“Prebunking” the Times’ rehabilitation of Uri Geller

July 12, 2023 • 11:20 am

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.

Addendum: Greg asked me (he’s doing field work) to add this to the post:

Mark Palko just sent me this piece by Mark Evanier. 
Palko says that Evanier is well connected in the magic community. Note that he disagrees with Grothe’s acceptance that a lot of magicians now embrace Geller. He writes instead:
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

19 thoughts on ““Prebunking” the Times’ rehabilitation of Uri Geller

    1. Unless “prebunking” is commonly understood to be the use of skeptical psychic powers to criticize a phony psychic acting in the future.

      One of the surprisingly common excuses people used when paranormal powers inexplicably failed to work during controlled testing situations in the Amazing Challenge was that the Amazing Randi was using dark magic to suppress the skills of his rivals.

  1. He may have fooled us as children on British tv in the 1970s but I think we have come a long way since then.
    There is still all the woo of tarot and mediums and astrology though. Like Geller, none of them can withstand scientific scrutiny 😀

  2. There seems to be a mistake in paragraph 2. Where it says “…after Johnny Carson, aided by James Randi, failed to expose him as a fraud on the Tonight Show in 1973” it should read “after Johnny Carson, aided by James Randi, exposed him as a fraud on the Tonight Show in 1973.”

  3. In one of their books, Penn & Teller discussed Geller. I don’t have it at hand, so I’m paraphrasing, but it went like this” “Geller claims he has the power to bend spoons with his mind. If so, it’s a pretty pointless super power. Who wants bent spoons? And if, for some reason, you DID want bent spoons, why not just bend them by hand? Why doesn’t anyone say to Geller, ‘Hey, why don’t you work on a way to do something constructive with your powers? We’ll take care of any cutlery that needs bending.”

    1. IF Geller has a brood of offspring AND his psychic powers are both heritable and dominant, AND Geller’s spous(-es) haven’t been cheating on him, surely Clan Geller would have cornered the market on bending railway rails and construction girders by now?

  4. James Randi did the obvious to debunk Geller — he bent spoons too. Almost 50 years James Randi came to a physics colloquium that I attended while I was working on my PhD. Somehow, I got a front row seat (in what was normally reserved for faculty), and Randi chose me to demonstrate his bending spoons. At arm’s length from me he bent a spoon and then declared, “It’s a trick. Wanna see it again?” And he did it again and declared again, “I’m telling you, it’s a trick.” So, what’s the simpler option: (a) Randi and Geller were both able to bend spoons with their minds, oh, and Randi was a liar, or (b) they were both doing the trick that Randi demonstrated? B.t.w., it was Amazing!

  5. I’m interested in hearing Geller’s definition of a woman, and the NY Times’s response to that. Would Geller say, “I’m not a biologist” in front of a U.S. Senate committee?

  6. The essence of true magic is the decoupling of meaning from determinance. In the real world determinance, logic, reason, and meaning are inextricably intertwined. They cannot be separated.

    Magic shows and stories like Harry Potter never actually involve a decoupling of meaning from determinance. Instead they create a superset of laws of physics and call it magic. Such a superset of laws would fall squarely in the realm of science. It is, in fact, what science does all the time – fleshing out the extents of the laws a physics and working to understand all things derived from them.

    The nonsense of meaning decoupled from determinance can be illustrated by trying to imagine a story, like Harry Potter, wherein the magic is unconstrained by determinance. Everything would be possible everywhere all the time. Nobody could control it because control is determinance.

    Free will, being meaningful action independent of determinants, is simply a form of magic. But, thankfully, we are all muggles because decoupling meaning from determinance is nonsense. Our lives have meaning because of determinance, not in spite of it.

    1. Magic shows and stories like Harry Potter never actually involve a decoupling of meaning from determinance. Instead they create a superset of laws of physics and call it magic.

      If you like thinking like that, there’s a thick wodge of bookshelf you can fill with Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortality” series, which plays on precisely that idea. It treats magic as a “fifth force” subject to manipulation by (some) minds (not just human, but IIRC somehow tied to language – ruling out dog-wizards). The force has a limited extent, such that the ‘magic’ field of an Earth-sized lump of matter doesn’t even extend to the Moon (therefore, no Little Green Magicians invading form Mars).
      If you like that sort of thing, it’s good. If I found a book from the series in the £1 pile at a bookshop, I’d probably re-read it.

    1. He forced the specific card and manipulated the video somehow. If James Cordon was in on it, it would be trivial.

      The first trick was pretty obvious. He forced the card by dealing it off the bottom or something. He kept the corner concealed until after he had pretended to tear it off to disguise the fact that it was pre-torn and he managed to plant the corner in Cordon’s jacket. Again, it would be easy if Cordon was in on it. The only impressive part of this trick was faking the tearing noise.

      The last trick was a simple counting trick. The sequence of actions was designed to bring the two halves together at the end.

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