The US tv network NBC recently broadcast a show called ‘Phenomenon’1, a reality show which purported to look for the country’s best mentalist. The judges were: ardent skeptic and magician Criss Angel, and Uri Geller. It was hotly discussed on the skeptical blogs due to its deliberate vagueness on whether the contestants were magicians or had real psychic powers – Geller obviously claims to be looking for the real thing, while Angel was quite the opposite.
By all accounts the latter dominated the show from the second episode onwards, when a contestant claimed to be able to talk to the dead. Geller was convinced. Shock. So, on live TV Angel produced an envelope and offered $1million cash to either if they could tell him the contents. Of course neither could, and the contestant reacted in the usual way – he was offended, angry and confrontational. This was funny (and possibly a little staged).
In the final episode Angel revealed the contents of the envelope, and some have claimed that Geller correctly predicted the contents:
Did you find that a little more impressive than expected? Yeah, me too. But watch it again – it’s a great example of how memory lies.
It’s initially impressive – he definitely seemed to mention the numbers nine and one. What are the odds of that? Well, despite the text, Geller doesn’t just mention ‘1’ and ’19’. If you take just the numbers, in order it’s ‘1’, ’20’, ’19’, ’40’, ‘1’. Here’s what you have to do to get to ‘911’:
- Arbitrarily choose the 19 as an important number.
- It’s backwards whichever way, so reverse it, for no reason.
- You need another 1, so choose just one of the two mentions of ‘1’. Maybe he mentioned it twice because it’s important, or something. Put it afterwards, even though none directly follow it.
- Stop, for no reason.
There’s no logic there, nothing replicable; nobody looking just at those numbers would come up with an obvious meaning of ‘911’. There are a huge number of possible numeric combinations if you allow the above machinations – ‘911’ is clearly working backwards from the result, which isn’t allowed. It’s a hell of a stretch to get from these numbers to ‘911’, but classic numerology. There are only ten digits – there’s always some way to manipulate numbers to get the desired result.
Angel happened to have written a number in the envelope. But if he hadn’t there’s still plenty that could have been used to retrospectively claim Geller was right. He mentions december, months generally, days, births and spoon-bending, none of which is relevant. He doesn’t doesn’t articulate himself very well, but if you catch his final sentence he appears to be making some kind of point about his 40 years of success, and this seems to be his main aim – there’s no hint that he’s trying to make a prediction. And seriously, you’re telling me that Geller, master showman, really knew the answer and chose to reveal it in a bunch of garble?
Plenty of YouTube commenters use a telling phrase when they call it ‘interesting’. That’s a desperate word. Even the most enthusiastic don’t think there’s any positive, smoking-gun evidence here, but it’s still apparently suggestive of something, although nobody can say what. And that’s the point. When working backwards, it’s always possible to infer odd goings-on. A few years ago The Bible Code claimed that incredibly specific predictions could be found in the Bible by laying out all the letters, picking one to start with and moving up, down, left, right and diagonally, looking for phrases. This produced astonishing results, like the ‘assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was in close proximity to letters spelling out his name’. But it worked backwards from a desired result. When heavily criticised the author said ‘[w]hen my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby-Dick, I’ll believe them.’. So they did, producing predictions of the Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Yithak Rabin assassinations, as well as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Argument destroyed.
Geller did not say anything specific – everything is interpreted after the fact. He didn’t make any claim about the contents of the envelope, nor did he make any claim about his intention to predict, or how his prediction would work. This doesn’t make it ‘interesting’, this makes it ‘ambiguous’. There’s nothing to latch onto without making unjustified claims – Geller said something that, after rather a lot of manipulation, could be interpreted positively; why, when the most obvious solution would just be to say the answer? There’s no answer to this, so you have to make something up. In this case, I guess it’s that he was picking up the correct answer subconsciously. It’s a red flag when this kind of extra supposition is necessary. Based on this extremely fuzzy evidence, which is more likely: psychic powers exist, or it’s a mixture of chance and backwards thinking?
There’s also the possibility that Geller, being an extremely capable con-man, was deliberately trying to load his comments with ambiguous phrasing in the hope of getting a random hit. I personally doubt this, as I think he’d have done a better job, but it’s always possible – the guy’s spoon-bending was debunked 30 years ago, yet he’s still raking in the money from the same old shtick. Maybe he’s more canny than I suspect. If he’d scored a miss nobody would have cared, and he could have easily dismissed it as due to Angel’s attitude, but a hit of any kind (no matter how ridiculous) is going to go down well amongst his fan base.
It’s clearly the work of various logical fallacies, but even if you were to grant all these at the very best you’ve only got a hypothesis – it’s not evidence for anything. By his own admission Geller’s been doing this for 40 years, so he must know how it “works” – why doesn’t he take James Randi’s $1 million challenge and give the money to charity? Why doesn’t he get himself a Nobel prize, and change the world overnight? Strange, that.
I’ve read the skeptical literature on this kind of thing. I know about Geller’s con-artistry and his techniques. I know about numerological chances, cold reading, and the intricacy and allusion-filled-nature of language. Yet still I found it impressive on first viewing. I want to believe that psychic powers are real and my natural instinct is to latch onto something that suggests it, but I have to engage my brain if I want to avoid being tripped up. I’m a bit of a rubbish skeptic in this respect, as it takes me a while to get into the right frame of mind. Fun, though.
The show solved one mystery, albeit not a very pressing one: we now know what happened to Tim Vincent.
- etc. [↩]