Friday, May 1, 2020

Book Report ~ Flim-Flam!

The mind is an interesting thing. It has the capability to hold an infinite amount of information and oversee the function of an uncountable number of complex processes yet can be fooled by the simplest of things. The reason why humans have a physical reaction to horror films or adrenaline-producing-death-defying videos is that the brain thinks that the video, we are watching is actually happening to us, even though we know it is just a video. The same logic can be applied to the “delusions” we encounter every day. For example, the “white’s illusion” is a brightness illusion where certain parts of black and white stripes are replaced by grey stripes of the same color and opacity. Even though we know the stripes are the same color, our brain tells us that the grey stripes are different colors. In James Randi’s Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions, he discusses the more fantastical delusions such as Fairies, psychic surgeries, and spirits communicating from the beyond.

As a child growing up, I loved fairies and thought they were real. I would build fairy houses and leave them in my backyard in case a wayward fairy was lost and needed a place to stay. Tinkerbell, totally real! Unfortunately, as a twenty-year-old, I now know that fairies are not real, but it is still nice to think back to the innocence of childhood. But that is just it; a childhood fantasy, one that Randi more than disproves. In the case of the Cottingley Fairies, Randi looks at a photo taken in 1917 by a young girl named Elsie. She and Frances Griffiths posed with paper fairies the pair had taken from a children’s book, developed the photos, and used the photographs in an attempt to trick their families. Elsie’s mother believed the girls and showed the photographs to some of her friends. The photographic “evidence” was readily accepted as real without any further investigation. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readily accepted the photographs as legitimate. I find this case interesting because it is amazing what a simple trick can turn into. I’m sure the girls didn't intend for this to explode and reach as many people as it did, but the repercussions of false information can be catastrophic, even after a redaction is published. In the age of photoshop and fast news, it is so important to question everything, use multiple sources for information, and never take anything at face value.

Another topic I thought was particularly interesting was psychic surgery. Randi stated that he received backlash from various countries when he pressed for answers and did not receive a comment from British nor American medical associations. The medical videos the Randi reviewed showed real patients with real medical issues (cysts); however, the vocabulary in the video was misleading and raised the stakes of the “operation” without any validity. Patients were told that they wouldn't feel any pain, yet many did. A “surgeon” named Arigo demonstrated parlor tricks to show what an amazing surgeon he was. He would stick a knife under the eyelid of a patient to the bewilderment of onlookers. This will not cause harm to the individual no matter who performs the stunt. You do not need to be a psychic surgeon to do it. Arigo also performed surgery on several people with the same dull, rusty knife with no proper personal protective equipment or sanitization of the field. He claimed to remove their “tumors” (which were actually superficial cysts and boils). Arigo was not medically trained and probably did not properly sterilize the knife before the sliced into his patients. Then who knows what happened afterward. Did he properly clean the incision, sutures the wound, and give the patient aftercare instructions? Probably not. This sets a precedent for the original patient’s family and community. They will see that patient zero was healed of his ailment so they will be too. This is dangerous especially if the patient has an aggressive or contagious disease. They can be lulled into a false sense of security that they will be healed, or unintentionally spread their disease to others.

As Randi mentioned in the book, religion can be a touchy subject to approach. Spiritualism was an interesting topic to read about because you always hear so much about it, especially around Halloween and Día de Los Muertos. People use those holidays to connect with those who have passed via alternate modes of communication between the realms. Many who practice Spiritualism believe that spirits of the dead exist and attempt communication with them. During their religious services, they collect a donation (like all other religious services as Randi sarcastically pointed out) and attempt to communicate with the spirits that are still on earth. An indication that a spirit is present in various knocking, or thumping sounds, objects seemingly moving on their own, and something if there is a big enough presence of energy, entire tables will tilt and move. Randi debunked these as nothing but human involvement; someone knocking on the table, air blowing out of the air vent, and putting pressure on the table with your hands at just the right point that it seemingly tips by itself. While some people may genuinely believe in spiritualism, those who are in it for the hoax ruin it. For example, an individual who just lost a loved one may be looking for answers, or to speak to that person one last time to say goodbye, and they fall upon someone only in it for the money. The fraud will do or say anything to make a quick buck. Plus, they may be messing around in something that they do not fully understand and get themselves into trouble. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn't want to accidentally conjure up the devil.  

I was not the biggest fan of the book. Randi is very much a realist and tends to talk in absolutes and repeats the same idea every chapter; that nothing is real and those who say otherwise are trying to scam you or are wrong. His opinion is the only right one. It was, however, comedic in places due to the outlandish nature of the topic he was discussing. He is very thorough in his explanations and gives logical, scientific evidence to support his claims, which I appreciated. Overall, I would give the book a 6.5/10 with the caveat that the book would be more enjoyable if I was into the behind-the-scenes aspect of magic shows, deception, illusions and want to know how they work.

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