The Way of Science

UNIT 1

Study of Paranormal: Science and Pseudoscience

Uri Geller: Part II

In the first two weeks, we have given you evidence in support of Geller's "paranormal" powers, drawn from impressive sources, Ph.D. eyewitnesses and a prestigious refereed journal. The story is not over yet. First, read the comments below, then start reading the following articles in the order given. Be sure to take notes and write out the answers.
    Reading list
  1. Sarfatti, J. 1975. Letters: Retraction on Geller. Science News 108(23): 355.
  2. Editor's Introduction to Targ and Puthoff paper. 1974. Investigating the Paranormal. Nature 251: 559_560.
  3. Randi, J. 1982. The Truth about Uri Geller. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus. [Read pp.10_21; 39_53;117_122; and 141_143.]
  4. Randi, J. 1978. New Evidence in the Uri Geller Matter. Skeptical Inquirer 2(2): 25-30.
  5. Gardner, M. 1979. The Extraordinary Mental Bending of Professor Taylor. Skeptical Inquirer 4(2): 67-72.
There are two very important principles that we neglected to emphasize in Geller Part I. Why do you think we did that to you? Are we being mean?

The first principle is called Occam's Razor, or the Principle of Parsimony. (What does "parsimonious" means?) William of Occam, a 14th Century scholastic philosopher, proposed that explanations should be as simple as possible to account for all observations (Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem.). In other words, given a choice of explanations, all of which seem to explain events, take the simplest.

For example, take the following two hypotheses.

  1. Geller has "paranormal" powers, and thus the laws of physics need serious reconsideration. Two hundred years of research, by thousands of scientists, is seriously flawed.

  2. Geller has no such powers; he cheats. We don't have to revamp physics.
Note that the second hypothesis is simpler, in the sense that cheating is a single explanation, while the "paranormal" explanation requires many different and highly reliable parts of science to be thrown out and rebuilt all over again. If we can produce evidence that (1) anything Geller does can be duplicated by trickery, and (2) Geller has been caught cheating at some times, then parsimony forces us to say it is most probable that Geller always cheats.

The second principle/assumption in scientific thinking is this: The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinarily strong the evidence must be. Certainly, the claim that "paranormal" powers exist and all physics is flawed, is extraordinary. Has our evidence for Geller been extraordinarily good?

Now go to the Guide below. We will look again at the same evidence, starting with Taylor and Sarfatti, and then examine Targ and Puthoff. Start reading the assignments, and answering the questions. We will conclude this unit with readings on other extraordinary claims that have attracted public support. Look through the following pages quickly, so that you become familiar with the guide to the video, Secrets of the Psychics.

Questions/Reading Guides

Sarfatti, J. 1975. Letters: Retraction on Geller. Science News 108(23): 355.
Question

  1. Why did Sarfatti admit to being less than a perfect eyewitness?
Editor's Introduction to Targ and Puthoff paper. 1974. Investigating the Paranormal. Nature 251: 559_560.
Questions
  1. What did the three referees have to say about Targ and Puthoff's paper?
  2. Why the editor(s) of Nature decide to print the paper?
Randi, J. 1982. The Truth about Uri Geller. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus. [Read pp.10_21; 39_53;117_122; and 141_143.]
Questions
  1. Who is Shipi Shtrang? How "tight" was the "sealed room"? See p. 13.
  2. The Pyczynski affair (pp.141_143): This demonstration is very important in offering an alternative explanation for long_distance effects. Describe what happened.
  3. Targ and Puthoff's famous double_blind die test: Was the box locked? Who was allowed to handle it? (p. 49 and p.140).
  4. What did Randi do to Taylor? (p 118_123)
Randi, J. 1978. New Evidence in the Uri Geller Matter. Skeptical Inquirer 2(2): 25_30.
Question
  1. Has Geller ever been caught cheating? What did Katz say? Does Geller admit to cheating?
Gardner, M. 1979. The Extraordinary Mental Bending of Professor Taylor. Skeptical Inquirer 4(2): 67_72.
Question
  1. Long_distance and shyness effects: Many children claimed to have been "Gellerized" by watching TV. However, when these children were tested in a room with a one_way mirror, what were the results?
Video: Secrets of the Psychics
Questions
  1. Uri Geller: What happened to Geller on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson? Why?
  2. Metal bending: What is "ratcheting"?
  3. Faith healers: How did Peter Popoff know all those details about his "flock"? Was he really getting "revelations"? What is "psychic surgery"? How did Randi do it?
  4. Horiscopes: In the film, Randi says "the trickster never works alone." Who is the accomplice? Watch the class given horoscopes. Describe what was done. What do you think of the student who was upset by the "cynical and one_sided" approach? Why did Randi bring up Santa Claus?
  5. Palm reading: How does the work by Ray Hyman demonstrate the fallacy of personal validation?
  6. Alternative medicine: Describe what was done by the scientists at the Brain Institute. Was Randi ever able to verify the claims of the "charged" water? Why is falsifiability important in scientific investigation?
  7. Psychic detectives: Describe the two psychic detectives and their attempt to decipher the history of Ted Bundy? How do the women demonstrate the use cold reading?
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© copyright 2003, Michael Wirth and Sachiko Howard, New England College