New York City, 1994, and I answered the ringing telephone. “I’m a producer,” announced the caller, “at WNBC Live-at-Five on Channel Four, and we’re having a psychic spoon-bender on today. Would you be willing to come in and bend spoons on the air?”
Just another day in the life of a skeptical magician. The psychic spoon-bender had come to the United States from Israel (no, not that psychic spoon-bender) in March of 1994 to try to garner support and belief in several American scientific and academic institutions. The psychic claimant’s name was Ronnie Marcus – a South African native who allegedly practiced faith healing and other psychic skullduggery in Jerusalem. I seem to recall he had a credulous physicist in tow, who apparently believed in Marcus’s supernormal abilities and had helped pave the way to arrange meetings and tests, including in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Nevada, and elsewhere. (From spiritualism to psychokinesis, physicists often find themselves on the front lines of believing and promoting goofy stuff. [Paging Sir William Crookes!] There are reasons for this, but that is, as they say, another story.)
But upon arriving at American shores, an interesting phenomenon had promptly unfolded. Unlike in the 1970s, when Uri Geller’s psychic tableware modifications were big news, in 1994 we had something new: email. Magicians and skeptics were able to track and swiftly respond to Marcus’s travels and claims, and it became difficult for scientists and parapsychologists to ignore the clamor of such observers offering to take part as informed observers and protocol designers. Thus, for example, even though physicists at Berkeley declined to use protocols suggested by veteran parapsychology expert Ray Hyman, nevertheless, other procedures still managed to thwart Marcus’s attempted magic tricks.
As a result of these swift and decisive failures, Marcus cancelled his remaining appearances and elected to beat a hasty retreat. However since he was flying through New York City on his way out of the country, he had managed to obtain one more television booking on the way out of town and collective memory.
However, a skeptical producer at the station (which was a local NBC affiliate), on learning of Marcus’s planned appearance later that day, put a phone call in to his friend, the late Charles Reynolds, a highly regarded magician, illusion designer, and magic historian. Charles was a lifelong friend of James Randi’s and a friend of mine as well, and he passed my name along to the producer.
I agreed to appear on the program to challenge Marcus. The producer said that people from the show would be meeting with Marcus shortly to see what he would be doing, and asked me how to proceed to best protect against his cheating. I urged the producer to get everything on videotape, not to let Marcus run the proceedings, and not to interrupt the recording at any time, so that we could review it later. The producer said he would try to make sure all this happened.
Cut to late afternoon and my arrival at the studio. I am ushered in privately, so that Marcus doesn’t see me, and he has not been told about my invitation to join the party. The producer took me to the control room where he showed me some videotape from the earlier session with Marcus. Apparently a running video camera and recorder was to Marcus’s superpowers the equivalent of Kryptonite to Superman’s. And suddenly his abilities went quiet. He defended, he dodged, he demurred, but other than that, he didn’t do much. An assortment of provided tableware remained quite straight. Perhaps this had something to do with the additional fact that I had told the producer to provide his own spoons and such and not to let Marcus use his own or get any private time in advance with the utensils.
The TV folks had also presented Marcus with a long metal letter opener, and the producer now wanted to show me a dramatic video clip that mystified him. In this, the letter opener began to bend, at a gradual but ever-sharpening angle. Finally Marcus handed it over: the letter opener was unmistakably bent.
I asked to review the tape and what had transpired beforehand. Speeding through the video, I saw Marcus pick up the silvered letter opener, put it down, pick it up, play with it, put it down, pick it up, handle it, put it down, pick it up, fondle it some more. But still, the letter opener, carefully framed in the camera’s fixed position, remained straight.
And then suddenly, someone in the room crossed over from one side of the camera frame to the other, between the table and the camera. It was literally the event of an instant. It was hardly noticeable by anyone in fact, other than an attentive and skeptic magician now reviewing the video.
We backed up the tape again and slowly frame advanced it. The letter opener, quite straight and unaltered, was in Marcus’s hands. The person crossed in front of the camera, blocking the view of Marcus’s hands for perhaps a second. The letter opener, still in Marcus’s hands … was no longer straight. The bend was largely concealed, but the action had been the work of a moment, a flicker in time. Any good con artist, any working psychic, must above all job skills be an opportunist, and he must be both patient, and very bold. Marcus had all the qualities. He had waited a very long time, kept his witnesses on the hook with blathering and balderdash, waiting to see if his opportunity would arise. And when it did, he took it for all it was worth.
Concealing the secret bend, as if nothing had happened, he then slowly and gradually revealed it, pretending that the bend was now occurring in real time before the eyes of the audience. It is a very nice magic trick, used today by countless legitimate magicians to amaze and entertain their audiences – and the trick worked.
At about this time, the producer told me that they were going to play the clip of the bending letter opener on the air while Marcus was on. I protested, saying that once Marcus had that feather in his bonnet, he would be able to decline doing anything else. But it was too late. The decisions had been made, and now in the control room I could see the screen coming up on veteran New York City news anchor, Sue Simmons, and she was introducing Ronnie Marcus. The producer asked whether I wanted to go on right away, and I said we should watch and see what would unfold.
Simmons cued the tape and the home audience got to watch the mysterious bending of the letter opener, sans the moment in which someone had crossed in front of the camera and blocked the view, unintentionally facilitating Marcus’s heavy-handed but bold sleight-of-hand maneuver. The host then pointed to a tray of silverware, inviting Marcus to demonstrate his powers live on the air, rather than merely on videotape.
Wonder of wonders, Ronnie declined.
Pleading a glitch in the Matrix, a weakness in the force, a case of acid indigestion, or some other sudden discomfort – actually, he claimed that he had received a phone call just before going on, with news that a relative had died – Marcus said that his powers were weak at this moment, and that he was unable to comply with the host’s invitation.
“Now, now!” I jumped up on the control room. “I’ll do it! I don’t need good vibes! Get me on now!” The producer jumped out of his seat, radioed to the anchor that I was headed her way, and led me on a mad dash across the studio. As the anchor finished my brief introduction, I leapt onto the stage set, a tad breathless from the sudden exertion. “Hi, Sue, thanks for having me. Hi, Ronnie!” Mr. Marcus stared at my enthusiastic greeting with deer-in-the-headlamp eyeballs.
I took my seat, and Sue Simmons explained that Ronnie wasn’t feeling so well and was declining to bend any more metal this day. Selecting a spoon from the tray, I explained that I was a professional and could deliver the goods regardless of my mood. By the time this statement was completed, I had secretly accomplished my necessary magical dirty work.
My new pal Ronnie’s expression had by now changed from startled to stern. I dutifully bent my spoon in mysterious fashion, as he bore morose witness to the feat. Asked by the anchor what he thought, Marcus dejectedly mumbled something about my being a magician while he was something else. Simmons thanked us both, the segment ended, and Marcus quickly slunk off the set and into oblivion. Simmons made an off-camera joke to me about the psychic’s phony claims, and that was that.
I confess that I wondered at the time whether it would be worth going on the air and confronting Ronnie Marcus, a minor player in a game he had already lost. I thought about what might be gained, and even perhaps, at what potential cost. Skeptics are always faced with these questions, whether on the front lines of media where your image and reputation is on the line, and likely today for perpetuity via YouTube and the Web, or if it’s an innocent but potentially conflict-laden conversation across the family dinner table or a workplace lunch break.
I’ve never been fond of playing the role of the token skeptic, just for the chance to contribute a “Bah, humbug!” as the final brief sound bite following a parade of paranormal promoters. But like so many aspects of skeptical activism, I also know that it’s a dirty job that somebody has to do. You won’t always win – hell, you might not ever win – but as Randi has demonstrated throughout his life and career, you have to show up and take your chances, and sometimes, just take one for the cause. We’ve all had that happen – wins, draws, and losses to be sure – and no single outing, no single debate, no single event is ever going to stem, much less sway, the tide in an ocean of toxic nonsense that floods our airwaves every day. But while I may not have won a single heart or mind that day, what if I hadn’t shown up? What impression would Ronnie Marcus have been able to leave, armed with a piece of videotape that made his abilities look so clean and demonstrable that he thought it better to decline any further live performance? How many more hearts and minds might he have won without at least someone standing up to say, “Uh, excuse, me but, -- I think that’s BS.”
This is the dilemma of so much of skeptical activism. And it presents a question and a quandary that will not readily depart the discussion. Of course I also learned (or should say, learned again) that despite best efforts, it’s frustratingly easy for con artists and phony pitchman not only to gain an audience, but to manipulate conditions to their advantage, even in the face of diligent efforts to constrain them. Designing the right protocol for a Million Dollar Challenge experiment is not a cut-and-dried exercise, and challenging a psychic on the spot requires more than the knowledge of a few card tricks or even psychic stunts.
In the end, skeptics will always need to return to battling some of the same subjects, using some of the same skills, making some of the same arguments, singing some of the same songs. But it doesn’t have to be a solitary song, sung by a lone cowboy out on the range. Better to sing it with comrades in arms, seated around the campfire. We might get tired of the task at times, but we should never tire of singing together.
For further reading…
See a commentary at the time from Randi here.
And this report that appeared in Fate magazine.
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.