The Let Down
If a man deceive me once, shame on him. If twice, shame on me. - PROVERB
Later that night I watched the Channel Five news. There was Uri again in a long segment, bending a key, receiving drawings, locating pieces of metal hidden in cans. The reporters presented him as unquestionably real - there was "no possibility" of deception.
Then came a round-table discussion the reporters and a professional magician who wanted to discredit Uri. The magician came off badly. He didn't believe in psychic phenomena and said Geller had to be a phony. Martin Abend, the political commentator, defended Geller by recounting his own experience earlier that evening.
"I drew two intersecting circles," Abend told the magician, "and tried to send them to Geller. Now I think that's an unusual sort of figure. Geller first drew two circles tangent to one another. Then he drew two intersecting circles. It was an amazing thing."
I noted with interest that Abend had not reported this incident correctly. In fact, Uri had come closest with the tangent circles. Uri's second attempt to reproduce the hidden figure had been one circle "inside" another. Initially a skeptic, Abend had remembered what happened in a way that made Uri look even better than he was.
The Amazing Randi
Nevertheless, I called several friends to tell them about my evening with Uri and about my new faith in him. By then, I was sorry I had made an appointment for the next day to see James (The Amazing) Randi, a professional magician who wanted to expose Geller as a trickster and who had once raised a few weak doubts in my own mind. After all, what could Randi possibly show me?
The Amazing Randi lives in New Jersey, in a house guarded by two beautiful macaws. On the door is a Peruvian mask, which sends forth martial music when you ring the bell. The door opens from the side opposite the doorknob. Inside are mummy cases, clocks that run backwards and other strange and incongruous objects that advertise the inhabitant as a creator of illusions.
Randi turned out to be a delightful host, talkative and funny, with a twinkle in his eye and a roguish look that always lets you know he might be up to some trick. I told Randi what I had seen Uri do. He listened attentively but made no comments. When I finished he invited me over to a table covered with envelopes, nails, nuts, bolts, and aluminum film canisters.
"what shall we try first? He said. "Some telepathy?" He invited me to take a piece of paper and three envelopes. "Go to the other end of the room or out of the room," he instructed. "Draw any figure you like on the paper, fold it up, seal it in an envelope, seal that envelope in another envelope, and that in the third."
I followed his instructions and brought the sealed envelope back. Deep inside was a drawing of two intersecting circles.
"We'll put that aside now," Randi said, setting it down on the table. He handed me a carton of sturdy four-inch nails. "Pick any six that you think are perfectly straight." I did. I also looked to make sure they were all real nails. "Now put a rubber band around that bunch and set them aside." I did so.
"Meanwhile, let's try one of Mr. Geller's favourite tricks." He picked 10 film canisters and told me to stuff one of them full of nuts and bolts - "so tightly that it won't rattle if moved." He went out of the room while I did what he told me. "Now mix them all up," he shouted from the kitchen. When I had done so, Randi came back and sat down at the table.
He studied the canisters and moved his hand over them without touching them. "I'm going to eliminate the empty ones," he told me. "When I point to one and say it's empty, you remove it. And set it down quietly, so I can't tell anything from the sound." He made passes over the canisters, just as I had seen Uri Geller do on television. "That one's empty," he said confidently, pointing to a canister in the middle. I removed it and set it aside. "Don't tell me if I'm wrong," he said. "That one's empty," He pointed to another. Randi had a great sense of drama; I felt involved in his performance. He eliminated another canister, and another. Finally, there were just two left. He passed his hand over each one as if feeling for emanations from the metal inside. "That's empty," he said at last, indicating the one on the left. I removed it. It was empty. The remaining can was full of nuts and bolts. He had neither touched the canisters or jarred the table. I was amazed.
"Now," Randi told me, "that was a trick. And I'm going to show you how to do it. But I want you to promise you won't reveal the method, because we magicians aren't supposed to reveal secrets. This is a special case."
I gave my promise and Randi taught me how he did it. It was simple - so simple a child could master it. In fact, Randi said he had taught the trick to several children. It is based on a subtle but easily perceptible difference between the full can and the empty ones, a difference that can be seen by anyone who knows what to look for.
"What if the canister is filled with water?" I asked.
"It's the same idea - you just look for different things. Do you remember when Mr. Geller tried to do that on the "Tonight Show?" Randi asked. I thought I did. "Let's look at it," he said.
Studying the Tapes
Randi had a video-tape machine in his house, together with recordings of most of Geller's television appearances. "I learned how he does most of his tricks by studying these tapes," he explained.
We relived the famous "Tonight Show," where Uri had failed, according to Randi, because randy and Carson (a former magician himself) had safeguarded the props. There was Johnny Carson telling Uri to go ahead and do something. Uri stalled. There were the film canisters, one full of water. "Carson and I handled those cans in a way that eliminated the difference," Randi said. Uri was moving his hand over the canisters. "No, I'm not getting it," he said, and gave up. So ended one of Uri's most famous disasters.
"Now look at this," Randi said. He turned on a video-tape of the "Merv Griffin Show," where Uri had appeared a few nights later. I heard griffin tell his audience that Uri's failures with Johnny Carson had convinced him Uri was real, since a trickster would never have failed. The high point of the show was the bending of a nail.
"All right, back to the table," Randi said. He picked up the bunch of six nails. "Let's find one that's absolutely straight." He rolled each one back and forth on the table, keeping up a constant patter while eliminating any nails that had "little woggily-woggilies," as Randi called them - slight irregularities which kept them from rolling smoothly. He ended up with one nail he liked, holding it between thumb and forefinger, midway along the shaft. "Now, keep your eye on it," he said, "I'm going to try to bend it." He moved it back and forth slowly and gently between his thumb and forefinger. I hardly knew what to expect.
Suddenly the nail began to bend before my eyes. "Look at that," Randi chuckled. Sure enough, it was bent about 30 degrees, and by a stage magician.
I shook my head in astonishment. "Not bed, huh?" Randi asked. I allowed that it wasn't bad at all. "That's incredible!" I said. I took the nail. It wasn't warm or unusual in any other way. Just bent.
Then, before my eyes, Randi showed me in slow motion how he had substituted a bent nail for one of the straight ones, how he had concealed the bend from me until the proper moment and how he had then revealed it while rubbing the nail between his fingers. But I had "seen" it bend. Suddenly, I experienced a sense of how strongly the mind can impose its own interpretation on perceptions: how it can see what it expects to see, but not see the unexpected.
"Now let's watch the tape of the "Merv Griffin Show" again and see how Uri does it," Randi suggested. Sure enough, there was Uri Geller manipulating three nails just as Randi had. And under Randi's tutelage, I could see that one nail was never shown in its entirety to the close-up camera, even though Uri was claiming to hold up each nail, one at a time, to prove its straightness.
Secrets of the Envelope
"Ready for the telepathy?" Randi asked. "Let's try that sealed envelope." He went back to the table , sat down, took pad and pen, and held the envelope to his forehead. "You concentrate on the figure," he told me.
He started making marks on the paper, attempting to reproduce the secrets of the envelope. First he drew an equals sign; he seemed to be way off. "Now don't tell me how I'm doing," he said, "just let me work on it." Slowly he extended the lines, then made them cross into a flat "X." He muttered to himself while working. Then the lines began to curve. "Oh, I see it now," he said happily. And there on the pad appeared the two intersecting circles, exactly as I had drawn them. Obviously, Randi had known what was in the envelope. I opened the envelopes, one by one, took out the folded paper, and showed it to Randi. "Well, well," he said, pleased with himself. "Look at that."
Randi showed me how he did that one, too. There is only one way to know what is inside an envelope without using paranormal powers; you have to get your hands on the envelope for a while and use your eyes.
"People come back from seeing Uri Geller," Randi told me, "and they say "He never touched the envelope." But if you question them carefully, what they really mean is: he never touched it in ways that "they" think would have let him know what was inside. That's the basis of stage magic. You take advantage of little opportunities to do the dirty work, when you're certain people aren't going to notice you. Geller is a master opportunist."
"Have you ever seen him doing the dirty work?" I asked.
A Glance at the Blackboard
"I sure have. I was at Town Hall the other night. The thing that really irks me is how much people let him get away with - things they wouldn't let a magician get away with. He asked a woman to write a foreign capital on the blackboard, and she wrote "Denver?" The whole audience was annoyed at her for not following instructions. At one point, you could just see every head in the audience turn to glare at her, and right then old Uri just shot a glance at the blackboard. It's that simple. And when he broke a zodiac ring at the end, he said, "Let's try two rings at once." What he did was click off his microphone for an instant, wedge one ring into the other, and give a hard squeeze so that the zodiac ring broke where the setting was joined."
"And you saw that?"
"I saw it. Everybody looks for complicated explanations, and the explanations are always simple. That's why you don't see them. And the people who are easiest to take in with that sort of thing are intelligent people, especially scientists. The people who are hard to fool are children, because they look at what they're not supposed to look at. Scientists are pushovers."
"Has the Stanford Research Institute ever had a professional magician act as a consultant in their studies of Geller?" I asked.
"Never! Isn't that unbelievable? They get insulted if you suggest it, or they say that a magician would put out "bad vibes" that would interfere with Uri's abilities."
"All right," I said. "I'm impressed with everything you've shown me and told me. But last night Uri Geller bent one of my keys for me. Can you do the same?"
"Got a key?" Randi asked. I brought out the brass key that Uri had failed to bend. "Give it to me." Randi took the key and played with it for a while. "Yes, I think that will work," he said. He sat down across from me and held the key under my nose, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger.
"Look at that," he said, "I think it's going." The key was bending. In a trice it was bent to about 30 degrees, looking for all the world like a Geller production.
"No!" I protested. My faith in Uri Geller lay in pieces on the floor.
"All I needed was a moment in which your attention was distracted to bend the key by jamming it against my chair; I made the bend appear just as I did with the nail." Again I had seen not just a bend, but actual bending.
"Have you ever tried to bend a key with your hands?" Randi asked.
"I've assumed I couldn't."
Randi showed me how he could bend a key with his hands, and I was able to do the same , although with difficulty. I saw clearly that with practice one could get very good at bending metal objects quickly and surreptitiously, without recourse to lasers concealed in the belt or any other complicated devices.
Randi also made a fork bend for me, although he couldn't simulate the fork I had seen melt over Uri's hand. He astounded me with other tricks; and even when I knew what to look for I couldn't see him doing the dirty work.
"Do you think," I asked Randi, "knowing what I do now, that I could see Geller doing it?"
"I doubt it," Randi replied. "He's very good. He can take advantage of any situation. And people want to believe in him."
I remembered how Martin Abend had misremembered Uri's telepathic performance, and how I had embellished some of what I'd seen when telling others about it.
"What about the time I saw Uri make a ring sag into an oval shape without touching it?" I asked.
"Look, I can't explain all of what he does, especially if I haven't seen it. I repeat, he's good. And he probably has many different techniques available. But if an accomplished professional has a chance to watch him closely, it can all be figured out. That's why Uri won't come near me or any other magician."
"How did you get a chance to watch him up close?"
"first by masquerading as a reporter when he was interviewed at "Time." And then by studying the videotapes."
"Do you want to expose him?"
"I'd love to, but I don't think that will be easy. The fact that I can duplicate his feats by magic tricks proves nothing. The only way would be to catch him substituting a bent nail, or jamming a key against a chair leg; that will be difficult."
I thanked the Amazing Randi and went on my way, suitably amazed. I had never before had the experience of going from such total belief to such total disbelief in so short a time. Nor had I ever doubted my perceptions so thoroughly. Uri's unwillingness to perform in the presence of magicians seemed especially damning.
Since then I have thought a lot about Uri Geller and have talked with others about him. One person I spoke to was Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who teaches a course called "The Pseudopsychologies." It deals with astrology and various psychic and occult phenomena. Hyman describes himself as an "open-minded skeptic who has never seen a genuine psychic phenomenon" He doesn't know what kind of evidence it would take to change his mind. Hyman was once a magician, and he spent a day at the Stanford Research Institute watching Uri Geller last December. He decided that Uri was "a very good magician" but that he could replicate most of what Uri did by simple tricks.
"What I find most interesting about Uri Geller are the reactions to him," Hyman told me. "For instance, the physicists at Stanford were irate at the suggestion that Geller might be tricking them. They were physicists - real scientists - and I was only a psychologist. I was astounded that they had never bothered to check up on Uri's background in Israel."
People who are believers in things like telepathy and psychokinesis are sometimes accused of thinking wishfully. I have always thought that people who "denied" the existence of such things were also thinking wishfully, for they, too, ignore certain types of evidence while paying attention to others. Leon Jaroff, the editor who did "Time" magazine's first negative story about Uri Geller, once said: "There has never been a single adequately documented "psychic phenomenon." Many people believe in things like this because they need to." That view discounts completely the evidence of direct experience. It, too, is based on a need to see things a certain way.
Selective perception of evidence is the basic method by which we construct our models of reality. Many systems of thought urge us to distinguish between reality and our models of it. For example, one of the important themes in Don Juan's philosophy, as transmitted by Carlos Castaneda, is that what we call "objective" reality is nothing more than a consistent model - one of many possible models - constructed out of learned and habitual ways of selecting evidence and interpreting perceptions.
As a student of psychology and drugs, I have always been interested in the concept of "set," the body of expectation that determines experience. When I conducted research on marijuana I found that people who were unfamiliar with the drug, in the absence of any encouragement to get high, felt nothing at all even after receiving large doses. On the other hand, subjects who are ready to get high can get high on a placebo. In other words, our unconscious needs and expectations can lead us to experience things that other people rarely notice, while at the same time they lead us "not" to notice some things that other people see perfectly well.
It might be possible to take more conscious control over the process by which reality is shaped and made to seem objective. "Wishful thinking," though it has a negative connotation, is an appropriate term to describe this process. We all engage in it, often unconsciously, to bring things into reality according to our needs, and to make them leave reality according to our needs.
That is why questions like, "Is Uri Geller a fraud?" or "Do psychic phenomena exist?" are unanswerable. The answer is always yes and no, depending on who is looking and from what point of view. Each of us has the power to make such phenomena real or unreal. The first step toward making them real is to believe that evidence exists. As for Uri Geller, I wish him good fortune and the wisdom to use his abilities well. From knowing him, I have learned an enormous amount about the way I see things and the need for great care in evaluating evidence - especially the kind of evidence which seems to prove things I want to believe.
This article contains copyrighted material that has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available for the general purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching and/or research. I believe that use of this material is covered under the terms of "fair use". If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes other than that provided by law, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.