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Review 108: Flim-Flam!

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James “The Amazing” Randi

((Now hold still while I read your aura. Yes, my spirit guide is telling me something, that you are experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort in your back, or perhaps your shoulders. And this is typical of someone born under your star sign, you know? Of course you do – your type is very insightful, even if you do sometimes let little things escape your notice from time to time. Here – I have a medicine that will help you, a special homeopathic formula that I mixed myself. It’s proof against all aches and pains. Yes, I have a spoon somewhere around – no, not that one, that one’s bent. I could tell you that I got the recipe from visiting aliens, but you would never believe me. Perhaps it was Atlanteans….

Ah, there is one other thing…. My spirit guide tells me that there is another spirit who would talk to you – someone you miss very much. I’m getting the letter P, or maybe G…. Does that mean something to you? Ah, good, good. My abilities have increased a hundredfold since I started transcendental meditation, and I credit the Master with my improved skills. Well, our time is almost up. I have to go charge my dowsing rod with the crystals that were given to me by my young daughters. They say that the fairies gave them to them, and who am I to say otherwise? But I will say this before we part – the numbers of your name, crossed against your biorhythms, tell me that you must not enter into any dealings of a financial nature this week.

You can leave your check on the table by the door.))

There is one truth that I have learned in my days, and that there is no idea so ridiculous, so implausible, so poorly-defined, that someone, somewhere won’t fall for it. Whether it’s psychic surgeons, aura readers, tellers of the future or viewers of past lives, UFO hunters, witch doctors, table-tippers, spoon-benders, mind-readers or water-dowsers, if you can figure out some simple slight of hand, the odds are good that you can convince someone you have supernatural powers. A few blurry photographs and some enthusiasm, and you can have aliens on our shores. Some clever guesses and a keen knowledge of human nature, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

If you’re like me, it’s enough to make you want to disavow humankind and just go live somewhere off in the woods. Thankfully, James Randi is not like me.

James "The Amazing" Randi (photo by Andy Ihnatko)

A longtime magician and skeptic, James Randi has been one of the driving forces of modern skepticism. Since his 1972 debunking of spoon-bender Uri Geller, he has been an authority on people who claim to have supernatural abilities. He has traveled the world in search of these people, revealing the methods by which they knowingly or unknowingly deceive people who want so desperately to believe. This book, written in 1982 and well in need of an updated and revised edition, documents many of Randi’s investigations in painstaking and unrelenting detail.

He tells us first of the hoax perpetrated by two young English girls, one which was good enough to capture not just a credulous nation of newspaper readers, but a man regarded as one of the greatest minds of his time – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths released several photographs which showed them surrounded by gossamer-winged fairies. The public went wild for their story. Experts were called in to examine the photographs, and they all pronounced them genuine. The girls were interviewed, their cameras and equipment checked out, and no evidence of trickery could be found. In any case, believers said, two young girls would have no incentive to lie to the entire nation like this, would they?

Well, they did. Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to deceive the world, but that’s how it turned out. As of Randi’s writing, they hadn’t admitted it outright, but a year after publication, they did. What started as simple fun with a camera and some paper cut-outs escalated into something uncontrollable by two young girls, and a legend was born.

Frances Griffiths with her "fairies"

Elsie and Frances may have been innocents overtaken by events, but there are far more people who are fully conscious of their deceptions. A Holy Man who promises everything up to and including the ability to fly if you just follow his word and his special meditation technique. Researchers so intent on discovering psychic powers that they disregard even the most basic of experimental controls. People who manufacture fake artifacts to support their belief in ancient alien astronauts. There are those who take money from the unwitting and those who don’t, some who treat the ability they believe they have with humility and those who don’t. The weird, the arrogant and the dangerous – Randi’s seen ’em all. And every time another one pops up, he knows what to look for.

Belief is a weird thing. Under careful examination, every claim that Randi has seen has fallen apart. He has listened to them carefully and asked a very simple question that seems to elude so many others: How else could this effect be achieved? As a lifetime magician (though he prefers the term “conjurer”), Randi is an expert at getting you to think you see something that really isn’t there, and he brings this expertise to bear when he investigates claims of the paranormal. What’s more, he has a very good grasp of experimental procedure and how to test for a specific effect, and he is ruthless in making sure they are adhered to.

Science Badges (photo by Ruth Ellison)

But – and this is important – Randi is fair. If you come up to him and say, “Randi, I can see auras which tell me who the all gay people are,” he won’t just laugh in your face and say that you’re crazy. He’ll listen to your story, how your power works and how you use it, and then propose a simple test to see if it really exists. The test is to be double-blind, so when the target people come in and check the “gay” or “straight” box, that information is kept from both the aura-reader and the person administering the test. What’s more, the psychic has to agree in advance on the conditions of the test, signing a promise (rarely kept) to accept the results. Tests are usually done multiple times, just to give the subject a chance. When the results come in as negative – as they always have thus far – Randi doesn’t gloat. He doesn’t laugh and say “I told you so.” In fact, in one chapter he mentions that he feels bad sometimes, telling people who honestly believe they have a unique gift that, in fact, they don’t.

I suspect that Randi really wants supernatural powers to exist. I think he wants to meet someone who can move objects with her mind, talk to the dead or find water just by concentrating hard. Why else, then, would he have his Million-Dollar Challenge? What is described in Flim-Flam as a $10,000 reward for proof of supernatural abilities has grown significantly. Not because Randi is richer, but because he feels that his money is absolutely safe. Yet I think he would be happy to be able to give it away one day.

This book should be required reading for everyone who has encountered what they believe to be the paranormal. It is detailed, it is harsh and it is unequivocal in its assertion that if you see someone doing something that logic demands cannot be done, chances are excellent that it’s a trick rather than super-powers.

Unfortunately, the True Believers will invariably be unaffected, and that is something else that Randi takes great pains to show. No matter how often someone was shown to be a liar, a fake or a fraud, there were always supporters ready to make excuses. The psychics themselves are also very good at inventing reasons why their powers cannot be tested – the wrong kind of weather, interference from the cameras that are recording the tests, or just bad energy from the skeptics in the room. All the logic and science in the world won’t convince those who don’t want to be convinced.

(photo by Thomas Hawk)

As much fun as it is to read about The Amazing Randi rushing about the globe to put hoaxers in their places, it’s also a little depressing. It was written in 1982, on the heels of Randi’s book The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposed the spoon-bending psychic as a fraud, so you would think the one-two punch of these books would be enough to put paid to ridiculous beliefs in ideas that were demonstrably false. Well, you’d be wrong. Newspapers still run horoscopes every day, you can get a biorhythm app for your iPhone, psychics and mediums still rake in tons of cash, and there still innumerable people who put their faith, money and lives in the hands of psychic healers – only to lose all three.

But Randi is undaunted. He started the James Randi Educational Foundation to support critical thinking and skepticism, he’s still active in the skeptical community, and he’s still accepting applications from people who want his million dollars. He may have hoped that this book would be a nail in the coffin of psuedoscience and woo, but even though that didn’t pan out, he never gave up. One by one, case by case, the Amazing Randi has stared down the wild-eyed stare of unreason, and he has never blinked.

For that, I will always be grateful.

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The tinkling noises you will hear as these pages are turned are the scales falling from many eyes. The groans are from the charlatans who are here exposed to the light of reason and simple truth. It is a light that pains them greatly.
– James Randi, Flim-Flam!
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James Randi on Wikipedia
Flim-Flam! on Wikipedia
Flim-Flam! on Amazon.com
James Randi Educational Foundation website

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Filed under James Randi, nonfiction, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 42: Summer Knight

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s bells” count: 14

In the last book, Harry Dresden saved the day. He fought some of the strongest the Red Court of the Vampires had to offer and came out, well, more or less intact. To do so, he also managed to make himself the target of nearly everything in the Nevernever (the mystical other-world from which all the nasties and scaries ultimately come), lose his girlfriend to a bunch of bloodsucking fiends, and instigate an all-out, world-wide war between the White Council of the Wizards and the Red Court.

So yeah. Mixed blessings and all.

Now he’s practically working himself to death to avoid actually being killed. After all, saving the day is nice, but it doesn’t usually come with a check at the end of it, and there are bills to be paid. When we see Harry again, some months after the disastrous events at Bianca’s nasty little costume party, he’s working himself to the bone. He’s become a recluse, hiding from as many people as he can. He does this for two reasons. First, he’s spending a lot of time looking for an antidote to Susan’s vampirism – or semi vampirism, anyway. She hasn’t drunk from a person yet, you see, and until she does that she’s not really a vampire. It’s a hard job, though, which is why she not only turned down Harry’s proposal of marriage but also left the country with instructions that he not try to follow her.

So the love of his life is incommunicado, and Harry doesn’t know if she’s alive or dead – or worse. What’s more, he believes that it is his fault that she got this way, even if it really isn’t. One of the criticisms that can be laid at the feet of Harry Dresden is his deep-seated male chauvinism. He doesn’t believe that women are inferior or anything quite so barbaric as that. He believes that they’re special, that they should be treated with an extra measure of care and respect. He hates the thought of harming a woman, and will go out of his way to see to it that the women he cares about are kept safe from anything that might hurt them.

Unfortunately for him, Harry tends to hang around with women who don’t want to be taken care of, namely Susan Rodriguez and Karrin Murphy. Both of them are strong-willed women who want to be part of Harry’s life, and neither one of them particularly appreciates being told to sit on the sidelines because they’re girls. In fact, this attempt by Harry to protect them, more often than not, brings them more trouble than if he had trusted them to begin with.

I say this because it was good to see him make a little progress in this book. Following the events of Grave Peril, in which she was psychically tortured – though perhaps “raped” would be the better word – by the spells of a dead sorcerer, Murphy found herself broken. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t concentrate. She was afraid of everything, a shell of who she had been. So, in order to bring her back at least part of the way, Harry tells her everything – his dark past, the White Council, all the things he’s not supposed to share. While it was by no means a magic recovery potion, it went a long way towards establishing their equality as fellow hunters of evil.

And all this really has little to do with the plot itself, which is a pretty straightforward murder mystery/supernatural power play. Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, needs Harry to find out who killed a servant of the Summer Court, the Summer Knight. Queen Titania of Summer thinks, and not without reason, that it was Mab who had the knight killed. Harry has to get to the truth, and he has to do it before Midsummer’s Eve, lest the two courts go to war and take our world with them.

For the White Council, this is an excellent opportunity. If Dresden succeeds in helping Mab, she will give the Wizards safe passage through the Nevernever, which will in turn allow the Wizards to better prosecute their war against the vampires. If Dresden fails, the vampires will (in theory) be happy, and the war will end on its own. Either way, there’s a very good chance that the White Council will finally rid itself of Harry Dresden, something they’ve been trying to do for quite some time.

So for a simple murder mystery, it’s really not very simple at all. We get a good look at the expanded universe of Harry Dresden, and it’s a scary place to be. This time he’s going up against some truly heavy hitters, with some very serious stakes, not the least of which is his own life and his own free will. For the first time, we are privy to the workings of the White Council, how they work and how they don’t work, and it’s very easy to understand why they and Harry don’t get along so well.

As with the other books, this gets my full recommendation. It’s fast-paced and interesting, and there’s some damn fine character work. A bit of very good banter between Murphy and Harry caught my eye that makes both of them much more interesting and believable (not that they weren’t before). It’s moments like that throughout the series that show Butcher’s care for the characters and his desire that we see them as real as he does. Also, a very nice Indiana Jones reference, only involving unicorns.

So – and you’re going to get tired of hearing me say this – go get this book. Go get all the Dresden books, and settle in for some good reading.

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“As I pulled into the parking lot, I reflected that odds were that not a lot of clandestine meetings involving mystical assassination, theft of arcane power, and the between the realms of the supernatural had taken place in a Wal-Mart Super Center. But then again, maybe they had. Hell, for all I knew, the Mole Men used the changing rooms as a place to discuss plans for world domination with the Psychic Jellyfish from Planet X and the Disembodied Brains-in-a-Jar from the Klaatu Nebula. I know I wouldn’t have looked for them there.”
– Harry Dresden, Summer Knight
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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Wikipedia
Summer Knight on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, Dresden Files, fairies, fantasy, Jim Butcher, wizardry