Flim-Flam Flummery: A Skeptical Look at James Randi

Years ago, when I was a full-fledged skeptic, atheist, and rationalist, I read James Randi's 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions. Randi is an accomplished magician and a professional skeptic, dedicating to disproving any and all claims of what he considers pseudoscience. In line with this agenda, and as its title suggests, Flim-Flam is a concerted attack on miscellaneous purported irrationalities – everything from the pop-culture writings of Erich von Daniken to the more serious investigations of professional parapsychologists. I enjoyed the book, which reinforced my belief system at the time.

Recently I picked up Flim-Flam again. Having changed my mind about many things over the past twenty years, I responded to it much differently this time. I was particularly struck by the book's hectoring, sarcastic tone. Randi pictures psychic researchers as medieval fools clad in "caps and bells" and likens the delivery of an announcement at a parapsychology conference to the birth of "Rosemary's Baby." After debunking all manner of alleged frauds, he opens the book's epilogue with the words, "The tumbrels now stand empty but ready for another trip to the square" – a reference to the French Revolution, in which carts ("tumbrels") of victims were driven daily to the guillotine. Randi evidently pictures himself as the executioner who lowers the blade. In passing, two points might be made about this metaphor: the French Revolution was a product of "scientific rationalism" run amok ... and most of its victims were innocent.

Still, the tedious nastiness of Flim-Flam does not tell us anything about its accuracy. Intrigued, I decided to check out a few of Randi's claims in detail.

I chose to focus on Chapter Eight, Randi's dissection of the experiments of Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, two well-known parapsychologists. Randi calls them "the Laurel and Hardy of psi" and proceeds to argue that their experiments were a tissue of ineptitude, gullibility, and dishonesty.

The first thing I noticed was that Randi never gives any indication that Targ and Puthoff have any scientific credentials or accomplishments. The casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that they are not "real" scientists at all. For the record, Targ is a physicist credited with inventing the FM laser, the high-power gas-tranport laser, and the tunable plasma oscillator. Puthoff, also a physicist, invented the tunable infra-red laser and is widely known for his theoretical work on quantum vacuum states and the zero point field. (See The Field, by Lynne McTaggart, for an overview of Puthoff's work in quantum phyics.) If these two are "Laurel and Hardy," at least they come with good résumés. Randi, by contrast, has no scientific training.

Randi starts off by telling us how Targ and Puthoff took a professed psychic, Ingo Swann, to Stanford University, where, they said, Swann used his psychic abilities to affect the operation of a magnetometer. According to Randi, "the report was all wet." He knows this because he contacted Dr. Arthur Hebard, "the builder of the device, who was present and has excellent recollections of what took place." Hebard, Randi says disputes the Targ-Puthoff account. He is quoted as saying, "It's a lie. You can say it any way you want, but that's what I call a lie."

This is pretty compelling stuff. But is Randi's version of events accurate? Let's take a look.

First, he seems to make a rather basic error when he says that both Targ and Puthoff were present for this experiment. As best I can determine, Puthoff conducted the experiment, which took place in June, 1972, without Targ's assistance. Targ had met Puthoff prior to this time, but their work together apparently did not begin until a few months later.

That's a small point. Far more important is the matter of Dr. Hebard's testimony. There's another side to the story, which I found in Chapter 17 ofPsychic Breakthroughs Today by D. Scott Rogo. Rogo, who died in 1990 at the age of forty, was a prolific journalist and researcher of psychic phenomena. He wrote numerous popular books, some of which have been used as college texts. He also published research papers in peer-reviewed parapsychology journals. Although Rogo was sometimes criticized for tackling overly esoteric subjects, he had a reputation for honesty and was respected for his willingness to do hands-on investigation and field work, rather than relying on armchair appraisals. A Scott Rogo tribute and bibliography can be found here.

Rogo writes, "There obviously exist several discrepancies between Dr Puthoff's views on what happened during this experiment, and what Randi claims Dr Hebard told him. So to clarify the matter, I decided to get in touch with Dr Hebard myself. I finally tracked him down at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He was very willing to discuss the Swann magnetometer demonstration with me, and professed to be very interested in parapsychology." Hebard's interest in the paranormal contradicts Randi's statement that Hebard, "not being a reader of far-out literature," was unaware of Targ and Puthoff's claims.

Rogo acknowledges that Hebard's account differs in some respects from Puthoff's. "Dr Hebard denied in no uncertain terms, however, Randi's claim that Swann was never asked to 'stop the field charge' being recorded from the magnetometer. He easily recalled that he had suggested that it would be a fascinating effect if Swann could produce it . . . which, of course, he actually did soon after the suggestion was made. Randi also directly quotes Dr Hebard as calling some of Targ and Puthoff's claims 'lies'. Dr Hebard was very annoyed by this claim since, as he explained to me, Randi had tried to get him to make this charge and he had refused. Dr Hebard later signed a statement to this effect for me." (Ellipsis in original.)

As for the discrepancies between Hebard's and Puthoff's accounts, Rogo reports that in a subsequent meeting with Puthoff, he was shown "the actual graphed print-outs given by the magnetometer during the Swann demonstrations. The records supported Dr Puthoff's contention more than they did Dr Hebard's."

So far, then, the best we can say is that Randi's criticism of Puthoff (and Targ, who apparently wasn't even involved in the magnetometer experiment) is far from the last word on the subject.

Randi proceeds to launch a comprehensive critique of Targ and Puthoff's article "Information Transmission under Conditions of Sensory Shielding," which appeared in the October 18, 1974, issue of the respected journal Nature, and which can be read here (or here). The article details experiments involving, among other participants, the professed psychic Uri Geller.

Randi's take on this series of experiments is withering. He skewers Targ and Puthoff as "bunglers." He reports that their experiments were conducted in a chaotic atmosphere conducive to cheating. He says that a hole in the wall of Geller's isolation room enabled him to spy on the scientists during their ESP experiments. He says that Targ and Puthoff falsified the results of the tests by omitting failed experiments that would have lowered Geller's averages to the level of chance. Further, he says that the scoring of Geller's performances was mishandled, generating higher scores than Geller deserved.

The question naturally arises: How does Randi know all this, since, as he admits, "I've never even set foot on the sacred grounds of SRI [Stanford Research Institute, where the experiments were conducted]"? He explains that he was given inside information by "an individual" who claimed to represent dozens of SRI scientists. This group, which worked in secret and even adopted a code name (Broomhilda), passed the information to Randi.

Unfortunately, Randi never names this individual or any other members of the Broomhilda group. He says that "Broomhilda verified for me much of the information that I had been holding on to for years," but where did he get this earlier information in the first place? "That data," he says, "now moved from the status of hearsay to documented fact." But documented is hardly a term applicable to either the initial information, which is never specified, or the Broomhilda information, which came from an anonymous source. He adds, "Additional facts were elicited during conversations and correspondence with individuals. Many of these persons were not aware of Broomhilda and were acting on their own. Their completely independent input supported Broomhilda's charges. Taken together," he concludes, "the information from all sources amounted to quite an indictment."

Maybe so, but it's an indictment that would never hold up in court. The reader is expected to take Randi's word that his unidentified sources are trustworthy – and that the sources themselves are well-informed about experimental procedures they may or may not have witnessed.

Thus when Randi alleges that "hundreds of [failed] experiments that were done by SRI ... were never reported," we must take the statement on faith, as it is unsupported by any documentation. Similarly, when Randi says definitively, "All the other tests [i.e., the successful ones] lacked proper controls and were useless," we search in vain for any footnote to back up this assertion.

posting I found on a message board sums up the situation nicely: "Claims of poor scientific method leveled at the experimenters have been shown to be mainly unsubstantiated personal opinion and second-hand 'Chinese Whispers.'" (Chinese Whispers is the British equivalent of the American game, Telephone.) It might be worth adding that critics of paranormal phenomena, like Randi, are forever decrying any reliance on "anecdotal evidence," which is precisely what the bulk of Randi's argument consists of.

Randi does produce two individuals willing to go on the record – Charles Rebert and Leon Otis, both of whom were SRI psychologists. Rebert and Otis apparently disagreed with the Targ-Puthoff conclusions; indeed, Randi tells us that "a horrified Rebert also heard that Targ and Puthoff were going to proclaim these erroneous findings before Stanford University's psychology department, and he forbade such a blunder. The talk was canceled." But this only tells us that there was a dispute among the scientists at SRI. Rebert and Otis ran some unsuccessful tests with Geller and decided that he was a fraud. Targ and Puthoff ran what they regarded as successful tests and decided that, in some areas at least, Geller had legitimate psychic powers. Nothing in Randi's text establishes which conclusion was correct.

Randi goes on to report that after he had criticized Geller in an earlier book, Targ and Puthoff "issued a 'fact sheet' in rebuttal to twenty-four" of his points. According to Randi, "This attempt was a failure, and in response to one claim that the SRI tests were done under tight controls, a scientist who was there declared flatly, 'This is b.s. As far as my colleagues and I are concerned, none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol.' I will not burden you," Randi concludes, "with the other twenty-three points; they are as easily demolished."

Well, hold on. A quotation from yet another anonymous source ("a scientist who was there") hardly constitutes a demolition job, especially when the scientist's argument consists of an unsupported assertion ("none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol"). Personally, I would have welcomed the "burden" of the other twenty-three points and of Randi's detailed and carefully documented rebuttals.

Some idea of the counter-arguments to Randi's claims can be obtained by taking another look at D. Scott Rogo, who earlier showed the initiative to track down Dr. Hebard. Unlike Randi, who, as we have seen, had "never even set foot" inside the research facility, Rogo visited SRI on June 12, 1981. He found that Randi had misrepresented the hole in the wall of the isolation room through which Geller was supposedly able to spy on the researchers. The hole, a conduit for cables, is depicted in Flim-Flam as being three and a half inches wide and therefore offering a good view of the experimental area where the researchers were working. Rogo found, however, that the hole "is three-and-a-quarter inches [wide] and extends through a twelve-and-a-half inch wall. This scopes your vision and severely limits what you can see through it. The hole is not left open either, since it is covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run. Dr Puthoff and his colleague were, however, concerned that their subject might be ingenious enough to insert an optical probe through this hole, so they monitored the opening throughout their telepathy experiments."

Randi also indicates that the hole is stationed 34 inches above the floor. Not so, says Rogo. "It isn't three feet above the floor, but is located only a little above floor level. The only thing you can see through it - even under optimal conditions - is a small bit of exterior floor and opposing wall. (The viewing radius is only about 20°, and the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely.)* I also discovered during my trip to SRI that an equipment rack was situated in front of the hole throughout the Geller work, which obstructed any view through it even further. I ended my little investigation by talking with two people who were present during these critical experiments. They both agreed that wires were running through the hole – therefore totally blocking it – during the time of the Geller experiments."

It would appear that the hole in the isolation booth's wall poses considerably less of a problem than the holes in Randi's arguments.

By now, I felt that Randi's credibility was in doubt. He had committed careless errors of fact, had quite possibly misrepresented and misquoted Hebard, and had made unsupported assertions based on rumors. I wondered what Targ and Puthoff have to say about all this. The only responses from either of them that I could find online were part of a long essay by Winston Wu, "Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena"; the relevant part is Argument 18. Puthoff is quoted as saying the following:

"In Flim- Flam, [Randi] gives something like 28 debunking points, if my memory serves me correctly. I had the opportunity to confront Randi at a Parapsychology Association conference with proof in hand, and in tape-recorded interaction he admitted he was wrong on all the points. He even said he would correct them for the upcoming paperback being published by the CSICOP group. (He did not.)* ...

"The truth of the matter is that none of Randi's claimed suspected inadequate controls actually had anything to do with the experiments, which of course Randi was not there to know of. This has been independently reported by Scott Rogo somewhere in the literature, who came out specifically to check each of Randi's guesses about inadequate controls and found them inapplicable under the conditions in which the tests were conducted. In fact, all of Randi's suggestions were amateurish compared to the sophisticated steps we took, suspecting as we did everything from magician's tricks to an Israeli intelligence scam....

"In case one thinks that it was just a case of our opinions vs. his opinions," Puthoff continues, "we chose for the list of incorrect points only those that could be independently verified. Examples: [Randi] said that in our Nature paper we verified Geller's metal-bending. Go to the paper, and you see that we said we were not able to obtain evidence for this. He said that a film of the Geller experiment made at SRI by famed photographer Zev Pressman was not made by him, but by us and we just put his name on it. We showed up with an affidavit by Pressman saying that indeed he did make the film."

There is no way for me to verify Puthoff's statement that he tape-recorded Randi's concession of defeat "on all the points." This has to stand as an unsupported assertion, just like Randi's own arguments. But it is possible to take a closer look at Puthoff's last two claims.

First, Puthoff insists that his and Targ's Nature article does not endorse Geller's alleged metal-bending. This is accurate, as you can see for yourself by reading the article. Puthoff and Targ write, "It has been widely reported that Geller has demonstrated the ability to bend metal by paranormal means. Although metal bending by Geller has been observed in our laboratory, we have not been able to combine such observations with adequately controlled experiments to obtain data sufficient to support the paranormal hypothesis."

On the other hand, I have not found any statement by Randi in Flim-Flam to the effect that Targ and Puthoff "had verified Geller's metal-bending." He attacks the Targ-Puthoff experiments on other grounds. Of course, he may have made this statement elsewhere, but as far as I can tell, Puthoff is rebutting a point Randi never made.

How about Puthoff's second claim, regarding the SRI film? Randi certainly does make this an issue in Flim-Flam. Targ and Puthoff, he writes, "appended to [the film] – without his knowledge or permission – the name of Zev Pressman, the SRI photographer who had shot the film.... Pressman, said Targ and Puthoff, was present during [a particular series of] experiments. Not so, according to Pressman.... Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI that he had been told the successful [tests] were done after he (Pressman)* had gone home for the day. So it appears the film was a reenactment ... Pressman did not even know that Targ and Puthoff were issuing a statement, he did not sign it, and he did not give them permission to use his name. He knew nothing about most of what appeared under his name, and he disagreed with the part that he did know about." (Italics in original.)

Here we have Randi saying that this photographer, Pressman, was duped and used by the experimenters, while Puthoff says that Pressman signed an affidavit swearing that "indeed he did make the film." Is there any way to resolve this?

A further Web search turned up Chapter 14 of The Geller Effect. Part One of this book is written by Uri Geller. Part Two, which includes Chapter 14, was written by Guy Lyon Playfair. Living up to his name, Playfair offers an even-handed presentation of the various controversies surrounding the flamboyant and eccentric Geller.

Playfair writes, "[Randi] turned, in a later book, Flim-Flam, to the professional photographer who had made the film, a Stanford employee named Zev Pressman, with an extraordinary series of unfounded allegations....

"Pressman flatly denied all of Randi's allegations in two public statements, neither of which was even mentioned in the 1982 reissue of the book. 'I made the film,' said Pressman, 'and my name appeared with my full knowledge and permission . . . Nothing was restaged or specially created . . . I have never met nor spoken to nor corresponded with Randi. The 'revelations' he attributes to me are pure fiction.'"

It is true that no mention is made of these "two public statements" in Flim-Flam's 1982 edition – the edition I own.

For corroborating testimony, I turned once again to the indefatigable Scott Rogo, who investigated this claim just as he had looked into Dr. Hebard's testimony and the infamous hole in the wall.

Rogo writes, "I spoke directly with Mr Pressman on 5 January 1981 and he was quite interested when I told him about Randi's book. He denied that he had spoken to the magician. When I read him the section of Randi's book dealing with his alleged 'expose' of the Targ-Puthoff film, he became very vexed. He firmly backed up the authenticity of the film, told me how he had taken it on the spot, and labeled Randi's allegation as a total fabrication. (His own descriptive language was a little more colourful!)*" Rogo also reports that Puthoff showed him Pressman's signed affidavit.

How could Randi's conversation with Pressman be so different from Rogo's? The truth is, Randi does not appear to have had a conversation with Pressman at all. Take another look at the quote from Flim-Flam. The key words are: "Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI ..."

Evidently, then, Randi's source is not Pressman himself, but unnamed "others at SRI" who passed on this information to Randi. Another round of Chinese Whispers, it seems.

At this point Randi ends his discussion of the Geller experiments and proceeds to criticize Targ and Puthoff's later work, as well as the work of another researcher, Charles Tart. Dealing with these criticisms would require another essay of equal length to this one, so I will stop here. The reader who wants to go further is invited to read Randi's Flim-Flam and then click on any of the links inserted throughout this essay and listed below. Or just search the Web for the keywords Randi, Targ, Puthoff, etc., and see what comes up.

Before I began this modest online research project for a rainy afternoon, I had mixed feelings about Randi. I saw him as closed-minded and supercilious, but I also assumed he was sincere and, by his own lights, honest. Now, having explored his contribution to the Targ-Puthoff controversy in some detail, I am thoroughly unimpressed. Randi comes across as a bullying figure, eager to attack and ridicule, willing to distort and even invent evidence – in short, the sort of person who will do anything to prevail in a debate, whether by fair means or foul.

The title of his book thus takes on a new and unintended meaning. From what I can tell, James Randi really is the Flim-Flam man.

------------------------------------------------

*Material in parentheses is in the original text.

ADDENDUM: James Randi was kind enough to respond to my essay after a reader brought it to his attention. At first I didn't add any comments of my own, but since I've now uncovered some additional, relevant information, and since a few e-mailers have asked why I didn't respond, I've posted some remarks after Randi's.

In a message dated September 24, 2003, James Randi responds:

Briefly.... 

I set out here to rebut the accusation by Michael Prescott, at 
http://michaelprescott.freeservers.com/FlimFlam.htm. I spent some two hours gathering the material, made brief notes, and then realized that I was wasting far too much time picking off fleas. Here are the notes I prepared: 

Referring to the Prescott document: No, I did not specify the scientific credentials of Targ and Puthoff. They were laser scientists, which does not serve as any validation of their scientific – or other – ability to witness these matters. 

When I contacted Dr. Arthur F. Hebard originally, he was unaware of most other work that was being done in parapsychology, until I informed him. He became "interested in parapsychology" as a result of the fiasco he saw presented by Targ and Puthoff. 

Just today (September 24, 2003), he told me, "As far as my experience was concerned [with the Swann matter] there was no effect produced by him that could not be explained by ordinary means." He recalls the event well, and he also recalls that he told Scott Rogo that when they simply held a hand over 
the helium vent of the machine, the same effect was produced that Swann showed – and – that any use of the helium source by another facility in the building, produced the same effect! "There were unusual excursions of the data recorder," he told me – again! – "but nothing that did not have ordinary explanations." Note that Rogo did NOT report this! Hebard says that Rogo had "selective memory" of their discussion, and tried to get him to say things that Hebard just did not hold as opinions. 

Hebard also repeated to me that he agrees with everything I wrote about the matter in Flim-Flam. And he denies that he ever made the "signed statement" that Rogo says he made. 

Prescott says I "never set foot inside the SRI facility"? Look at Flim-Flam, pages 140-141 and see the drawings I made at SRI with Leon Otis. And I have a photograph of myself looking through the same "peep-hole" that Geller used. It was taken by Leon. I spent an entire afternoon there. 

The "scientist who was there," as quoted by Prescott, was Leon Otis. 

At this point, I have no time to pursue this tirade by Prescott, further. The rest of it would collapse, as above, under my point-for-point rebuttal. 

In closing, I quote Prescott: "There is no way for me to verify Puthoff's statement that he tape-recorded Randi's concession of defeat 'on all the points.'" Oh yes there is, Prescott. Contact Puthoff and ask for a copy of that tape-recording. Hal Puthoff is still alive, and he's a liar. No such conversation ever took place, I did not make such a statement, and Puthoff has no evidence to support his outright lie, because there is none. 

James Randi

The above are Randi's comments, reproduced in full. For additional information on Randi and his work, please visit his Web site, www.randi.org, or buy his book at Amazon's Flim-Flam sales page. (Later addition: Checking this link, I happened to notice that the May 6, 2004, Amazon reader review of Flim-Flam, posted by someone named Skip Harrison, is plagiarized verbatim from the opening sentences of my essay - and even has the same title! Next time, Skip, use your own words. Mine are copyrighted.)

Now for my points, posted on September 29, 2003. Some of these points may bolster my case, while others may bolster Randi's.

First, on Dr. Herbard's statement ... If Rogo misquoted him, then I apologize. In Rogo's defense, he did say that Hebard's memory of the event differed from Puthoff's in some respects (as I noted). In my own defense, I never made much of the Ingo Swann-magnetometer business anyway. It was not a formal experiment, it was very poorly documented, and everyone involved disagrees on what happened. All I said was that Randi's statements are "far from the last word on the subject." I think this cautious appraisal remains true.

On the matter of the disputed quote from Flim-Flam, indicating that Randi "never even set foot" inside the SRI facility ... The quote is accurate. Here it is in full context: "Shortly thereafter, I received a communication from a member of a second special committee within SRI charged with looking into the Targ and Puthoff shenanigans (the first 'Psychic Research Review Committee' had found everything perfectly kosher, it seems), asking me for for details about my investigations of the situation there. They were asking me [both emphases in original], and I've never even set foot on the sacred grounds of SRI [emphasis added]."

The quote is on p. 142, in the first full paragraph, which begins, "Weeks went by." The key words, the ones in red italics above, are on the 15th line of the page (counting down from the top). This placement refers to the 1980 edition of Flim-Flam.

Apprised of this, Randi responded, "Wasn't able to find that! But the scale diagrams I ran in F-F were the direct results of my visit there. I believe it should have read, 'They were asking me, and at that time I'd not set foot on the sacred grounds of SRI.'"

The same reader who kindly confirmed this quote for me (my copy of Flim-Flam being unavailable at the time) also directed me to a page of Randi's Web site showing photos of Randi at SRI. (The photos are about three-quarters of the way down the page.) No date is given for Randi's visit.

The Web site photos and accompanying diagram raise a few questions of their own. First, there is the question of just how big the hole in the isolation-room wall was and how much of the outside room could be seen through it. In Flim-Flam's 1980 edition, in the diagram on page 139, the hole is shown as 4.5" in diameter, providing a view of 4.5 feet of one wall and 6 feet of another wall - a substantial part of the room. However, in the diagram on Randi's Web page, all three values are different. Here the hole is 3.5" wide, affording a view of 39" of one wall and 4 feet of the other. By comparison, Rogo's measurement of the hole was 3.25" in diameter, which agrees pretty closely with one of Randi's diagrams but not the other.

I believe that in the 1982 edition of Flim-Flam, the figures were changed to those shown on the Web page (though I can't be sure, because I don't have the 1982 edition with me now). In any case, the discrepancy between the 1980 diagram and the more recent diagram at least raises the question of when, exactly, the actual hands-on measurements were made - before or after the book's 1980 publication? If they were made before, then it seems inexplicable that the 1980 diagram could have been wrong in so many respects. If they were made after, then the arguments in Flim-Flam are based on second-hand information, at best - just as the text itself seems to imply.

The hole was unblocked when Randi observed it, but, according to Rogo, was entirely blocked with cables and a metal plate during the experiments. On the above-mentioned Web page and in Flim-Flam, Randi says that the hole had been stuffed with gauze, but fails to mention the cables and plate. Randi's accompanying diagram (both on his Web page and in the book ) indicates that the wall is indeed about twelve inches thick, as stated by Rogo, a fact that would inevitably "scope ... your vision and severely limit ... what you can see through it," in Rogo's words. (In Randi's close-up photo, the wall appears to be much thinner than twelve inches, as you can see by looking closely at the hole itself. This is presumably a trick of the light.)

On his Web page, Randi notes, "One would think that the targets might be placed face-up on a table, or fastened to the separating wall, but a magician would benefit from having them posted on the wall opposite the blocked-off window in the wall, if he could by some means get a peek through that wall. Would that have been possible, in the 1972 visit of Mr. Geller? 'Broomhilda' members seemed to think that a likely scenario."

If they merely thought it "likely," then they were just guessing and didn't actually know. Note that Rogo wrote in Psychic Breakthroughs Today, "... the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely [emphasis added]."

It's up to the reader to decide if Puthoff and Targ, or any other scientists, whether skilled in conjuring or not (and Russell Targ is an amateur conjurer), would put Geller in an isolation booth while leaving a large, unblocked (or barely blocked) hole in the wall, directly facing the targets he was supposed to guess.

Now for the alleged tape recording made by Puthoff ... Taking Randi's advice, I did manage to contact Hal Puthoff by e-mail. He replied promptly, but said that after having relocated several times over the past three decades, and having put many of his belongings in storage, he no longer knows where to find the tape.

Puthoff wrote: "Of course, having got caught, Randi would have to call me a liar, and count on the fact that I would be unlikely after all these years to put my hands on the tape. You can quote me in saying that I say that Randi is a liar when he calls me a liar. My profession is as a scientist dedicated to reality and truth, his is as a charlatan dedicated to misdirection and tomfoolery to gain the moment. Let the audience figure out who is more likely to be lying!"

Much as I respect Puthoff, I must reiterate what I said in my essay: Without hearing the tape, neither I nor anyone else can confirm that the encounter took place.

Although Randi doesn't comment on the part of my essay dealing with cameraman Zev Pressman, a reader alerted me to another source of information on this controversy. This is the 1999 book Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?, by Jonathan Margolis, the relevant chapter of which can be read here.

Margolis writes, "Another postulate still of the sceptics concerning the SRI tests in the 1970s is ... that the SRI film cameraman, an ex Life Magazine war photographer, Zev Pressman, had not really taken any of the 40 hours of footage which was edited down into the Geller film, and that he had been forced to say he had shot it, while in fact a group of conspirators in league with Uri Geller had contrived it. If the story is true, then someone must have had a great deal of leverage over Mr. Pressman, for even in his mid eighties and frail, he still insisted when I visited him at his home at Palo Alto, a few miles from SRI, that it was his film and his alone, and has a clear recall of several other of Geller's feats. Pressman was so keen to talk about his Uri Geller experiences that he even rounded up his neighbour, the then head of information at SRI, Ron Deutsch, now also well into retirement, for our morning coffee meeting."

This makes three independent, published accounts (Playfair, Rogo, Margolis) all of which concur on Pressman's continuing insistence that he did shoot the SRI film.

In my essay, Puthoff is quoted as writing, "... we chose for the list of incorrect points only those that could be independently verified. Examples: [Randi] said that in our Nature paper we verified Geller's metal-bending. Go to the paper, and you see that we said we were not able to obtain evidence for this." One e-mailer said that Puthoff had indeed made a statement verifying Geller's metal-bending - but not in the Nature article. The statement, allegedly, was in the SRI film, and this is what Randi had challenged.

However, no such statement appears in the script of the SRI film, which is posted here. Indeed, the script says exactly the opposite. Nor do its contents come across - to me, at least - as the ravings of blundering pseudoscientists eager to convince themselves and dupe the public. Read for yourself (all emphases added):

"These are a series of unconfirmed physical effects that need further investigation. One of Geller's main attributes that had been reported to us was that he was able to bend metal from a distance without touching it. In the laboratory we did not find him able to do so. In a more relaxed protocol, he was permitted to touch the metal, in which case, as you will see in the film, the metal is indeed bent. However, it becomes clear in watching this demonstration on film that simple photo interpretation is insufficient to determine whether the metal is bent by normal or paranormal means.

"In the laboratory, these spoon-bending experiments were continuously filmed and video-taped. It is evident that some time during the photographic period this stainless steel spoon became bent. However, unlike the things we have heard about Geller, it was always necessary for him in the experimental situation to have physical contact with the spoon or for that matter any other object that he bends. It is not clear whether the spoon is being bent because he has extraordinarily strong fingers and good control of micro-manipulatory movements or whether, in fact, the spoon 'turns to plastic' in his hands, as he claims.

"Here are a number of the spoons that were bent by one means or another during the course of our experiments. There is no doubt that the spoons were bent. The only doubt remains as to the manner of their bending. Similarly, we have rings that were bent by Mr. Geller. The rings that were bent are shown here. The copper ring at the left and the brass ring at the right were manufactured at SRI and measured to require 150 pounds force to bend them. These rings were in Geller's hand at the time they were bent...

"What we've demonstrated here are the experiments that we performed in the laboratory and should not be interpreted as proof of psychic functioning. Indeed, a film never proves anything. Rather, this film gives us the opportunity to share with the viewer observations of phenomena that in our estimation clearly deserve further study."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Additional note, October 15, 2003: There is still apparently some controversy over the contents - and even the existence - of the SRI film made of Uri Geller's experiments. For those who want to see the film for themselves, it can be viewed in its entirety at www.uri-geller.com/vids.htm. (Many thanks to the email correspondent who informed me of this fact.)

The site claims that the film can be viewed in either RealPlayer (.ram) or .mpg format. However, if you click on the .mpg links, they turn out to be RealPlayer files. So you'll need RealPlayer (a free download at www.real.com).

The film has been broken up into four parts to make smaller files. Even so, if you have a 56K modem, it will take a long time to play each file because of the frequent pauses for buffering.

The first clip, SRI1, is a rather dull "talking head" introduction with no experimental footage.

SRI2 includes two telepathy experiments (not the ones involving the isolation booth, unfortunately), a "target" experiment in which Geller identifies which metal can is holding a steel ball bearing, and another target test in which he has to identify a can filled with water.

SRI3 mentions (but does not show) additional target exercises similar to the ball bearing and water tests above. It then shows a double-blind die-in-a-box test, in which Geller correctly guesses which face of the die is showing. Because he chose to "pass," this particular run was not included in the statistical results. The eight tests that were included in the formal results (in which allegedly Geller achieved a perfect score) are not shown. The clip continues with two PK tests - one in which an electrical scale is made to register significant weight gain and loss, and another in which the needle of a magnetometer is deflected. This segment concludes with an "unsatisfactory" test in which Geller makes a compass needle deflect. Though the test produced positive results, the researchers later decided that their controls had been inadequate, so it wasn't counted.

SRI4 shows "unconfirmed" metal-bending effects. Geller bends spoons before the camera, but the researchers admit that they cannot know if he was using his finger strength to create the bend. After a brief recap of the best-controlled tests, the film ends.

As mentioned above, the script of the SRI film can be found here.

I hope this at least settles the question of whether or not the so-called "Pressman film" was actually made ...

Yet another additional note, December 1, 2003: Steve Knight, whose Web site www.zem.demon.co.uk/ contains a great deal of material about this and other Uri Geller controversies, has informed me that authors Marks & Kamman report that at least one target drawing was displayed opposite the isolation room. They write, "He [Puthoff] told us that he taped this drawing 'right here,' pointing to a spot directly across from the covered window." (The Psychology of the Psychic, p. 135). This bolsters Randi's argument that Geller could have peeked through the hole in the door. On the other hand, a target drawing of a devil, which Randi describes as being "in full view" of Geller when he left the isolation room (Randi,The Truth About Uri Geller, p. 46), was actually in a different room altogether. According to the paper published in Nature, this "target location [was] an office at a distance of 475 m [meters]" from the isolation room. See www.zem.demon.co.uk/ttaug.htm for more info.

I've also found a Web site created by Ingo Swann, in which he describes his own recollection of the disputed magnetometer event. His story is highly readable and amusing. You can find it here

(May 15, 2004) James Randi has provided additional comments on his dispute with Hal Puthoff at this location :www.randi.org/jr/043004bad.html#4 . The same material, augmented by a few comments from Steve Knight, can be found at:www.zem.demon.co.uk/fact.htm . Some earlier remarks by Randi on the Puthoff controversy can be read at:www.randi.org/jr/042304seven.html#10 .

(November 21, 2005) Another update on the controversy that will not end. I received an email from Steve Knight, who maintains a Uri Geller-related Web site. He wrote:

Over the last few months I have been in contact with Jean Millay (formerly Mayo) who was present at the SRI tests of Geller. With regard to which wall the drawings were placed on I asked: "Do you remember if the drawings done with Uri in the next room were stuck up on the wall and if so which wall?"

Jean replied: "a couple of the first ones were on the west wall, until they decided to move us to another building."

This would seem to confirm what Marks & Kamman wrote about their visit to SRI: ""He [Puthoff] told us that he taped this drawing 'right here,' pointing to a spot directly across from the covered window." (see: www.zem.demon.co.uk/rogo.htm for futher confirmatory details regarding the distance between Geller & the target)

Note that 6 of the 13 trials reported in the Nature paper involved Geller in the EEG shielded room with the target in the room next door. It would seem plausible that the drawings were diplayed on the same wall each time; certainly there is no suggestion in the literature or from Ms. Millay that the targets were displayed on a different wall each time.

Also, as you may recall, I emailed you a link to a photograph 
www.randi.org/images/082302-RoomAB.jpg ) which clearly showed that the cable hole was much nearer the 36 inches from the floor that Randi claimed and not "a little above floor level.", as Rogo claimed.

In light of all of the above will you consider revising your page on Randi to reflect the facts?

The photos of Randi at SRI were mentioned and linked to in the first addendum to this essay. (The link was supplied by a different reader.) The hole is important only if it was unblocked. If the hole was sealed off, then it wouldn't matter how high or low it was.

I've never heard of Jean Millay, but I'm happy to include her testimony. Again, it doesn't matter if the drawings were displayed opposite the isolation booth unless the hole was unblocked. If the hole was blocked, then Geller would have been unable to see out of the booth at all.

Whether anybody remembers accurately what happened at SRI thirty-three years ago is doubtful at this point. Thirty-three years ago I was twelve years old and shooting stop-motion dinosaur footage as a hobby. If someone were to ask me now to reconstruct the details of how I created a particular shot, I would have to rely on speculation, as my memories have long since faded. I imagine the same is true of the various recollections of the SRI tests.

But it's not of great import. In the light of the successful tests of ESP carried out by the Ganzfeld experimenters, the early SRI tests have become more of a historical footnote than a major piece of evidence for the existence of psi. The Ganzfeld tests proved that volunteers off the street can demonstrate ESP, so why wouldn't we assume that Geller also exhibits this ability, at least sporadically? If ordinary folks can do it, why not someone who has made it the focus of his career?

It seems that only blind antagonism to Geller or to the idea of psi itself could explain the skeptics' continued resistance to this obvious conclusion.

 

 

SOURCES

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions, by James Randi, for sale at Amazon.com and elsewhere

James Randi's SRI photos and diagrams, at www.randi.org/jr/082302.html

Script of SRI film, at www.geocities.com/the931/uri16.html

"Information Transfer under Conditions of Sensory Shielding," by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, in Nature, October 18, 1974, (Vol. 252, # 5476; pp. 602-7), at http://66.221.71.68/content/research/sria.htm or atwww.heart7.net/mcf/hambone/g3.html

Psychic Breakthroughs Today, by D. Scott Rogo; Chapter 17 at http://66.221.71.68/analysis.htm

The Geller Effect, by Guy Lyon Playfair and Uri Geller; Chapter 14 at www.uri-geller.com/geller-effect/tge14.htm; Chapter 15, which includes an account of the magnetometer incident, is at www.uri-geller.com/geller-effect/tge15.htm

"Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena," by Winston Wu, at www.victorzammit.com/skeptics/winston.html

"CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," by George P. Hansen, at www.linuxmafia.com/pub/skeptic/hansen or in Adobe Acrobat format at www.psicounsel.com/scicop.pdf

"D. Scott Rogo and His Contributions to Parapsychology," by George P. Hansen, at www.tricksterbook.com/ArticlesOnline/RogoObit.htm

"Psychic Laboratory" message board at www.psicounsel.com/psilabts.html

The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, by Lynne McTaggart, for sale at Amazon.com and elsewhere

Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?, by Jonathan Margolis (1999); Chapter 11, which includes material on Pressman, can be read at www.uri-geller.com/books/magician-or-mystic/chapter11.htm

"Dr. Hal Puthoff: From SRI to ZPE," interview by Mark Pilkington; an interesting discussion of Puthoff's psi research and his work in quantum physics, at www.forteantimes.com/exclusive/puthoff.shtml

 

Entire site contents © 2017 Michael Prescott. This site is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.