by Greg Mayer
When I wrote Jerry about the New York Times declaration of victory on behalf of the con artist Uri Geller, I predicted that there would be a response from the Center for Inquiry, and maybe Michael Shermer as well. And sure enough, former CFI vice president D.J. Grothe, as Jerry has already noted, has responded, as has the CFI itself, and, as anticipated, so has Michael Shermer. I’ll get to those, but by far the best response came from data scientist Mark Palko, who responded three years ago! Talk about clairvoyance!
How did Palko do this? The Times has been recycling the same story about Geller for years; Palko took apart a previous instance of it. In 2014, the Times published a piece by Adam Higginbotham with the same tale of how Geller rose to success and fame after Johnny Carson, aided by James Randi, failed to expose him as a fraud on the Tonight Show in 1973. Palko takes it apart this way:
It’s a great tale except that there’s little reason to believe it actually happened that way. Start with the fact that Geller seems to be the main source, which should have raised some red flags for Higginbotham.
For the latest Times article, Geller is again the main source.
The 2014 article claimed that Geller’s abject failure on Carson’s show led to a booking on the Merv Griffin Show; did it?
How about the appearance on the Merv Griffith [sic] Show? Wasn’t he invited shortly after the Carson debacle? Not exactly. He was invited back.
Geller was on Griffin about two weeks before he bombed on Carson; they invited him back to Griffin two weeks later.
And did Geller’s fame take off after his Carson failure? Palko checks the data:
If anything, it looks like Randi’s debunking of Geller starting with the Tonight Show and culminating with 1975’s The Magic of Uri Geller [a book by Randi] was what brought the charlatan down.
Palko caps off his remarkable “prebunking” thus:
Journalists love people-are-stupid narratives, but, while I believe cognitive dissonance is real, I think the lesson here is not “To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real”, and is instead that we should all be more skeptical of simplistic and overused pop psychology.
I have shown the video of Geller’s appearance on Carson to nearly two decades of undergraduate students in a course on “Science and Pseudoscience”; I don’t think any of them were impressed by Geller’s psychic abilities. What it is is a master class in what is known as “escape from refutation”.
The CFI reports on the “Rehabbing of Uri Geller” in yesterday’s edition of its “Morning Heresy” newsletter. It begins by saying “it’s officially time to start worrying about the New York Times“– something Jerry and I have been saying for years now!– and goes on, describing the Times piece as
… a lengthy – and progressively more maddening – hagiography of Uri Geller. If there is ever a museum dedicated to fawning, nonsensical historical revisionism, this article deserves its own wing.
It finishes with an excerpt from letter sent to the Times by James Underdown, CFI Investigations Group Founder:
And herein lies the downside to human deep-fakes like spoon benders and faith healers. They paint a picture of a world that doesn’t exist, then fill it with gullible followers. What results is a populace that scoffs at science, ignores medicine, and believes their own eyes at a magic show.”
And finally, Michael Shermer’s take.
As Randi said "if Geller is bending spoons with his mind he's doing it the hard way." @theurigeller if you bend cutlery with your mind why do you always need to touch the object?
What's more likely? 400 years of physics are wrong or Geller is doing magic?https://t.co/Mck6jUXqMB
— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) July 8, 2023
Addendum: Greg asked me (he’s doing field work) to add this to the post:
The sheer reaction to the piece suggests that the embrace is not as widespread as the reporter claims. The professional magicians I know have always kind of regarded the guy as someone who got very rich and famous duping people with the kind of magic most of them could do when they were thirteen — and probably do it better.
h/t Mark Palko, Andrew Gelman