Sewer Robot on The line that separates trickery from deceit.
In the first wave of the public’s fascination with Uri Geller, he was invited to appear on America’s biggest stage, The Johnny Carson Show. Carson was skeptical about Geller’s abilities and asked his friend James Randi how he should prepare for the young Israeli’s appearance. Randi was a well-known magician (performing as The Amazing Randi) who -like his hero Houdini – specialised in escapology. And like Houdini before him, he was also a dedicated debunker of psychics and others who would not admit to the public that their magic was not real.
Magicians make their living by deceiving us, but implicit in the deal is an understanding that we are being fooled. They take great pride in the ingenuity and skill that go into their tricks. Psychics, by and large, present themselves as bona fide, and this rankles with most magicians.
Randi instructed Carson’s people how to prepare Geller’s props and told them to ensure none of Geller’s people were able to interfere with them. Confronted on live television with spoons he had not previously touched, Geller admitted he wasn’t feeling “strong” that night, protesting he felt he was being put under pressure by the host.
Uri Geller’s professed power was in his mind, so one interpretation might be that his “psychic antenna” was sensitive to stress or distractions. However, a simpler explanation was that he had been found out. As he reveals in An Honest Liar, the documentary about his life, Randi was startled to discover that failing so spectacularly on the biggest show in America had no ill effect on Geller’s career (he was immediately booked on a rival show). Carson, however, was not surprised. He knew how much the public wanted to believe in these guys.
Randi had already seen this from the other side. He came to national attention in 1949 when he predicted the outcome of the World Series a week in advance. As a consequence people approached him – many offering money – for stock tips and relationship advice. No matter how many times he protested that his feats were the product of trickery, the bulk of those asking departed still convinced he was really a psychic.
“That was a comeuppance for me because I realised people really do believe this nonsense” he says.
Here again, Randi’s life echoed that of his hero. Houdini famously fell out with his good friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the writer’s belief in the supernatural. Although Doyle created the ultimate logician in Sherlock Holmes, he had a lifelong belief in the paranormal and is nowadays almost as famous for being duped by the the notorious photographs of the Cottingley Fairies as for giving the world the great detective. Distressed by his friend’s credulity, Houdini tried to show him how easy it was to fool someone with tricks. Doyle came away from this experience convinced Houdini was in denial of his own supernatural powers.
It’s notable that Houdini chose not to show Doyle how he had tricked him. Magicians are reluctant to reveal their secrets. A stooge may spend days pondering a trick and still have no clue as to how it was done. Once the method is revealed it will all seem so obvious, and it is the magic rather than the pretty assistant that has vanished.
As Christian Bale says in The Prestige “The secret impresses no-one. The trick you use it for is everything”
Doyle’s second wife, Jean, was a clairvoyant with a gift for automatic writing, so he, in turn, asked Houdini to meet with her for a demonstration of her abilities. A seance was conducted where Jean received a rather generic message from Houdini’s dead mother. Doyle, who had absolute faith in his wife, felt that Houdini should regard this as proof. The magician was unimpressed – the message was in English and his mother had never learned to speak a word of the language. Thus ended the friendship of the two men. Doyle continued to be involved with The Ghost Club, a group who believed in active spirits, while Houdini took his place on a Scientific American committee which offered a cash prize to any psychic who could convince them that his or her powers were real. One of the first people they failed was a gentleman championed as authentic by Doyle.
Today James Randi retains a cheque for a million dollars which he will present to anyone who can convince him they are truly psychic .
Uri Geller’s powers were studied by parapsychologists at the Stanford Research institute. Some of their findings were positive, but Randi felt that the scientists were being manipulated by Geller into setting up experiments in a way that facilitated his trickery.
Randi had felt it was bad form to deceive the public for the purpose of entertainment, but deceiving scientists in this way appalled him. So he took an unusual course. Upon hearing about a new study called Project Alpha, he decided to pull off a hoax on the scientists himself. His line at the top of An Honest Liar:
“It’s okay to fool people as long as you’re doing it to teach them a lesson which will better their knowledge of how the real world works”
appears to be his justification for this dubious exercise (which carried on for almost two years).
In the documentary, the two young acolytes, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, who he recruited for this deceit reveal that, although they were initially up for it, they soon came to feel bad for the scientists that they were fooling.
The thing is, not only were the ethics of misleading scientists just to prove how gullible they could be questionable, but there appeared to be two flaws in Randi’s method
1. Randi was assuming that the scientists were too quick to believe in this stuff, but if they were skeptical to begin with, it would be good scientific practice on their part to be prepared to change their view in the face of (what, to them, was) compelling evidence, and
2. Although it should certainly invoke Occam’s Razor, demonstrating that the scientists could be fooled by magician’s tricks would not prove that Geller did not have these powers for real.
The positive results the psychic testers were getting drew the attention of ARPA, a U.S. government agency which had been set up to investigate speculative avenues of of science so that the Americans would always be at the forefront of any new developments. (Having been caught out by the launch of Sputnik, Uncle Sam decided he didn’t want to be surprised by the other side again). ARPA needed to verify the capabilities of purported psychics in case there was a chance that the other side had them. It’s worth remembering that, in the absence of bombs dropping, The Cold War was fought with espionage, which was much about disinformation as it was about intelligence gathering. In The Men Who Stare At Goats the Americans fool the Soviets into believing they have had success studying psychics which persuades the Soviets to pursue their own study. “Well, now that they were studying them for real”, observes George Clooney, “we had to because we couldn’t have them leading the field”. This bizarre tit-for-tat logic reached its Strangelovian nadir with the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD was just bluffing as an operating defence strategy. Rather like a poker game in the movies, where wads of cash are tossed onto the table and things always seem to get out of hand very quickly, MAD locked both sides into the accumulation of ridiculously oversized arsenals. Tired of this, Ronald Reagan’s government leapt upon a new idea: the Strategic Defence Initiative, a sort of shield that could destroy incoming ICBMs. The use of satellites (and possibly lasers) caused the press – with some glee – to dub this “Star Wars”. It was obvious to anyone that the technology for this was some years away but what the Soviets had to ask themselves was whether they believed Reagan was really committed to the expensive research required or if he was bluffing. If Star Wars did become operational their expensive nuclear arsenal would be next to useless and The Cold War would be lost.
Talk of government agencies investigating frontier science puts one in mind of The X Files. Throughout that series, above Agent Fox Mulder’s desk was a poster that read “I Want To Believe”. James Randi would not be impressed. A consistent theme of The X Files was the revelation that the government was keeping the truth from its own people and often using its secrets to harm them.
At the turn of the last century, Percival Lowell had famously drawn huge canals that he could see crossing the surface of Mars – seemingly the evidence of an advanced alien civilisation. This stirred the public’s imagination and caused decades of speculation about Martians. (All of which would have been kindling for the fire lit by Orson Welles’ notorious verité-style radio production of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds). In the sixties and seventies men walked on The Moon and spacecraft landed on the surface of Mars. Data was gathered and the verdict was in: it seemed there wasn’t even microbial life on either of these rocks. Having little more than blurry images to go on, Lowell had filled in the gaps with his imagination. Now that the Viking ships had actual photographs of the Martian surface one might have expected the speculation and fanciful ideas would stop. Instead attention turned to a photograph Viking had taken, showing what looked like a humanoid face in the region of Mars called Cydonia. Although subsequent photographs taken in better resolution have shown that the “face” is a fluke of the landscape, the idea that there was a civilisation on Mars has taken hold of the public’s imagination, helped along by movies like Total Recall.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, some began to speculate that man had not really gone to The Moon (again gaining traction thanks to a movie, this time Capricorn One.
NASA was a tool of the government. As mentioned, disinformation was a weapom of The Cold War. Kennedy had set an impossible deadline for a Moon landing. If you looked really hard you could see one of the “Moon” rocks had the letter “C” on it, indicating that it was a movie prop.
Those who smelled a conspiracy instinctively trusted nothing NASA or the government had to say. This is the problem with trying to prick the balloon of a conspiracy theory: anyone who comes forward with a refutation is regarded as part of the conspiracy.
In Southern England during the 80s there had been a spate of elaborate crop circles popping up in farmers’ fields. When two men came forward to confess and revealed their method to a television news crew (reminiscent of the anticlimax Christian Bale spoke of) it did little to dampen the ardour of those looking for a supernatural explanation.
It’s not just conspiracy theorists who “need to believe”. The religious minded tend to make a virtue of faith and mistrust the skeptic. Religious thinking is present in almost all cultures suggesting it reveals something that’s in our DNA. Humans have been programmed to see patterns and causality, so we try to find meaning in life. But life, as experienced, is random and chaotic. We simplify it through the narratives of our fiction.
One way various religions have tried to give perspective to our life is by theorising what happens after we die. The belief in an afterlife or reincarnation is what brings those so minded to the mystic’s door.
In The Prestige Michael Caine explains the three parts to a magic trick. It is this very structure that should alert us to its artifice. Where else in life do we see such a tidy and satisfying beginning, middle and end?
Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the great magic trick. It perfectly fits the Pledge/Turn/Prestige structure. I don’t wish to trivialise whatever happened there (at the very least a man was cruelly tortured to death), but viewed from the perspective of his followers this is a very satisfying and well-established narrative. By the time Jesus was virgin-birthed (escapology in reverse?), crucified and rose from the dead all of these were classic moves of revered figures.
Jesus’ dad started off as a bit of a magician too; he could do anything. Over time, The Christian Church rolled back his status until he was more of a Creator/ Curator. Yep, there was a “Big Bang”; that was him. Evolution? Absolutely! One of his best ideas..
Another feature of religion is the power of ritual. in Charles Lamb’s essay A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig
a swine-herd called Ho-ti leaves his cottage in the care of his son Bo-bo, who likes to play with fire. Their home is burnt down and their pigs perish. However, upon tasting the burnt pig they discover that it is delicious.
Word gets out of the wonderful taste of burnt meat. Lamb reports that soon “there was nothing but fires to be seen in every direction”. Ultimately “a sage arose.. who made a discovery..that the flesh of swine might be cooked..without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it”.
The primitirve people of the story feel they must go through the ceremony of the houseburning in order to get the taste of cooked meat. It took the sage to examine the mechanism and observe that the pig could be burned in isolation.
But it requires courage to be the guy who will go up against the Christopher Lee figure and say “how about we don’t burn the policeman this year and see how the crops do anyway?”
Incantations and spells have been believed to have special power. Perhaps their true power lies in the fact that to the uninitiated they sound like gobbledegook? When my parents’ generation attended church the mass was said in Latin and the priest stood with his back to the congregation. The ritual was more important than any need to communicate the message of Jesus. While contemplating the next world, religious administrators have tended to see a firm grip on power down here as a priority. At one time a druid or shaman was a person in your neighbourhood. As the Christian church grew it wanted a monopoly on power and witches were toast. Literally so – if, upon being chucked in the river the lady floated, then she was surely guilty and had to be burned. In a fondly remembered story from my childhood Saint Patrick has a “magic off” with a local druid. The druid says “check this” and a blizzard instantaneously descends. “Impressive”, says Patrick, “but can you make it go away?” “For feck’s sake”, thinks the druid “I’ve just made it snow in the middle of the summer, won’t it go away by itself?” But Patrick understands the value of the Prestige – the trick must be complete. “Observe the power of my God”, he says and the snow vanishes.
Some time in the 2nd century, when it was no longer “too soon” the cross became the Christian symbol. Already a design classic by then, the cross has had many forms and meanings. Around our way it was a crucifix, with an alabaster Jesus twisted upon it and great big nails rammed through his extremities. One that’s had an interesting and uncertain history is The Rosicrucian Cross. It’s usually a more symbolic and ornate cross with a rose or light at its centre. It’s claimed to have a more pagan meaning with the cross representing the body and the rose representing the female. It has also been associated with Freemasonry (now there’s a crowd who – allegedly – like their rituals) and (natch) the Illuminati. Once your interpretation is loose enough you can see it everywhere
One intriguing place where a sunburst cross turns up is in the Church Of Scientology:
It seems odd that the religion which L Ron Hubbard founded in the 1950s should use this symbol – although it’s notable how the structure of the organisation resembles the “first, second and third degree” structure of Freemasonry. Yes, I know all heirarchical organisations are somewhat similar in structure, but what is significant here is the way initiates aren’t let in on the story. When someone is considering becoming a Catholic (for example) they are presented at the outset with all of the crazy sh*t they will be expected to believe. In Scientology, more of “the truth” is revealed as one climbs the levels and as one goes in deeper financially. Hearing Tom Cruise talk about “Cleaning this place up” (he means the world) as a goal of Scientology, one is reminded of the historical objective of Freemasonry.
The title of the HBO documentary Going Clear refers to the thesis of Scientology that everyone’s brain is half analytic and half reactive. The purpose of “auditing” is to eliminate the negative thoughts in the reactive part of your mind until it is exclusively analytic, at which point you will be deemed to have “gone clear”.
This begs the question “who decides what is a negative thought?”. Some negative stress is good for us. When I am about to see my baby, which is the highlight of my life, I’m wound up tighter than a clockwork mouse.
Cynics will say Hubbard wanted his organisation to have religious status in order to avoid paying tax. The documentary reveals the lengths the Scientology movement went to in their battle with the revenue in the U.S.
The thing is, as with all religions the motives of its founder and some of the zanier rules are of only minor significance to the troops on the ground. What matters to them is whether it helps them in their day to day lives. Becoming a Scientologist does appear to give a lot of people confidence to take on the world.
Nonetheless, when the basic tenets of a religion are arrived at in such an arbitrary way, you have a philosophy of spoof.
For example, I could say I’m starting a religion based on the tv show How. Our symbol is the Southern Television logo
which you might think is a compass indicating South: but it turns out the compass rose has been connected to the traditional Celtic cross, and this is considered by some to be related to the Rosicrucian Cross.
My Old Testament figure is a bearded and grumpy old man (Jack Hargreaves) and my softer New Testament approach will be exemplified by the more people-friendly smiling Fred Dinenage. The faithful will greet each other with a raised hand and the word “How”, an acknowlegdement of the Native American peoples obliterated after Columbus touched down on their continent in ships whose sails bore the Cross of The Knights Of Templar.
Religious beliefs appeal to something else within us. A childlike quality where we look to the sky for guidance, appealing to a Higher Power. Sometimes. it seems, there is nothing we would like better than to be like the proto-humans of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, presented with some mysterious object which will tell us what we’re supposed to do. Psychics, humbly of course, present themselves as someone special. They have been gifted with powers the rest of us do not have (this improbability might be explained by another, such as being the seventh son of a seventh son). Because some scientist have produced such extraordinary work, there is a danger of canonising them, until they are exalted above us regular folks. But all scientific work is built upon the work of others (frequently contemporaries). Newton’s remark that he could see so far because he was standing on the shoulders of giants is even still a little hubristic – those giants were just men. Newton’s invention of calculus from scratch to operate his laws of motion is an extraordinary achievement, yet at the same time Gottfried Liebniz was devising a superior version, which is the notation we use today.
Lately there has been a lot of interest in the life and work of Nikola Tesla. The nature of his ideas has meant that he has begun to acquire an almost mystical quality – one is reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s remark that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
Tesla turns up as a character in The Prestige, played by Sir David Bowie.
Michael Caine says of his device: “The man who built this wasn’t a magician, he was a wizard”.
(As Christopher Nolan is one of those fancy auteurs should we assume he’s riffing on the film The Wizard Of Oz, where the great wizard turns out to be a sideshow magician from Omaha who landed up in Oz by mistake?).
Tesla is the perfect hero for our times, as he is depicted as the small guy who was wronged by the corporates. In the comic book The Five Fists Of Science Tesla and Mark Twain are thwarted by J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison who, in this story, represent the forces of evil. In The Prestige The Dame’s Tesla seems full of doubt and regret but still manages to knock off the most extraordinary machine in the history of the world*.
If we are just kids looking for direction and if there are Gods up there. surely they would come down to help us?
When it was first published Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots Of The Gods was a sensation. He proposed that aliens had visited us long in the past and the remarkable coincidence of different civilisations across the globe having myths depicting Gods coming down from the heaven was proof of this. There are, he argued, structures and objects from ancient times we cannot explain. He even found (to his own satisfaction) images of spaceships in ancient art. Although Van Daniken’s ideas went out of fashion, they have been resurrected for a new generation by the (*cough*) History Channel show Ancient Aliens.
The first assumption of the “Ancient Astronaut” theory is that the human civilisations about at the time simply didn’t have the knowledge or resources to construct many of the great monuments, the remains of which we still see today. It is true that, even now, we have no good explanation how the people who erected Stonehenge (for instance) raised the huge cross-stones onto the vertical ones. However, recognising that there is something we cannot explain and jumping to the conclusion “It was aliens” is akin to being unable to see how a magic trick was done and deciding that it must have been genuine magic. Every other explanation should be explored at length first – Occam’s razor demands it.
As it happens our ancestors were fantastically skilled at cutting stone and building with it. Authors like Von Daniken are disinclined to give them credit for work which – playing to their strengths – would have involved brute force, the organisation of huge crowds pulling on ropes and some straightforward geometry. Yet on the adjacent shelf in the bookstore we discover that our ancestors had knowledge of wonderful alternative medical treatments, despite the fact that these would require a detailed understanding of anatomy and the nervous system.
Alternative medicine comes from a different strand of New Age thinking to the UFO devotees. What appears to be a fascination with and appreciation of ancient knowledge is part of a more general philosophy which is dismissive of the present. The appeal of alternative remedies is, in part, due to a mistrust of modern Big Pharma – a sense that our medicines are in the hands of a small number of corporations of whom we are instinctively suspicious. After all, they profit from human misery. The same mistrust of the corporate and attraction to a simpler past is present in the elevation of organic farming over farming that uses chemical fertilisers and, worse still, genetically modified crops.
The post-industrial world of drilling, fracking and battery farming has produced a backlash in the mind of the public. In the last few decades most people have become more cognisant of the environment. But, where the subject has an intuitive or emotional appeal, it’s important to keep the debate in the arena of facts.
The author Michael Crichton has gone so far as to call Enviromentalism “the new religion of the urban atheist”. He says we seem to hard wired to have a religious mindset. In the absence of a belief in any God, we must find something else that gives meaning to our lives. He describes Environmentalism as “a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.
there’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgement day…”
This romantic harking back to a simpler time when we were in harmony with nature is misguided as there never was such an Eden. He calls it an urban religion because “the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature”.
But Crichton is not against Environmentalism. He just feels those who evangelise on its behalf are blind to facts. They don’t engage in argument, instead they staunchly defend their articles of faith. He concludes that “We need to get Environmentalism out of the sphere of religion”.
When I was a lad we used to watch a programme called Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, presented by the fabulous Jack Palance. Jack would relate a series of unlikely stories which always finished with the “believe it or not” line. Some stories, even to this idiot at age 10, seemed ridiculously far fetched but then some others seemed plausible. So, the first few times I watched the show I waited for the credits to find out which were true. After a few attempts, I realised that neither Jack nor this “Ripley” fellow – bizarrely, to my mind – had any intention of revealing which astonishing “facts” were actually true. It was like watching a version of Call My Bluff where the twinkle-eyed old gents all got to spin their tales, but no cards were opened to reveal who had been bluffing.
“Believe It Or Not” had been a phenomenon for decades before I was born. Robert Ripley had conceived the format while working as a cartoonist for The New York Globe. His original brief was to illustrate sports stories. One day, stuck for a “news” story to work with, he collected some unusual sporting achievements into a feature he called “Champs And Chumps”. Soon he expanded his interest to curiosities of a more general kind. Some of the oddities he drew were so extraordinary he renamed his strip “Believe It Or Not”.
The feature became a cause celebre thanks to a cartoon stating that American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was “the 67th man to make a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The paper received an avalanche of mail in protest at this outrageous statement, which was fantastic publicity for Ripley. And he was right – although Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, 66 others had made the journey before him in large dirigibles.
Now a figure of some repute, a book collecting Ripley’s work was a best seller. Impressed, media baron William Randolph Hearst asked Ripley to come and work for him at ten times his previous salary. Hearst was also in a position to fund a world tour for Ripley, so that he could fly to the ends of the Earth in search of the bizarre and exotic for his illustrations.
Ripley also invited his readers to send in their own “Believe It Or Not”s, and they arrived in droves.
Here, the title of his feature was Ripley’s defence, as he reproduced their contributions for interest value rather than credibility. This is the heart of what he was about. He saw himself as a collector of the bizarre and exotic, not an investigator looking for what was authentic. He was like the always eager Yin of Fox Mulder deprived of the skeptical Yang of Dana Scully. “Here it is,,” he is saying. “..and you can choose to believe it, or not”.
Ripley was not a well educated man so he probably realised better than anyone that he wasn’t best qualified to make the call anyway.
Through his travels, Ripley amassed quite a collection of curiosities.
At the Chicago World’s fair of 1933 he gathered these in a display he called his “Odditorium” where he brought his cartoons to life, even having characters who people might have chosen not to believe now present in the flesh. (Nurses were employed to deal with those who fainted). It was the first of many such Odditoriums.
Exhibiting humans in this way has the ring of a P.T. Barnum about it. Barnum’s name is now synonymous with spoofers – he initially caught the public’s imagination with a fake mermaid and the dubious character Tom Thumb. However, once he had made his name, Barnum became a debunker of frauds. The various quotes attributed to him (some erroneously), suggest Barnum had, not so much a complicated relationship with the truth, as a very idiosyncratic idea of how much of the truth he should present to his audience. One might say all of the characters in this story are happy to work only with their own personal moral compass. For some you sense what the truth is actually doesn’t matter. Perhaps, after a century of Postmodernism, Cultural Relativism, Historical Revisionism and the fr*cking QI klaxon no-one Knows for sure?
It’s difficult to measure what harm is done.
Most of us can laugh at daft stories on the web or in publications such as The Weekly World News. In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, Carl Sagan wonders whether these publications believe they are covered by the “this is so preposterous no sensible person could believe it” defence. He compares the WWN to the WWF of wrestling, whose fans are supposed to know that the fights are scripted. However, he adds, those who suggest no-one believes any of this stuff should read the mail he gets following one of these stories. Yes, most of us can laugh, but it is the least educated and most credulous (and perhaps the mentally ill) who are least equipped to sift the spoof from the facts.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, this WWN story about the Planet Saturn being a giant mothership which is the source of all the UFOs in the sky
ends with a list of facts about the Solar System which are true, and no less interesting for that. What is going on here? Is this meant to make the body of the article more credible? Or is the author saying “facts, made up stuff, what’s the difference? Who cares?”
Amusingly, the WWN article is not a million miles away from an episode in Sagan’s own life. In his younger days he conjectured that the oddly accelerated orbit of Jupiter’s moon Phobos might be explained if it was hollow. He further speculated that such a huge artificial hollow object would be indicative of an alien civilisation. Sagan confessed that he took this leap because when it came to extraterrestrial life he was in the “want to believe” camp. ultimately, however, he found the evidence was not persuasive.
He started from a position that he very much wanted to discover alien life and then stumbled upon something that might support this possibility. But because he was a critical thinker, he tried to examine the evidence objectively rather than looking for that part of the evidence that sustained his proposition.
Randi and his ilk might seem to some to be killjoys – the ultimate FPOs – like the character in that annoying song who tells the child that “flowers are red and green leaves are green”. Imagination and wonder are great things in themselves as well as the engines of discovery and creativity. But lazy thinking can cause us harm, and we should always be vigilant to villains eager to exploit our laziness.