Thursday, April 30, 2020

Flim-Flam! Book Report

      The human mind, although a very complex organ, can also be very frail and easily prone to being tricked into believing things that go against common sense and fall under the category of supernatural. This has been the case ever since our ancestors were nomadic hunters and gatherers. During these times, our ancestors had to be careful, you could never know when a rustling bush could just be a strong gust of wind or a hungry bear waiting in ambush. A more paranoid mind would be extremely helpful in order to survive the harsh environments and dangerous predators ancient humans coexisted with. This train of thought has followed us all the way to more civilized times, and although it can still pay to be cautious, this paranoid part of our brain lead us into believing much more absurd threats, such as UFO’s or lizardmen. In James Randi’s Flim-Flam!, Randi, a world famous magician who knows a bit about how to trick the mind, takes a look of some of the more ridiculous paranormal claims during his time, ranging from psychics to even the Bermuda Triangle, and looks at the facts behind these claims and explains why these people might believe in these things.

            One of the first topics Randi covers was the case of the Cottingley “fairies”. Although this incident occurred well before some of the other topics mentioned in this book and even before Randi’s own time, he uses it as a great, timeless example of some of the things we can trick ourselves to believe if someone we trust also believes it to be true. Randi starts the chapter by giving a brief history lesson: Two young girls during the 1920’s in England claimed to have encountered fairies in their backyard and taken photographic evidence. These pictures eventual made it to the desk of Sherlock Holmes author Conan Doyle who, like many, took these photos as serious and impossible to fake. He even went out of his way to consult experts experienced in photography to see if these were fakes, and found, much to his liking, that the photos were indeed real and that it would be impossible for two girls fake anything of this sort. Or so he thought. As Randi reveals in his book, the photos themselves are full of errors, some of which can be easily seen even by an amateur. He also reveals that some of the “fairies” bare an uncanny resemblance to illustrations from popular books for children at the time. He also points out that Doyle and his supporters completely overlook the girls background: one of them actually worked in a photographer’s shop where they could easily pick up the skills required to fake these pictures.  It would seem that in an effort to please the popular author, these experts either overlooked the evidence or flat out ignored it in order to push Doyle’s theory.

            Another Topic Randi covers well is the concept of the Bermuda Triangle and the lost city of Atlantis. The chapter starts with Randi discussing the book The Bermuda Triangle, Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds written by Charles Berlitz. In this book, Berlitz makes various claims about the triangle, including the “mysterious” disappearance of several US pilots training in the region. In reality, most of these “disappearances” are not mysterious in the slightest, nor do most them even occur anywhere near Berlitz’s triangle. In another book, simply titled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved by Larry Kusche, which Randi cites as an argument against Berlitz’s absurd claims, Kusche finds that some of the crashes and disappearances that Berlitz references actually occurred as far north as Maine, while only two actually occurred within the triangle. Kusche also found that some of the naval flights that supposedly disappeared in the triangle were actually well documented by the navy, as evident by the 400 page report Kusche read about the incident, and found that there was nothing mysterious or magical about the disappearance and that there was merely an issue with the lead pilots compass. One of the other absurd beliefs Berlitz holds is the idea of the lost under sea city of Atlantis. He was so adamant about it’s existence he hired fifteen archaeologists to explore the Bermuda Triangle and find evidence of it’s existence. Although these archaeologists failed to find anything, Berlitz himself claims to have found evidence for pyramids and even roads. Randi, however, shows that this not the case and that the pyramid was merely a sonar error and that the “roads” were actually concrete dumped into the ocean.

        Another topic Randi covers really well, as well as one of my personal favorite chapters in the book, is the belief in “ancient aliens”. In this chapter, titled “The Paper Chariots in Flame”, Randi digs into the beliefs of a Swiss author named Erich von Daniken and his series of books on ancient aliens, which argue that it was not men, but extraterrestrials that built the both the pyramids of both Egypt and South America. This chapter is interesting, because Randi has actually been to the some of the same places von Daniken claims to have found evidence for his space men as well as other treasures. For example, Randi has actually been to one of the caves where von Daniken said to have found piles of gold. However, in Randi’s experience he found only vampire bats and oversized bugs. Randi also makes a great point in  this chapter that von Daniken’s claim that the men of Egypt and South America could not have possibly build the pyramids comes off as rather racist, as if because of the color of their skin or the gods they believed in would make a difference in whether they could build these wonders or not.

            Overall, I would highly recommend Randi’s Flim-Flam! It’s an excellent book that does a great job at both being engaging to the reader and debunking some of the ridiculous claims that gained traction during Randi’s time. I especially liked how Randi would actually go out of his way to interview those who took part in promoted pseudoscientific claims or even act out and emulate some of these claims, such as when he was able to interview one of Uri Geller’s companions.

No comments:

Post a Comment