Previous month:
April 2009
Next month:
June 2009

The Geller Spanner

A subject of discussion over the years has been the idea of the Permanent Paranormal Object, something that would be impossible to create by normal means. One idea is a pair of interlinking rings, each seamless and made of different materials, like two different types of timber. As far as I know, there is nothing like this in existence. Even if there was, I'm not convinced it would be anything more than an object of curiosity - and the usual endless controversy, like the Turin Shroud and the Kluski wax hands.

But Guy Lyon Playfair has come up with a contender, the spanner that Uri Geller allegedly bent during a visit to a British Grand Prix event at Silverstone in 1998. Guy mentioned this in the comments thread on my Geller post recently, and his article on the subject has now appeared in this month's Fortean Times

The story is as follows. Geller had been invited to the pit by his Brazilian friend the Tyrrell driver Ricardo Rosset, and did his metal bending stuff in front of a group of mechanics. According to a report in the 29 July 1998 issue of The Autocar, Geller 'smoothed his fingers along an 18mm combination Snap-On spanner and it bent as thought it was made of spaghetti'. The mechanics tried to bend it by force, but could not even make an impression; then they put it in a vice and whacked it with a hammer, but could not bend it the way Geller had.

Writing this up for his book Mindforce (1999) Guy phoned Rosset in Sao Paulo for his version. Having bent a few spoons, Rosset said, one of the mechanics handed him a spanner and asked him to bend that as well. 'There were about 10 of us watching, and it took a while. He held it by one end and rubbed it in the middle, then he took his other hand away and it just bent - upwards". It apparently took about ten minutes, much longer than usual with spoons.

An appeal by Autosport brought another eye-witness account. A member of the Tyrrell team wrote in to say that he had been standing about one metre away from Uri when he bent the spanner, which had come straight from one of the mechanics' cabinets, and Uri had no way of having touched or even seen the spanner before he made it 'droop' over to one side. This is slightly at variance with the claim by Geller and Rosset that it bent upwards (Guy says that's how it is with everything he has personally seen Geller bend), but there is no suggestion in any of these accounts that he used any kind of normal force.

After Guy mentioned this incident in my previous post, a sceptic argued that Geller could have brought along his own pre-bent spanner and then planted it ... 'not exactly a major feat for an experienced conjuror.' Well, in order to fake this, Geller would have had to know the exact type and make of the spanner that would be handed to him. He would also have been able to bend it by normal means, and this is where it gets interesting.

The spanner is a pretty heavy duty bit of gear, as one would expect, this being Formula 1. It's made of chrome vanadium steel, which is exceptionally tough and resistant to wear and fatigue. One way to bend chrome vanadium is it to heat it to around 800 centigrade, at which point the surface would oxidise and the chrome would turn black - which the Tyrrell spanner has not. The other way is force. But how much? Guy has the original and having got hold of a similar spanner (the Tyrrell one is no longer available) went to a university mechanical engineering department to get them both tested. A Vickers hardness test established that the Tyrrell spanner was 12% harder than this one. Applying force to Guy's - unbent - spanner via a strain gauge required half a ton of pressure to bend it to a similar extent, rather more than the world weight-lifting record.  So to pre-bend a spanner which he planned later to switch, Geller would also have required serious machinery.

Guy suggests this might qualify at least as a Temporary Paranormal Object, until someone manages to bend a similar spanner under the same conditions as those of the Geller incident. I'm not sure about this, as long as the object can be duplicated by a machine, which I don't think has been ruled out. But the amount of research and effort involved, at the very least, complicates the obvious normal explanation, that Geller simply switched spanners, and that the audience didn't notice. It's not just the spoons but effects on this level which make some thinking people take Geller seriously; another is the frequently reported phenomenon of the cutlery continuing to bend in people's pockets or back home on their sideboards.  If James Randi or some other debunking magician could actually duplicate this sort of thing then I'd think again.

Patricia Putt - Score for Sceptics

What to make of the comprehensive failure of Patricia Putt in psychic testing recently?

I hadn't heard of Putt before, but she is apparently well established as a professional psychic, aka Ankhara. She has had media exposure, turns up at hauntings, exorcises, and does readings for £25 a go. She decided to go in for Randi's million-dollar challenge, and Richard Wiseman and Chris French were deputed to carry out the preliminary tests.

The experiment involved ten young women in turns sitting in front of her for a reading. They were all white, same gender and age-group to keep any identifying characteristics to a minimum, uniformly dressed in gowns, features concealed by wrap-around dark glasses and ski-masks, and facing away from her. There was no verbal interaction; Putt wrote her thoughts down. The ten transcripts were then handed to the subjects who each attempted to identify the reading that applied to her. Not a single one did so correctly.

This is a pretty comprehensive failure. One can make various excuses: the test doesn't prove that Putt isn't psychic (she might just have been having a bad day, and it doesn't prove that nobody is psychic. But although both these are logically true, it doesn't look good.

You can also argue that people who go for readings aren't heavily disguised, as the subjects were here, so Putt wasn't working in the conditions she was used to. But this is exactly what tests like this aim to do, to prevent any opening for cold reading. And, just as important, Putt was quite happy to go ahead on that basis. According to French, she felt that she had been treated fairly, and it was only afterwards, having scored zero, and having thought about it a bit, that she identified that as the problem.

It interests me that although this comes under the heading of Randi's million dollar challenge, it wasn't actually Randi who carried out this preliminary test, but French and Wiseman, who unlike him take a moderate approach to debunking parapsychology, and can't really be accused of setting Putt up for a fail. Curiously - and correct me if I'm wrong - there are rather few well-documented cases of psychics actually failing the challenge - we're just told that they are all kooks who never got past the preliminaries. The only other one I can think of was also quite recent, the case of Derek Ogilvie, whose failure in tests by both French and Randi was pretty total. But if it's so easy to demonstrate that psychism is a mirage, one wonders why, in the many years the challenge has been going, there aren't many more cases like Putt and Ogilvie.

One possibility is that psychics are too canny to let themselves be tested in highly unnatural circumstances, ie giving readings to people facing in the opposite direction and swaddled up like mummies. But apparently some of them, like Putt and Ogilvie, are naïve. They have boundless confidence in their own abilities and willingly walk into what others might see as a trap, agreeing to work in circumstances that they have never tried before.

Randi's million dollar challenge has always been vulnerable to the argument that there isn't any proper testing going on at all - it's just an opportunistic debunking ploy. But when people like Wiseman and French start to carry out very public and  transparent testing like this, it can start to be taken seriously by people who might otherwise have given psychics the benefit of the doubt. It's difficult to think of anything more helpful for the sceptics' cause, and it's interesting that this should only happen when the challenge itself is about to be withdrawn. 

Apart from the matter of influencing public perceptions, I'm interested in the science here. I take psychism to be real not on the basis of single tests like this, but on the accumulated data of psychical research. So I'm wondering why Putt failed. Some possibilities: she's not psychic at all, but just thinks she is; she is psychic, but needs to have a normal interaction with her sitters; as Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail suggests, the sitters might be sceptics who deliberately chose the wrong reading (unlikely, as Greg acknowledges, but potentially an experimental flaw); or that somehow French and Wiseman inhibited psi from manifesting - the experimenter effect.

If any of these, or a combination of them, is correct, it's worth following up. I'm thinking of the famous remote viewing experiments in which Marilyn Schlitz got significant results while Wiseman, using exactly the same setup and subjects, did not.  So let's get Putt back and have her work in the same circumstances with sceptics and parapsychologists, and compare the results. Or get them working with mediums of the first rank, like Colin Fry, for instance, or John Edward, who worked under controlled conditions in Gary Schwartz's first experiments, with sitters concealed behind a curtain and not speaking.

I suppose the conclusion is that we can't rule out psi unless we at least give it a chance to appear. Once we've seen it in action, we can fiddle with the parameters and see what's required to make it appear or disappear. Then we can argue about it. One-off tests aren't a way of establishing anything conclusively.

Could this sort of co-operation ever occur? I think both French and Wiseman might be up for it, if there was the organisation and the funds. But that's a big 'if'. I can't see it happening unless someone has the incentive to make it happen, and there's not much of that around at the moment. 

Uri Geller

Had a rather unexpected encounter with Uri Geller last week. He wants me to work on a writing project - nothing to do with the paranormal, but it should be interesting. He has an apartment in central London near the river, with a spectacular view across the city, although I don't think he spends much time there.  He was what I expected - tall and wiry, pleasant, outgoing, enthusiastic, intense, mentally sitting on the edge of his chair, as I was physically sitting on the edge of mine (his sofa was not made for comfort). No question, the guy relates on another level to most people: we parted with a hug, which doesn't often happen to me on an initial business meeting (OK, it's never happened).

It got me thinking about what a phenomenon Geller is. By chance I had recently read Jonathan Margolis's excellent biog, so his career is fresh in my mind.  To me, Geller is the tip of a very large iceberg, but for most people he is Mr Paranormal, there isn't really anyone else like him. I see him as the modern equivalent of Daniel Home, someone who caught the public imagination in a way that other psychics and mediums didn't quite manage. Both Home and Geller were investigated scientifically, but not in much depth: there is the Crookes experiments in Home's case, the SRI experiments published in Nature in 1974 in Geller's. The rest is mostly anecdotal, and it's the usual mix of enthusiasm, astonishment, confusion and disdain.

My views about Geller's abilities are a lot less complicated than some other people's. I do remember long ago sweating a bit over the SRI experiments where he successfully identified some drawings from an isolation chamber, and wondering, apropos of a ludicrous New Scientist article, whether he really was receiving signals via a radio receiver implanted in a gold tooth, or how much he could possibly have seen through a small hole in the wall, which James Randi claims - I think from the hostile gossip of some insider - was 34 inches high, but which someone who actually visited subsequently found was at floor level, in which case it would only have been any use if he had been asked to divine the colour of the experimenters' socks. But over the years my conviction that psi is a genuine entity became so firm, and Geller's abilities are quite clearly in a different category to anyone else's, it seemed simply the most logical conclusion to suppose that he is psychic.

The problem for a lot of people is that psychism is not a category that they recognise, or can attach any real sense to. It's a non-explanation. I think that accounts for the rather confused, incoherent nature of a lot of what gets said about him, particularly by professional mentalists and magicians  who have seen him at work. There are quite a few such comments here, and to me they make fascinating reading.

This just happens to be first on the list:

"So I came to my very personal conclusion that Uri Geller has some percentage of "abilities" although I am still convinced that he is using 90% of the time tricks. I searched all the years for an explanation but found none. Well, if something can not be explained it doesn't mean that there is no explanation....Psi or not..

Hmmm. If Geller has special 'abilities' (ie, is psychic), why would he need to cheat most of the time? Is it because it's easier to see him as a cheat - and the psychic stuff is just a little detail we don't need to pay much attention to? This doesn't make sense to me.

Also where did this speaker search for the explanation? Other conjurors? What does he mean by an 'explanation'?  What would have convinced him?

For me, as I say, psychism is a meaningful entity. To say that Geller is psychic is to say that he is connecting with something that exists in the universe, in ways that all humans potentially can, but that only a vanishingly small number actually achieve, for whatever reason. But if someone doesn't recognise psychism as a meaningful category, the only explanation that counts is one that he can relate to - ie, conjuring tricks.

That would change if one day science could explain how psychism works, or more likely come up with some fantastically complex quantum equation that a small handful of physicists and mathematicians say works, and the rest of us just go along with. Then the problem will magically disappear - yeah, sure, Geller is psychic, so are lots of people, so what. 

Or this:

"My original observation was made in 1975, long before the true research by the magic community of Geller's supposed 'powers,' However, my opinion has changed greatly. I NOW DO NOT BELIEVE THAT WHAT I SAW MR. GELLER DO WAS PARANORMAL. I simply believe that it was a "superior performance of a magic trick" that now, after becoming enlightened on the subject matter, is explainable."

This is a very common phenomenon in psychical literature (I discussed it in my SPR talk last October on sceptics' psychology). You see a psychic do his or her stuff. You absolutely can't explain it. You are totally gobsmacked. Then after a period of time elapsed you're no longer gobsmacked - of course, it was just a trick. But you haven't received any extra information, so there's no real basis for the change of view. The passing of time has merely 'healed' the dissonance.

One of the things that emerged strongly from the Margolis book - and also from the many comments on Geller's website and elsewhere - is that the spoons continue to bend after he has touched them. He rubs it and it starts to bend. Fifteen minutes later, in someone else's pocket, on the backseat of the car, on the sideboard, it is still bending. There are also instances where the metal proved to be too hard to bend before Geller got his hands on it, and where it bent at a point where there was little leverage. There are many cases of keys bending, which is tough to do with just your hands.

The magicians I relate to are the ones who engage with this, and can comment on what they experienced in a nuanced way. Like this comment from Canadian mentalist Paul Alberstat:

"Many of the top Mentalists in the world have no idea how Uri Geller can make a compass needle move. Since he does so in his bathing suit and has been checked over by ultra sensitive equipment for metal or magnetic radiation, he obviously is NOT using a hidden magnet to move the compass needle. Since reliable sources (and knowledgeable magicians) have not only witnessed Geller make spoons bend but have witnessed them to continue moving long after Mr. Geller has left, I would challenge these so called protectors and magic geniuses to explain how he does it. If they reply, "I don't know for sure" then they have no right to say that he is a fake."

Yet sceptical conjurors like James Randi insist there is nothing here that they can't do. I'm assuming they are talking about distraction and substitution, but I'd be more convinced by this if there was any evidence that these simple procedures (simple, that is, for a pro) actually have the same effect. Does anyone have knowledge of a sceptical magician who claims convincingly to have duplicated Geller's 'tricks'? Let me know.

Several magicians are prepared to acknowledge what the unthinking sceptics can't, that Geller really is in a class of his own. For example, this from Marvin Berglas: 'Let's say if he is a magician, he has got to be one of the best, if not the best, in the world.'  James Randi never gets that kind of response. Why is that? If Randi and other sceptics could really duplicate what Geller does, instead of just claiming they can, then surely that would be the proof - the enthusiastic acclaim of their peers.

Finally, the ethical dimension:

"Magicians get angry at [Uri] Geller because he is, we believe, a magician who does not admit to being one. That anger might be better directed at the fact that Geller uses his magic to promote only himself, leaving those who believe in him, and our world, no better off (and perhaps a bit worse than that)."

Not sure about that. Yes, he's a world class self publicist, and he's always been open about wanting to be a great celebrity. But one senses that it's more than just self-aggrandizement, he really does want to use his gift in a positive way. Unless he makes up the messages that take up eight pages on his website he has brought inspiration to a fair number of people. One thing's for sure - the world's a more interesting place with Geller in it.