One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.
I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.
James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.
Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.
The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…
Do you sometimes feel as though you’re haunted by bad mojo? Do you sense a crinkly shadow slurping up your footsteps, stalking you with hand-wringing deviousness and an insidious yen to muck up your days with the swift slap of a paranormal brute? Well, I have good news for you. You are almost definitely wrong, and it’s entirely possible that you’ve been soaking your brain too long in the tart brine of unjustified paranoia.
While it’s true that some people appear dogged by a mystical and unspoken conflict with their electronic devices, watching them break down at a rate far exceeding average, no one sporting an official science-badge in the brim of their hat has stepped forward and confirmed this phenomenon. There is no bio-electronic battlefield, no psychic-binary clash of DNA and circuit-board synapses. Yet most of us can relate stories of friends or relatives whose luck with electronics is notoriously foul. Folks who cycle through crapped-out cell phones more frequently than shampoo bottles, or whose computers are swimming in a vortex of perpetual blue-screen mayhem.
Maybe there’s something to this madness. It’s not like all of science has ruled this out. Take, for example, Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli.
Wolfgang was no slouch. Nominated by Albert Einstein, he snagged the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which has to do with quantum mechanics, spin theory, and a star-studded cast of concepts I won’t pretend to understand. Pauli’s lasting reputation among those of us whose brains aren’t tuned to the frequency of theoretical physics is his bizarre effect on lab equipment. Read more…