SCIENTISTS AND PSYCHICS

James Randi --- Wizard ((no email))
Mon, 4 Apr 1994 11:24:00 -0400

A few observations.... I warn you, this is a LONG posting.

I'm no longer astonished at the fact that reputable, trained, capable
scientists can be deceived by conjurors who claim to have psychic powers,
and self-deceived by their own need to believe that they are too smart to be
thus hornswoggled. Let me give you a parallel situation.

Suppose that you are promised, as part of a financial deal, that you
will be paid a large sum on February 29th, year 2000, and only on that date.
The question is: Will you get your money? There are several levels from
which the answer to this question can be obtained:

(1) If you're a total dunderhead, you won't think about that at all and
you'll accept it without any effort at considering the possibilities. In
effect, you're the Hoi Polloi Person, in its contemptuous sense. Assuming
that conditions (the economy, political changes, etc.) allow, will you get
your money? What's your answer at this point? Obviously, yes.

(2) If you're aware that every year doesn't have a February 29th in it, you
will consider the variables of our calendar system, and the First Rule of
Leap Years: If the year-number can be divided evenly by four, there will be
an extra day in February, thus a February 29th. At this point, your answer
to the above question is still, yes. And you've arrived at the answer from
a more informed and considered point of view, haven't you? In effect, you
are the Reasonably-Well Educated Person using your knowledge of the world to
examine a situation and to come to a conclusion based upon that knowledge.

(3) Well, most folks know about the First Rule of Leap Years. But let us
suppose that you're an above-average person in the education department,
someone who knows more than the ordinary Reasonably-Well Educated Person,
above. You, from your superior point of advantage, know that there's a
Second Rule of Leap Years: When the year-number is divisible by 100 (ends in
a double-zero) that year is NOT a leap year. Aha! You (the Extra-Educated
Person) will answer "no" to the posed question, right? And you'll be right,
right? Wrong.

(4) A pause here. It's obvious that we often arrive at the right answer for
the wrong reason, and at the wrong answer for the wrong reason. For
example, if you are an Extra-Educated Person and conclude that a psychic is
genuinely clairvoyant because he can tell you the digits on a driver's
license while holding it face-down between his hands, you might be right.
That's because you're an Extra-Educated Persons who knows that such a thing
is impossible without the use of psychic powers. But the Hoi Polloi Person
and the Reasonably-Well Educated Person, being accustomed to living in a
real world, may reasonably doubt the claim because they are also aware that
people can lie, cheat and deceive. Is it possible that the information
about the license number was obtained by other means (peeking?) at another
time (while misdirecting the attention?) and only revealed with great
(faked?) concentration at the moment when the performer claimed he was
sensing that information?

(5) Returning to the Leap Year question, are you now satisfied that you'll
get your money on February 29th, 2000, or has the authority of the Extra-
Educated Person, with his superior knowledge of the rules, made you decide
that there will be no February 29th in the year 2000? Surprise. Extra-
Educated Person isn't as smart as he (or you?) thought. There's (you
guessed it!) a Third Rule of Leap Years: The first two rules apply EXCEPT
when the year-number is divisible by 400. On that occasion, there IS a
February 29th. See, Extra-Educated Person? The point is that sometimes --
often -- the Hoi Polloi Person and the Reasonably-Well Educated Person will
abandon good common sense and defer to the opinions of the Extra-Educated
Person because the E.E.P. is known to be very well informed and of great
intellectual ability. But that does not mean that the E.E.P. can solve
problems about which he does not know quite enough about the rules and the
possibilities; it doesn't mean that he's smart. There are specialists who
do have that knowledge, and they should be consulted.

I've asked your attention to this tedious matter in order to try putting
the Ronnie Marcus situation in focus. This man is being tested by various
scientists, well-meaning but deluded folks who just cannot believe that they
can be deceived, either by another or by themselves. Presented with
excellent contrary evidence, they will invariably ignore it, deny it and
rationalize around it.
George Weissmann, the Israeli scientist who has rhapsodized over
Ronnie's abilities, suggests that "slipping a magnet into the box" or having
"a magnet on the other hand" might be trick methods of performing the
levitated match box that Ronnie demonstrates (wrong on both suppositions)
and he has made careful measurements of the phenomenon, all a waste of
effort, but smacking of Science. He simply missed the modus. His
conclusion is that he has established the genuine nature of this demo.
Weissmann then describes, in GREAT detail, how Ronnie produces a spoon that
he has "twisted corkscrew-like" while held in a spectators hand. Being a
scientist, he misses in his description the important moment-of-truth, which
he has no way of knowing about, of course.
There is a VERY interesting point about Weissmann's way of reporting: he
is always looking in the wrong direction. With "Clairvoyance in closed
matchbox" he specifies that Ronnie did this when the matchbox was closed
"either in another room, or behind a couch..." without realizing that it
could have been done on the Moon, with just as much effect on the outcome.
He also points out that Ronnie handled the box "without shaking it," another
useless fact. He ALWAYS finds a "mitigating circumstance" and rationalizes
away any failure; when Ronnie "declined to try" changing the time on a
digital liquid-crystal watch without "aquainting himself more with this kind
of watch" it does not occur to Weissmann that perhaps Ronnie COULD NOT DO IT
without being properly equipped with a conjuring modus.
The real howlers occur when Ronnie does the stupid old hot-foil trick
and the "Tapping the aura so that one feels it as a physical tap on the
skin" demos. These are so well-known to the trick trade that I cannot
believe Weissmann didn't know about them. I've already described the hot-
foil business. The aura-tapping thing consists of having a horse-tail-hair
taped to your finger-nail (of course I'm sure that the Scientist carefully
examined Ronnie's fingernails!) so that it sticks straight out, and touching
the subject with it. It's used in the Philippines as the "Spiritual
Injection" stunt.
I have a simple question for Weissmann: was Ronnie Marcus blindfolded
when he did the reading-a-license and what's-in-the-matchbox tricks?
And I'm struck by a strange set of co-incidences here. There is a young
man present at the Ronnie Marcus Show described by Weissmann. He seems to
not only obtain the best results (aura-tapping, the newspaper-clipping
trick, and the twisting-spoon demo) but he handles more of the "props" than
anyone else, in circumstances that indicate he HAD to be participating.
Since he has the same last name of Weissmann, could it be.....?
Finally, Weissmann seems to have missed another hilarious defect in the
Ronnie Marcus Story. On a videotape made of Ronnie's Blindfold Car Drive
(see any standard magic catalog or book on the subject) that Weissmann raves
about, the special effects folks messed up by using the same repeating
sequence of surrounding traffic scenes. Even a child could have spotted
that. But the believers aren't in the business of doubting, ever. "Sell me
that gold brick, and I'll take the Brooklyn Bridge, too!"
Some Extra-Educated Persons are as educated now as they're ever going to
get. Getting smart is another matter.
Stay tuned for more..... JR