Summertime Views

The Independent 6.8.98

Also reprinted in Skeptical Inquirer, 22, No 6, 13

Did you see that Channel 4 programme last summer with Victorian mediums faking ectoplasm and magicians showing how they could duplicate the kind of psychic feats that Uri Geller is known for?

If not you missed a treat, but not to worry, for now you may be able to see Secrets of the Psychics again. And why? Because Geller has had his complaint against the programme rejected.

After the programme, Geller complained of unfair treatment to the Broadcasting Standards Commission and I, along with a team from Channel 4, went to give evidence. It’s been a long wait, but the Commission has just announced its complete rejection of Geller’s complaint. So it wasn’t unfair to have magicians showing how they could duplicate those “psychic feats”, and experts saying there is no reliable scientific evidence for his psychic powers whatsoever.

If I’m sounding jubilant about this little victory it is not because I personally have anything against Uri Geller. He has always been charming and kind to me, invited me and my children to tea at his flashy mansion on the banks of the Thames (I liked the toilet completely surrounded by mirrors), showed us his boat (aptly named Paranormal), and let us swim in his pool. No – it is because this is a matter of scientific truth, and freedom.

Although millions of people believe in extra-sensory perception, ghosts, UFOs, crystal powers, and the tenets of astrology – the evidence for ESP is controversial (at best), and the claims of astrology demonstrably false. However, people don’t want to see endless meticulous experiments with nothing but negative results. Viewers, and the producers who are their slaves, seem to prefer conspiracy theories, beings from outer space, scientists who cover up the truth about our mental powers, and Russians with strong accents who can move trains with their teeth or bamboozle ageing but famous TV presenters with children’s party tricks.

There was a classic, if mild, example of this genre last week. In The Secrets of Sleep, we saw an experiment from the 1970s in which US psychologist Charlie Tart tested a young woman who had out-of-body experiences during sleep. On just one occasion she correctly reported a five-digit number on a shelf above her bed. We were not told that the woman was a mental patient who disappeared right after the tests and could not be retested, nor that the EEG record showed possible mains interference at the time of her success (as though she were trying to get out of the bed and have a look), nor that another claimant was tested by Tart and failed. The impression given was that this wonderful experiment has been ignored for decades by closed-minded scientists who want to suppress the truth about the psychic powers of our sleeping minds. This is ridiculous. The truth (and how that word is abused when psychic issues are at stake) is that many other scientists tried to repeat Tart’s finding, and failed. I know. I was one of them.

Why should we scientists ignore such a potentially exciting discovery? If I had succeeded in repeating it I might have achieved every scientist’s dream – to uncover something absolutely new and shocking about reality. But it just isn’t so. As Richard Dawkins said, if Geller’s powers could be proved to be real they would open up an entirely new field of physics, scientists would flock to be involved, and someone would get a Nobel prize. But they haven’t been.

That’s why it was so refreshing to see Secrets of the Psychics – to see the ‘mysterious’ ouija board explained, to see the mediums’ tricks exposed, and to learn just why all those experts doubt that psychic phenomena exist at all. And to all those producers pandering to popular belief I say wake up! It is possible to make an enjoyable anti-paranormal programme. It is possible to be sceptical and still please the viewers. Even my local green-grocer liked it “You know” she said (lowering her voice almost conspiratorially) “I don’t think Uri Geller’s really psychic, do you?”.

No I do not. I was glad to give evidence at the hearing. I was glad to explain why the evidence is not good enough. And above all I was glad that Uri lost his complaint. I may be wrong about his psychic powers, in which case he will be able to prove it to me, and then I will gladly change my mind. Meanwhile it’s good to know that programmers can make challenging and sceptical programmes in the knowledge that, if they do so fairly and honestly, the broadcasting complaints procedure will stand by them. And when Secrets of the Psychics comes on again – do watch.