A Skeptical Look at James Randi
by Michael Prescott
Michael Prescott is a New York Times bestselling novelist.
Years ago, when I was a full-fledged skeptic, atheist, and rationalist, I read James Randi’s 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions. Randi is an accomplished magician and a professional skeptic, dedicating to disproving any and all claims of what he considers pseudoscience. In line with this agenda, and as its title suggests, Flim-Flam is a concerted attack on miscellaneous purported irrationalities – everything from the pop-culture writings of Erich von Daniken to the more serious investigations of professional parapsychologists. I enjoyed the book, which reinforced my belief system at the time.
Recently I picked up Flim-Flam again. Having changed my mind about many things over the past twenty years, I responded to it much differently this time. I was particularly struck by the book’s hectoring, sarcastic tone. Randi pictures psychic researchers as medieval fools clad in “caps and bells” and likens the delivery of an announcement at a parapsychology conference to the birth of “Rosemary’s Baby.” After debunking all manner of alleged frauds, he opens the book’s epilogue with the words, “The tumbrels now stand empty but ready for another trip to the square” – a reference to the French Revolution, in which carts (“tumbrels”) of victims were driven daily to the guillotine. Randi evidently pictures himself as the executioner who lowers the blade. In passing, two points might be made about this metaphor: the French Revolution was a product of “scientific rationalism” run amok … and most of its victims were innocent.
Still, the tedious nastiness of Flim-Flam does not tell us anything about its accuracy. Intrigued, I decided to check out a few of Randi’s claims in detail.
I chose to focus on Chapter Eight, Randi’s dissection of the experiments of Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, two well-known parapsychologists. Randi calls them “the Laurel and Hardy of psi” and proceeds to argue that their experiments were a tissue of ineptitude, gullibility, and dishonesty.
The first thing I noticed was that Randi never gives any indication that Targ and Puthoff have any scientific credentials or accomplishments. The casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that they are not “real” scientists at all. For the record, Targ is a physicist credited with inventing the FM laser, the high-power gas-tranport laser, and the tunable plasma oscillator. Puthoff, also a physicist, invented the tunable infra-red laser and is widely known for his theoretical work on quantum vacuum states and the zero point field. (see The Field, by Lynne McTaggart, for an overview of Puthoff’s work in quantum phyics.) If these two are “Laurel and Hardy,” at least they come with good résumés. Randi, by contrast, has no scientific training.
Randi starts off by telling us how Targ and Puthoff took a professed psychic, Ingo Swann, to Stanford University, where, they said, Swann used his psychic abilities to affect the operation of a magnetometer. According to Randi, “the report was all wet.” He knows this because he contacted Dr. Arthur Hebard, “the builder of the device, who was present and has excellent recollections of what took place.” Hebard, Randi says disputes the Targ-Puthoff account. He is quoted as saying, “It’s a lie. You can say it any way you want, but that’s what I call a lie.”
This is pretty compelling stuff. But is Randi’s version of events accurate? Let’s take a look.
First, he seems to make a rather basic error when he says that both Targ and Puthoff were present for this experiment. As best I can determine, Puthoff conducted the experiment, which took place in June, 1972, without Targ’s assistance. Targ had met Puthoff prior to this time, but their work together apparently did not begin until a few months later.
That’s a small point. Far more important is the matter of Dr. Hebard’s testimony. There’s another side to the story, which I found in Chapter 17 of Psychic Breakthroughs Today (Quoted by Uri Geller) by D. Scott Rogo. Rogo, who died in 1990 at the age of forty, was a prolific journalist and researcher of psychic phenomena. He wrote numerous popular books, some of which have been used as college texts. He also published research papers in peer-reviewed parapsychology journals. Although Rogo was sometimes criticized for tackling overly esoteric subjects, he had a reputation for honesty and was respected for his willingness to do hands-on investigation and field work, rather than relying on armchair appraisals. A Scott Rogo tribute and bibliography can be found here.
Rogo writes, “There obviously exist several discrepancies between Dr. Puthoff’s views on what happened during this experiment, and what Randi claims Dr. Hebard told him. So to clarify the matter, I decided to get in touch with Dr. Hebard myself. I finally tracked him down at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He was very willing to discuss the Swann magnetometer demonstration with me, and professed to be very interested in parapsychology.” Hebard’s interest in the paranormal contradicts Randi’s statement that Hebard, “not being a reader of far-out literature,” was unaware of Targ and Puthoff’s claims.
Rogo acknowledges that Hebard’s account differs in some respects from Puthoff’s. “Dr. Hebard denied in no uncertain terms, however, Randi’s claim that Swann was never asked to ‘stop the field charge’ being recorded from the magnetometer. He easily recalled that he had suggested that it would be a fascinating effect if Swann could produce it . . . which, of course, he actually did soon after the suggestion was made. Randi also directly quotes Dr. Hebard as calling some of Targ and Puthoff’s claims ‘lies’. Dr. Hebard was very annoyed by this claim since, as he explained to me, Randi had tried to get him to make this charge and he had refused. Dr. Hebard later signed a statement to this effect for me.” [Ellipsis in original.]
As for the discrepancies between Hebard’s and Puthoff’s accounts, Rogo reports that in a subsequent meeting with Puthoff, he was shown “the actual graphed print-outs given by the magnetometer during the Swann demonstrations. The records supported Dr. Puthoff’s contention more than they did Dr. Hebard’s.”
So far, then, the best we can say is that Randi’s criticism of Puthoff (and Targ, who apparently wasn’t even involved in the magnetometer experiment) is far from the last word on the subject.
Randi proceeds to launch a comprehensive critique of Targ and Puthoff’s article “Information Transmission under Conditions of Sensory Shielding,” which appeared in the October 18, 1974, issue of the respected journal Nature. The article details experiments involving, among other participants, the professed psychic Uri Geller.
Randi’s take on this series of experiments is withering. He skewers Targ and Puthoff as “bunglers.” He reports that their experiments were conducted in a chaotic atmosphere conducive to cheating. He says that a hole in the wall of Geller’s isolation room enabled him to spy on the scientists during their ESP experiments. He says that Targ and Puthoff falsified the results of the tests by omitting failed experiments that would have lowered Geller’s averages to the level of chance. Further, he says that the scoring of Geller’s performances was mishandled, generating higher scores than Geller deserved.
The question naturally arises: How does Randi know all this, since, as he admits, “I’ve never even set foot on the sacred grounds of SRI [Stanford Research Institute, where the experiments were conducted”? He explains that he was given inside information by “an individual” who claimed to represent dozens of SRI scientists. This group, which worked in secret and even adopted a code name (Broomhilda), passed the information to Randi.
Unfortunately, Randi never names this individual or any other members of the Broomhilda group. He says that “Broomhilda verified for me much of the information that I had been holding on to for years,” but where did he get this earlier information in the first place? “That data,” he says, “now moved from the status of hearsay to documented fact.” But documented is hardly a term applicable to either the initial information, which is never specified, or the Broomhilda information, which came from an anonymous source. He adds, “Additional facts were elicited during conversations and correspondence with individuals. Many of these persons were not aware of Broomhilda and were acting on their own. Their completely independent input supported Broomhilda’s charges. Taken together,” he concludes, “the information from all sources amounted to quite an indictment.”
Maybe so, but it’s an indictment that would never hold up in court. The reader is expected to take Randi’s word that his unidentified sources are trustworthy – and that the sources themselves are well-informed about experimental procedures they may or may not have witnessed.
Thus when Randi alleges that “hundreds of [failed] experiments that were done by SRI … were never reported,” we must take the statement on faith, as it is unsupported by any documentation. Similarly, when Randi says definitively, “All the other tests [i.e., the successful ones] lacked proper controls and were useless,” we search in vain for any footnote to back up this assertion.
A posting I found on a message board sums up the situation nicely: “Claims of poor scientific method leveled at the experimenters have been shown to be mainly unsubstantiated personal opinion and second-hand ‘Chinese Whispers.'” (Chinese Whispers is the British equivalent of the American game, ‘Telephone’.) It might be worth adding that critics of paranormal phenomena, like Randi, are forever decrying any reliance on “anecdotal evidence,” which is precisely what the bulk of Randi’s argument consists of.
Randi does produce two individuals willing to go on the record – Charles Rebert and Leon Otis, both of whom were SRI psychologists. Rebert and Otis apparently disagreed with the Targ-Puthoff conclusions; indeed, Randi tells us that “a horrified Rebert also heard that Targ and Puthoff were going to proclaim these erroneous findings before Stanford University’s psychology department, and he forbade such a blunder. The talk was canceled.” But this only tells us that there was a dispute among the scientists at SRI. Rebert and Otis ran some unsuccessful tests with Geller and decided that he was a fraud. Targ and Puthoff ran what they regarded as successful tests and decided that, in some areas at least, Geller had legitimate psychic powers. Nothing in Randi’s text establishes which conclusion was correct.
Randi goes on to report that after he had criticized Geller in an earlier book, Targ and Puthoff “issued a ‘fact sheet’ in rebuttal to twenty-four” of his points. According to Randi, “This attempt was a failure, and in response to one claim that the SRI tests were done under tight controls, a scientist who was there declared flatly, ‘This is b.s. As far as my colleagues and I are concerned, none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol. “I will not burden you,” Randi concludes, “with the other twenty-three points; they are as easily demolished.”
Well, hold on. A quotation from yet another anonymous source (“a scientist who was there”) hardly constitutes a demolition job, especially when the scientist’s argument consists of an unsupported assertion (“none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol”). Personally, I would have welcomed the “burden” of the other twenty-three points and of Randi’s detailed and carefully documented rebuttals.
Some idea of the counter-arguments to Randi’s claims can be obtained by taking another look at D. Scott Rogo, who earlier showed the initiative to track down Dr. Hebard. Unlike Randi, who, as we have seen, had “never even set foot” inside the research facility, Rogo visited SRI on June 12, 1981. He found that Randi had misrepresented the hole in the wall of the isolation room through which Geller was supposedly able to spy on the researchers. The hole, a conduit for cables, is depicted in Flim-Flam as being three and a half inches wide and therefore offering a good view of the experimental area where the researchers were working. Rogo found, however, that the hole “is three-and-a-quarter inches [wide] and extends through a twelve-and-a-half inch wall. This scopes your vision and severely limits what you can see through it. The hole is not left open either, since it is covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run. Dr. Puthoff and his colleague were, however, concerned that their subject might be ingenious enough to insert an optical probe through this hole, so they monitored the opening throughout their telepathy experiments.”
Randi also indicates that the hole is stationed 34 inches above the floor. Not so, says Rogo. “It isn’t three feet above the floor, but is located only a little above floor level. The only thing you can see through it – even under optimal conditions – is a small bit of exterior floor and opposing wall. (The viewing radius is only about 20°, and the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely.) I also discovered during my trip to SRI that an equipment rack was situated in front of the hole throughout the Geller work, which obstructed any view through it even further. I ended my little investigation by talking with two people who were present during these critical experiments. They both agreed that wires were running through the hole – therefore totally blocking it – during the time of the Geller experiments.”
It would appear that the hole in the isolation booth’s wall poses considerably less of a problem than the holes in Randi’s arguments.
By now, I felt that Randi’s credibility was in doubt. He had committed careless errors of fact, had quite possibly misrepresented and misquoted Hebard, and had made unsupported assertions based on rumors. I wondered what Targ and Puthoff have to say about all this. The only responses from either of them that I could find online were part of a long essay by Winston Wu, Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena; the relevant part is Argument 18. Puthoff is quoted as follows:
“In Flim-Flam, [Randi] gives something like 28 debunking points, if my memory serves me correctly. I had the opportunity to confront Randi at a Parapsychology Association conference with proof in hand, and in tape-recorded interaction he admitted he was wrong on all the points. He even said he would correct them for the upcoming paperback being published by the CSICOP group. [He did not.] …
“The truth of the matter is that none of Randi’s claimed suspected inadequate controls actually had anything to do with the experiments, which of course Randi was not there to know of. This has been independently reported by Scott Rogo somewhere in the literature, who came out specifically to check each of Randi’s guesses about inadequate controls and found them inapplicable under the conditions in which the tests were conducted. In fact, all of Randi’s suggestions were amateurish compared to the sophisticated steps we took, suspecting as we did everything from magician’s tricks to an Israeli intelligence scam…
“In case one thinks that it was just a case of our opinions vs. his opinions,” Puthoff continues, “we chose for the list of incorrect points only those that could be independently verified. Examples: [Randi] said that in our Nature paper we verified Geller’s metal-bending. Go to the paper, and you see that we said we were not able to obtain evidence for this. He said that a film of the Geller experiment made at SRI by famed photographer Zev Pressman was not made by him, but by us and we just put his name on it. We showed up with an affidavit by Pressman saying that indeed he did make the film.”
There is no way for me to verify Puthoff’s statement that he tape-recorded Randi’s concession of defeat “on all the points.” This has to stand as an unsupported assertion, just like Randi’s own arguments. But it is possible to take a closer look at Puthoff’s last two claims.
First, Puthoff insists that his and Targ’s Nature article does not endorse Geller’s alleged metal-bending. This is accurate, as you can see for yourself by reading the article. Puthoff and Targ write, “It has been widely reported that Geller has demonstrated the ability to bend metal by paranormal means. Although metal bending by Geller has been observed in our laboratory, we have not been able to combine such observations with adequately controlled experiments to obtain data sufficient to support the paranormal hypothesis.”
On the other hand, I have not found any statement by Randi in Flim-Flam to the effect that Targ and Puthoff “had verified Geller’s metal-bending.” He attacks the Targ-Puthoff experiments on other grounds. Of course, he may have made this statement elsewhere, but as far as I can tell, Puthoff is rebutting a point Randi never made.
How about Puthoff’s second claim, regarding the SRI film? Randi certainly does make this an issue in Flim-Flam. Targ and Puthoff, he writes, “appended to [the film] – without his knowledge or permission – the name of Zev Pressman, the SRI photographer who had shot the film … Pressman, said Targ and Puthoff, was present during [a particular series of] experiments. Not so, according to Pressman… Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI that he had been told the successful [tests] were done after he (Pressman) had gone home for the day. So it appears the film was a reenactment … Pressman did not even know that Targ and Puthoff were issuing a statement, he did not sign it, and he did not give them permission to use his name. He knew nothing about most of what appeared under his name, and he disagreed with the part that he did know about.” [Italics in original.]
Here we have Randi saying that this photographer, Pressman, was duped and used by the experimenters, while Puthoff says that Pressman signed an affidavit swearing that “indeed he did make the film.” Is there any way to resolve this?
A further Web search turned up Chapter 14 of The Geller Effect. Part One of this book is written by Uri Geller. Part Two, which includes Chapter 14, was written by Guy Lyon Playfair. Living up to his name, Playfair offers an even-handed presentation of the various controversies surrounding the flamboyant and eccentric Geller.
Playfair writes, “[Randi] turned, in a later book, Flim-Flam, to the professional photographer who had made the film, a Stanford employee named Zev Pressman, with an extraordinary series of unfounded allegations…
“Pressman flatly denied all of Randi’s allegations in two public statements, neither of which was even mentioned in the 1982 re-issue of the book. ‘I made the film,’ said Pressman, ‘and my name appeared with my full knowledge and permission . . . Nothing was restaged or specially created … I have never met nor spoken to nor corresponded with Randi. The ‘revelations’ he attributes to me are pure fiction.'”
It is true that no mention is made of these “two public statements” in Flim-Flam’s 1982 edition – the edition I own.
For corroborating testimony, I turned once again to the indefatigable Scott Rogo, who investigated this claim just as he had looked into Dr. Hebard’s testimony and the infamous hole in the wall.
Rogo writes, “I spoke directly with Mr Pressman on 5 January 1981 and he was quite interested when I told him about Randi’s book. He denied that he had spoken to the magician. When I read him the section of Randi’s book dealing with his alleged ‘expose’ of the Targ-Puthoff film, he became very vexed. He firmly backed up the authenticity of the film, told me how he had taken it on the spot, and labeled Randi’s allegation as a total fabrication. [His own descriptive language was a little more colourful!]” Rogo also reports that Puthoff showed him Pressman’s signed affidavit.
How could Randi’s conversation with Pressman be so different from Rogo’s? The truth is, Randi does not appear to have had a conversation with Pressman at all. Take another look at the quote from Flim-Flam. The key words are: “Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI …”
Evidently, then, Randi’s source is not Pressman himself, but unnamed “others at SRI” who passed on this information to Randi. Another round of Chinese Whispers, it seems.
At this point Randi ends his discussion of the Geller experiments and proceeds to criticize Targ and Puthoff’s later work, as well as the work of another researcher, Charles Tart. Dealing with these criticisms would require another essay of equal length to this one, so I will stop here. The reader who wants to go further is invited to read Randi’s Flim-Flam and then click on any of the links inserted throughout this essay and listed below. Or just search the Web for the keywords Randi, Targ, Puthoff, etc., and see what comes up.
Before I began this modest online research project for a rainy afternoon, I had mixed feelings about Randi. I saw him as closed-minded and supercilious, but I also assumed he was sincere and, by his own lights, honest. Now, having explored his contribution to the Targ-Puthoff controversy in some detail, I am thoroughly unimpressed. Randi comes across as a bullying figure, eager to attack and ridicule, willing to distort and even invent evidence – in short, the sort of person who will do anything to prevail in a debate, whether by fair means or foul.
The title of his book thus takes on a new and unintended meaning. From what I can tell, James Randi really is the Flim-Flam man.
Michael Prescott’s Website.
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