Mediums, Mystics & the Occult, by Milbourne Christopher, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1975, 258 pp., $6.95.
The Magic of Uri Geller, by James Randi, New York: Ballantine Books, 1975, 308 pp., $1.75.
The powers of psychics have been hailed for centuries by loyal believers, but one curious characteristic common to psychics has never been explained by their followers: why is it that when an expert magician takes simple precautions against sleight-of-hand and other deception the mystic powers disappear? Psychics apparently prefer not to have this question raised, but magicians, such as Houdini long ago and Milbourne Christopher today, have asked and answered it impressively.
Christopher has just written his second book on the subject, Mediums, Mystics & The Occult and it is an excellent sequel to his 1970 work ESP, Seers & Psychics. In opposition to the tons of literature on the occult, Christopher has simply proclaimed that the existence of ESP and other supernormal powers has never been demonstrated under genuine test conditions. He makes the sensible and elementary point that parapsychologists who want to believe there are such powers are easy marks for trickery and that the best safeguard against fraud is the presence of an accomplished magician, who is by definition an expert in the art of deception.
Dogma dies hard, so I am not sure what impact either book has or will have. But I enthusiastically recommend this latest work.
Christopher names names, debunking Peter Hurkos, the psychic who claims to have helped police solve cases; Ted Serios, who "photographs" his thoughts, and Arthur Ford, who "communicates" with the dead. He shines the light of reason on "eyeless vision," Edgar Mitchell's ESP tests in outer space, psychic surgery, and Eastern mystics, such as Guru Maharaj Ji. He also tells of some of the most famous mediums who were exposed by the likes of Houdini.
And in a most fascinating chapter, Christopher describes how in 1957, under elaborate security, he correctly "predicted" the winning number in the $100,000 Cuban national lottery. True to his art, he doesn't tell us how he did it, but he assures us there was nothing psychic about it. It recently led a psychic to charge that Christopher was actually a mystic.
"Scientists who are convinced that human beings have extrasensory powers rarely take precautions to rule out trickery," Christopher writes. "Indeed, unless they are experts in the subtle techniques used by magicians and mentalists, or have someone who is to assist them during their experiments, it is almost impossible for them to detect ingenious deceptions."
An excellent case in point can be found in the chapter on Uri Geller, the young Israeli who has been touted as a psychic beyond question. Geller has amazed audiences around the world with such "mental" feats as bending spoons and keys, cracking finger rings, starting broken watches, stopping escalators and predicting messages sealed in envelopes. His alleged powers have been the object of study at the Stanford Research Institute and former astronaut and ESP advocate Edgar Mitchell has vouched for him.
Geller has indeed captured the attention of the psychic world. At last it had proof of mind over matter. Geller's biographer, Andrija Puharich, has written that Geller is controlled by an intelligence on the distant planet Hoova through its spacecraft Spectra.
Has Geller shown that he has psychic abilities? Not quite, Christopher tells us. It seems that things started going badly for Geller when professional conjurors took a close look. When Christopher advised Mike Wallace not to let Geller near the keys and silverware prior to filming a CBS "Sixty Minutes" segment, Geller suddenly was without his power. The psychic's mind again failed to influence matter when Johnny Carson, on instructions from magician James Randi, kept Geller from the props before his appearance on the "Tonight Show." These failures only enhanced Geller's reputation at first because, the believers "reasoned," if he was only a trickster, he would never fail.
Nevertheless, the presence of sleight-of-hand experts seemed to sap Geller of his mystic powers. When Christopher and Randi saw successful demonstrations, they were able to detect Geller's sleights and duplicate his feats with only the natural powers of this world.
Geller's agile hand is tipped in one incident related by Christopher. When Geller's manager, Yasha Katz, offered $100,000 to Christopher's $10,000 that the magician couldn't explain or duplicate Geller's marvels, Christopher accepted. But Katz never contacted Christopher to arrange the details of the challenge as he agreed to do. When Christopher saw Katz sometime later, the manager said the whole thing was just a joke.
"One wonders how long dedicated researchers, trying desperately to validate any phase of psychic phenomena, will continue to search for the true source of Uri's power," Christopher writes. "The frustrated son of a famous Israeli soldier candidly admitted to his biographer that his prime assets were his 'naive appearance' and his showmanship. These, plus his strong agile fingers, his alert eyes, and cleverly contrived ruses enable him to present his tricks effectively."
By the way, if you're wondering how Geller bends keys, etc., you'll find the answers in the book and at any good magic shop where you can purchase, then perform, the same feats.
A good companion volume to Christopher's is the book on Uri Geller by fellow magician James Randi, better known as The Amazing Randi.
"This writer," Randi writes in his introduction, "is convinced that Geller is a clever magician, nothing more—and certainly nothing less. This opinion is not the result of a previously set mind; it is, rather, a conclusion arrived at after two years of close observation and careful analysis."
This lively and easily-read book contains accounts of Geller's biggest bombs, such as his "Tonight Show" appearance and the Time Magazine demonstration.
There are also fascinating insights into the thinking of psychic researchers. Randi clearly demonstrates that any result is interpreted as proof by these alleged scientists. For example, the mathematician and researcher, Prof. John Taylor of King's College in London, explains why no one has ever seen a piece of metal in the process of bending when Geller performs:
One curious feature of the bending process is that it appears to go in brief steps: a spoon or fork can bend through many degrees in a fraction of a second. This often happens when the observer's attention has shifted from the object he is trying to bend. Indeed this feature of bending not happening when the object is being watched—'the shyness effect'—is very common. It seems to be correlated with the presence of sceptics or others who have a poor relationship with the subject.
Could this "shyness effect" be what magicians call misdirection? Randi wonders.
Randi also puts Geller's biggest claim—the research and report of the Stanford Research Institute—under his microscope and concludes that the loophole-ridden experiments by no means verified Geller's powers. On the contrary, he writes, when cheating was adequately guarded against, Geller repeatedly failed.
Randi writes with sarcasm and wit, sometimes praising Geller's conjuring techniques, other times belittling his "trivial" performances. A refreshing, reasonable skepticism pervades the book.
"I have often been asked, 'Do you deny the existence of ESP and other paranormal occurrences?' The answer is that I doubt their existence simply because I have never had evidence presented to me that would prove their existence."
This book is heartily recommended for the fun you'll have in reading it and for the joy you'll receive watching a fine magician and man of reason expose an extraordinary fake.
Sheldon Richman is a reporter and columnist for the Coatesville, PA Record, and an amateur magician.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Mediums, Mystics & the Occult; The Magic of Uri Geller".