Skepticism

Uri Geller is Still a Giant Fraud, Despite the Glowing NY Times Profile

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I have great news for you all, as reported by the New York Times last week: finally, the greatest “grudge” in the world of professional magic has been set aside. What could it be? Professional magicians versus that masked guy who “revealed” their secrets on prime time TV in the ‘90s? Criss Angel versus David Copperfield for…buying Twitter followers I guess? William Ellsworth Robinson versus Ching Ling Foo? William Ellsworth Robinson versus basic gun maintenance and safety procedures?

No, none of that. In fact, the “50-year old grudge” that has been set aside is, apparently, skeptics versus Uri Geller.

“In 1973,” the New York Times subheadline reads, “Uri Geller claimed to bend metal with his mind on live television. Skeptics couldn’t beat him. Now they’ve joined him.”

Wait. Now, I know I was summarily ejected from Richard P. Dawkins’ official skeptic movement, but surely things haven’t devolved (so to speak) to the point that the skeptics are now out there openly claiming they can bend cutlery with their psychic powers bestowed upon them by extraterrestrials, right? Obviously I had to read on and no, spoiler alert if you are wanting to actually read this turd, skeptics have not “joined” Uri Geller. Fucking Christ. What this article is actually about is one magician you’ve never heard of who is trying to make a buck by publishing a coffee table book where he says he’s friends with Uri Geller and suggests he might bend spoons with his psychic powers but then goes on to TEACH PEOPLE HOW TO BEND SPOONS WITH THEIR HANDS AS A MAGIC TRICK. The New York Times doesn’t mention that part for some reason but don’t worry, Penguin Magic is very clear that spoon bending is just a magic trick and this book is, in part, sharing the techniques that magicians like Uri Geller use to do it.

As an aside I find it interesting that back in the 90s when I was learning magic, we had to go to dusty old libraries to find ancient techniques in books from the ‘40s, so it actually makes a lot of sense that in 2023 kids have to visit a website that looks like it was made in the 90s.

On that note, this is one of those subjects that is ripe for people today to kind of rewrite history: the people who know the truth are either dead or have a much smaller audience than the New York Times, so there’s a chance that this is just going to be the truth now. But I know the truth, so I’m going to do my part to speak up against it in the vain hope that this bullshit doesn’t go completely uncontested. Let’s go through this piece, shall we?

The article starts by describing Gelller’s schtick, which, if you weren’t aware, is bending cutlery and keys. There are a variety of ways to do this, but the easiest is to use your hands and do it when no one is looking. If you want more information on this, you can just Google it. Honestly, this isn’t some great secret magicians protect with their lives: it’s a stupid party trick that a child can do. Like all magic tricks, there are also variations done by various magicians using various different techniques. It’s fun, that’s what’s fun about doing magic.

But Geller pretended he could bend cutlery with psychic powers, and he was committed to the bit. For that reason, he was opposed by skeptics and magicians who made it their mission to expose frauds who tried to manipulate people into parting with their money. David Segal, the author of this New York Times piece, writes “Mr. Geller ultimately emerged the victor in this war, and proof of his triumph is now on display in the museum: a coffee-table book titled “Bend it Like Geller” which was written by the Australian magician Ben Harris and published in May.”

This is the first obviously inane sentence of the piece, because if having a coffee table book written about you by an obscure Australian is “winning” then I guess Rolf Harris ultimately emerged the victor in the war against teenage girls.

Here’s my hypothesis: the only reason this article exists is because Ben Harris, a magician you’ve never heard of, wrote a coffee table book about Uri Geller and sent a press release out that managed to sucker in one writer at the New York Times who happens to be WILDLY in love with Uri Geller. Seriously, before I read this piece it had never occurred to me that Uri Geller is attractive, but here’s how he’s described:

“A handsome 26-year old dressed casually”

“A lean and tireless 76-year old” with “charm and a seemingly bottomless amount of chutzpah”

“…this hunky guy with the paranormal act”

“A daredevil who doesn’t need a motorcycle to risk his life” (referring to him bending a spoon on TV).

You get the idea. They’re in love.

There’s much less description about Ben Harris, who represents the “skeptics” who have “joined” Uri Geller. He used to hate him but now he doesn’t! 

Segal actually does get around to Geller’s actual greatest critic, James Randi, but he skips mentioning his name the first time he impacts this story. Segal writes, “ In 1973, he was a guest on “The Tonight Show,” and for 20 intensely awkward minutes Mr. Geller didn’t even try to bend the objects laid out in front of him. The vibe was wrong, he explained. Astonishingly, viewers seemed to regard the failure as a sign of authenticity. Only someone at the mercy of the universe’s unpredictable vibrations, went the theory, could have flopped like that.”

This is a fascinating description of this event because Geller didn’t fail because the vibe was wrong: he failed because Johnny Carson asked his good friend James Randi what to do when this enormous fraud was on his show, and Randi instructed him to have his own set of silverware and not allow Geller or any member of his entourage to get anywhere near it before showtime, because Geller’s entire act required him to prep the spoons ahead of time and he hadn’t even bothered to put in the effort to come up with something interesting to do with an unprepped spoon.

But Segal couldn’t mention any of that because it would disrupt this false balance of “maybe it’s just a silly party trick but MAYBE it’s really supernatural powers and isn’t it actually great that we all believe in a little magic in our lives?”

It takes a few more pages for Segal to actually mention Randi’s name, which he does with this bizarre sentence: 

“James Randi, a Canadian magician and escape artist, known professionally as the Amazing Randi, went much further. A relative unknown at the time. Mr. Randi, who eventually won a MacArthur fellowship as a professional skeptic, was the loudest anti-Geller voice in the world.”

So Ben Harris is described as one of Geller’s “most avid debunkers” but Randi was “a relative unknown” by the time he wrote his book, “The Truth About Uri Geller,” which was originally titled “The Magic of Uri Geller” and published in 1975. By 1975, Randi had:

Appeared on The Today Show to be sealed in a coffin underwater for 104 minutes to beat a record set by Houdini

Was a regular on the children’s TV show Wonderama for 8 years

Appeared as himself on I’ve Got a Secret

and

Toured with Alice Cooper as an on-stage executioner, which is fucking badass, by the way.

But sure. Relatively unknown.

The implication here is that Uri Geller “made” Randi, despite the fact that he went on to lauded as an escape artist after getting out of a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls, and the fact that he wrote nine more books NOT about Uri Geller, won the MacArthur “genius” grant for his work exposing faith healers (NOT Uri Geller), and won a raft of awards and honors from magic societies around the world for his contribution to professional conjuring.

Segal goes on to point out that Geller unsuccessfully sued Randi for libel, but fails to mention that Geller actually lost THREE total libel lawsuits over Randi’s book about him. Segal says that Randi, despite being found to be in the right every time, “burned through most of his $272,000 MacArthur grant covering personal legal expenses” but then two sentences later says that Randi’s “vitriol” towards Geller is “hard to fathom.” Really, David Segal? Is that hard to fathom, that someone might be a little pissed off at a fraud who claims aliens gave him the ability to bend CUTLERY WITH HIS MIND cost him a quarter of a million dollars even though he was in the right? And in a stunning display of both terrible writing ability and lack of basic self-awareness, this sentence is immediately followed with the non sequitur that Geller made millions of British pounds conning mining companies into believing he could divine ores for them. Was he able to? Geller says he doesn’t remember so that’s the end of that. Let’s leave it up to the reader, I guess.

Segal also mentions Geller wrote some books like “Use Your Psychic Powers to Have It All: Release Your Psi-Force for Health, Wealth, Success & Peace of Mind.” He fails to mention that Geller claimed in that book that “mind over matter” could cure cancer.

But again, he couldn’t mention that, could he? The pitch here is simple: a bunch of grumpy old magicians made a big fuss about sexy little Uri Geller just because he claimed his party trick was real psychic powers, and now they’re either dead or friends with him, and isn’t that great? Because really, even if he DIDN’T have psychic powers, what’s the harm in helping people believe that there’s a little magic in the world?

Well, that’s the harm. Segal even SAYS what the point is and still misses it: “The point,” he writes, “is that Mr. Geller is an entertainer” who “CHALLENG(ES) OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE TRUTH” and his bent spoons are ultimately the “precursors of digital deep fakes.” WHICH ARE BAD! THOSE THINGS ARE BAD, DAVID SEGAL! You ran headfirst into the brick wall that was the point and you just didn’t notice, because later you write that Geller is “the author of a benign charade,” and “now that fakery is routinely weaponized online, Mr. Geller’s claims to superpowers seem almost innocent.” 

YES! That is the point!! That is precisely what Randi, and Ray Hyman, and Paul Kurtz, and Carl Sagan, and many others argued back in 1975: while magic tricks, presented as feats of skill and sleight of hand, can inspire wonder and happiness, tricking people into believing you have superhuman powers is going to lead down a dark path on both an individual level and a societal level. It gives the person purporting to have those powers very REAL power over the people who believe them, allowing them to say or do anything for money or control. They can tell their followers to send them their paychecks, to have sex with them, or to try to cure their cancer with “mind over matter.” And when we as a society decide that it doesn’t matter if a person is lying to us or not, when we don’t critically evaluate someone’s true self or motivations, when we accept what we’re told at face value, we allow lying fascists like Donald Trump to come to power. We allow neo-Nazi and anti-vaccine groups to spread misinformation and to radicalize more people. Bending spoons would have been just a cute party trick but it became something much worse, much more insidious, when Geller LIED and said he was doing it with his mind, that it was proof he had other psychic powers, and that he could solve CRIMES, and that it meant he could give health advice to his fans. 

There’s a direct line from Uri Geller to our current infection of frauds and snake oil salesmen, and fuck David Segal and the New York Times for whitewashing him. And more than that, fuck them for making me stop and consider whether or not Uri Geller is sexy. How do I “mind over matter” that thought out of my brain, Uri Geller? How??? I can’t. You’re lucky I’m not a pathetic litigious bully like Uri Geller or I’d sue the shit out of all of you for pain and suffering.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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