Photo credit: Lisa Trombl
As a kid I spent what I believed to be an appropriate number of hours a week wondering which superpowers I’d develop once my mutant gene kicked in. As a fan of Nightcrawler — he’s one of the blue X-Men
— I was pretty sure teleportation was in the picture, but I was open to telekinesis, Wolverine’s healing factor, and maybe some light astral travel.
Then puberty hit. No new abilities appeared, except for a few disturbing ones that I’d been warned about in health class. Reluctantly, I resigned myself to life as a standard-issue homo sapiens. I became a hardcore materialist, one of those grumps who rolls his eyes when the guy from Boulder starts describing how crystals cure cancer. When somebody tells me they had a premonition — "I knew I shouldn’t have gotten on that plane" — I explain how confirmation bias works.
This does not make me fun at parties.
I consoled myself by making up stories about people with powers beyond those of mortal men. My latest novel, Spoonbenders
, is about the Amazing Telemachus family who once traveled the country performing psychic feats, until they were “debunked” on national television. When I was planning the book I knew I wanted them to have real, but not very potent, powers. Irene was a human lie-detector, Buddy could predict the scores of Cubs games, and Frankie could move (small) objects with his mind. But I needed to figure out why their powers would fail them when they most needed them. If their powers were real, why didn’t they go on to be rich and famous?
Turns out, there were good reasons — four of them, in fact. The rules were laid out by one of my nonfictional heroes, James Randi
, aka the Amazing Randi. He’s a former stage magician who became more famous as a debunker (he prefers the word investigator) of psychics, faith healers, and other paranormal frauds in the world. He was a co-founder, with the philosopher Paul Kurtz
, Carl Sagan
, Isaac Asimov
, and others, of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. For years Randi’s educational foundation offered a million-dollar prize for anyone who could prove their paranormal abilities in a controlled test. (Nobody won.) (Or got close.)
If you haven’t heard of Randi, go read one of his books, or watch the documentary about him called An Honest Liar.
The title comes from the idea that a stage magician, like your hardworking fiction writer, takes your money and tells you up front that they’re going to deceive you, using various techniques of distraction and deception. If they’re any good, you walk away happy to be fooled. In fact, you feel cheated if you figure out exactly how the rabbit came out of the hat.
The frauds — the 900-number psychics, TV mediums, and strip-mall Tarot readers — also take your money, and use the same techniques to fool people. But when the gullible are shown how they were fooled — that, say, the spoon was bent through sleight of hand, or that the palm reader’s predictions were based off a psychological technique called cold reading — well, then, of course they get angry.
Except mostly they don’t. Often they double down on their faith in their hero’s powers. Randi, in his books and lectures, points out that most believers keep on believing, no matter what their lying eyes tell them.
The psychics get away with it because their audience, the media, and a few scientists buy into what Randi, in his book The Truth About Uri Geller
, called “The Four Special Rules for Psychics.” They’re a set of assumptions and excuses that the performers fall back on and their followers accept. Any of these rules would be laughed out of the room if applied to anyone else claiming to have a particular skill, whether it’s stage magician, dentist, or Starbucks barista.
Anyone — even you, dear reader — can be a psychic! Want to bend cutlery with your mind, dowse for water, or talk to dead people? These wondrous powers can be yours, if you just follow four simple rules.
“1. No real psychic can produce phenomena upon command or on a regular basis.”
A barista that couldn’t make a mocha latte when it was ordered would be out of a job. Not so for a psychic! They merely explain that these powers are mysterious, and that the psychic isn’t in control — the powers seem to work through them. Anyone who claims to, say, bend a spoon every time, without fail, is obviously just using sleight of hand.
“2. Cheating is a compulsion with the psychic, something that he feels he must do if given the opportunity.”
In Randi’s books it’s hilarious how often psychics are caught red-handed — like the time a reporter noticed a pre-bent spoon hiding under Uri Geller’s dinner napkin — and appalling how little difference it makes in their careers. The psychic knows that her fans will forgive her. They understand that she’s under a lot of pressure, and that she’s an inveterate people-pleaser who hates to disappoint. Cheating doesn’t mean that the psychic has no powers, only that sometimes they don’t work (see rule #1).
“3. Unless the detractor is able to explain away all the phenomena exhibited by the psychic as done by ordinary means, he has failed to prove his case.”
So they spotted the spoon under the napkin, and the psychic can’t actually bend another one on command, not with everybody watching. All he has to do is demand that these skeptics explain every feat in the events listed on his webpage. Each quote from an amazed audience member is evidence. If the skeptics complain that trusted “mainstream” scientists weren’t present at those events, the psychic can accuse them of negativity, which brings us to…
“4. Psychics cannot be expected to produce results when persons of negative attitude are present, nor when controlled so as to inhibit their sense of trusting and being trusted.”
This is the big one, your ESP trump card. Anyone who insists on using the “scientific method” or “repeatability” or “logic” is putting out waves of negativity that will make it impossible for your powers to function. In my novel, the Telemachus family fails on television because of the surprise appearance of the family nemesis, the Astounding Archibald. He’s a stage magician turned psychic debunker whose resemblance to the Amazing Randi is, I’m sure, a coincidence.
Randi’s rules gave me the “physics” of the Spoonbenders
universe, the reasons why powers worked or didn’t throughout the story. I do wish I’d learned of the rules earlier, though. I could have been fighting crime by now, or at least starring in some late-night basic cable show.
But it’s not too late for you, dear reader! You can be bigger than Uri Geller, the TV medium John Edward, or Miss Cleo (may she rest in peace, if John Edward lets her). After all, we now live in a world of alternative facts, where lack of scientific proof, or even filmed evidence contradicting your claims, are no impediment to success.
You probably don’t have to worry about James Randi ruining your career. He’s 88 now and says he’s retired. However, if he does show up at one of your performances, refuse to continue. I guarantee your powers won’t work.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Spoonbenders
. He’s written comics, video games, a collection of short stories, as well as five novels for adults and young adults, including the World Fantasy Award–winning short novel We Are All Completely Fine
. He practices teleportation from his home in Oakland, California.