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New Scientist - 2 November 1978


What price Geller now?

Lawrence McGinty




 Professor John Taylor - the man who, more than any other, established the credibility of Uri Geller in Britain - has changed his mind dramatically about the existence of what he once called the "Geller effect". Five years ago, when Geller first appeared on British television, Taylor, professor of mathematics at Kings College, London, sat next to Uri throughout his performance, mouth agape, brain running wild. By his obvious mystification, by his inability to explain or expose Geller, Taylor gave the Israeli conjuror the blessing of the scientific priesthood. In Taylor's own words: "I felt as if the whole framework with which I viewed the world had suddenly been destroyed. I seemed very naked and vulnerable." In today's Nature (vol. 276, p64), Taylor sounds a very different note. After extensive laboratory tests on subjects with allegedly paranormal abilities, he dismisses the very existence of the phenomena that, five years earlier, had reduced him to a naked and vulnerable spectator.
 To his credit, Taylor has consistently refused to follow the dismal example of an ossified orthodoxy, which "disproved" Geller and paranormal phenomena by fiat. Unfortunately, his steadfastness in insisting that the "Geller effect" must be investigated scientifically was initially matched by an astounding naivety. Taylor made the astonishing claim that: "The whole question of deception, either intentional or unconscious, can be dismissed as a factor, at any rate in the majority of instances."
 The report in Nature stands in stark contrast to this gullibility. For example, one series of Taylor's tests, in which subjects were asked to deflect a needle suspended in a Perspex cylinder by a fine thread, clearly and rather elegantly showed that movements of the needle (achieved by both subjects and controls) were the result of inadvertent cheating. The "performers" had accidentally touched the Perspex cylinder, creating static which induced charges on the needle.
 At a theoretical level, too, Taylor's paper in Nature is much more stringent than his previous writings. In his book Superminds (Macmillan, 1975), Taylor wrote: "The mechanism…suggested as an explanation for metal bending (an electromagnetic one) does not require an exorbitant amount of energy. Nor does the emission, transmission and reception of electromagnetic radiation by the brain appear completely impossible." This week he writes: "There is no known mechanism in the body to achieve a peak power output of Gigawatts", which he believes necessary for metal-bending. "It is difficult to suppose that this would be possible without serious tissue damage."
 Even more fundamentally, Taylor seems to have changed his opinion about the relationship between the "Geller effect" and science. In Superminds Taylor made it clear that if scientific method could not explain the Geller phenomena then "the scientific method will have been found wanting and could well suffer a blow from which it might never recover". He even talked of "jettisoning" scientific method in such circumstances.
 The philosophy Taylor now embraces is radically different. His starting point is the deduction that electromagnetism is the "only known force that could conceivably be involved" in Geller phenomena. Thus, in his experiments, he measured electromagnetic fields around subjects performing allegedly paranormal feats. He found no abnormal signals (even in "relaxed" environments where subjects claimed to have bent metal "paranormally"). The conclusion is obvious: the phenomena involved no electromagnetic abnormalities and are therefore not paranormal.
 Of course, Taylor may be wrong. There may be an unknown physical explanation for paranormal phenomena. It is curious that Taylor, while demonstrating that psychokinesis was effected by normal mechanisms, apparently dismisses other effects (such as telepathy) merely because they do not fit his electromagnetic hypothesis - a much looser criterion of proof.
 The important point is that Taylor now seems to accept that if science can not explain the "Geller effect", we must jettison the phenomena, not science. Taylor's personal journey through the valley of irrationality is illuminating. It would be reassuring to think that his conversion to rationality will have an even greater impact than his gullible endorsement of Geller. Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely.

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