Paranormal Trickery


Flim-Flam!, by James Randi, New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980, 544 pp., $14.95.

A few years back, in response to the waves of mysticism, supernaturalism, and occultism washing over the Western world, an organization calling itself the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal was formed. Among its founders were Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov, and a saucy, outspoken magician and escape artist named James (The Amazing) Randi. With the passing of time, Randi has earned something of a reputation as the field investigator (or hit man) for the committee, and his latest book is a fascinating account of his adventures in the murky valleys of the paranormal.

Randi is no shrinking violet, and Flim-Flam! is in no way a bland, dispassionate treatise. Randi has a crap-tolerance level of just about zero, and the book is written in tough, kick-'em-where-it-smarts prose—for example, "One would think that only children believe in Santa Claus, that witches are the delusions of rural bumpkins and that astrology is the delight of the senile. Not so." But Flim-Flam! is more than just a string of witty invective. Randi is a skilled researcher, and the essence of the book is a serious, documented look-see into the claims of and about such diverse people as Erich von Daniken, Edgar Cayce, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, and Uri Geller—as well as into dowsing, psychic surgery, UFOs, and other oddities. In every case, he ends up with a lot of flies and very little ointment.

The biggest problem in paranormal research is that while many investigators are trained in scholarly techniques and documentation, they are often woefully ignorant in the ways of sleight-of-hand, misdirection, and other tricks. A psychic demonstration which could be startling and mystifying to a layman—even one with a Ph.D.—could easily be old (silk) hat to a magician. In addition, there is all too often a strong and understandable will to believe on the part of many paranormal researchers. They are devoting years to finding proofs for their beliefs and want the experiments to be successful. Thus, they often leave the gate wide open to chicanery. Combine this with naivete (as Randi shows, the field is saturated with gullibility), and you've got the perfect recipe for flim-flam. All too often, confronting true believers with facts, reason, and logic is like tossing darts into a shadow—there is a built-in Catch-22 to all investigation. If a knowledgeable skeptic monitors a paranormal happening, the subject can always claim "bad vibes" or "negative influences," and the experiment is either scrapped or neatly alibied away.

Incidentally, Randi has offered (since 1964) a $10,000 prize to "any person who demonstrates a paranormal power under satisfactory observational conditions." Over 650 people have tried to win the money, but none has succeeded. Randi never states that paranormal phenomena are by definition impossible. But he does insist that, as with all science, the burden of proof is on the claimant.

Flim-Flam! is an interesting, useful, and immensely readable book. Not only because it blows the whistle on fakery and deceit (there is still hope—the latest Whole Earth Catalog now files Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan books under "Myth"), but also for Randi's positive attitude about the human race—you and me. He champions people qua people, not as marionettes of supernatural forces. "Throw away that Tarot deck and ignore the astrology column," writes Randi. "They are products offered you by charlatans who think you are not the marvelous, capable, independent being you are."

Jack Kirwan is a free-lance writer.