The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher

By Martin Gardner | Go to book overview
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This, the first of my columns in the Skeptical Inquirer, requires considerable background to be understood. In 1979, a year before his death, James McDonnell, chairman of the board of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, gave half a million dollars to Washington University, in St. Louis. The grant was for establishing a laboratory to study psychic phenomena. Peter Phillips, a physicist at the university, was put in charge.

As all magicians know, physicists are among the easiest people in the world to be fooled by magic tricks. They are so used to working with Mother Nature, who never cheats, that when confronted with the task of testing a psychic charlatan they have no comprehension of how to set up adequate controls. To prove this, magician James Randi, long a foe of psychic flimflam, prepared an elaborate hoax. He arranged for two teen- age magicians, Steven Shaw and Michael Edwards, to separately visit the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychic Research, or "McLab," as it became known. For almost two years Phillips and his associates were convinced that the boys possessed amazing psi powers.

At an annual convention of parapsychologists at Syracuse University in 1981, Phillips delivered a research report in which he described how the boys had bent metal objects, produced streaks of light on film, caused a clock to slide off a table, turned a motor under a glass dome, made fuses blow, and similar wonders. In 1983 Randi exposed the hoax at a large press conference in Manhattan.

How did Shaw move the clock? He told laboratory scientists that he did it by imagining he had an invisible thread stretched between his hands. What he didn't tell them was that he actually did have an invisible thread stretched between his hands! How did the boys move the motor? They secretly raised an edge of the glass dome by an imperceptible amount, then blew through the opening!

Before the hoax was exposed, the National Enquirer gave the lads


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