Uri Geller’s ‘Phenomenon’ prediction

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.

  1. etc. []

Three dubious moral judgments

One: the coming of the Lord

You know how it’s been raining recently? Do you know why? It’s because God hates the gays. It is. The Bishop of Carlisle says so:

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

He expressed his sympathy for those who have been hit by the weather, but said that the problem with “environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate”.

How broken does your brain have to be to believe this drivel? I could write plenty more, but Ophelia is better than me:

Funny god these bishops believe in. Arbitrary, whimsical, cryptic, absent-minded, brutal, sloppy, and stupidly vicious. We’d better hope it doesn’t exist. Oblivion is vastly preferable to being bossed around by a petty shit like that for eternity. Funny that the bishops seem to find it attractive. (But not really funny at all of course, since it’s merely a projection of their own petty shitness.)

Perfectly put. The Archbishop of Canterbury has of course been quick to disassociate himself from the remarks and to emphasise the inclusive nature of…oh, wait, never mind.

Two: it’s icky and I don’t like it

A mother has frozen some of her eggs for potential use by her daughter, who has a medical condition that will render her infertile. This is apparently ethically dubious because of ‘identity problems’:

Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, expressed sympathy with the family, but could not support storing the mother’s eggs.

She said: “The psychological welfare of the baby itself has to be the principal concern.

“Such a baby would be a sibling of the birth mother at the same time as the direct genetic offspring of the grandmother donor.

“In psychiatry we are hearing more and more of children suffering from identity problems, and specifically a condition called ‘genealogical bewilderment’. Could it possibly get more bewildering than this?

Fertilise with the grandfather’s sperm? It’s not really that complicated. Just because the child wouldn’t quite fit with either of the usual definitions of ‘child’ or ‘sibling’ doesn’t mean anything – it’s just something new. I’d want to see strong evidence of psychological problems before denying anyone the chance of happiness through having children, if that’s what they want. As it happens, ‘genealogical bewilderment’ was posited as a possible problem with adoption, but doesn’t appear to exist. It’s tempting to suggest that critics are just scared of things they don’t know how to classify, but who knows.

Three: the EU is a porn merchant!

The EU created a channel on YouTube. The most watched video is ‘Film Lovers Will Love This!‘. There’s a bit of a fuss as it shows:

men and women having sex in different ways and places, and ends with the words, “Let’s come together”.

I’m always happy to suffer for my website, so I watched it. It’s mostly clips from Amélie. It’s cut very quickly, there’s no nudity, and it’s pretty funny – I thought it was actually a decent advert. Conservative MEP Chris Heaton-Harris does not:

They do have an image problem but I think cobbling together 44 seconds of soft porn on the internet is not a brilliant way of solving it

Dude, that is to soft-core porn as a monkey is to Jeremy Paxman. Take a look at the top-shelf of the nearest newsagent, and get a grip. Wait, that sounded wrong, although it might actually help. Meanwhile, Labour MEP Gary Titley (stop it) said:

European films are about more than a quick slap and a tickle. It is bonkers that this clip gets so much attention.

I like this. I picture the two MEPs cornered by a reporter, trying to think how they should respond. The Labour MEP pretends not to understand why a video vaguely showing people having sex is popular. The Conservative MEP pretends he thinks it’s disgusting. Over to people who will at least say what they really think:

A Polish MEP from the conservative League of Polish Families has accused the commission of using “immoral methods” to promote itself.

Is all sex now immoral? Somebody should tell them everything’s fine in this case: all the actors were married.

European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr said there had been a flood of complaints from Poland about an intimate scene between two men

It’s the gays again. Not content with making it rain, they’re now trying to…er…promote the EU. Infamy! What does Martin Selmayr have to say about it?

Fuming at what he called “quasi-religious bashing of the very important cultural diversity we have in the European Union”, he said the lovemaking clips were excerpts from award-winning films, and that the commission was proud of the EU’s rich cinematic heritage.

“The European Union is not a bible belt, we believe in freedom of expression and artistic creativity,” he added.

Go Martin Selmayr! Let’s not mince words, it’s not ‘quasi-religious bashing’, it’s just religious bashing. Find me all the atheist ‘family values’ groups, and I’ll change my mind.

It’s a good job I’m beyond moral reproach, isn’t it?

The Passion of the Christ 2

I’d pay to see it:

“Remember me now, Peter, remember me now?!”

Via Pharyngula. Like one of the commenters says, isn’t this the actual plot of the Left Behind series?

This is as good a place as any to mention the funniest thing I read all week: in a discussion of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, in which beehives are failing when their occupants fail to return, somebody suggested that the bees may have been raptured. It’s a good job I wasn’t drinking at the time.

YouTube content on BBC local news

Local news yesterday told the story of a woman “whose life was saved by a rollercoaster”. It seems that the shaking dislodged a brain tumour, causing recognisable symptoms to develop. The rollercoaster in question was The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Studios, Florida, and footage of this ride was shown during the story. During this clip, though, there was a small disclaimer saying ‘youtube.com’. YouTube is a video-upload website similar to Flickr. Interesting. The terms and conditions are very clear in stating that the videos are for personal use only, and I’ve never seen any mention of Creative Commons licenses in relation to video content. Does local news count as commercial use? I can’t find the exact clip as they all tend to look the same (I love the shakycam and distorted sound of this one, though) but I wonder what YouTube think about it.

Woolly Jumper

Just playing around with YouTube.com, after seeing Pterodaktyl‘s clever embedded videos 🙂 YouTube is essentially Flickr for video. The interface is very similar, although I find it far less intuitive. Adding a contact, for instance, is pretty mysterious. You also have to insert details for your video before actually starting to upload, which feels like it wastes time. Still, it’s cool to have somewhere to put videos, and you can embed them into websites very easily.

A few years back (May 2001, according to the file creation dates) Ben and I decided that we would enter a one-minute short film competition we’d discovered in a camcorder magazine. The closing date was the following Monday, and we made ‘Woolly Jumper’ on the Friday afternoon. We didn’t win anything, but it was great fun 🙂 There is no sound, btw.

Notes:

  • I like how my editing decision at the time was cut cut cut cut cut cut slooooooooow
  • I’d forgotten I ever had film posters up in my bedroom!
  • The sheep was originally purchased in Australia, and goes ‘baaaaaaaaaaa’ as he falls. This is endlessly amusing.
  • It was created on a mini-DV camcorder, and converting it to a suitable format this morning involved the use of the VirtualDub linear video editor, the ever-memorable GSpot codec analyzer, and the Panasonic DV codec.