Before the unbelieving eyes of millions of amazed late-night TV viewers, a psychic surgeon performed his bloody work with bare hands on an unanesthetized, uncomplaining patient. The surgeon forced his fingers into the man's abdomen. A trickle of blood ran down the patient's chest and side. Viewers clearly saw the surgeon's hand reach into the man's body and feel around. Finally, the surgeon withdrew and held in his hand a bloody, foul-looking piece of tissue.
He tossed the mass into a bowl and reached back inside the patient to withdraw another piece of black tissue and then another, both of which were deposited in the gore-filled bowl.The surgeon closed the wound just as skillfully, wiped away the blood and stepped aside to let the camera focus on his handiwork. To the gasping amazement of all viewers, there was no scar on the patient's body!
The eye had been misled. An extreme sleight of hand was responsible for the success of this "operation." The televised doctor was not a psychic wonder but rather magician James "The Amazing" Randi showing exactly how "psychic surgeons" operate.
Randi's performance included a report on the work of James Noland M.D., a surgeon who traveled to the Philippines to observe psychic surgeons who claim to operate and cure with only their bare hands. Noland found that tissues removed from patients were animal parts and that blood on soiled sponges from such "operations" rarely matched the patient's blood type.
Randi also duplicates feats like bending keys and spoons and starting stopped watches with a touch of the hand. True to a magician's unwritten code of secrecy, he is not wont to reveal the exact nature of his tricks, but his "psychic operation" is said to involve a fake thumb that contains blood and innards.
Both Noland and Randi are members of the worldwide group Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP. Its purpose? To rationally examine the claims of paranormal events and beliefs - topics like astrology, Bigfoot, water witching, fire walking, ghosts, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, unidentified flying objects, palmistry, psychic metal-bending and the like.
Though CSICOP members strive to keep an open mind on such claims, their investigations often debunk many popular beliefs as pseudo-science. In a few cases, they uncover outright fraud. CSICOP's membership includes philosophers, scientists such as Carl Sagan, physicians, psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, magicians, authors such as Isaac Asimov, journalists and other concerned citizens.
"Our most interesting case was when John Hinckley Jr. shot United States President Ronald Reagan in 1981," says Paul Kurtz, CSICOP chairman and a philosophy instructor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "Tamara Rand, a psychic, put out a story that she had made a prediction that a man with the initials `J.H.' would fire a hail of bullets and hit Reagan in the chest. It was an uncommonly accurate prediction."
Most of the major media in North America carried the story of the amazing prediction. But CSICOP sent an investigator to the TV station where the prediction was made. By questioning the camera crew, the investigator discovered that the prediction had been taped just after the assassination attempt.
"We in CSICOP aren't out to debunk anything," Kurtz says. "We only examine the evidence of claims of the paranormal. Belief in things like astrology, ghosts, ESP, UFOs, pyramid power and the like is so widespread because the news media know such topics sell. So they play it up tremendously. Thus, only the pro-paranormal point of view is presented.
"Many of these areas - such as astrology - have become quasi-religions for many persons. I personally call belief in such myths the `transcendental temptation,' because these paranormal areas usually go way beyond rational thought."
Henry Gordon, columnist and feature writer for the Toronto Star newspaper, has been a professional magician for 35 years. He pens a weekly column, "Debunking," which details the tricks used by mentalists and psychics.
"One of my standard performances shows how psychics make objects move with just the power of the mind," Gordon says. "One method involves using a fine, almost invisible thread to pull objects. I also bend spoons and keys like Uri Geller. The actual technique is so simple, most people are amazed how easily it's done."
On a Canadian talk show, Gordon was paired with a man who claimed to be psychic. But Gordon stole the show and convinced the psychic that he, Gordon, also was psychic because he knew so much about the guest's personal life.
"I went through quite a bit of trouble to prepare background information about the man," Gordon says. "That's how most psychics operate. They find out things about people beforehand."
Another commoN "superstition" is the belief that astrological bodies - the moon and the stars - influence behavior and fate.
Many people believe, for example, that a full moon causes people to do bizarre things. Many emergency-room doctors and nurses will attest to this phenomenon. Some mental-health experts have suggested a full moon causes disruptive "biological tides" in the human body to ebb and flow.
But Ivan W. Kelly, a psychology professor, and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan completed seven studies comparing times of a full moon with aberrant behavior like murder and suicide. No correlation between periods of a full moon and increased crime was found.
In a similar study, Nick Sanduleak, an astronomer at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, correlated 3,300 homicides from 1971 to 1981 to the phases of the moon.
"There was no evidence to show there are more homicides during times of a full moon than at other times," Sanduleak says.
"You often hear the argument that if the moon can affect the tides of the Earth, certainly it can affect the water in the human body. But that just isn't so. Tides move because the ocean is so huge, but the water in a human is all contained in separate cells. Moreover, the amount of water in a human is too small to be affected by the moon.
"If the theory of moon madness were true, you would see tides taking place in mud puddles and swimming pools.
"What does correlate for heightened times of homicide is high rates of alcohol use, generally on Friday and Saturday nights," Sanduleak concludes.
Similarly, proponents of astrology claim that the gravitational pull of the moon and other heavenly bodies influences the affairs and fortunes of people everywhere.
"Actually, the body of the attending physician at birth has far more gravitational effect on a baby than any planetary body," says CSICOP chairman Kurtz. "But nobody ever figures the weight of the doctor into an astrological chart. Moreover, there are different types of astrology like Chinese, Western, and Indian, and they all differ.
"The astrology used in Europe and North America was set up in the 2nd century A.D. by Ptolemy when it was still widely believed the Earth was the center of the universe. And because of the procession of the equinox due to the Earth's wobble, the entire astrological chart is now off 180 degrees, anyhow. So your chart is actually for the wrong sign."
Astrologists also like to pair couples according to compatible birth signs. But Professor Bernard Silverman, a Michigan State University psychologist, looked at the records of 2,978 couples who married and 478 couples who divorced. Those married under "incompatible" signs married and divorced equally as often as those born under "compatible" signs.
Another study considered personality characteristics according to the stars. Those born under the planet Mars are said to be aggressive and war-like, which contrasts those individuals ruled by Venus, who are influenced by love and beauty. So, James Barth and James Bennett at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., studied the horoscopes of men who re-enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps between 1962 and 1970. There were as many re-enlistments among the gentle children of Venus as among the rough-and-ready Mars group.
Astronomers Roger Culver and Philip Ianna studied 3,011 specific predictions by well-known astrologers. Results? Ten percent were realized. CSICOP members also fed the astrological predictions of the popular supermarket tabloids into computers.
"The accuracy rate of astrologers - year in, year out - is 10 percent," says Kurtz. "That is much less than sheer chance."
Polls have revealed that more people know their astrological signs than their blood types. Because about 60 percent of newspaper subscribers faithfully read the astrology columns, CSICOP has instituted a campaign for papers to carry the following disclaimer: "Astrological forecasts are for entertainment value only. Such predictions have no scientific basis."
But a belief in the positions of the stars is not the only one that's misguiding. To investigate the claims and practices of TV faith healers, Gerald Larue, emeritus professor of archaeology and Biblical studies at the University of Southern California, formed the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and initiated the Faith Healing Investigation Project. Religious scholars, scientists, psychologists, physicians and yet another professional magician comprised the panel.
"Audiences always are amazed when a faith healer knows the name of an ill person, where he or she is from, and what the illness is," Larue says. "My personal feeling is it would be great if faith healers really could cure cancer or replace missing vertebrae by simply laying on hands. But the evidence of many months' investigation shows it simply does not happen."
Larue sent investigators who gave phony names, diseases, and addresses to one faith healer's wife who stays in the audience with the ill. Then, when the sick person comes on the stage, she transmits all the pertinent information to the faith healer via a tiny radio transmitter. Like clockwork, the faith healer solemnly announces he "divinely knows" the person's name and disease.
"We had a radio scanner and simply recorded on tape 37.18 megacycles, where you can clearly hear the wife radioing the information to the faith healer," Larue says.
He also learned that healthy people are made to look sick so they can be "miraculously cured" on camera. Some sick people were told they were healed although they were given no real help.
"Faith healing is a fraud that exploits the genuine faith of many people," Larue says. "And it's done at the expense of human lives; these victims are being diverted from authentic medical care, or they stop using vital medications."
Whereas practitioners of this "art" mask their deceptions with claims of faith, another group preaches the powers of the mind. They are known as "fire walkers."
Seminars teaching the ancient mind-over-matter "secrets" of fire walking are taught - for a hefty fee. So Bernie Leikind, a research physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles, signed up.
With some trepidation, he walked over glowing coals barefooted. But he ignored the instructional part of the seminar and did something the "instructor" expressly forbade: Leikind looked down at his feet while fire walking. Nonetheless, his soles were not scorched.
"So the training has nothing to do with whether or not you get burned," Leikind says. "The point of fire walking is supposed to be that simple belief and the power of the mind can overcome the laws of physics - in this case, burning your skin by hot coals.
"Actually, people always have been able to walk on coals because heat energy and temperature are not the same."
Fire walking involves thermal capacity and thermal conductivity. Although the coals are about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, they have cooled, are covered with some ash, and conduct heat poorly. The situation is much like a cake baking in an oven set at 350 degrees. The air inside the oven, the pan and the cake all are the same temperature. If you stick your hand into the oven the hot air or the baking cake won't burn you. Touch the pan, however, and you'll get quite a burn. That's because metal has a greater thermal conductivity than air or the cake.
"Fire walkers walk on coals that are more like the cake than the pan," Leikind says. "To prove my point, ask a `fire walker' to walk barefooted across a 10-foot stretch of red-hot frying pans."
Leikind also has lain on a bed of nails like the fakirs of India. Three thousand nails, all the same length, were driven through a board. He calculated for his height and weight and found there were 600 nails per square foot. That means there were 10 to 12 nails per pound of body weight. Thus, the pressure on each nail was only an ounce or two.
"Of course, you don't just jump onto a bed of nails," he says. "You support yourself with your hands and lower yourself down. It felt uncomfortable, but I didn't puncture my skin."
Another popular phenomenon is the sighting of unidentified flying objects.
Since the late 1940s, there have been thousands of UFO sightings and hundreds of reports of earthlings captured and whisked away in spaceships from other planets really been visiting Earth?
Philip J. Klass, contributing avionic's editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and author of "UFOs, the Public Deceived," and "UFOs, Explained," reports that radar during the 1950s and early 1960s, was plagued by spurous echoes, often caused by temperature inversion. Those inversions caused some of the energy from ground-based radar units to "bend" downward so that it reflected off objects on the ground. Thus, as weather conditions changed, a "blip" could disappear from one area of the radar screen and soon reappear on another.
An inexperinced operator could have concluded that the object responsible for that blip moved 100 miles in 30 seconds a speed of 12,000 mph. Because that speed clearly is beyond the ability of any known early craft, it "had to be" a UFO.
Flocks of birds in flight also can show up as radar "blips."
But since the liking of computers to civilian and military radar posts in the late 1960s and 1970s, radar reports of UFOs "traviling at incredible speeds" have vastly declined. Why? Because computerized radar units are programmed to filter out spurious weather echoes or echoes from things that fly consistently slower than, say, 40 mph.
"I've investigated the most famous UFO cases over the past 17 years, and I've not found one that makes me think we're being visited by spacecraft from other worlds," Klass says. "There is not a single piece of UFO evidence anywhere that stands up.
"Actually, 90 percent of UFOs become identified flying objects," Kurtz says. "A UFO sighting usually turns out to be a planet, weather balloon, helicopter, plane or some other type of explainable phenomenon."
Many UFO sightings are hoaxes. In 1984, for instance, in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, many citizens spotted circular objects in the air. When dozens of such reports from usually reliable observers were filed, CSICOP sent an investigator.
The sightings became known as the "UFO Burger Hoax." At a local luncheonette on a private airfield, a group of pilots got together to fly in circles in their airplanes and, on signal, stopped their engines and glided while turning their landing lights on and off. The pilots involved called themselves "The Martians."
So, there likely will be another, less fantastic explanation for the next incredible UFO sighting, psychic surgery or mind-boggling act of mind over matter.
Unfortunately, it's not nearly as much fun to read about ordinary things.
(c) 1987 by Charles Downey
Reprinted with permission by North America/The Times of London Syndicates