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It Never Stops... PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   
Editing the text for A Magician in the Laboratory, my next book, I came upon an item that may interest SWIFT readers as a bit of ancient flummery.  

The Chronicle of Higher Education – based in Washington, D.C. – proudly states that it is the major news service serving the United States academic world. That may well be, but early last year, an article written by Dr. Mikita Brottman, 45, a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art, appeared in the Chronicle extolling a show at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. It was titled, Psychic Projections/Photographic Impressions: Paranormal Photographs from the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios. This was a display of some 60 examples of how rationality can be easily abandoned when a sufficiently attractive woo-woo subject is brought up and dignified by such individuals, colleges, and media outlets.  

Note, first: the title of the show clearly stated that these photographs were paranormal in nature, not “claimed” or “purported” or “possibly,” but that they are “psychic.” No modifiers. The story behind this strange exhibit began back in the early 1960s, and involved two major actors.  

The first actor involved here was Theodore (Ted) Judd Serios [1918-2006], an unemployed bellhop from Chicago who discovered a great trick: he would have a Polaroid Instamatic camera – remember them? – aimed at his forehead while he held a small tube of black paper in his fingers, pointed – up close – into the lens. Then, while wildly snapping the fingers of his free hand, he would instruct the person holding the camera to release the shutter and hand over the result, which he called a “thoughtograph.” These were most often blank or black, but occasionally a fuzzy image would be seen that could be interpreted many different ways – can you say “pareidolia”? – and on rare occasions a relatively clear and identifiable image showed up.  

The second actor we have in this drama is Dr. Jule Eisenbud [1908-1999], a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical School and a charter member of the Parapsychological Association, among other distinctions, who gleefully embraced the Serios “miracles” as genuine. He had already written extensively on ESP, PK, and other claimed psi phenomena, and accepted them all as proven facts, so he and Ted got along just fine…  

Serios’ method for his trick was quite simple: the small black tube – about ½” in diameter and 1¼” in length – concealed a smaller slide-in tube that had a simple positive lens* at one end, and a tiny transparency at the other – exactly the same as the keychain attachments widely available in those days in which the owner could view Marilyn Monroe or a baseball star – depending on immediate needs… The focal length of the lens was the length of the tube.  

Held to the Polaroid camera’s lens with the announced intention of concentrating the “thought waves” of the holder, it projected its picture onto the film when the exposure was made.  

In my book Flim-Flam! [1982] I devoted six pages – 222 to 227 – to the Serios/Eisenbud matter, providing a thorough exposure and diagrams of the methodology of the trick, though I thought that to be too much space for such a trivial and transparent hoax. Then the Chronicle of Higher Education – for whatever reason – brought attention back to the matter. Author Brottman showed clearly that she accepted uncritically as true, everything that Eisenbud wrote or said about these silly photos, and even mentioned that the exhibit had “…a short film of Eisenbud debating aspects of the Serios phenomenon with detractors.”  

That “film” is an excerpt from a 1967 NBC Today Show episode in which I successfully – and easily – duplicated the Serios trick on live TV, with Serios and Eisenbud sitting right there, looking very uneasy. Using a regular  Polaroid camera and film supplied by NBC, I held a tube of black paper to the lens – as Serios regularly did – and produced an image of a baby  – actually of myself at six years of age – and then I stepped to  a studio  TV camera  and  similarly produced a shot of a taxi on Broadway. Though I’m sure that Ted Serios easily caught my “moves,” Jule Eisenbud was careful to be studiously looking away and mumbling – as if disinterested – while I did the tricks. He simply didn’t want to know, and would not watch.  

In her article, when Professor Brottman used terms like “under quite stringent test conditions,” she was quoting directly from Eisenbud, to whom control of his subject – Serios – was a quite foreign concept. Never wondering whether a fellow academic might have been fooled by some simple sleight-of-hand, Brottman marveled that some of the Polaroids produced by Serios were “…quite clear, particularly when Serios was attempting to produce the image of a specific physical monument or building.”  

Very true, but those wonders were attained during sessions lasting several days, when Serios had been told that the following day this particular “target” would be hoped for. Several of the identifiable “thoughtographs” Ted produced can be traced to the then-popular ViewMaster 3-D viewers. The film size would easily fit a “gizmo.” It was a simple matter for the wonder-worker to obtain a tiny transparency of the target overnight and conjure it up to order when required. Professor Brottman – naively – also noted that Serios “…was in many regards erratic and demanding, a heavy drinker who produced the most vivid and compelling of his thoughtographs when drunk.”  

Also very true, but anyone experienced with such subjects quickly recognizes that when they appear to be most impaired, that might well be because they need the grand misdirection thus invoked, and can get away with much more when thought to be a little “out of it.” Brottman tells of cases in which Serios “…could produce an image on a camera that was some distance away from him (as far as 66 feet in one instance), and he even produced images when the camera was in another room altogether.”  

This quotation was, again, taken directly from Eisenbud’s account, but I was very surprised when Brottman also wrote: “While many people, including Eisenbud himself, have produced similar images using gimmick lenses and transparencies, no one has been able to do so in an undetectable fashion.”  

Professor Brottman, please! At that time in my lecturing career, I was regularly doing this trick, as I did on that Today Show, very much “undetected,” thank you!  As my final comment on all this, I’ll quote a revealing statement from Brottman that clearly reveals her attitude on the matter: “Yet to my mind, the Ted Serios phenomenon goes beyond the notion of "real versus fake," providing insights into the relationships among photography, subjectivity, representation, and the unconscious.”  

No, ma’m, not at all. It simply shows these three phenomena: the well-known psychological phenomenon known as “expectation confirmation,” how academics will often choose to accept statements from their peers as unquestionable, and how evidence of magic can be found where none exists, if you try hard enough. Consider: If Ted Serios did not use a trick method to produce his fuzzy photos, all the rules of physics, particularly of optics, everything developed by science over the past several centuries, must be rewritten to accommodate this claim.  

No such revisions have been found necessary, professor…

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written by daveg703, March 12, 2012
I have only this to say (unless provoked further, of course): Professor Brottman, are you serios? smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by Willy K, March 12, 2012
Polaroid Instamatic camera

Naughty Randi... Instamatic is/was Kodak's trade name for their film cartridge based cameras. The first one was made in 1963. It was not an "instant" camera like the Polaroids, the film had to be processed like traditional films.

I remember an article in Modern Photography when they busted your old pal Uri. He claimed to be able to make an image on the film on a camera with the lens cap taped shut. smilies/wink.gif
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written by lytrigian, March 13, 2012
Caller X, you ought to know you're not that much less likely than Randi to die tomorrow. Maybe you should find better uses for your time than snark and trolling.
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written by MadScientist, March 13, 2012
There's never a shortage of suckers. I can understand why people just don't get it though - years ago I tried to explain basic concepts of photography to a PhD student who built a severely defective camera but the student just wasn't interested in learning. Months later when I was asked to review a paper by that student, the editor didn't have to wait long to receive a "not fit for publication" along with a long list of what was wrong with the paper. Some people are just too damned lazy to learn even when people offer free help.
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written by ziplock007, March 13, 2012
Randi,
When will the book be available? I can't wait to read itsmilies/smiley.gif
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written by Lighthouse, March 13, 2012
This was over a year ago. Better late than never, I guess. The article does have some things that are "off". But it is not too bad. The introductory paragraphs are a bit wooish, but are mostly just covering history.

Randi is wrong making a target of “Yet to my mind, the Ted Serios phenomenon goes beyond the notion of "real versus fake," providing insights into the relationships among photography, subjectivity, representation, and the unconscious.” This is exactly how the photographs should be viewed. This is an art professor writing about an art exhibit in an art gallery with photographs presented as art—not as scientific evidence.

And it is interesting, from an artistic point of view, to see what somebody does when trying to represent thoughts and the unconscious in photography. The article explores that concept well. It is a bit difficult, but try reading the article as an artist rather than a scientist or skeptic, and you will find an article mostly about this concept of a person’s vision of what a photograph of a thought might look like and why they might think such a photograph would look that way.

Brottman does lose it a bit in some sentences, but not where Randi pointed to. Some parts seem to be history or just describing the perspective that Serios was coming from. I can understand that. What I find objectionable are:

“Other images could have been obtained only as a result of knowledge or perspectives unavailable at the time.”

“Experiments in telepathy have shown that it is often precisely what someone does not think of transmitting that is transmitted most clearly.”

Those statement have no basis in fact and are irrelevant to the artistic value of the photographs. I think is those statements that make the rest of the article (which doesn’t flat out call the photos fakes and leads on a possible controversy over authenticity) that make the article fall flat. The rest is pretty much OK.
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@Lighthouse
written by lytrigian, March 13, 2012
So-- what you're saying is that I can take some cheap camera and employ multiple exposures to create vague and weird juxtapositions, and that would be art worthy of an exhibition and serious analysis by the art community? Maybe I spend too much time on DeviantArt, but this sort of thing seems downright commonplace.

Or is it important that I do so in a way that involves manifest fraud? Is that what makes this art? Does a weird juxtaposition become "bizarre and ineffable" only if I say they were created by "thought transference"?

You can come up with a profound sounding analysis of just about anything after the fact; what went into this before the fact is in reality deceit pure and simple. Some of the commentary on the article (http://chronicle.com/article/P...-a/126934/) is quite to the point: if, as we know, these images were faked, they tell us precisely nothing about the unconscious. It doesn't even really tell us much about whether Serios thought this is what an image produced from the unconscious should look like. Much of the "uncanny quality" of the images was no doubt unavoidable, attributable to the technique by which they really were made, and not anyone's vision of anything.

You can build all kinds of castles in the sky on anything.
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written by Caller X, March 14, 2012
written by lytrigian, March 13, 2012
Caller X, you ought to know you're not that much less likely than Randi to die tomorrow.


The mortality tables respectfully disagree with your magical thinking.

.
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written by Caller X, March 14, 2012
written by Lighthouse, March 13, 2012
This was over a year ago. Better late than never, I guess. The article does have some things that are "off". But it is not too bad. The introductory paragraphs are a bit wooish, but are mostly just covering history.

Randi is wrong making a target of “Yet to my mind, the Ted Serios phenomenon goes beyond the notion of "real versus fake," providing insights into the relationships among photography, subjectivity, representation, and the unconscious.” This is exactly how the photographs should be viewed. This is an art professor writing about an art exhibit in an art gallery with photographs presented as art—not as scientific evidence.


Or, as some would say, Tick Tock.

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written by Zoroaster, March 14, 2012
I'm trying to imagine the process being described and what I imagine is a guy holding a camera to his forehead with a short black tube pressed between the camera and his head - I guess I can't describe it well either. Anyway I can't figure out how any light goes through the tube and transparency and positive lens into the camera lens. Was part of the trick to somehow angle the tube to allow light in? Is there video of this somewhere? Just curious.
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written by EarlyOut, March 14, 2012
Here ya' go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yiWrqGBoB4
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written by lytrigian, March 14, 2012
@Caller X: I said "not that much less likely" which is perfectly true for any given day. When you eliminate the causes of death that Randi is known to not be at any particular risk for (he's not diabetic, he has no chronic pulmonary infections, he's not asthmatic, no known cardiopulmonary issues, no Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, his cancer is in remission, etc.) -- Let's just say I'd be careful crossing the street, because assuming that you're in your 20s you're about as likely to get hit by a bus tomorrow as Randi is to suddenly expire from some other cause.

Tick tock indeed. We all of us have limited time on this planet. If you want to have any hope of catching up to Randi's accomplishments by the time you're his age, you'd better get busy. I'd wager you've already fallen way behind.
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written by Caller X, March 15, 2012
written by lytrigian, March 14, 2012
@Caller X: I said "not that much less likely" which is perfectly true for any given day. When you eliminate the causes of death that Randi is known to not be at any particular risk for (he's not diabetic, he has no chronic pulmonary infections, he's not asthmatic, no known cardiopulmonary issues, no Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, his cancer is in remission, etc.) -- Let's just say I'd be careful crossing the street, because assuming that you're in your 20s you're about as likely to get hit by a bus tomorrow as Randi is to suddenly expire from some other cause.

[blah, blah, blah]


You'll forgive me if I don't take to heart your insane view of probability and the actuarial sciences. When was the last time you heard of someone getting killed by a bus? When was the last time you heard of an old person dying? Perhaps you'd like to sell Mr. Randi a life insurance policy. I can get one cheaper. Magical thinking. The divine bus intervention. Make Mr. Randi your Personal Jesus if you must, but leave me to the world of statistics and rationality. You have to admit his hands are a little shaky, so can you really rule out Parkinson's? As for Alzheimer's, he did publish an article on Ted Serios in an art project that he already covered in the last year, just this week. And how did you become privy to his medical records? Sounds like a possible HIPAA violation to me.
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written by lytrigian, March 15, 2012
"Hit by a bus" is a common expression, intended to be darkly humorous, in reference to any kind of accidental death. Only someone arguing to no point takes the trouble to make hay out of interpreting such a thing literally -- unless you're deeply stupid, that is.

You're kidding yourself if you think accidental deaths are uncommon. A rational person knows otherwise. Clearly you don't want to hear it: the SHORTEST paragraph which mentioned this was snipped with "blah, blah, blah". But you're going to have to face up to your mortality sooner or later. Better sooner. It'll make you less of a prick.

Since "when was the last time you heard" invites me to consider anecdotal evidence, which I would not ordinarily do, I can mention that the last few people close to me who have died for medical reasons have been 30-40 years younger than Randi is now, so what lesson do you intend I should draw from that?

Really, Caller X, methinks you do protest too much. I'm sure you have a list of accomplishments behind you as long as my arm, so that even at your callow age you can look back on a full, worthwhile life well lived. Or maybe not?

(And why was EarlyOut's post voted down? Surely it's instructive to see how Serios went about his flim-flammery.)
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written by Caller X, March 15, 2012
written by lytrigian, March 15, 2012

[blah, blah] It'll make you less of a prick.


So you're calling me a prick? Well, I must bow to the superior wordsmith. Well argued.
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written by Zoroaster, March 15, 2012
lytrigian wrote: "
(And why was EarlyOut's post voted down? Surely it's instructive to see how Serios went about his flim-flammery.)"

Yes, I appreciated the rapid response to my query. Perhaps someone noticed the credulous attitude of the original YouTube poster and thought that EarlyOut was trying to defend Serios' authenticity.
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written by markbellis, March 16, 2012
"He became quite drunk and obnoxious. He was chastised often by Dr. Eisenbud but the doctor still continued to supply beer to Serios." - Nile Root, photographer who witnessed a demonstration by Eisenbud.
This is a serious point in this silly story - If Serios was just a kid playing games then Eisenbud would just be credulous, but the professor gave alcohol to the point of drunkeness to someone he himself described as exhibiting "a behavior pathology with many character disorders.", a very unethical form of 'research'.
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