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!  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…