures of everyday objects, specially drawn by a laboratory artist, were sealed in envelopes lined with black cardboard. Here the researchers admit that, in the very few instances where Mr. Geller attempted to sketch the contents himself, “the drawings … do not depart significantly from what would be expected by chance.” But he was more successful with a much simpler version of the same kind of test, achieving results which, they believe, he had only a one-in-a-million chance of guessing.
 From these, and a third series of experiments using a former Californian police commissioner as the subject, the researchers conclude that some people can indeed see beyond the range of normal vision or read thoughts remotely. They admit that the channel of communication is imperfect – too “noisy” – and they make no attempt to explain how it might work. But they claim to have shown that it can none the less be used to convey information usefully.
 From these, and a third series of experiments using a former Californian police commissioner as the subject, the researchers conclude that some people can indeed see beyond the range of normal vision or read thoughts remotely. They admit that the channel of communication is imperfect – too “noisy” – and they make no attempt to explain how it might work. But they claim to have shown that it can none the less be used to convey information usefully.
 The upshot is bound to be renewed demands for a more painstaking investigation of Uri Geller’s claims. He has convinced far too many people – many scientists among them – that he really has something. It may require more than a straightforward laboratory study to prove whether he is a gifted psychic or merely a hoaxer who has recognised how much publicity he can win by throwing the scientists into confusion.

Magicians


 Most people, of course, are not at all observant – as any psychologist will readily demonstrate. Even scientists, although professionally trained observers, are so only in their own spheres of knowledge – and not always then, because so often they start with a fixed hypothesis, says Dr. Christopher Evans, who, both as a scientist and psychologist, has participated in the evaluation of Mr. Geller. magicians, he says, well know these weaknesses in people – and vary their ways of performing their tricks to take account of an audiences foibles.
  “What staggered me is just how easy it is to get people’s jaws to drop.” Nature’s editor confesses that he too was fooled by a trick in which Dr. Evans apparently snapped a spoon in half.
 Mr. Geller himself has repeatedly declared his readiness to be studied by scientists. He accepted an invitation late last year to be investigated by a research panel set up by New Scientist (on which Lord Rothschild, an eminent bio-physicist, but then head of the Whitehall “think tank,” asked to be included). But Mr. Geller backed out before any studies had started. Undeterred by the snub – which they thought may have owed something to the fact that the panel was to have included non-scientists (journalists and, at Dr. Evans suggestion, a professional magician) – New Scientist’s staff went ahead with their own investigations. They followed the trail Mr. Geller himself had trodden around a number of U.S. research centres. They watched video-recordings of his TV appearances. They questioned producers about his behaviour both before the cameras and while their studios were being prepared for filming.
 In a long and well-documented report in the magazine to-day, Dr. Joe Hanlon comes to the conclusion that Mr. Geller will collaborate with scientists only on his own terms – and those do not include close scrutiny by magicians. But a man with whom he collaborates closely and constantly is Dr. Andrija Puharich, a wealthy medical doctor. Dr. Hanlon has discovered Dr. Puharich to be the inventor of a number of highly original microminiature radio receivers that will fit into teeth, and which use the tooth’s nerve supply to link up with the brain.
 According to Dr. Hanlon’s inquiries, the fact that Mr. Geller was put inside cages designed to screen him from radio waves would not necessarily mean that certain frequencies could not get through. Only by carefully examining Mr. Geller for implanted radio receivers – for example, by X-ray – could researchers be sure that this was not his line of communication. And this, Dr. Hanlon has been assured by Dr. Puharich, would not be acceptable to Uri Geller.


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