Sunday, April 19, 2020

Flim-Flam Book Report

Flim-Flam by James Randi is a book devoted to debunking common paranormal and pseudoscience claims, such as the Bermuda Triangle, psychics, and other delusions. James Randi, also called “The Amazing Randi”, is a professional magician who has spent years observing those who claim to have psychic or magical abilities. He has now dedicated his life to debunking these claims, offering up a $10,000 prize to anyone who can perform their ability under controlled conditions. So far, nobody has claimed the money, and Randi is confident his money has never been safer. In this book, each chapter focuses on different claims and specific cases that the general public has accepted as true paranormal incidences and analyses the facts associated with the case. Every time, the facts support that the incidences were not paranormal in any sense.

One of the very first chapters Randi wrote covered a case from the 1920s of two young girls in London who claimed to have played and photographed fairies in Cottingley Glen. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in England, convinced in believing things of such spiritual nature, heard of these photographs from a friend, and wrote to his friend Edward Gardner to investigate the matter. Gardner stated that the girls are honest, “coming from a family of tradesmen and down-to-earth people incapable of guile.” He sent two photographs to Doyle of the girls playing with the fairies, labeled photo one and photo two (the top and middle pictures on the right). The technical details are also sent along, such as the shutter speed and type of camera. The photographs are said to be authentic because the girls were not skilled enough to have produced fake pictures. Furthermore, Mr. Snelling, having supposedly more than thirty years’ experience in photography, stated that the photos had no double exposure, and that the shutter speed was “instantaneous”. The girls were asked to produce more photographs and were given another camera by Gardner to produce the pictures. Three more photographs were produced. Any flaws in these photographs were explained away, just like the first photographs. Years later, the evidence supporting these pictures was examined again. The cameras used and the original glass negatives were looked at by Brain Coe of Kodak in London. The first finding is that the shutter speed was much longer than what was stated, causing a longer exposure time, which would make it almost impossible for the fairies in motion to appear as still as they do in the photographs. Photograph number five (the bottom on the right) was also found to be a double exposure, with two of the fairies being duplicated in the final photograph produced. Illustrations of fairies from books and magazines also seemed extremely similar to the fairies that were represented in the photographs, and it was always suspicious that the girls had to go alone to take the pictures. After presenting all the real facts to the reader, Randi makes it clear that although it may seem real when presented in the way it was presented in the 1920s, the photographs were faked with cut-outs from magazines. Randi ends the chapter with a list of what he calls “major hallmarks of paranormal chicanery” that people use to claim something paranormal is real. This list includes things such as the subject does not seek any money or fame, or that any faults found actually prove that the phenomenon is real, both of which were used to prove the authenticity of the fairy story.

Another chapter of interest to me is titled Gods with Feats of Clay. This chapter deals with religion, although Randi states in the beginning that “the subject of religion hardly belongs in this book…the very nature of religion dictates that it need not offer or claim scientific proof of its teachings.” However, Randi examines religions that use outright deception on their followers. One thing Randi examines in this chapter are seances, specifically two gimmicks used during them—table-tipping and billet reading. With table-tipping, it is believed that spirits are responsible for the movement of the table used during the ceremony. Randi examined one table-tipping mother-son couple by forcing the performers to have their backs pressed against the wall with their elbows pressing cardboard against the wall. If they moved their arms or hands to move the table, the cardboard would fall. It did fall, many times, and the test was done. Actual levitation by table-tippers is accomplished by placing the leg of the table onto the rim of their shoes and pressing hard on the table while raising their leg, causing the table to levitate. This debunks the levitation. Randi and friends then attended another ceremony where billet-reading was supposed to be performed. Before the ceremony, they were told to write a personal statement on a card, put it in an envelope, and write their names on the outside before placing it in the basket. As part of the experiment, Randi folded the envelope of his friend. During the performance, they were told that they were supposed to have written only their initials on the envelope and the card was to have a personal question that needed answering. This was the first part of the gimmick—making everyone believe they had misheard the directions. Randi then explains how the performer uses the one-ahead method, where he reads one card before the performance, and puts it on the bottom of the basket. He then picks up a random envelope, ‘reads’ the initials, and gives a reply to the question on the inside, opening the envelope at the end to ‘check if he was right’. However, he actually purposely misreads the initials on the envelope, reading the initials and commenting on the contents of the envelope he had previously opened before the show started. Then, when he looks at the contents of the envelope at the end, he knows what to say for the NEXT envelope. This was proven when he picked up the folded envelope, and read the wrong initials, but said the correct initials and information in the folded envelope for the next normal envelope he picked up. Randi then talks about Scientology and Reverend Jim Jones, who convinced his following to drink cyanide in a mass suicide as a way to gain salvation. Randi then ends this chapter on a very important note, which I think sums up the whole purpose of writing this book. When asked what damage belief in the paranormal could do, Randi answered “that such irrationalities lead to victims’ losing their sanity, their money, and sometimes their health and lives.” Randi wrote this book to debunk claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience and encourage critical thinking to prevent those things from happening. Believing in those irrationalities can cause much harm.

Although all the chapters are great, my favorite chapter is the last chapter of the book, titled Put Up or Shut Up. This chapter is dedicated strictly to tests Randi has performed on people out to claim the $10,000 prize for performing their psychic ability. Although this chapter covers many different types of psychic abilities, my favorite section was about the dowsers who claimed they could detect water under the ground. The test Randi created for this included burying 3 different tracts of pipes underneath the ground. For each dowser, water would be running through one of the tracts, and the dowser would have to place markers along the trail of the water from where it came out to where it emptied into a reservoir. The water flowed by gravity alone, so the dowsers couldn’t possibly feel any vibrations from a motor under the ground. He ended up testing three dowsers, and each dowser was allowed to mark off natural water sources under ground before the test began to make sure this water didn’t interfere with their test. Only two dowsers marked off natural water, and in completely different spots. When the dowsers performed their tests, not a single one came close enough to the water paths to count it as a success. When Randi gathered them at a meeting later to show them the results, one dowser said “We are lost”, essentially admitting defeat (before coming up with bizarre reasons to explain the failure). This was one of my favorite sections in the book because it clearly showed how a simple scientific test can disprove so much. If the dowsers had real power, this test would’ve been a huge success. This section really nailed down the concept that you shouldn’t believe everything people claim and should always look for the scientific facts behind it. After reading this section, I felt a little na├»ve about ever believing any psychic claims in my life because of how easily they were disproved, and how badly they failed the tests.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everyone. Even if you are not taking a course related to the material, I think this book is definitely worth the read because it encourages the critical thinking that people lack in the world. I have seen many TV programs of cold-readings or mediums at work, and truth be told, I did believe a lot of them. But after reading this book, I realized just how easy it is to fake these things. This book helps you to evaluate a situation with just the facts and ALL the facts and to pay attention to how things are presented to you. If everyone read this book, then I believe society would be better off. I really liked how in this book each chapter was a different topic. I felt that this made it easier to read because you could read a chapter at a time and when you came back to the book, you could start a new topic. Something that was a little difficult about reading the book was the names. Each chapter had so many names of experts or people he was testing and sometimes it was hard to keep track of who was a skeptic and who was a believer, which made reading a little more confusing. Overall, I loved the book and found it an interesting and educating read.

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