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:
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.
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:
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:
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.