Debunked Pseudoscience & Religion


(Originally posted on the SkepticBlog, it is posted here with the generous permission of the author, mentalist Mark Edward. For more by Mr. Edward, please visit his site, the SkepticBlog or Skeptic.)

Sai Baba and parrot
Sai Baba and parrot

In response to a blogger to my last post on levitation who requested something “intellectual” with some “brain meat” on it and at the risk of possibly spoiling your appetite if you happen to be reading this before eating, allow me to ramble on another band of performers that might bear some looking into and who to my knowledge haven’t been given a scientific overview. These are the rare but powerful acts of regurgitators. Why? Read on and I promise that by the end of this post you will understand how it ties in with being skeptical. I will also address several hot issues that have been surfacing here of late and answer another comment with no, not everyone is aware that magic is trickery. Far from it!

Regurgitators are people who swallow objects then spit them back out, sometimes in a called for order such as numbered coins or trinkets that are shown beforehand to the audience. This  feat is one that should interest not only those concerned with bizarre conjuring, but also medical and psychological scholars who would see bulimia taken to a whole new level. There may be some obscure psychological connection between anorexia, bulimia and exhibitionism, I’m not sure. Probably not, but it might be interesting to look into. Stay with me here, I’m going to make a point eventually, hence the parrot and the shoes.

In my experience with side-show performers, I have seen amazing things done in the name of entertainment. Some involve sleight of hand or a “gaff” of some sort, but the lion’s share of those who deal in fire-eating, sword-swallowing, water-spouting and wonders like eating light-bulbs or piercing their skin with sewing needles don’t use any “tricks” at all. There are assuredly “techniques” that allow these modern day fakirs to do their thing without hurting themselves or ending up in the hospital, but for the most part, performers like my friend Todd Robbins; the preeminent sideshow worker on the scene today whose work I admire more than any 100 standard magicians put together and who remains one of the few truly talented exponents of an art form that had virtually died out as an entertainment but is seeing a healthy resurgence thanks to the Goth and residual punk scenesters who can’t seem to get enough of tattoos, piercings and pushing bodily functions to the limit, really does eat the light-bulb. There’s no trick. Watch Todd earn his pay using only his breath to fully inflate a hot water bottle to gigantic size before it explodes and you will see what I mean. Some “entertainments” are more about specialized skills than deception and tricking. Feats of super-human endurance like these and the latest spate of living-in-a-box or standing-on-a–telephone-pole for days like David Blaine, fire handling, strength resisters, magnetic ladies and poison eaters can fall under this semi non-magic trick category. This is a “magic” of a different sort.

Sideshow or “geek” acts are out front in your face performers and part of their charm is the fact that what they perform is  for the most part “real” albeit off-beat in nature. Few if any are out to cheat the unwary by getting them to buy into their performances as anything psychic or supernatural, but there are correlations with gaining the confidence of gullible people who might see such displays not as pure entertainment but as something more realistic and therefore make false assumptions and choices based on wherever those few unscrupulous people might lead them.

Hold on. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting another willy-nilly expose of secrets. No way. Todd and people like him are carrying on a noble tradition of American folklore and have worked way too hard to be treated with anything other than complete respect. What interests me and here what may inspire others to take a closer work at “miracles” or” “messiah marketing” of any sort is the psychological mindset or a parapsychological presentiment that allows people to make the leap from what is clearly a theatrical stunt to what can easily become something faith credited or taken beyond the midway and edited into our living rooms as something paranormal – or even divine. Nope. Not everybody is aware that magic is trickery. Not by a long shot. No conspiracy paranoia intended here, but take a look around. We are living in an era of unparalleled “personality cults” and it seems to me the further away from the carnival midway and the higher up we go up the food chain we go, the more layers of double speak, black ops, dirty tricks and subterfuge reveal the modern covert sideshow we are witnessing play itself out every day. Take Obamamania… You bet I’m skeptical.

If you doubt that things of this nature haven’t been historically twisted to the advantage of mediums and other underhanded scam operators, might I suggest reading about people like the aforementioned levitator D.D. Home? In a demonstration he did many times, (which usually commenced with prayer sessions) Home could hold white-hot embers in his bare hands. He was even seen to plunge his hands and his face into a hearth fire, “moving it about as though bathing it in water.” His skin showed no signs of injury whatsoever. According to the experts, (whoever they were back then) Home was not once – in any of his 1,500 séances – caught in any kind of deception or exposed in perpetrating a hoax. A man after my own heart…

Some more present day examples may be in order. Going into the political arena would be superfluous what with people like the Terminator in office. Let’s take the religious cult of Sai Baba that includes claims of transparent parrots, materializing shoes (see photos) and constant streams of vibhuti or “sacred ash.” Check out his “Gallery of Miracles” at Are you getting  my point? This folderol is not taken as sideshow or carnival entertainment in India. In these questionable instances, despite what some sensitive magicians, mentalists or “psychic entertainers” may decry never happens, I’m confident that rather than manifestations of spiritual contact, my bet is that sleight of hand or some more down to earth deception is taking place in every one of the “miracles” shown.

One has to ask, “…Materializing shoes? …why?  To gain the confidence of the gullible, that’s why. The easier and more down to earth the miracle, the better. And what could be more down to earth than a pair of materializing shoes? You have to hand it to Sai, if anything …he’s creative. We all know the pious and reverent have used trickery (and science) to portray what they do as something deific. Remember Peter Popoff? Well, guess what? He’s back to his old tricks: Incredible.

Hey, I like a transparent parrot as much as the next guy, but when it’s tied into God or “godmen,” I get irritated. Don’t you? According to Sixty Minutes, Sai Baba told their crew that cameras would not be allowed into his temple because. “…They do not want to know the truth.” Nice double speak there. Mentalists call that verbal deception. As far as I’m concerned, magicians, mentalists and “psychic entertainers” who make an honest living performing at reasonable venues like colleges, private parties, events, showrooms and on radio and television have nothing to worry about. But if they fall into the age old trap of getting greedy and starting a cult, opening a church or calling yourself a holy man when it’s clear you’re using a thumb-tip or Photoshop, it will be difficult for this performer to not raise his voice in protest. For rational thinking minds (not even counting atheists) and those who can see the con going down and who venerate the Art of Magic, things like this give magic, magicians and mentalists a bad name. Part of the challenge of being able to put something compelling, innovative and entertaining on The Skeptologists will be finding new ways to gently push the envelope between what we have accepted and defined as “magical”  for so long and what is being sold to us as fact by the media, charlatans and woo peddlers today and in the future. Nobody is saying this will be easy to do. I don’t like the word or concept of “debunking” and destroying people’s belief systems is not entertaining or heroic. It’s not something I want to be a part of. However, to put a finer point on it:

Back in 1987 when Popoff was debunked by Randi for using a radio transmitter earphone to receive and then call forth pre-show information culled from his audience that his assistant was piping to him electronically, a secret method that had been used by “thought readers” for decades was let out of the bag. To me, this was a classic example of the ends justifying the means. I doubt that there was a mentalist out there who suffered  much from that type of “exposure” or would argue that it was a clear case of fraud. Randi made a heroic move and a milestone in skepticism. We can only hope to follow in those kinds of  clear-cut footsteps.

Would the world have been better off if Randi had known what he knew and done nothing?  I don’t think so. It was Popoff who took it upon himself to take a mentalist tool and subvert its use for his own nefarious purposes.I put it to the reader that in cases like this nobody for a long time knew that the magic Popoff was doing in the name of religion was trickery. This is the kind of con that’s going on out there in the big-time psychic-televangelist-world right now! I can cite a dozen methods that people like  John Edward (no relation …please) and others too numerous to mention use to generate their own special kind of “miracles” on a syndicated daily basis.

So there you have it. Professional magicians and mentalists “in the know ” are well versed in these methods and (speaking for those I still hang with) know it’s wrong but can be understandably head shy to get involved with speaking out because doing so could conceivably take cherished secrets (and cash flow) out of their pockets and put them squarely in the cross-hairs of the less experienced amateurs, who unfortunately can have the loudest voices but little of the streetwise experience to know or care what’s really going on. These neophyte know-it-alls can make things very uncomfortable for those of us who have climbed the “professional psychic entertainer” ladder and stepped back down with a conscience. I know. Because of literally one false move, I’m now officially banned from lecturing in the U.K.  I can no longer show my face as a magician in one of my favorite cities in the world because of one person who took it upon himself to start a holy war against me. Believe me, I too cherish many of these methods and I would be hard pressed to share them with anybody, but there comes a time …

Although I doubt that Joe Public gives a fig either way, it gets a little awkward and will require careful treatment if we are to separate taking down criminals who are genuinely defrauding the public and crossing some arbitrary line by pissing off magicians and mentalists. It’s a small but vocal niche we need to get on our side and not against us.

This issue has been a never ending battle that goes way back to Houdini, Dunninger and other magi who hopped on the anti-spiritualist bandwagon. Then as now, there were some who questioned the real reasons behind why these stars of magic found it imperative to speak out. The consensus in Houdini’s case was that he saw a  chance to cash in on the whole controversy, but that’s a whole other issue.  …Or is it?  Then of course we have all the speculation about his search for his dead mother’s ghost and who could fault him for doing that?  A clever man Harry.

Bottom Line: Simple debunking and showing magic as tricks as an adjunct to critical thinking is just not going to cut it. We have to do much better than that. Regurgitating old ploys is not enough. We may have a chance to clear the air once and for all, clearly define what we as voices of reason stand for and change history. Lofty goals? Yes.  Possible outcome: A better understanding of some of the ways science can influence religion and vice versa. How our collective Skeptologist voice gets raised and how we handle this borderland territory mined with so many explosive opinions will be what makes us different from any other program on the planet. I’m ready. Are you?

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Mark Edward

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