Phenomenon Examined

By Randi, James | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Phenomenon Examined


Randi, James, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


ON WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 24, NBC aired the first of a series called Phenomenon, the latest so-called reality television in the American Idol tradition of performers on stage who are assessed by expert judges. In this case the judges were two magicians: Criss Angel, star of the A & E's Mindfreak television series that features the illusionist each week performing amazing feats of magic, and Uri Geller, the Israeli magician who prefers to bill himself as a psychic.

As I have been kept abreast of the development of this show by Criss and his top magic consultant Banachek, I wanted to make a few observations, beginning with an article in The New York Times published on the eve of the premiere of the television series, in which the author of the article wrote:

   People used to believe in magic until
   science began proving them wrong.

No, people still believe in magic--now even more than ever--because of the hyperbole, distortion, and bias provided by the media. And this sentence in the article also got my attention:

   Even reality television is getting swept
   up in the surreal: On Oct. 24 NBC will
   unveil Phenomenon, an American
   Idol-ish competition for illusionists and
   mentalists, with Uri Geller and Criss
   Angel as judges.

Can anyone tell me just what Geller is supposed to be: a "mentalist"--that's defined as a magician who appears to do tricks with the mind but uses trickery--or a "psychic"? And just what is meant by the expression "reality television"? By present standards that just means, "a little less than total fantasy." Since Uri Geller has stated over the decades that he doesn't know how tricks are done, that he doesn't use any tricks, and has never used tricks, what kind of authority does he bring to this show?

Since Geller first emerged from obscurity through several television appearances before naive observers in 1973, there have always been contradictory appraisals of his claims to be the "real thing." Aided by several write-ups in scientific journals such as Nature, and by countless popular media outlets, his fervent claims of his own authenticity have supported him for these last 44 years. But there's been a little-noticed change in this picture just recently, and it seems evident that it was brought about by the sudden advent of such fertile information sources as YouTube and the influence of the whole Internet environment. It appears that the Information Age has caught up with him.

There's obviously been a high degree of panic in the Geller camp since YouTube effectively revealed that he was using simple sleight-of-hand during his recent television series in Israel titled Successor. One example is seen at http://www.randi. org/uri/media/. It looks very much as though Geller is now preparing to wriggle out of his fakery. He's in a very peculiar situation--one in which he richly deserves to be--and he's currently dropping heavy hints in the media that maybe he's just been joshing about being a genuine psychic.

Time magazine, back in 1974, solved the Geller "mystery" very easily, and was not deceived. But consider very recent statements that he's now making in connection with the present Phenomenon series. As a plug for the series, he was interviewed on NBC's Today Show. Matt Lauer asked Geller:

   Do you have different mental powers
   than I have, or have you just
   learned to harness yours differently?

Rather than giving a simple answer (he has few of those) Geller quickly held up a spoon--what else?--and broke it by one of the most common means employed by magicians. He then confusingly told Matt:

   Some people think this is paranormal.
   Some people think that this is magic. I
   want to leave it a mystery.

To his credit, Matt Lauer wasn't fooled. He turned to his co-host and said simply:

I think it's a defective spoon.

I suggest that Mr. …

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