Thursday, 8 December 2016

The psychic caravan rolls into Greenwich.

Ash Pryce was at Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub presenting his How to be a Psychic Conman show. It was not intended as a training course though I suppose it could work as one.

Despite vaguely reminding me of an awful old acquaintance (which he couldn't help) Ash is an interesting, and funny, speaker. He's a magician and he dresses like one too (whilst carrying the air of the circus ringmaster). But he's one who lets you in on his tricks. At least some of them.

A considerably more well known stage magician and skeptic is the retired North American James Randi. Randi is something of an iconic figure in what passes as the Skeptic community. He's often referred to as a 'debunker' though personally prefers the term 'investigator'. Whatever. He had a long and succesful career exposing frauds and showing up 'woo-woo' for what it really is.

The James Randi Educational Foundation created something called the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge in which Randi and his foundation offered to pay $1,000,000 to anyone who could prove their paranormal or supernatural powers under agreed upon scientific testing criteria. Between 1964 and 2015 over a thousand people took this challenge and how many do you think succeeded? Yes, you've guessed it. None.

Randi's, predictably, run into trouble with many who make claims of these powers. Not least the highly litigious spoon bender Uri Geller. I was at a football match in Reading's Elm Park where Geller, who was supporting Reading then before switching his allegiance to Exeter City, attempted to use his powers to affect the result of a rather dismal half-time experiment that involved the seated spectators, I was in the terraces so played no part, holding up various coloured cards. It failed as miserably as Uri's attempts to help England win the World Cup and to bring peace to the middle east!

Not all his tricks fail though. If you want your spoons bent he can still do that. Although as his technique is simply using his hands to bend a spoon you may as well just do it yourself. Anyway, who even wants a bent spoon? They're useless. You'll end up with soup stains all over your shirt.

Geller claims he receives his special powers from aliens and has in the past, though he's since recanted, said he was sent to Earth from extraterrestrials on a spaceship 53 million light years away. There's also the boast that he once teleported a dog through the walls of his house. It sounds quite a feat but, alas, no independent observer was there at the time to witness this. Ash spoke of a guy high up in the US military who believed that he, himself, could run through walls using his special powers. He'd never done it but he 'knew' he could.

Randi has also bent a spoon or two in his time and he's quite clear that it's a trick. He's said that if Geller is using psychic powers 'he's doing it the hard way'. Ash demonstrated the trick, with the aid of an audience member, as he did many others.

Even though Geller's work is both fraudulent and a bit crap he's nothing compared to James Hydrick. Hydrick is currently locked up in California's maximum security Coalinga State Hospital for the violent sexual predatory molestation of several small boys.

So his shit attempts at being a psychic are far from the worst thing he's done. His big claim was that he had telekinetic powers and could make pencils spin and pages of books turn using them. You'll note that pencils and pages of books are both quite light and this same effect could be brought about by simply blowing on them. Which was what he was doing.

It seems incredible that anybody fell for it in the first place but around the late 70s/early 80s he became an occasional fixture on US tv claiming he'd learnt telekinesis from a Chinese master.

Randi and others exposed him fairly easily. Randi's trick was to place small polystyrene pieces around the book and ask Hydrick to turn the book's pages but not move the polystyrene. He failed and blamed the stage lights. Later Hydrick admitted it was a fraud and that he'd not learnt the 'trick' from a Chinese master but during an earlier spell in prison.

Hydrick's later crimes were about as heinous as they get though his fraudulent, and rubbish, telekinesis con was, essentially, harmless. Less so is the career of 'Charismatic Christianity' televangelist Peter Popoff.

He rose to fame in the 80s with a tv show, aired nationwide in the US, in which he miraculously cured audience members. People would throw away bottles of medicine and rise out of their wheelchairs and walk after being told by Popoff to 'break free of the devil', 'rise and break free'.

Impressive huh? Not really. Investigations showed that the wheelchair bound recipients of these 'miracles' had been fully ambulatory all along. But not all the audience were stooges so how was Popoff able to use the 'divine' gift of identifying ailments in those not on his payroll?

His wife Elizabeth asked attendees to fill in a prayer request on entering one of Popoff's 'revival meetings' and, using a wireless radio transmitter, relayed them to her husband while he was on stage. Just to juice things up she made jokes about sexual abuse, referred to members of the congregation as niggers, and made disparaging remarks about the physical appearances of cancer sufferers.

Randi exposed Popoff in 1986 and a year later Popoff declared bankruptcy leaving 790 unpaid creditors.

In the late 90s he returned rebranding himself, in a cruel irony bearing in mind his wife's racial slurs, for the African-American market. Not much else had changed though. He was still using the same tricks to con the vulnerable and make himself rich. Even another exposure in 2007 failed to stop him. Popoff's shameful, immoral, and disgusting scams continue to this day.

As does the similar, if even more Old Testamenty, psychic surgery. These bastards really will boil your piss. Possibly literally.

These quacks (and they barely deserve that term) operate in Brazil and the Philippines. If you're terminally ill and accepted medicine can't save you it's understandable that you may be desperate enough to pay anything from £70 to thousands of pounds (plus air fare) to fly out and undergo this 'pyschic surgery'.

The claim is that with no surgical instruments, no pain, and no scarring (but lots of blood, looks cool I guess) these people can reach into your stomachs, pull out your tumours, and save your life. They can't. All they're doing is redirecting the money you may have wished to leave to your children into their own pockets.

With the aid of his own very willing stooge Ash gave a demonstration. The patient pulls their shirt up and the 'surgeon' ruffles around on their chest before popping open a polythene bag full of pre-prepared blood and some gooey fake internal organ thing. The patient is supposed to believe this has come out of their body and, maybe, when at that low ebb we're more inclined to fall for these things.

Similar scams operate in India and skeptics there have worked to have these charlatans closed down. In a depressing coda to this story the bogus medics have employed murderous tactics and skeptics and debunkers have actually been killed in India.

In our 'post-truth' age of Brexit and Trump and with Michael Gove's self-serving dismissal of experts we shouldn't think we're totally above this sort of thing but at least skeptics, rationalists, and others are still free to speak out. Which Ash did impressively, amusingly, and passionately. Another win.

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