Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Book Review: Flim-Flam!

I have recently finished reading James Randi's Flim-Flam!, and believe me, there's a reason they call him James "The Amazing" Randi.

For those not in the know, Randi retired from a successful career as a professional magician and turned his considerable skill as a trickster to investigating the paranormal. He's been a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) since the 70s, and started his own organization, the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF), all with the intent and purpose of delving into the truth of psychics, spiritualists, faith healers and other woo-woo artists. Flim-Flam! explores some of Randi's early work in the field, ousting dowsers, card-readers, table-tippers, spoon-benders and the like. There are two things that make Randi's approach unique: he doesn't pull his punches, and he's not afraid to put his money where is mouth is. At the time of publishing (early 80s) Randi was offering $10,000 to any person who could prove, under conditions agreed to in advance by both parties, that they could perform some kind of psychic or paranormal act. Today, that figure stands at a whopping $1 million, guaranteed. There have been many takers, but so far not a single person has been able to perform under even the most basic of scientific conditions, even those they agreed to themselves.

During the course of the book, Randi describes several examples of psychics and divulges the methods they used to dupe even so-called 'paranormal investigators'. Uri Geller features prominently, and is in fact the subject of a later book by Randi, The Truth About Uri Geller. Geller, it turns out, is not just some Isreali bumpkin who discovered he had a talent for bending spoons - he's a professional magician who is incapable of performing his 'psychic' tricks under conditions that do not allow him to use prestidigitation, and refuses to perform when other magicians like Randi are in the audience. Randi also discovers that so-called 'scientific' investigators that 'proved' Geller's psychic abilities failed to disclose simple facts in their reports, such as that his magician's assistants were allowed to wander in and out of the supposedly secure room in which he was doing his 'readings'. Randi strips away the nonsense and reveals the truth beneath - most paranormal investigators will see what they want to see, and get the results they want to get, regardless of how obvious the trickery is. And sometimes, the trickery is really very obvious to anyone who bothers to actually look.

On the flip side of the coin are those sad individuals who are not tricksters but who honestly believe that they possess some paranormal ability. Near the end of the book, Randi describes a challenge where four dowsers were subjected to a very simple test: three pipes following different paths were laid under a square of ground. Each dowser was given three tests, where a random pipe was opened to allow water to flow through, and the dowser was required to mark out the path of the water on the ground. As a double-blind test, not only did the dowsers not know which pipes were being used for which run, neither did Randi. Beforehand, to be fair, Randi requested that each dowser walk the field to first eliminate any natural water sources that might interfere with the test (and to make sure none could use this as an excuse later). All the dowsers agreed that they could perform under these conditions. The results were somewhat predictable: not one of the four dowsers came anywhere near the correct path on any of their runs, and they could not even agree on the position or existence of natural water sources in the area. They failed spectacularly, and were to the man completely shocked at their own failure. Unfortunately, instead of accepting defeat with grace, they soon began to make up all manner of excuses for why they could not perform, despite saying beforehand that the conditions were acceptable.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in finding out how the tricksters fool the masses, or themselves, and how even the most basic of restrictions (like cutting the deck of cards before allowing a card-sharp to perform their 'psychic' reading) can foil them utterly.


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