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That Time Houdini Threatened to Shoot All the Psychics

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 24 2013

Harry Houdini portraitAs a magician, Harry Houdini was a trickster pretty much by definition—and, of course, a good one. He was quick to turn mere happenstance to his advantage (as when he commanded the rain to stop and begin again at a Fourth of July party)1 and to turn people’s assumptions against them. Sometimes, the results of such trickery were simple delight. Sometimes, as in his exposures of fraudulent psychics, his craftiness served the public good. On other occasions, Houdini’s performances had more tragic consequences. Such was his own assessment of mentalism performances he gave earlier in his career, in the guise of a medium:

At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.2

Which brings us to another deception that was “a lark” and yet “bordered on crime”: the time that Houdini, according to his lifelong pal Joseph Rinn, conspired to issue a pseudonymous, implied, hoaxed threat against materializing mediums (the subset of psychic performers who purport to be able to summon ectoplasmic manifestations of the spirits of the dead). I must confess that I found this story quite funny on first read—and yet, schadenfreude aside, it also strikes me as a deeply unethical example of skeptical activism.

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The Eternally Boring Hereafter

by Michael Shermer, Nov 02 2010

A review of Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter

/// ATTENTION! Spoiler Alert! ///

After a string of highly successful and critically acclaimed films by Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Invictus, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc.), I fully expected his latest, Hereafter, to be so well written (screenplay by Peter Morgan—Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and so compelling that stories about near-death experiences would skyrocket and that I would be preoccupied for months dealing with media inquiries about “true stories” of the hereafter. Alas, and with some relief, this will not happen as Hereafter is possibly the worst film Eastwood has ever directed. Continue reading…

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TAM 7 – Miscellaneous mumbling..

by Yau-Man Chan, Jul 19 2009

Ok..unlike Kirsten,  I’m officially a TAM virgin no more!  Despite my very busy schedule and cost, (what with the State of California implementing furlough for their employee and all, I’m in the penny-pinching mode) I did manage to sneak off for a long weekend to hang out with big names in the skeptics movement.  All the TAM sessions exceeded all my expectations and I understand from reading my fellow bloggers here as well as every other blog and commentary about the gathering, a good time was had by all. Continue reading…

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Punked! (But who was punked, the skeptics or the psychics?)

by Michael Shermer, Jun 16 2009

Last week Brian Dunning blogged about his experience being filmed testing psychics for a Showtime series called “Versus,” that he strongly suspected was a set up to punk the skeptics. I waited a week to blog about my experience to confirm that this was, indeed, a set up. The verdict is in. We were punked. Or were we? You be the judge. Either way, fortunately Brian and I were both skeptical from the get go so they didn’t “catch us” in any Borat-like socially embarrassing moments.

Here’s what happened: Months ago I got a call from “Stephen Cardozo,” a “Field Producer” for “Little Duke Productions,” to do a talking-heads interview on psychics and how to test them — the usual stuff, so I didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t check up on the production company because I have never been burned and there were no signals of distrust for me to notice. Continue reading…

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Not Skeptical Enough

by Brian Dunning, Jun 11 2009

So now to follow up on last week’s post about this alleged TV show that Michael Shermer and I were allegedly “guests” on. I was supposed to be the host and was giving some tests to three psychics, one of which turned out to be a character (“Shirley Ghostman”) of a UK comic named Marc Wootton, but of course I didn’t know that. For his final bit of zaniness, he channeled the spirit of actor Lee Majors who told of the afterlife (Lee Majors is not dead).

Later in the show, after “Shirley” had been “thrown out and escorted from the grounds” (so I believed), Michael and I were having our discussion, on camera, about my findings with the psychics. Suddenly the studio doors slammed open, and in ran Shirley, pushing a cart holding a bodybag! I knew that Shirley was unbalanced and belligerent, so I stood the hell back and expected that security was going to tackle him and get him out of there. No such thing happened. In fact, the film crew hardly reacted at all. Michael had not had my previous experience with Shirley, so he stepped up cheerfully and asked to see what was in the bag. After some tussling, they got it open, and there’s some guy with a desk calculator or something taped to his chest, and another to his arm: The Six Million Dollar Man. Shirley was right: Lee Majors had died, and here was the body to prove it. Continue reading…

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Day on the Set

by Brian Dunning, Jun 04 2009

OK, this is weird.

Today I was invited to host an episode of a new series for a major cable network in which I was to interview and administer a test to three professional psychics. This was the first episode they’d shot, and the producers and director were really nice and cool and it had all the makings of a fun and productive day. They had located three psychics who were all game, and were fully willing to undergo the tests under controlled conditions. Moreover, the show had even secured a $50,000 prize that any psychics who passed today’s tests would be qualified to try for. I arrived fully prepared, with some detailed protocols, and a raft of properly controlled materials.

Here’s the rub. The entire day was a setup. It was a gag, with Michael Shermer and myself as the unwitting victims. Continue reading…

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Tales from the Million Dollar Challenge

by Phil Plait, May 13 2009
A MILLION dollars!

A MILLION dollars!

I think one of the coolest things — if not the coolest thing — the James Randi Educational Foundation does is the Million Dollar Challenge: if you can prove you have paranormal abilities (you can dowse, you’re psychic, you can make objects float or catch fire or turn into cheese just with the power of your mind), then we’ll give you a million bucks.

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How to Bend a Spoon with Just Your Mind

by Michael Shermer, Jan 06 2009

Most skeptics know that self-proclaimed psychics such as Uri Geller, who claim to be able to bend cutlery with just their minds, are actually using magic and trickery to do so. Of course, if they could really bend metal with just their minds you have to wonder why at some point they always have to touch the spoon. The answer is obvious to skeptics: because the only way to bend a spoon is by physically bending it! But how? Continue reading…

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