I am sure that the average reader of the Skeptic has no idea of the lengths to which the hard-nosed investigative journalists on the editorial staff go to bring them all the news stories that appear in these pages. Take the recent visit to Australia of former 'psychic superstar', Mr Uri Geller. We first became aware of Mr Geller's impending visit through an advertisement in a local newspaper and had to decide whether this visit was worth a major challenge through the media. Our decision was to wait and see if Geller's former fame had retained sufficient drawing power to enable him to receive massive amounts of free publicity or whether, as we suspected, he was very much yesterday's news. In the event, this proved to be a sensible conclusion.
Geller was advertised as appearing at a series of psychic events in Sydney, the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Melbourne over a three week period in October . These events were organised by Gary Wiseman Promotions and sponsored by New Idea magazine (predictably), the Psychic Hotline (organised by the Australian Psychics Association), radio station 2KY (owned by the NSW Labor Council) and (wait for it taxpayers) Qantas.
Members of Australian Skeptics who attended two performances in Sydney reported that the audiences numbered at between 200-300 people. This must surely have been a considerable come-down for Mr Geller, who had substantially filled the Sydney Town Hall on his previous visit some 17 years ago. We have no reports how the Queensland leg of his visit went, but we have not heard of riots in the streets from disappointed clients who could not get tickets. So far, Mr Geller had received very little publicity, appearing on a couple of TV programmes and radio talk back sessions. The instructive thing about these appearances was that Geller was treated as an amusing curiosity, as is the way of such programmes, and not as someone who has anything serious to say about the state of the world.
Then there occurred a curious episode in which I met Uri Geller for the first time. He, accompanied by two other individuals (about whom, more elsewhere in this issue), was waiting in the American Consulate General in Sydney to conduct some business, when I, advised of his presence by a friend in the office, walked in to observe him at close quarters.
Alerted to my presence, he strode across the room, hand outstretched, and loudly and volubly proclaimed that he was going to sue the Skeptics and that he had just been to see "Australia's largest law firm". Taking and shaking the proffered hand, I enquired mildly why he was undertaking this extraordinary step. "Because they have been defaming me", he said. In response, I pointed out that, as I am the member of Australian Skeptics who is responsible for defaming people and as, far from defaming him, I had totally ignored him, he would have rather an onerous task in proving his case. Mr Geller then made the astonishing statement the he was 'not a litigious person', but that he had been forced to defend his integrity from personal slurs that had been cast against him, going on to give a highly biased account of various court cases in which he had been involved. Keeping my own counsel, I forbore to ask if he had paid the $US150,00 that a US Federal Court judge had awarded CSICOP for a failed suit he had instituted against them.
During this conversation, I gained the clear impression that Mr Geller was trying to intimidate me and I suspect that my amused and off-handed disputation of his claims nonplused him more than somewhat. I was aware that our Victorian branch, having compiled a list of claims Mr Geller had made publicly, had sent a list of questions to various media outlets, suggesting that they pose some of these questions to Mr Geller in any interview. These questions, while they may not have pleased Mr Geller, were in no way defamatory, so I felt I was on safe ground in arguing with him and I was confident that any law suit he instituted against Australian Skeptics would receive short shrift in any Australian court. Needless to say, in the several weeks which have passed since this encounter, we have received no communication from any Australian law firm, regardless of size, on Mr Geller's behalf.
Changing tack, Mr Geller opined that the attacks made on him by various sceptics around the world may have been caused by an underlying anti-semitism. At this astounding claim, I am afraid that my naturally polite demeanour deserted me. I laughed in his face, pointing out that any perusal of a list of members of sceptics organisation would show that those whose names proclaimed a Jewish heritage would reveal that they comprised a considerably higher number than the Jewish percentage of the population at large would warrant. During our conversation, Geller kept informing me that he was 'rich and famous' and didn't need to do what he was doing. I am in no position to judge the state of his wealth, but I can say that he is by no means as famous as he would like to believe. During the weeks before his arrival, I mentioned his visit to many different people. By far the majority said "Uri who?" and only some of those were enlightened when I further identified him as ''the spoon bender''.
My impressions of Mr Geller are in accord with those of others who describe him as 'intense', but even more than that, I found him to be incredibly tense, a strange condition for one who was giving lectures on how to use psychic powers to solve personal problems.
We concluded our conversation on a friendlier note and that may well have been the end of the affair except for a curious footnote. The following evening, I was called by Mark Plummer from Melbourne, who advised me to ring a Melbourne phone number for details of the Psychic Expo at which Geller was to be the star attraction. On calling the number, I was advised by an answering machine that "Due to the illness of a family member, Mr Geller has been forced to withdraw from the Expo and, as a result, the organisers have been forced to abandon the Expo. There is no plan to re-schedule the expo." If any member of Mr Geller's family is indeed ill, then he has our sympathy, as do those whose grasp on reality is so nebulous that they expended $20 to have their problems solved by someone whose major contribution to the world is the trick of bending cutlery.
There is a precedent for the abandonment through illness of a tour by a prominent proponent of mystical forces. A couple of years ago, Erich von Däniken cancelled a tour of Australian capitals after disappointing attendances at meetings in Perth and Adelaide, citing ill health as the reason. Perhaps there is some malign energy abroad in Australia that causes ill health in those near to fading psychic superstars in the twilight of their careers and I offer this thought gratis to anyone seeking a topic for a PhD thesis. Only a cynic would hold the view that poor attendances at meetings and the loss of revenue entailed would have anything to do with it.
Footnote: I was quite amused by Geller's determination to both convince and intimidate me. He is one of those irritating types that force themselves into your space, hoping you will back off. I countered by leaning against a wall, which forced him to back off himself or risk having me kiss him.