In an upbeat moment the other day, I tried proposing on Twitter that we might take a moment to try naming some things we like, respect, or even admire about a person, movement, organization, or subject area over on the paranormal / fringe science advocacy end of things. I offered up a few examples of my own. One of the first to come to mind was a conversation I had with 1970s “pyramid power” promoter and bestselling author Max Toth.
I spoke with Toth while I was working on my Junior Skeptic story on pyramid power back in 2005 (Junior Skeptic 23, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 12, No. 2) and found him an unusually friendly and generous source. Toth was happy to share his experiences and insights into a once flourishing for-profit paranormal business—the kind of information available only from insiders, and only if they are willing to share. Toth was entirely willing to share his recollections openly, despite the fact that he claimed to have “no doubts, none whatsoever” regarding the alleged paranormal powers of the cardboard pyramids he manufactured—and despite the fact that he knew I would critique that belief in my article.
Skeptic: Well, I’m very grateful that you could make so much time to talk to me.
Toth: My pleasure. And when you write it up, send me a copy.
Skeptic: I absolutely will. Now, I should warn you in advance, again, that, you know, I write for Skeptic magazine…
Toth: [Warmly] I know! I’ve been there, done that! I no longer have to dress up in a suit and tie because, heck, you know, I’m beyond that now. Send me a couple of copies because I want to give one to my kids and let them say, “Hey, my dad is in a magazine!”
Skeptic: [Laughs] I definitely will. Well, thank you very much. I never know what I’m walking into with these, but this has been a real pleasure.
And I meant that. But still, it’s my job to take a hard critical look at such topics. My article didn’t do pyramid power any favors, concluding,
It’s really pretty weird that the idea ever took off (even with heaps of books, advertising, and media attention) because it never made the slightest bit of sense. The “theoretical” explanations are all New Age gibberish dressed up in plausible-sounding, pseudoscientific language.
You might have expected Toth to be irritated by this. I’ve had other sources react with considerable anger when my good faith assessment of their favorite paranormal claims differed from their own. But when Toth read the pyramid power piece, he sent me a very kind email in response:
I…was very impressed by your article. You did an excellent job of researching the subject…. The way you present the subject is laudable because you state facts and avoid the demeaning aspects that most writers feel they must include, especially their own opinions.
Well, man, for a critic as tender-hearted as I usually feel, it doesn’t get much better than that. All in all, this was such a lovely experience—and Toth’s insider recollections so useful as a primary document on this topic—that I decided to publish the entire rambling conversation as a standalone interview at Skeptic.com, along with some other “bonus feature” material that had come to light during my Junior Skeptic 23 research (including the previously lost true origin story of pyramid power claims). I’ve remembered this ever since as one of my favorite Junior Skeptic issues—in part, because of a very positive, mutually respectful interaction with a leading advocate for a paranormal claim (I hate to add “for a change,” but there it is).
I was just about to tweet about this pleasant experience when I learned with sadness that Max Toth died two years ago, on Saturday, April 30, 2011. This caught me off guard, honestly. I spoke to Toth only once or twice (plus a few emails), years ago, but the news of his death had an emotional impact on me all the same.
It was nice to be able at least to pass the news to my colleague Tim Farley, who has taken on the task of making note of the passing not only of skeptics and science advocates but also of our counterparts across the paranormal aisle. He presents “In Memoriam” slides for these losses each year at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “The Amazing Meeting” conference.
I’m proud of Tim for doing that work. It reminds me to one of skepticism’s noblest moments: spirit-buster Harry Houdini’s 1910 visit to the gravesite of William Davenport, a spirit medium who with his brother Ira had pioneered the use of the “spirit cabinet” in seances. Finding the grave “sadly neglected,” Houdini “had it put in order, fresh flowers planted on it and the stone work repaired.” This kindness wound up serving the public good, for Davenport’s surviving brother was touched by the gesture. He chose to open up to the arch-skeptic about the methods the brothers employed during their career—secrets that even their own parents had died without learning. “He said that he recognized in me a past master of the craft,” wrote Houdini, “and therefore spoke openly and did not hesitate to tell me the secrets of his feats. We discussed and analyzed the statements made in his letters to me and he frankly admitted that the work of the Davenport Brothers was accomplished by perfectly natural means and …[was] straightforward showmanship.”
I’ve often thought back to this story from Houdini’s career (recalled in his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits) as an inspiring case study. There’s little reason to think Houdini’s respect for the Davenports—fellow magicians who had mystified a previous generation—was not genuine. And it’s simply a matter of history that expressing that respect in this case enabled Houdini to better do the fundamental job of what is now referred to as “scientific skepticism”: solving mysteries, and telling the public what we have learned.
Mysteries. Kindness. Sadness. Death. It is a strange thing, this business of being human.
I’ll end this here with a farewell to Max Toth, who gave me a little piece of something like Houdini’s experience with the Davenports. You believed something preposterous, and you were open and kind with someone you knew was going to say so. I respect that. I thank you for it.
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