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Houdini’s Skeptical Advice

Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world
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SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE was the brilliant author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories, which celebrated the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and magical thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish physician-turned-writer did not apply his creation’s cognitive skills when it came to the blossoming spiritualism movement of the early 1900s: he fell blindly for the crude hoax of the Cottingley Fairies (read about it in Junior Skeptic issue 36) photographs and regularly attended séances to make contact with family members who had died in the First World War, especially his son Kingsley. Perhaps fittingly, Conan Doyle’s fame brought him into company with the greatest magician of his age, Harry Houdini, who did not suffer fakes gladly.

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing — a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate — could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s Book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.” (continue reading…)

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The Eternally Boring Hereafter

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.

If the hereafter is anything like its filmic namesake, then it will turn out to be glacially slow, eternally boring, and pointless, with seemingly random plot lines aimlessly wandering about the ethereal landscape. I wanted to like this film, despite my skepticism on its subject, because I like Clint Eastwood productions and I’m a sucker for a well-produced story, able and willing to suspend disbelief long enough to get emotionally involved. I tried but failed to do so with this film. It’s a bomb. Don’t bother to see it in the theaters, and don’t even waste a couple of bucks on a Netflix rental.

The only redeeming part of the film was the striking opening scene of the tsunami in Southeast Asia that sets the background for the first plot line. An attractive French reporter leaves her lover in their hotel room to go shopping for his kids among the street vendors below. When he hears a disturbing sound and looks out the window he sees the ocean receding, followed by a massive body of water rushing back in to the shore and slamming into buildings and leveling everything in its path. From the woman’s street level view tucked in among buildings she can only see trees felling and chaos approaching with only enough time to realize that there is no time to do anything about it. She is swept up in the tsunami’s leading edge and slammed about cars, building debris, trees, and the like, until she is whacked on the head unconscious. Cut to minutes later when she is being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by rescuers, to no avail. They give up and move on to the next victim, whereupon she comes to life, after a brief encounter with the hereafter, which Eastwood portrays as a fuzzy, nebulous place with people walking about aimlessly. It’s a portent of things to come.

The second plot line is Matt Damon’s psychic character George, a former psychic who gave up fame and riches because his “gift” is also a curse. A cross between James Van Praagh and John Edward, George concedes to a reading for a client of his sleazy brother (Jay Mohr) and scores several hits. The brother encourages George to quit his job at a San Francisco dock and return to the psychic world, but he will have none of it as it’s just too emotionally traumatic to read people’s inner thoughts (that much I suspect is true, if any of it were true, which it isn’t). Matt Damon’s love interest is the beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard, whom he meets at a cooking class, but after nearly an hour’s worth of romantic buildup to some sort of coming together, she departs the film for good after George reads her and conveys the message that her deceased father is sorry for the naughty things he did to her as a young girl.

The third plot line develops around 12-year old twins named Marcus and Jason, who live with their drug-addicted mother in London, England. Jason is hit by a car and killed, leaving Marcus to wander about the city in search of a psychic who can connect him to his brother. Here at least Eastwood had the good sense to depict what most psychics are like—scammers and flimflam artists conning their marks out of a few bucks by talking twaddle with the dead through standard cold-reading techniques. Marcus is dismayed by the idiocy of these pretenders and finally returns to the foster home where he struggles to keep his sanity.

For an hour and forty-five minutes all three of these plot lines run parallel, leaving audience members to wonder when—oh please when?!—will they finally be brought together. Finally, after what feels like an interminable marathon of tedium, George quits his job and takes a vacation in London to visit the home of his favorite author, Charles Dickens. While there he notices a flyer for a lecture about Dickens at a book fair in London, where, per chance, the French reporter is doing a signing for her new book on life after death, which she was inspired to write after an hour and a half of futzing around with her mundane reporter’s job distracted by her experience with the hereafter in the tsunami. By chance, little Marcus finds himself drawn to the book fair where he recognizes George from his web page photos, and begs him for a reading, which he finally gets. Naturally, George is better than those phony psychics, and Marcus encourages George to seek out the French woman so that they may all connect to the dead. George and Marie find a love connection as well and the story ends happily ever after.

Never have I been so relieved for a movie to end. There was one memorable moment, however, and that was the opening line of the opening trailer before Hereafter even started. The trailer was for a January 2011 release called The Rite, staring Anthony Hopkins as an American priest who travels to Italy to study at an exorcism school. (You can watch the trailer here). The line that rather caught my attention as I was settling into my seat, was, “You know the interesting thing about skeptics?” To which I blurted out “No, what?” The answer: “It’s that we’re always looking for proof. The question is, What on earth would we do with it if we found it?” I know what I do with proof when I find it. I publish it! Another character in the trailer then says “I believe people prefer to lie to themselves than face the truth.”

Here, then, in this trailer is the message for belief in the hereafter. If there were proof of it, we would publish it to the high heavens. But, since there isn’t, most people prefer to lie to themselves about it rather than face the truth that it is what we do in this life that counts.

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The Baloney Detection Kit (on RDF TV)

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit” — ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim. (continue reading…)

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

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. I drove down to “Occidental Studios” in Los Angeles, where I was greeted by Cardozo, who was polite, loquacious, and jovial, and we sat in the green room for two hours talking. I suppose I should have been skeptical by the fact that I was not allowed on the set for the ongoing taping when I found out that it was Brian Dunning (whose skeptical abilities I trust) who was performing the tests of the psychics. I wanted to observe Brian’s protocols, but I was told that no one was “allowed on the set” because it was small and the cameras might see people standing around in the background. When I got on the set I noticed that this was not true, and in fact there were people standing around all over the place. The make-up woman spent about 15 seconds on me, which was also unusual, but it was the end of a long day so I figured she was just burned out.

Brian and I began a conversation about how science works and how to test psychics when one of the psychics he had tested earlier — improbably named “Shirley Ghostman” — burst into the studio wheeling a body bag on a cart and screaming about how he had Lee Majors in it because he predicted earlier that day that the “Six Million Dollar Man” had died, and he wanted Brian to pay up the $50,000 prize money for psychic powers. I unzipped the bag and there was this fat ugly balding guy with electronic gadgets duct-taped to his body (a calculator on his bicep, a computer keyboard on his hairy chest), about which I had a good laugh (not even close to a Lee Majors look alike!) I told him that Lee Majors had not died, at which point “Ghostman” said that Gandhi had lied to him. Right … Just before that I turned to Brian and said “we’re being punked!” But the spectacle went on for a while longer, growing more inane by the minute, so I played along waiting for everyone to break character and burst out laughing. That never happened, and as I was leaving Cardozo wanted to know if I wanted “security” to escort me to my car. I said “sure, why not?” and some little guy who was hanging around walked me out, as if he was going to protect me from a crazed psychic!

Out in the parking lot Brian told me that he thought the entire day was a set up, including phony cameramen, phony directors, phony make-up artist, etc. He was right. I initially thought that it was just Ghostman punking the Showtime people, but it turns out there is no show called “Versus,” the psychic’s real name is Marc Wootton (a British comedian and wannabe Borat character), and that Showtime has a show under production called “Untitled Marc Wootton Project.” (See the IMDB page.)

Here is Wootton’s “Shirley Ghostman” website.

Here are some other Ghostman punkings.

And here are some British skeptics catching on to Wootton’s antics fairly quickly.

Weirdly, I found this guy in real estate who had a similar experience (punking real estate brokers? — only in a housing crisis I suppose): Beware: Little Duke Productions for Showtime. Duping Realtors on camera while actors cause havoc in LA area homes.

The funniest story of all, however, was the punking of the actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah, who explained in a Guardian article how she was punked by the same people. I have to admit that the image of a miniskirted “research scientist” in a lab coat who told Daryl how she had been fed by condors in the wild is a hellova lot funnier than Lee Majors in a body bag! Here’s the Daryl Hannah punking article.

From the story:

It turns out that, a little way off, Hannah was introduced to a “director” who looked to her to be far too Central Casting to be true. There were three cameras and 15 crew members, which she knew to be too many for a nature documentary. The “director” then took her to meet a “research scientist”, a woman in a miniskirt and lab coat who was peering from under too much blue eye shadow into the distance, supposedly looking for the perfect “condor release spot”. The scientist told Hannah that she herself had been fed by condors in the wild for three days, at which point Hannah started to laugh, and pretended she needed to use the bathroom.

She calls her manager. “I’m telling you, that was a full-on Punk’d-Borat situation,” she says. “The whole thing was a big ‘let’s make fun of celebrities’ show.” (Later, when I Google the production company named on the release forms, Little Duke Productions, all I can find is a random warning on someone’s Twitter feed: “Beware of Little Duke Productions for Showtime. May be dangerous. Please RT.”) The manager promises to look into it.

Now, here’s the other shoe falling: Brian and I figured out it was all a hoax, so I asked Cardozo in several voice mails and emails point blank: “this was a punking, right?” He didn’t return my calls and his only email answer was this generic statement:

“I did get your messages, but I’ve been in and out of the office, so I apologize for the late reply. Thank you again for participating in the show. The segment we filmed with you, the versus segment may or may not make it into the eventual show for Showtime. We obviously film more than we actually use in the series. Like you, we are interested in looking at all the methods and practices of the self-proclaimed psychics including those who participated in the versus segment. We also appreciated your participation in the segment as it goes to show how skeptics approach all types of people who claim to have psychic abilities. Feel free to contact me with any additional thoughts you may have. Best, Stephen”

So, naturally I concluded that it was the skeptics being punked, and I ranted and released the hounds (think Mr. Burns pressing the button) to go disrupt their show (since retracted!). But then the producer of the show, Misha Manson-Smith (whom I initially thought was a pseudonymic play on Sasha Baron-Cohen, the Borat actor/comedian), contacted Brian and explained: “Shirley Ghostman is a satirical dig at psychics” and “In case you and Michael are concerned about how you might appear on the show, I just wanted to let you know that I think you both came across very well and were excellent foils to Shirley’s idiotic outbursts” and that I shouldn’t be upset because “our show so clearly endorses his [the skeptics] position.”

Wow! So it is the psychics being punked, not the skeptics!! That’s a relief. It seems funnier now, of course, because it isn’t my goose being plucked. But since we’re on the topic of punks and hoaxes, I’m really not sure what the point of these Borat-like events are, other than getting a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. Although Daryl Hannah’s environmental politics are not mine, what was the point of tricking her out to a condor sighting? Had she fallen for the mini-skirted scientist, I suppose, it would be an indictment of her politics beclouding her critical faculties. But she didn’t. So…

In my opinion, a hoax is only interesting if those who are hoaxed should have seen it coming, if they were blinded by their prejudices and presuppositions, and who were given clues but ignored them. In James Randi’s “Alpha Project” hoax he instructed his magician charges to fess up to using magic tricks (to simulate psychic power) if anyone ever asked them; but no one ever did, despite obvious clues they left behind. Alan Sokal’s “deconstruction” hoax of the lit-crit journal was beautiful because he submitted an article that was complete nonsense and was so chockablock full of the sort of jargon that lit-crit folks love to read that the editors of the journal who accepted it just assumed that it must mean something. But if you simply lie to someone and deceive them so well that they could not possibly have known you were setting them up, it only proves that you are a clever liar.

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Telephone to the Dead

Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is hard. Why not phone them?
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“Is Matthew there?” asked Cheyenne, directing her voice toward the box on the table in hopes that her brother would come through from the other side. “Yes,” the reply came. With the connection “validated,” Cheyenne shakily continued: “Was the suicide a mistake?” The speaker crackled, “My death was a mistake.” With tears cascading down her cheeks, Cheyenne asked to speak with her mother, and when the connection was made she sputtered out, “Do you see my children, your beautiful grandchildren?” Mom replied, “Yes. I see the children.” (continue reading…)

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