Patricia Putt - Score for Sceptics
Skeptics: more media savvy?

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.

Comments

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It might be useful to have the spanner analysed by a metalurgist to determine the nature of the stress which caused the bend.

Different methods of inducing the bend might be indicated by different stress patterns. If for example the stress patterns indicated that the bend was not caused by force or heat then what remains? Just a thought.

A thought indeed. Also needing explaining is how the Geller spanner is bent in a curve, the centre of which is way off the centre of the spanner whereas mine has a sharp kink in the middle.

I'd be glad to have a proper metallurgist look into this but it has to be the right one as it would mean sawing the thing in half which I wouldn't agree to unless I was sure some serious research was to be done and a full report published.

That seems fair to me.

To my opinion, it is necessary to repeat this experiment with Geller some more times, with different kinds of spanners, in different conditions.

One time is not enough to say what it was - it could be machinery (and Geller could arrange all this himself), or extraordinary force, or skill, or unknown physical effect, etc., etc. But I don't think that it was mental power.

If Uri would bend the spanner without touching it - yes, it could be.

It seems I have understood how Uri Geller could do this. I have read some interesting articles about karatekas who can crash bricks and plans by hand. The karatekas are not psychics, they just are well trained people who can come into trance which increases their scope (force, speed, etc.) 1?5 - 2 times. So I can presuppose that Uri Geller is a well physically trained man who uses trance which makes him strong enough to bend spanners. It is not a telekinesis.

LMAO

So, Astra, by increasing your "force" by 2 you can bend a Spanner? That means that two men between then should be able to bend if between them.

Let me know how that works out for you.

Hello Everybody,
I'm a Mechanical Engineer.
I wonder about the Endurance Limit as it pertains to this item & material.
In simple English:-
Is it normally possible to bend the item, to it's new shape without it cracking?
(Heating is one method to reduce cracking, but oxidization can be a problem )
Rod McKenzie B.Eng (Mech)

Edit:
should be Strain limit not Endurance Limit.

( been retired too long :-) )
Rod McKenzie

I don't pretend to know exactly what transpired at the Silverstone "happening" because I wasn't there, and neither was Mr L-P (or at least, his description of the event seems to rely on second-hand testimony). Given the fact that Geller would regard this as an unqualified success, isn't it reasonable to expect that Geller and the witnesses would agree on the trifling matter of whether the spanner bent upwards or downwards? And isn't the fact that they are not in agreement on this "slight variance" ringing any alarm bells as to the reliability of the testimony?

There any many ways of doing psychic metal bending by non-paranormal means (the mentalist Ian Rowland has written an entire book explaining how it can be done). Pre-bending a spanner is not meant to be a definitive sceptical explanation of the spanner incident. There are too many unknown factors in this little anecdote to be sure how it was done. But, hey, let's throw science and rationalism out of the window anyway.

The point is that no-one other than Geller really knows the precise circumstances surrounding this stunt. If Geller is genuinely able to pull off such astounding feats, then why wasn't his metal bending included in Targ and Puthoff's paper published in Nature? And why won't Geller submit himself to Randi's million-dollar challenge? Surely Geller would relish the chance to humiliate Randi (and gain a substantial amount of money), not to mention catapulting him back into the limelight?

Oh wait, I forgot that Geller doesn't do challenges does he? Apart from when he does. And then again, his powers can't just be summoned at will under pressure can they? Except when suitable uncontrolled conditions give an opportunity for misdirection (which obviously he would never resort to, but other less-scrupulous types might). Have you noticed how conditions are most conducive to psychics when there are fewest controls on their behaviour? Funny that. I've never heard of a psychic who says they most comfortable when being watched by conjurors. Surely if their powers were real it wouldn't matter who was watching?

I certainly agree with having Geller demonstrate his "abilites" under controlled conditions.

Unfortunately the MDC, or anything remotely like it is not a scientific test, and whilst it could be seen as being somewhat controlled, I wouldn't classify it as a completely controlled experiment (for example if the same conditions that apply to the MDC were applied to the testing of aspirin as an aid to reducing heart problems it would surely fail, given that it is only effective 20-30% of the time).

People need to forget about the MDC and challenges like it.

Lets get these people into laboratories and have open-minded, paranomally agnostic people test them alongside sceptics and believers alike.

Still Lurking: I quite agree. The MDC was never intended to be a scientific test, but it's a useful way of getting psychics to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, purely scientific testing of psychics has often demonstrated how a good conjuror (or even an amateur) can run rings around scientists. Case in point is Randi's Project Alpha.

Speaking of Project Alpha, here's a nice little anecdote from Banachek (who was one of the participants, going by his real name, Steve Shaw). Banacheck claims that when a fellow Project Alpha conjuror called Masuaki Kiyota bent a spoon for a guy who was a paranormal believer, the excitement of the moment caused the believer to totally lose control and ejaculate on the spot (both verbally and physically). He apparently explained it away as a "demonic ejaculation". So if a simple conjuring trick can have that kind of extreme effect on a believer, perhaps there are large numbers of Geller watchers who are also convincing themselves about things that never actually happened (or at least, not in the way they think).

Correction: Masuaki Kiyota was not part of Project Alpha, which was comprised of Randi, Banachek (aka Steve Shaw) and Mike Edwards.

Interesting how anecdotal evidence of a truly bizarre kind becomes more accepted depending on which side of the fence its on, eh Simon?

The difference is that I'm not claiming this anecdote to be any kind of scientific evidence.

No, but you are using it to help possibly explain away suggested phenomena:

"So if a simple conjuring trick can have that kind of extreme effect on a believer, perhaps there are large numbers of Geller watchers who are also convincing themselves about things that never actually happened (or at least, not in the way they think)."

In this respect it may have been better, or more in keeping with a skeptical approach, to quote the anecdote but to note that, as it was merely an observation and not something scientifically proven (i.e. magic tricks causing people to ejaculate), that it bears no reflection on the subject in hand.

Purely scientific tests of psychic abilities has also, consistently, turned up statistically significant results for the past 30 or so years, in the results of the Ganzfeld experiements.

And this is not testing people who claim to be psychic, this is regular folks like you and I.

What I find most interesting about the Ganzfeld experiments is that in a meta-analysis of all the experiments done up until 2006 (I believe) they have shown that there is a hit rate of about 32%, which is higher than the 25% result that should be obtained by chance (obviously some experiments attained higher than that and lower than that).

Which perplexes me. I see these results and think "Clearly something is going on here, lets try and figure out what it is" but the results never seem to gain much attention, and then you have my aforementioned effectiveness of aspirin in lowering the risk of heart attacks, which in a meta-analysis shows that it is only 21% effective, yet it is still enough for it to be recommended by doctors, medical establishments and medical authorities as being useful.

I don't doubt it's usefulness, but it does provide a bit of an insight into how certain research in certain fields is represented.

But we can bicker about studies, results and how they should be interpreted all day long. The entire field needs someone, or a group of people, who can bring this research further forward.

"So, Astra, by increasing your "force" by 2 you can bend a Spanner? That means that two men between then should be able to bend if between them.

Let me know how that works out for you."


No, I didn't speak about myself or even about one or 2 usual men. I was talking about a person who is already very well physically trained and stronger than usual man, close to a professional sportsman. And about a person who is specially trained to do one thing - to break bricks or to bend metal by hand. In trance condition he is strong enough to do this.

If to speak about myself, there is one thing which I can't explain - when I was a child and my weight was 29 kg, I liked very much to carry in my arms my girfriend which was 17 kg. I could easy do it for a long time, I carried her from one floor where we studied to another, to a dining-hall. And it was not hard for me, just a pleasure! But now I can carry in my arms only my cat which is 2,5 kg, when I tried to lift another cat (6 kg) it was already too hard for me! Maybe I was in trance when I carried that girl. Or maybe she was in trance and could lessen her weight.

Words fail me.

quick comment as I intend to enjoy my vacation.

I always love how people like Simon accuse anyone who disagrees with their views of throwing out reason and science. Completely and utterly tacky, not to mention a perfect example of circular reason.

While that anecdote could never be taken as evidence of the event being "real" or faked, it's an example of how powerful such things can be in the eyes of a believer. That's how stage magic works. If it didn't elicit emotions of awe and disbelief, it wouldn't be very interesting. Clearly some people get more carried away by the moment than others.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that personal testimony in such matters is of limit use in getting to the truth. Even in non-paranormal matters, people can be utterly convinced that certain things they witnessed happened in an entirely different way. An example is the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London Underground. Several witnesses attested to completely untrue things, such as the "fact" that de Menezes was wearing a bulky jacket (he wasn't), that he carried a bag with wires coming out of it, and that he vaulted the barriers to escape the police. All complete fantasies, presumably believed by the people who stated them.

Let's get psychics back into the lab under strict controls with experienced conjurors and/or sceptics as witnesses. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many psychics willing to be placed under those conditions. Who would have thought it?

SL: Ganzfeld experiments have been notorious difficult to get right over the years, and meta analyses are only as good as the material being used in them. I'm not surprised that meta analyses of Ganzfeld data show results that deviate from chance. There's also the "file drawer" effect, where negative studies are shelved because either they don't fit the researcher's expected outcome, or the journals are less interested in negative studies. It's a problem in all areas of science and not just parapsychology.

The point about mistaken witness testimony is well taken. It’s well established by psychological studies, and was uncovered in relation to séance testimony by Richard Hodgson, an SPR researcher, at an early stage. The de Menezes data is indeed shocking, and one encounters this sort of discrepancy all the time.

My impression is that the file-drawer problem is one of the least effective counter arguments. I’ve never seen any convincing data in favour of it – but would be interested if you know of any. Parapsychologists maintain that the number of unpublished studies with insignificant results needed to erase any overall significance would be unfeasibly large. The SPR Journal seems often to publish negative studies, which is not surprising, seeing how vulnerable parapsychology is to this potential weakness.

This from Dean Radin, Entangled Minds, on the meta-analysis of 1974-2002 ganzfeld results that showed a combined hit rate of 32% where 25% is chance-expected.

‘If we insisted that there *had* to be a selective reporting problem, even though there’s no evidence of one, then a conservative estaimate of the number of studies needed to nullify the observed results is 2,002. That’s a ratio of 23 file drawer studies to each known study, which means that each of the 30 known investigators would have had to conduct but not report 67 addition studies. Because the average ganzfeld study had 36 trials, these 2,002 “missing” studies would have required 72,072 additional sessions (36 x 2002). To generate this many sessions would mean continually running ganzfeld sessions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 36 years, and for not a single one of those sessions to see the light of day. That’s not plausible.’ (p. 121)

The problem is, Simon, I think the point about the anecdote remains. You may think I'm being neccessarily fussy here but I think it's noteworthy.

You use Banachek's claim to suggest that it's a 'clear example' of how people can be overawed by mere conjuring tricks. It's an extreme claim - the idea being that he can make someone ejaculate simply by showing them a magic trick yet you don't apply any skeptical reasoning towards it. This is probably because it makes people who accept the validity of paranormal as odd and a little deranged.

Also, here's a question for you. You may think it's a bit silly but I'd like to hear you answer. If we were to test Banachek in a laboratory setting to see if he could reproduce this reaction in people by showing them magic tricks, do you think he would be able to?

Also, if he couldn't, would you regard him as being a liar or deranged? After all, he made the extraordinary claim.

I'm not just knocking down a straw man here. I'd like to hear your opinion on this. If Banachek's claim is untestable because it was a spur of the moment occurence, do you think this any implications for paranormal phenomena (i.e. the spur of the moment occurences being hard to test in a lab)?

Also, what are your opinions on Gary Schwartz's experiments in Arizona?

Dean Radin's remarks presuppose that only the file drawer effect can nullify the positive trials, but this is false reasoning. The positive outcomes might be the result of flawed experiments in many different ways. Of course, the file drawer effect is very difficult to measure because by definition, those studies haven't been published so there's no evidence of it in the public domain. I would agree that it seems unlikely to be a major effect - more of a potential (and possibly trivial) factor. However, I know from my own experience as a scientist that research showing null results are sometimes deprecated in favour of other aspects of research showing some sort of trend or correlation. It's a subtle thing and I would be hard-pressed to demonstrate a definitive example of it. Most likely researchers themselves are barely aware of their own self censorship.

TM - I understand what you're saying but I don't think you can compare these things in that way. The Banachek incident is an (admittedly extreme) example of how strong belief systems affect the way people report what they see. Surely you don't deny that? Clearly this incident would be unlikely to be repeated under laboratory conditions, just as telling a joke to different people wouldn't have the same effect on all of them. However, many of these psychics claim that they can demonstrate reproducible phenomena simply by force of will. When tested properly under controlled conditions, these effects disappear. What are we to make of that? I would suggest that it's likely that the effects didn't exist in the first place. It's obvious that we differ on this conclusion.

I have no opinion on Gary Schwartz because I don't know enough about those particular experiments.

Hi Simon

I would recommend you look into Gary Schwartz' experiements as it is an important part of the debate.

As you say, we'll have to disagree on the other part. To my mind, psychic ability would be similar to something like telling a joke.

A comedian could say that he has the ability to make someone laugh. He or she would say they possess the skill. However, this would only be applicable in the right circumstances. Put them in the laboratory and you have a problem. Does it mean the skill doesn't exist?

Also, I don't quite understand your comments on the ganzfeld tests. Are you basically saying that its false reasoning because the positive outcomes may have come from flawed tests? If so, there would have to be some sort of evidence for this. Even prominent skeptics have proclaimed they can find little wrong with these experiments.

As far as I'm aware, sceptics such as Hyman, Blackmore and Wiseman have said the Ganzfeld experiments represent the highest methodological sophistication and that they seriously do not think that there is are any methodological flaws that they can see within the structure or construction of the experiments.

As for the file drawer problem, the only results that have been discounted are negative results from experiments that deviate from the standard Ganzfeld procedure (e.g. using music instead of images). Indeed, a highly negative result is indicative of a problem because they should give NO result, or null, not a negative one.

Meta-analysis is a problem in all areas of science, that's correct. So why, then, if it's so problematic does meta-analysis give you the results I have already quoted with regards to trials of aspirin with relation to heart conditions? A meta-analysis of that is enough to get it approved by the FDA in the US, and have it listed as a benefit on bottles/packs of aspirin all over the world. Again, to clarify, I’m not arguing with that outcome, and I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it helps to view it from another angle…

Perhaps it may help somewhat if I were to clarify my position: I'm not saying that the Ganzfeld experiment definitely proves psi exists, but when sceptics come out and say the procedures used within the experiments are highly sophisticated, and are don't appear to suffer from the same methodologicalflaws as found in the research pre-dating the Ganzfeld, you need to start asking yourself what were to go next. As far as I'm concerned, the Ganzfeld, at the very LEAST proves there is something going on. To quote Hyman in '95; "want to state that I believe that the SAIC experiments as well as the contemporary ganzfeld experiments display methodological and statistical sophistication well above previous parapsychological research. Despite better controls and careful use of statistical inference, the investigators seem to be getting significant results that do not appear to derive from the more obvious flaws of previous research."

Also, the SPR journals do print negative studies, as stated by Robert. In fact, this is one of the main reasons the field gets a bit of a bad rep, but those in the field know that it is to their sciences very credit to ensure that bad experiments are disproven, that negative results are shown because they are held up to higher scrutiny than any other field of science (that's not to mention that there are even those, such as Wiseman, who has said that basically something appears to be going on but that the bar for what is considered "significant" is raised FOR parapsychology because their claims are so "ambitious").

In Milton & Wiseman's 1999 meta analysis of ganzfeld studies they stated that "the ganzfeld technique does not at present offer a replicable method for producing ESP in the laboratory":

http://www.sciencenews.org/sn_arc99/7_31_99/fob4.htm

There's a good summary of how some skeptics view ganzfeld studies on Bob Carroll's Skeptics Dictionary site:

http://www.skepdic.com/ganzfeld.html

Milton and Wisemens studies were shown to be flawed by Schmeidler and Edge in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1999 ("Should Ganzfeld Research Continue To Be Crucial In The Search For A Replicable Psi Effect? Part ii") and again by Bem, Broughton and Palmer both in 2001 ("Updating the Ganzfeld Database: A Victim of Its Own Success").

To be honest, Wisemen has misrepresenting much research over the course of his career.

Of course, these are just comments of some people. Radin also addresses the Ganzfeld extensively both in his books and in the lectures he gives.

As for Blackmores case in 87, it probably was an experiment that was handled quite badly given that Carl Sargents membership was allowed to lapse by the Council of the Parapsychological Association when he wouldn't publish his study.

It looks like we're coming up against the "he said, she said" scenario. You place more weight on the paranormalist side, and are more willing to dismiss skeptics' counter arguments, whereas for me it's the other way around. Not much chance of resolving that kind of impasse. It's a pity that despite obvious improvements in parapsychological methodology, skeptics and paranormalists are no nearer agreement on the validity of these studies. I suspect they never will.

Simon, this is essentially the point I'm trying to make. It's not that I place more weight on a particular side, it's just that there is so much on each side that we need to find a new way forward. We need to move past the current expeirments to ones that are more robust and conclusive.

Also, Simon, the arguement is not about wither these studies are valid, even sceptics admit that the data is valid that they return, and that parapsychology is a field of science. It's the interpretation of them that is disputed.

Geller could bend 15 spanners straight off the production line and people like Astra and the others here would still be complaining that it was a setup.

That's how pathological skepticism works, folks: it's a desperate attempt to maintain a beloved world view in the face of any evidence to the contrary. Sad.

Michael has got it absolutely right. It's all about defence of entrenched world views. Hasn't it always been? I'm still hoping for sensible suggestions as to how Uri bent that spanner at Silverstone, and am quite amused by all the avoidance of this basic simple question.

Incidentally, Uri has bent two more spanners similar to the Silverstone one and has sent me a photo of them. So the Silverstone event was not a one-off.

Michael - let me make a stunningly accurate prediction without the benefit of any psychic powers whatsoever: Uri Geller will not bend fifteen spanners straight off any production line, and especially not if he is being watched by objective observers, or in any circumstance where he does not control the variables. Commenters on this thread will also make speculative excuses to explain why he will not do that (so long as Robert does not close the comments).

The story of the bent spanner is just another second-hand story that is impossible to verify. Even if Guy Lyon Playfair has the spanner analysed by a metallurgist, what is the likely outcome of that? Is there an objective test for “psychic bending”? What, exactly, is the difference between a spanner that has been bent using physical means and one bent with psychic powers? Perhaps you can point me to the relevant metallurgical literature. I admit I am not a metallurgist, but a friend of mine is an industrial chemist and does have access to that area of research and will be able to confirm any claims made (or not, as the case may be).

I also predict – again, without any psychic powers – that no-one will provide any references in any scientific literature that will confirm “psychic bending”.

Additional note: as I am writing this post, the BBC is announcing that the pop singer Michael Jackson has died. The BBC also reports on their website : “Uri Gellar, (sic) a close friend of the star, told BBC News: “I’m devastated – it’s very, very sad.”

Anyone’s death is a tragedy, but I have to note that Geller, the psychic, sounds as if he is surprised.

And Guy – Geller sent you a photo of two bent spanners? Wow! How could anyone argue with that? You want sensible suggestions about how Geller bent that spanner at Silverstone? First demonstrate unequivocally that he actually did it.

Words seem to have lost their meaning for some. My account of the Silverstone spanner was not "just another second hand story that is impossible to verify" but a story I got at first hand that in turn was verified by two other reliably reported eye witnesses.

Relevant metallurgical literature: for starters, try The Geller Papers (ed. Charles Panati) and The Metal Benders by (physics professor) J.B.Hasted.

Over and out, unless anybody has a relevant and coherent question.

Hearsay is not valid evidence.

Of course hearsay is valid evidence. It is merely a question of how much weight it carries and that depends on the person telling us and the circumstances. It is not as good as first-hand evidence but it is a form of evidence nonetheless.

Paul - it seems that the bulk of the so-called evidence for anything paranormal comes in the form of anecdotes. Someone reports that something strange appears to have happened; they cannot explain it; therefore it is paranormal. And that is the evidence we are supposed to accept without question.

The believers cannot see anything wrong with that, and they say that anecdotes – or personal testimony, as they like to call it – is valid evidence of everything paranormal. How can they be so naive? Perhaps they accept personal testimony as evidence because that, in fact, is all they have.

So what is wrong with personal testimony? In a nutshell, people can be wrong about the things they observe. Even the most honest person in the world can be fooled. A common criticism by sceptics is that people like Uri Geller are doing conjuring tricks and believers just fall for it. Every time. Have a look at You Tube, and there are many videos showing Geller physically bending spoons – something that the camera has seen, but his audience has not. When this sort of chicanery is clear for all to see, how can the believers continue to defend him?

It seems that many people have seen Geller perform in front of them. And they cannot see how the tricks are performed. Therefore, not being able to see any trick, they assume that there is no trick. Or that trickery is impossible before them.

I had a conversation recently with a believer, who told me confidently: “I can’t be fooled.”

That’s quite a statement to make. So I said, “As it happens, I can be fooled. Can you tell me how a stage magician saws a woman in two and then puts her back together again? I’d really like to know how it’s done.”

“F**k off”, came the concise, if uninformative, reply.

And that’s how it goes with the believers. They cannot be fooled, according to them, and the people who are claiming to demonstrate psychic powers are clearly psychic, because they have seen them perform; but magicians’ tricks are somehow a mystery.

I would be much more impressed with personal testimony if the observers of psychics could also observe magicians and simply explain how they do it. Derren Brown is a particularly good exponent of magic tricks and mentalism. How does he do it? Could any of the believers in the paranormal sit with me during one of his shows and just explain as the show goes on, each of his tricks? Keep in mind, of course, that Derren Brown claims to be able to fool people; he does not claim to be psychic. And if you cannot explain the tricks in terms of sleight of hand, or whatever, will you claim that Derren Brown is truly psychic and merely pretending to be a conjuror?

Can you expose Derren Brown as a fraudulent conjurer, who has to rely on psychic powers instead of trickery?

If you want to convince me that your personal testimony is valid, show me that you can expose the magicians’ tricks for starters.

And no, proof of the paranormal in the form of a photo of a couple of bent spanners will not do. You might fall for it; that is your privilege.

Harley, a lot of this is true, but it's not the whole story. You have a very stereotypical idea of 'believers', and it seems you interact with precisely the kind of people who will reinforce it. I guess there are lots of people who take their 'paranormal' experience at face value and want others to accept it as well, just as there are lots of people who would dismiss it out of hand. But good psychical researchers aren't in this category: they know about the normal alternatives and if they think something is paranormal they explain why, in detail.

Where claims of psychokinesis are concerned, many of them have been quite knowledgable about magic, and even practice it in public themselves. But of all the categories of psi, this has always been the most dubious because the boundary with magic is so blurred. That's why psychical researchers are often skeptics with regard to pyschokinesis.

'the bulk of the so-called evidence for anything paranormal comes in the form of anecdotes...'

True, but properly understood, this is a challenge for science. In fact science ducks the challenge by using the evidence's anecdotal nature as an excuse to ignore it. Of course it contradicts scientific assumptions that mental experience might have something to say about the structure of the universe, but to imply that anecdotes don't count or have no relevance, is a lazy way out. The fact that parapsychologists have tested the claims with experimental research, and found the same effect, is one reason for taking them seriously.

Robert – I don’t mind if anyone can prove the existence of the paranormal, and I have no argument with those who investigate it. My concern is that evidence presented in the form of anecdotes is weak at best.

I quoted an interchange I had with someone who believes in the paranormal, and that, in itself, is an anecdote, but I used that to illustrate a point, not to prove anything.

Guy Lyon Playfair has a photograph of two bent spanners, which, if true, proves only that he has a photo of two bent spanners (unless anyone can let me know what it is about that photo that proves the paranormal). Add to that the fact that there is a dispute over which direction the Silverstone spanner was bent, and the fact that Guy has the account of the story second-hand, even though he says it is a first-hand account because he got it from someone else’s first-hand account, which he says is his first-hand account because he was told it by someone else - which by any definition is an anecdote. (“Over and out,” indeed.)

There is no way for anyone to objectively test the claim that Geller bent the Silverstone spanner in the manner claimed, which is why sceptics would like to see him do it first-hand, under conditions where trickery would not be possible. But whichever way you look at it, Geller and others always avoid a public test under controlled conditions. Can you see why some people would be sceptical?

Without a definitive test, there are numerous possible explanations for something that appears to some to be paranormal. One possibility is that the event is, indeed, paranormal. But if I were to suggest that Geller could have had a stooge working with him, therefore making trickery a cinch, I am not claiming that that must have been the way he did it; I am claiming that trickery has not been excluded as a possibility.

I think you have misunderstood my point about anecdotes. They can be a useful starting point, and may often be the very first indication that there is something that warrants further investigation. But personal testimony should be the beginning, and not taken as definitive evidence. As an illustration: a few years ago a friend of mine was convicted of a criminal offence that he did not commit; the only evidence against him was eye witness testimony from two people who identified him as the culprit. He appealed, and when further investigation was carried out it was discovered that the police had CCTV footage of the event. And it was clear in the footage that the perpetrator was definitely not my friend. But the police withheld that footage and allowed an innocent man to be convicted. He was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, have the case dealt with by corrupt police officers and then be convicted by presumably honest, but mistaken, witnesses. The court was not at fault for convicting him on the only evidence that was available, but that initial verdict was overturned only because independent verifiable evidence came to light that showed that the witnesses’ personal testimony was wrong, despite their sincerity. I wonder how many innocent people are in jail right now as a result of mistaken personal testimony.

You may be right that scientists do not give much credence to anecdotes, but I think that has more to do with whether a claim has any scientific plausibility. Also, perhaps, there is the fact that scientific budgets are not overflowing with funds that can be spent on speculative research into claims that contradict what is already known about the physical universe.

The James Randi challenge does not claim to be scientifically definitive; remember that it is a personal challenge, in the same way that sceptical organisations all over the world offer their own challenges with different levels of prize money available. If Uri Geller would bend a spanner under the controlled conditions of the Randi challenge, it may not in itself be scientifically decisive, but you can be sure that everyone would sit up and take notice. I think money for research would become available very quickly. But Randi is not going to send a million dollars to Uri Geller on the basis of Guy’s “first-hand testimony” that he got from someone else. And I don’t think a photo of some bent spanners will do it either.

Hi Harley

The bulk of evidence to support the paranormal does not come from anecdotes. I am not sure why you think that. There is over 150 years of research and documentation of phenomena some of it by the finest scientific minds of their day. If you have not already read some of it yourself (as opposed to reviews) already, there are a number of seminal works not least by Lodge and Crookes that might be of interest to you. If you have read any of their work, I'd be interested to know what you reject in it and why. Their main focus was survival of death and they investigated many mediums.

There are also numerous scientific investigations of so-called psi phenomen eg telekinesis, telepathy, precognition etc. They aren't simply anecdotal or second-hand reports by lay people. Have you had an opportunity to review any of the material? If so, again, I'd be interested to hear what you have read and why you reject it.

I do however agree that there is a general tendency in some to accept any old rubbish as proof. Dubious CCTV shots, still pictures and other recordings of uncertain provenance. If not clearly fraudulent they should be placed in the "don't have an opinion or don't know folder". In any event to conveniently ignore the decades of research carried out by reputable men and women is at best ignorant and at worst disingenuous.

As an aside, I do not believe I fall into the 'believe everything' category. I have no opinion on the spanners. As far as the spanners are concerned however - why not remain open-minded? I don't think GLP was expecting anyone to shout Eureka! and become convinced of paranormal phenomena but his points require proper consideration not simple out-of-hand dismissal. A suggestion of fraud is easy to make and requires no supporting evidence. Although fraud is always a possibility it is insulting to suggest that others are either corrupt, indoctrinated or dumber than you when you consider their testimony.

Remain sceptical by all mean. In fact it is a healthy position.

To state that the bulk of evidence is anecdotal and therefore that there is no substantial evidence worthy of consideration is however, plain wrong.

Paul – I am neither ignorant nor disingenuous, nor do I accuse people of being corrupt, indoctrinated or dumber than me, although some undoubtedly are. Insults are not my style, but I have had to become used to being insulted by people who perceive themselves to be persecuted because I ask questions they cannot answer.

If you re-read my previous post, you might notice that when I am faced with a paranormal claim I include the possibility that the claim might be true, as well as other possibilities. My point is that the way to find out what is happening is to eliminate the various possibilities until only one remains. If Uri Geller were to take part in – and pass - such a test where the possibility of trickery is eliminated, then I, for one, will accept that he can bend metal using powers hitherto unknown to science. Until then, the possibility for trickery is still there. I wonder what you think about Uri Geller the psychic predicting that Michael Jackson’s comeback is going to be a runaway success? It’s a bit awkward, I think, but I am confident that you can explain it.

As it happens, I try to keep up to date with as much information as I can and I have a growing library of writings from both sides of the paranormal debate. At the present time I am reading two books: The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan and, coincidentally (yes, it is a coincidence, and no other-worldly influence needs to be invoked), Mindforce by Guy Lyon Playfair.

You ask if I have read any of the scientific investigations into telekinesis, telepathy, precognition, etc. Yes – Project Alpha is a good starting point for anyone who wants to find out about the problems involved in paranormal research when scientists try to prove a hypothesis rather than try to falsify it.

You also think I am not being open-minded as far as the spanners are concerned. But being open-minded does not mean accepting everything on trust. And it is not being closed-minded to reject outlandish claims that have no substantial evidence to support them. Uri Geller is best known for fighting criticism with his lawyers, not by demonstrating his powers. All that proves is that he has legal muscle; it does not prove he has paranormal abilities. He has not been all that successful, either, when it comes to legal action. You must be familiar with the case where he was prosecuted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for falsely claiming copyright on a You Tube video that showed him in a not very flattering light. And he has lost – and paid out a lot of money - over cases including frivolous lawsuits. Perhaps he did not foresee that many of the videos he wanted banned would go viral as a result. Let me say again: if Geller demonstrates his paranormal powers under controlled conditions without the possibility of trickery, then I will be converted. My own prediction is: it isn’t going to happen.

In breaking news, Uri Geller’s good friend Michael Jackson has been travelling the ether to let James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne know what’s going on in the spirit world. You will be able to see their reports on Oprah, and Montel Williams. No doubt there will be dozens or maybe hundreds of psychics making the same claim in the coming weeks. (That’s not me being psychic; it’s just what happens every time an ultra-celeb dies) Presumably Jackson will not leave his friend Uri Geller out of contact.

Hi Harley

I didn't intend the remarks to be taken quite so personally so please accept my apologies if it came across that way. I have no idea what kind of person you are or what your motivation is.

I agree open-mindedness doesn't mean accepting things on trust, I simply mean reserving judgement until a more conclusive set of data is available.

As far as dismissing outlandish claims is concerned we may have to differ in our opinions on this one. I would say that unless a claim is materially disproven then given that the claimant is a reputable person, it is reasonable to leave the jury out unless there is a pressing reason not to or more information is obtained.

As far as Uri Geller is concerned I have no particular interest in him or his claims and no view as to whether he is geniune or not. I haven't researched him and have no plans to. My own interest is in 'the survival of bodily death' to quote a phrase.

I may have missed it, but I didn't see you respond to GLP's last posting or the points he raised. These do not relate Uri Geller solely but also to witnesses of the events described. You may think it was achieved by fraudulent means or sleight of hand but what evidence do you have in the face of actual witness testimony? You are of course entitled to your opinion but you weren't present.

As far as Michael Jackson is concerned you may find there is a dramatic resurgence in his popularity now he is dead - perhaps not what Uri meant (ok that was tongue in cheek).

With regard to James Van Praag I can make no comment. Sylvia Browne has been shown to be a fraud of the highest order and worst stripe. I am certain there will be a wave of sightings, messages and other trashy communications allegedly from MJ - they are meaningless as I am sure you agree unless they can be validated by people who knew him and since his life was so public, it might be hard, even if he was able communicate, to prove that any message was from him (I make no final judgement about whether communication is a possibility or not although there is a great deal of evidence to suggest it is possible).

At the end of the day this is about evidence to me. In the absence of evidence I can only either reserve judgement about what I am told or assess that facts that I do have. If the facts are communicated by a third party my judgement will be influenced largely by my opinion of the person communicating them.

I will make a prediction. I don't think you would be convinced by a scientific report saying that Geller bent the spanner. This is because there would be half a dozen other opinions saying it can't be done, by equally reputable sources who hadn't been present at the event or have preconceived ideas about what is and isn't possible and offering a number of alternative explanations. The only way I think you would be convinced, no matter how well-respected the authority reporting it, is if you saw it for yourself. You know what? - I think that would be the right attitude. I would hope I would take the same view.

Not being convinced a thing is true is not the same as being convinced it is false.

Paul, I appreciate that your intention was not to insult me, and I thank you for your clarification.

Yes, we will disagree about what weight to attach to someone’s testimony when they have witnessed something they cannot explain without invoking the supernatural. But I think that the personal character of a witness is irrelevant with regard to whether a claim of the paranormal is true or not. A stage magician can fool some of the most intelligent, educated and trustworthy people. If someone cannot work out how someone like Derren Brown can apparently read a stranger’s mind, that does not reflect badly on him or her in terms of intelligence or integrity. It does, perhaps, reflect well on Derren Brown in terms of his skill as an illusionist. Or, as I asked previously, if someone cannot explain how Derren Brown does his tricks, does it follow that he is using paranormal powers? I cannot prove that he uses trickery, any more than I can prove Uri Geller does, but it is a more likely explanation, I think.

I did not reply in detail to Guy Lyon Playfair because he clearly and unambiguously dismissed my comments with the sarcastic, “Words seem to have lost their meaning for some” - an implication that I am an ignorant nobody – just another “pseudoskeptic” as I am sure he would classify me (although according to Guy, that puts me in the same category as people like Carl Sagan; perhaps I should take it as an unintended compliment). But his dismissal of me was an insult used in lieu of a logical argument. Although people like Guy accuse people like me of “pathological skepticism”, he should consider adding another term to his woo lexicon: “pathological gullibility.” Debating with you is, at least, more insightful, even if neither of us converts the other to the opposite point of view.

You are right, at the end of your last post, that I would not be convinced of Geller’s alleged ability to bend metal by a scientific “report” as you might call it. Then again, neither would any scientist. The report would have to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and then other scientists would have to replicate the findings. It sometimes happens that even when scientific studies are published, the other scientists who attempt replication find previously unknown flaws in the original research. That follow-up might then published, and further study might be carried out. If no-one can reproduce the reported effects, then it will probably be discarded after much discussion, or it might be accepted if the reported effect can be reproduced reliably under whatever conditions are required. You are probably aware that new drugs, for example, undergo many years of testing before they are licensed for use; the same thing happens in every branch of science. What does not happen in science is a new hypothesis or drug being accepted as a fact on the basis that someone was told by someone else that they saw it happen and then writing it up in a cheap book published by Tesco, the supermarket chain.

“Not being convinced a thing is true is not the same as being convinced it is false.” I agree.

Hi Harley

I agree that the character of a person is not an indication as to whether an event was paranormal or not but the point I meant to make was that it is (in my opinion anyway) an indication as to the truthfulness of what the person believes they witnessed.

I would agree that one cannot necessarily directly infer what the cause of the phenomenon was, however if the person is someone trustworthy it may be possible to eliminate some potential causes and then be left either with a degree of confidence that the event may have been paranormal or unable to form a positive conclusion either way, or indeed to form a different conclusion.

The important thing is, I would suggest, to consider the data and not be swayed by someone else's conclusions about it or our prejudices.

I don't agree that GLP's 'dimissal' of you was in lieu of logical argument although you clearly took exception. It depends what point you are trying to make on this forum; if you are trying to convince others then I don't think it is wise to avoid answering a reasonable question. If you're not bothered then fair enough.

I understand what will constitute proof for you now. We take many things as true with less proof than you need but that is a matter for you. Leaving Geller aside, there is a substantial amount of evidence gathered over 150 years of the kind of phenomena many consider paranormal by some of the finest minds of their time,and futher evidence going back centuries. I suppose the question is when does this evidence become sufficient proof and that is a personal matter at the end of the day.

Many of the medical discoveries you allude to were dimissed in their day and other scientists would not even consider them, let alone attempt to duplicate them. When it became acceptable to do so, they often found there was merit and even truth in the claims that had previously been so vigourously refuted. Have people changed so much? I doubt it.

My own experience, and I could be wrong, is that much of the research that is carried out into the paranormal is by people who think there is something in it. The majority of the scientific world appear either to reject the idea out of hand or are not interested in doing serious research. There is no money and little kudos in doing proper research into this area at the moment. In fact it is potentially a career-terminating move for a scientist as the whole area seems to be taboo. In the past, plenty of scientists of world repute have researched the matter and found substance to it. Very few these days research and find evidence, I don't hear of much research (perhaps understandably) by those who think it is bunk and to be honest most of the sceptical objections appear to be from an intellectual not an experimental position.

Medical treatments are often dismissed when there is no clear mechanism in existing medical models and then later it is found they they have some beneficial effect - perhaps a good example is acupuncture; dismissed by medical science for decades with very little medical research invested in it. Meanwhile people continued to benefit from it even though it was dimissed by most of the medical world.

Anyway, it has been an interesting discussion but I don't think we are going to agree so I will see if other contributors have anything to add.

Paul, I think you are just about there in understanding my point about personal testimony, and the only other thing I would add is that I never assume that someone who has witnessed an unexplained event is telling lies or being in any way dishonest. In my experience, people who report what they believe to be a paranormal event are telling the truth about their experience; whether it is truly paranormal is another question. The data, however, is not usually available after such events.

In your reference to Guy Lyon Playfair, would you care to take another look at what he said in his comment, which, you rightly point out, I took exception to. You say it is not wise to avoid a reasonable question (I agree), but what question did he ask me? He did not ask a question or query any point I was trying to make. He made a couple of statements and ended with: “Over and out, unless anybody has a relevant and coherent question.” That was a sarcastic dismissal, not a question. I can say quite honestly that I have more respect for you than I have for him, because you have been more courteous, and our debate so far has been rather more civilised than that. I am always prepared to answer a question; you will not find me trying to evade someone’s comments with such casual disregard for the person commenting.

As you say, we have more than 150 years of research into things paranormal, but there are inherent problems with trying to unravel what happened so long ago. Nowadays, everything is recorded in a way unimaginable then, and it is very difficult to get accuracy in the way that future researchers will be able to do with present-day happenings. For example, you mention Crookes, who was, indeed, one of the finest minds of his time, but I have come across the suggestion that he was having an affair with one of his female psychic subjects. That, in many respects, is only hearsay from the time, (another instance where I would not take hearsay at face value) but could be relevant to the accuracy of his research if true. But as time goes on, it only becomes harder to find out what actually happened and decide what relevance it might have on the research he did. It’s probably better to concentrate on the most recent research.

Your comment about acupuncture interested me, but I do not want to go too far off-topic. As you might guess, I am not a believer in acupuncture as an effective treatment for anything (over and above the placebo effect). Some people report fantastic effects, but I wonder – if you needed, say, root canal surgery with acupuncture as your only anaesthetic, would you go ahead with it? Do you have that much confidence? I’ve had a root canal procedure, but the needle I got was full of novocaine: I know for a fact from personal experience, and the science I have read, that medical science works.

You’re right, it’s been an interesting discussion, and I also agree that we are going to disagree. We will have to see if anyone else wants to carry this debate forward.

Best regards.

Hi Harley

I did say I would leave it for others but you asked what question GLP asked: "I'm still hoping for sensible suggestions as to how Uri bent that spanner at Silverstone".

As for acupuncture - and I am wary of going off topic - it has been used in China for major surgery eg open-heart surgery. Would I use it for dental work? Yes I would be prepared to consider it based on my own experience, although I am not saying that it is more effective that other treatments eg novocaine. As for your own view - why should you have confidence in something you have not experienced in this context?

As far as Crookes is concerned, you could simply rule him out on the basis of an unproved accusation which to be honest is is easy to level as any other accusation which doesn't actually address the evidence he cites, and remembering there were other witnesses. It is worth remembering that Crookes had a phenomenal reputation to lose in this matter. Was he a fool? I have no reason to think so do you? Who was making this accusation and on what basis?

I am not suggesting the research I referred to is conclusive but I do think it would be lazy and disingenuous to simply reject it without proper analysis (for the record: I am not suggesting you are lazy or disingenuous or rejecting it without proper consideration :)) or without an open mind.

It would imho be dangerous simply to reject evidence because it was old.

Now I really am going to watch and see :)

OK, Paul, I’ll try one more clarification and then leave the last word to you.

Guy’s statement that he is still waiting for sensible suggestions as to how Geller “bent that spanner at Silverstone” was a statement, although I suppose it could be construed as a question in the rhetorical sense. But I did answer it by saying that it should first be demonstrated that Geller actually did bend the spanner. Someone’s say so is good enough for the believers, apparently, but we should all be thankful that science does not work that way. It was a long hard struggle to achieve the Enlightenment; we should protect that, and not now go into the Endarkenment.

With regard to Crookes, I did say that the suggestion that he might have been having an affair was hearsay, and that I do not take that at face value either. But if you think about it for a moment, history is replete with examples of very eminent men who have destroyed their careers and ruined their lives because their human foibles have overcome their logic. And all for a bit of skirt.

I don’t reject evidence just because it is old. In ancient Greece, Eratosthenes proved that the world is round, and calculated its actual size with a remarkable degree of accuracy. The difference is that his methodology can be replicated today and the mathematical proof is as sound now as it was then. I do believe that the Earth is approximately spherical, but I have evidence for that, and don’t need to ask whether anyone has any “sensible suggestions” to explain why the Earth is round and not flat. Some very sincere people – even today – think we live on a flat world. They are wrong.

As for your confidence in acupuncture, if you are ever unfortunate enough to require invasive surgery I am prepared to attend as an objective observer. If you can go through what would ordinarily be an agonising experience with no other pain relief than strategically placed needles, I am willing to be there complete with a video camera and earplugs.

LOL I will try to remember to send you an invitation. I have seen open heart surgery allegendly performed under anaesthetic in China although it was a documentary and I wasn't there in person.

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