The Truth About Uri Geller, James Randi

Prometheus, 1982, 234 pages, C$26.50 tpb, ISBN 0-87975-199-1

Do you honestly believe that aliens have secret agreements with our government? Do you trust the claims of clairvoyants, prophets, astrologers or new-age devotees? Do you think telepathy is a proven, significant phenomenon? Do you consider The X-Files as Holy Gospel, not to mention the Holy Gospel as literal truth?

If so, you’re not reading the good reviewer.

Faithful readers (if there are any), will remember my skepticism -if not outright disgust- toward alleged manifestations of the paranormal and other wacky money-making enterprises on the edge of so-called science and credulity. Unfortunately, such a viewpoint isn’t popular (ie: does not cater to fantasies) and so “psychic healers”, “alien abductees” and “government conspiracies” continue to exist, and sell, and sell, and sell…

It’s somewhat reassuring to find that still a few rational people exist in the world, and that the fine folks at Prometheus Press are publishing their books. The Truth About Uri Geller is one of the most lucid non-fiction book I’ve read in a while.

As a faithful reader of the Skeptical Enquirer, I’m quite familiar with the names of James Randi and Uri Geller. The general public might not remember the names (hurrah!) but let me do a brief historical recap:

In the early seventies, America discovered a young, handsome psychic named Uri Geller. Geller allegedly had the ability to read minds, to bend keys and spoons, to read through envelopes and to repair stopped watches. His powers were examined by one of the USA’s biggest scientific institute. He appeared on the Johnny Carson and the Merv Griffin show. His own “psychic” shows attracted thousands. He was repeatedly used as “proof” that psychic powers existed.

Yeah, riiight.

Time can do many amazing things, even more amazing that the elaborate parlor tricks of a magician-turned-psychic-phenomenon. Today, the name Uri Geller draws a blank among the general populace. Even if a quick Internet search revealed that Geller is still in the psychic business, he has lost considerable fame since his early seventies heydays.

Even if it would be an overstatement to say that The Truth About James Randi has anything to do with it, this devastating exposé might explain why Geller didn’t have any staying power, psychic or otherwise.

James Randi is a magician. He deals with illusions; that’s how he makes a living. But as he makes clear in this book, the only difference between him and Geller is that Randi at least has the moral integrity to admit that he’s not a seer, a psychic or a telepath. Everything he does is at the grasp of any normal person, and he “proves” this over and over again in the book.

I say “prove” because the biggest flaw of the book is that Randi cannot reveal the how of certain illusions, since it would be like revealing trade secrets to competitors. Magic has a strict code of honor, and thus you have to be content with Randi’s claims that he can (and did) duplicate Geller’s feats without any kind of supernatural intervention.

[January 1999:  After seeing the two first “Secrets of Magicians” TV shows -who do reveal how magic tricks work-, I am more inclined than ever before to trust James Randi over Uri Geller.]

But even then, Geller’s account contains enough verifiable claims that it’s impossible to take Geller’s claims seriously afterward. Simple logic, a bit of quick comparisons, and outside sources serve Randi’s purposes wonderfully: Uri Geller simply cannot stand up to scrutiny.

In retrospect, The Truth About Uri Geller‘s greatest contribution is to show how easy it is to fool people who want to be fooled. That’s how Geller did it, mostly, and that’s why we must develop at least a sense of skepticism about these claims. Read it and weep, rage, but above all, get an education.

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