Posts Tagged ‘James Randi’

Book of Photographs of the Paranormal

October 31, 2020

Photographs of the Unknown, by Robert Rickard and Richard Kelly (London: New English Library 1980).

I thought this book would be a suitably spooky subject for Hallowe’en. Bob Rickard is one of the founders and editors of the Fortean Times, the magazine of the weird that’s been going since the 1970s. A little note on the last page underneath the picture credits gives instruction to readers how they can submit their photographs of the paranormal to the Fortean Times. The blurb on the back cover runs

SEA MONSTERS

ALIENS

LEVITATION

POLTERGEISTS

ECTOPLASM

PHANTOMS

UFOS …. all photographed!

The largest, most complete, most amazing collection of photographs of the Unknown and the Unexplained ever published.

Many have never been published before, others are presented for the first time in their original full colour. They have been researched and collected from all over the world.

If you believe and want to convince other people, if you don’t know for sure but have an open mind, if you’ve ever been inclined to believe but want to see the evidence, you will need this unique archive that covers the whole range of unexplained phenomena.

The book has the following chapters, each containing these individual sections

Introduction

Strange Life, Loch Ness, Water Monsters, Sea Monsters, The Yeti, Bigfoot.

Unusual Natural Phenomena, Living rocks, Falls, Atmospheric magic, Natural ‘UFOs’, ghost lights.

UFOs, Flying Cigars, UFOs and Planes, UFOS over Water, UFO Shapes, UFOs Above Us, UFOs in Motion, UFO Beings Among Us? Optical UFOs, Computer Analysis, UFOs from the Sea.

Psychic Phenomena, Possession, Stigmata, Bleeding Images, Ectoplasm, Mediumship, A Modern Medium, Thoughtography, Kirlian Photography.

Paranormal Persons, BVM and Angels, Portraits of Christ, Aliens, Phantoms, Materializations.

Mind over Matter, Yoga, Pain Immunity, Psychic Surgery, Fire Immunity, Firewalking, Spoonbenders, Table Turning, Levitation of Objects, Apports, Levitation, Poltergeists.

This is another book I ordered from Amazon in order to give myself something to read during the lockdown. I think I remember it from the time it first came out, and if so, then the book really scared me. I was at secondary school, and the books publication was featured on breakfast TV. I remember one of the presenters of the Beeb’s breakfast show introducing a piece on it by saying something about the unknown being photographed and asking ‘but what are they photographing?’ Which is a very good question. The book I remember had a different cover. This was a monotone/ black and white photo of a medium producing ectoplasm from their mouth, in which there were faces. This doesn’t seem to have this image, which may well have come from the hardback edition. Or it may be that I’m confusing it with a completely different book. There is, however, a photo of ectoplasm coming out of a medium’s left nostril, in which there’s the face of a young soldier killed in World War I. It was these ectoplasmic faces which scared me, and I can remember the fear I felt passing the book on a display table in George’s, the big local bookshop in Bristol on a trip there.

Some of the photos are very well known, like Patterson-Gimlin pic of Bigfoot, a still taken from film footage of the creature walking in the American woods made a few years before. To many people, the film and photo are proof that Sasquatch is a real, paws and pelt animal. The film’s been shown on any number of TV documentaries about Bigfoot and the Yeti. Some of the experts called on in these programmes to give their opinion have said that it’s unlikely to be a fake because the fur is of different lengths. You’d see this in a real animal, but not in a costume. On the negative side, other experts have said that it can’t be real, as the creature seems to have both male and female genitalia. But perhaps it’s just got manboobs.

The debate about this photo still goes on today, but others are hoaxes or almost certainly hoaxes. A few years ago it was revealed that the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ of the Loch Ness monster, which has appeared in countless documentaries, newspapers and magazine articles about the cryptid, was very definitely a fake. It was created by adding a plesiosaurus-style neck to a toy submarine, which was then sent sailing in the Loch.

The same goes for some, at least, of the UFO photographs. There’s a photo of a UFO bearing the Ummo symbol. The Ummo messages were a series of letters sent to various people in Franco’s claim, which claimed they came from aliens, who had travelled to Earth from the planet Ummo. They contained a wealth of detail about their spacecraft, language, home world and so on. Most, if not all UFO investigators now believe they were a hoax. As are the photos of the Venusian spaceships taken by George Adamski. One of the photographs Adamski claimed was of an alien spacecraft was actually of his chicken coop. A few weeks ago I went to an online lecture hosted by the paranormal investigation group, ASSAP, in which the speaker suggested that Adamski’s Venusian spacecraft was actually a photograph of a type of gas lantern then available. And yes, they do look exactly the same.

The ‘thoughtographs’ are the images Ted Serios, an alcoholic bellboy, claimed to produce on film using the power of his mind. This was after he’d drunk enough to start his gums and anus bleeding. I don’t know if Serios was ever caught in fraud, but I’ve watched documentaries where sceptics have shown how it could have been faked. The same goes for the piccie of Soviet psychic Nina Kulagina showing off her telekinesis skills. This was debunked back in the ’90s or so in the Channel 4 programme Secrets of the Psychics.

Sceptics have also argued that psychic surgery is also a fraud. The psychics who claim to be able to perform such miracles don’t actually cut into the body of their unfortunate dupes, and the disease organs they remove aren’t human but chicken guts. This particular paranormal field was the subject of an episode of Jonathan Creek, the BBC detective drama about a crime-busting stage magician. That particular episode involved the murder of someone, who was dying and desperate to have similar treatment, or who had actually undergone it. It was some years ago, and I can’t really remember. It doesn’t matter, as the show came down very much on the side of the sceptics.

Sceptics have also presented a strong argument that firewalking isn’t supernatural either. From what I remember, flesh burns at quite a high temperature, higher than the coals and embers on which people walk, and so anyone can do it. Well, that’s what they claim. I wouldn’t like to test it, and don’t advise anyone else to do either unless they know exactly what they’re doing.

The Fortean Times also carried an article a few years ago, which also claimed that the photograph showing a group of men in broadbrimmed hats and raincoats surrounding a diminutive alien was also a hoax. It was published in a German newspaper as an April Fool’s or Hallowe’en prank, or the German equivalents thereof. As for spoon-bending, made notorious by Uri Geller, there’s a trick to fake that which goes all the way back to the 18th century and the book, Rational Recreations. It’s possible that Geller, if he is a fake, is using that trick or similar.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the spirit photos are also fakes. They’ve been taken since the 19th century and the American photographer Hans Mumler. I have a feeling that Mumler was sued by people, who believed he’d deceived them. They noticed that the dead relatives and other people, who appeared in Mumler’s photos, did so in the same poses, expressions and attitudes as they had in other photographs. There were several ways such photographs could be faked with the plates exposed twice, once for the image of the sitter, and again for the supposed spirit. However, I think Mumler, or perhaps one of his competitors, was found not guilty because the prosecution couldn’t prove which method, if any, he’d used.

There are also problems with the photos of mediums producing ectoplasm. I think some fakes used to swallow cheesecloth, which they’d then regurgitate during seances. It was also noted that the female spirit one of the 19th century mediums used to materialise looked remarkably like her, but the two did appear side by side. It’s probably fraud but this argues against it.

Several of the poltergeist photos seem to be of the Enfield polt that was investigated by the SPR and Guy Lyon Playfair in the 1970s. This is a notorious British case which Playfair seemed to believe was genuinely paranormal, and which he publicised. The sceptical UFO magazine Magonia has suggested instead that it was fraud within an unhealthy family situation.

Other paranormal phenomena are almost certainly camera artefacts, such as the mysterious balls of light in one set of photographs, as the book itself suggests. Others include the mysterious tendrils of light captured by a female photographer. I came across the same effect on photos taken by a visitor to Derby jail, which is now open to ghost hunters as a haunted location. A few quick experiments showed that this did seem to be a trick of the light as it was caught in the camera lens.

I’ve also come across an explanation, which I’m afraid I can’t remember, for the Kirlian photographs that were also all the rage at one time. This showed that, as dramatic as they appear, they definitely aren’t of any aura surrounding living things. But they do look really beautiful, however.

I doubt if any of these photographs would convince a sceptic like the late James Randi or mentalist like Derren Brown. On the other hand, it may be that some are genuine, and that there really are paranormal forces out there that some have been able to capture on film.

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

Kevin Logan’s Pick of Alex Jones Ranting Insanity for 2016

January 3, 2017

The New Year is a time when the commercial channels look back over the events of the previous year. For example, in sport the Beeb broadcasts the Sports Personality of the Year, ITV has Jimmy Carr fronting the comedy quiz, Big Fat Quiz of the Year, Charlie Brooker casts his jaundiced eye over the years’ events in a special edition of Screenwipe. In its prime, News Quiz on Radio 4 did much the same with a special, Christmas edition of the show looking back over the previous year. So it’s in this spirit that I’m reblogging Kevin Logan’s compilation of his favourite bits of sheer ranting lunacy from Infowars’ Alex Jones for 2016.

Jones is a conspiracy theorist, who really does seem to believe that the world is being run by a secret cabal of Satanists determined to destroy everything good and noble, including and especially America. He appeared a few years ago on Jon Ronson’s documentary series, Secret Rulers of the World, in which he claimed that the global elite meeting at Bohemian Grove every year had sacrificed a baby in a Devil-worshipping ceremony. He has his own internet show, Infowars. His broadcasting style is completely unrestrained. He’ll go off on long, splenetic tirades against the ‘globalists’ he believes are wrecking the planet and enslaving its citizens. He’s also done it on British TV. On Jon Ronson’s programme, he went off on a rant about how Americans wouldn’t stand for the globalists’ Satanic shenanigans as this was the Land of the Free, and they were serfs tugging their forelocks to the landlords, like Europe. Andrew Neil had him on his show over here, in which, sure enough, Jones starting ranting again. This ended with camera cutting away from the infowarrior to show Neil making circular motions with his finger around his head in the internationally recognised sign for ‘nutter’. Piers Morgan also had him on his show for an intelligent, informed conversation about the issue of gun rights in America after another mass shooting. Of course, he didn’t get any such thing. Instead, Jones took great umbrage at the question, no matter how mildly Morgan tried phrasing and rephrasing it, and ended up, once again, ranting and threatening the former Mirror editor with dire retribution if he turned up on the other side of the Atlantic to try to take the American people’s guns away.

This short piece by Kevin Logan, who makes vlogs attacking the Alt Right and the disgusting denizens of the Men’s Rights movement, who are frequently part and parcel of the former, contains some fine examples of unbridled lunacy from Jones.
He starts off attacking James Randi, the notorious Skeptic, who specialised in debunking fraudulent mediums and psychics, before going on to claim that the world really is run by Satanists. He also rants about how men are being told that they’re redundant, but there will be a spiritual uprising of real men against the machine Satanist overlords. He also rants about how it’s now hip to fail and be a slacker, have pus and dead babies all over your face, smoke weed and worship Satan. There’s also moments where he mocks liberals, prancing around with exaggeratedly effeminate hand motions, while ranting about how liberals claim their nice and fluffy but really want to kill and enslave everyone. But they look caring and hip while doing so. He also mixes in with his ranting his personal, family history. In his diatribe against Piers Morgan, Jones screams about how patriotic his family has been, as they fought on both sides during the Texas revolution against Mexico. Which as Logan points out, would make Jones a traitor if he personally had done so. He quotes the Japanese WW II admiral, Yamamoto, as saying that they had ‘awoken a sleeping giant’ with their attack on America. He then claims that Oklahoma, and, by implication, the rest of the US, would have caved in without a shot if the Japanese had turned up in pink uniforms claiming to be ‘trannies’. There’s also a scene where he shouts at someone to shut up, and calls them an ‘authoritarian’, which is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. He also rants about how he is being maligned as sexist and racist, and that Fox News will run a hit piece about a serial stalker of women. They will then show his face, turning red.

This is all highly amusing, but there is a deeply serious side to these rants. Jones was and is a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump. He had him on his show several times during the presidential election campaign and the nominations for the presidency. He claimed that Trump was just the man to stand against the globalists, and is still doing so, despite the glaringly obvious fact that Trump is stuffing his entire cabinet with them. I don’t know how many people take Jones or his show seriously. I suspect a large portion of Jones’ ranting is just theatre. He’s got an outrageous image, which he deliberately plays up to as he knows this will get the rubes watching. It’s the same attitude the great actor and drunk Oliver Reed adopted. Reed was notorious for his drinking, but said in an interview once a few years ago that he presented this persona because this is what the public wanted. They didn’t want to see Oliver Reed the actor, he opined. They wanted to see Oliver Reed the hellraiser. And the same’s true, I think, for Jones.

And his rants do show, in a grotesquely distorted form, many of the issues that do haunt the American Right, as well as wider society. When he talks about the threat of the machines taking over, he’s actually addressing a genuine problem that has been discussed by serious scientists. Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Reading University begins his book, March of the Machines, with a scenario set 33 years from now, in which intelligent machines have taken over and enslaved humanity. He has said in interviews that at one time he was very depressed by this prospect, before he turned to exploring cyborgisation. Way back in the 1990s, the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Martin Rees, also discussed the possibility of robots taking over in a book he wrote, Our Final Minute, on possible threats to the future of humanity. And this is quite apart from the threat of massive job losses – about 2/3 are expected to go – from widespread automation during this century.

Since at least the 1990s, and going back even further to the 1960s, if not long before, there have been conspiracy theories about Satanists running the American government. This became particularly strong with the Gulf War and George Bush senior’s comments about a ‘new world order’. This conspiracy theory draws partly on older theories, in which America is being secretly run by the Freemasons and the Illuminati, following 19th century reactionaries, who tried to explain the American and French Revolutions as the actions of clandestine groups trying to destroy the monarchical, aristocratic order of the ancien regime. These theories were later revived by the Nazi and Fascist theorists in the 20th century, like Nesta Webster, and then entered the UFO milieu in the 1980s and ’90s with the emergence of the Abduction myth. This produced another conspiracy theory that the US government were allowing aliens to abduct and experiment on humans, and even create hybrid human-alien children, in return for technological secrets. Several of the people pushing this myth declared that the aliens’ human agents were the ‘Illuminati’, and tried to support this using passages from the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, I’ve seen no evidence that Jones is racist or anti-Semitic. It’s clear from some of the videos he’s posted that he has Black employees on his show. But there is a profoundly racist aspect to the UFO conspiracy theories he espouses.

As for the homophobia, very many people, particularly amongst the older generation in Britain and America are unhappy with gay rights. They’re also deeply concerned about feminism and changing attitudes to gender roles. This has left many men feeling emasculated. And this has been an issue in American politics with strongly anti-feminist activists like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Anne Coulter, to name just a few. And while Jones’ statement that the new, Satanic order wishes to make men obsolete is farcically grotesque, masculine obsolescence was the stuff of journalistic discussion back in the 1990s. Some of the female journalists in the 1990s did write articles wondering what was the point of men, now that women had shown they could do their jobs, and in vitro fertilisation made them unnecessary for procreation. A number of feminist SF writers published novels about worlds, in which women prospered after the men had all been wiped out by a disease. Now this was an extreme view. Most women, I think, see feminism as being pro-woman, but not anti-man. As for the newspaper articles about men being obsolete, this was a favourite topic of the chattering classes generally. Will Self and J.G. Ballard had the same discussion in one of the literature periodicals at the same time. There is a genuine issue there, but Jones is probably taking far more seriously than many of the hacks, who wrote opinion pieces about it in the ’90s. Apart from that, Science Fiction has been exploring the topics of sex and gender roles since it first emerged as a genre in the 19th century. One pioneering American feminist depicted a future feminist utopia in Herland, while Theodore Sturgeon described a secret community of hermaphrodites in Venus Plus X in the ’50s or ’60s.

There’s also a section of American society that equates masculinity with militarism and firearms. Not only has Jones ranted against gun control, he’s also spouted weird diatribes about the UN coming to castrate every male. This latter seems to be a skewed misinterpretation of the Indian sterilisation programme of the 1970s. Years ago Magonia, a sceptical UFO magazine, commented on how closely guns and masculinity seemed to be linked in part of the American far Right in an article on the spoof space conspiracy, Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day hoax by ITV, in which a fake science programme, Science Report, uncovered the fact that the Earth was dying. In order to preserve the human race, the Russians and Americans were co-operating secretly to colonise Mars. Selected intellectuals were being sent to the Red Planet to serve as the ruling caste. Beneath them were a class of slave ‘batch consignments’, who were deprived of independent will and ‘de-sexed’ through surgery. The producers of the programme also brought out a book. In the American version, the ‘de-sexing’ of the batch consignments was replaced with a statement about them being deprived of the ability to carry weapons. Which seemed to show how at least some in the American conspiracy fringe equated the loss of gun rights with castration.

As for the ranting about liberals wanting to promote failure as being hip, this seems very much to be a product of the Social Darwinist casts of American politics. The 19th century belief that helping the poor through welfare provision was a waste of resources because the poor were clearly biologically unfit, while businessmen deserved their power and status because they had proved their biological superiority in the competitive world of business, comparable to the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, is clearly very much alive and well. This also found expression in an SF short story. This described the racial deterioration of humanity following the decision of an American president not to follow the dictates of healthy ‘winner take all’ competitiveness. The result of this was that, millions of years in the future, humanity had degenerated to an unintelligent animal kept as a pet by the new dominant species, a form of Newfoundland dog.

And Jones’ hatred of globalism is clearly a product of American exceptionalism, which sees America as far more virtuous than any other country. As a result, America cannot allow itself to be bound by the rules it imposes on other nations. Hence the reluctance of the Americans to sign up to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, and the long diatribes by the Republicans and particularly the Neocons against the UN. Again, much of Jones’ bizarre ranting seems to be based on conspiracies theories going back to the 1970s which saw the UN as being set up to produce an oppressive ‘one world’ government. This is a government which the American Christian Right sees as Satanic. This will result in everyone in the world being marked by barcodes at birth, and the institutional persecution of Christians.

Jones’ ranting and his bizarre conspiracy theories and political views are grotesquely funny, but they’re fears shared by a large number of people in America and beyond. A significant number of people are alienated from a political system that seems intent on ignoring and marginalising them, and to some these malign conspiracy theories provide a convincing explanation for the perceived hostility and indifference of the government, or for the shifts in sexual morality and official attitudes towards gender roles during the past decades. Not only are these fears and the issues that inspire them problems in themselves, they are also partly responsible for the rise of Trump and the Alt Right. In that sense, Jones and his ranting need to be taken very seriously indeed, even if what he says is stupid, farcical nonsense.