Wednesday, March 08, 2006

(40) Stephen Fry, the former editor of The Times, Sir William (now Lord) Rees-Mogg and I all judge what is fit to be viewed as rational

On January 10th 1989, I received a copy of the humorous chess magazine Kingpin. It included a photograph of comic and actor Stephen Fry taking part in a charity chess event.

In December 1988, I had read an interview with Fry where he had said, "I am a rationalist". He poured scorn on people who read their horoscope or ask what your astrological sign is.
He always refuses to divulge his.

"I am a rationalist".
What exactly does that imply?

In September 1988, I attended an afternoon session of the annual conference of the Society for Psychical Research in Winchester.
Dr Susan Blackmore spoke about belief and disbelief in parapsychology.

She herself had started out as a believer, but said that she had become progressively disillusioned by her inability to come up with positive results and had hence moved across into the sceptics’ camp.

At any rate, that was the stance she assumed publicly. (See Entry 231)

Responses to a questionnaire which she had circulated to prominent parapsychologists and sceptics indicated that almost all of them had become more sceptical about parapsychology as their knowledge of the subject deepened, with only one person becoming more convinced of the reality of PSI.

Many spoke of their irritation with the late Dr Soal for having apparently assimilated unassailable laboratory evidence for extrasensory perception, evidence which, in 1978, was shown to be fraudulent.

All agreed that we know little about PSI, but what we do know is mostly negative. Suggestions on how to proceed in the future ranged from concentrating on psychic superstars or spontaneous cases, to admitting that there is nothing in it at all.

Comments were then invited from the audience. I said something like this:

"I think that I have had several dreams that came true. I have here a book by Brian Inglis entitled The Unknown Guest, which is about unconventional information transfer. He quotes from the autobiography of" (and at this point I wanted to emphasise the reputable character of the person giving the testimony so I gave some of his credentials) "William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times and now a member of the House of Lords.
In An Humbler Heaven, Rees-Mogg says that ever since the age of eleven he has had several dreams that came true. Even though these have removed his confidence in materialism, he does not feel that he has the right to expect anybody else to change their views purely on account of his testimony.
"I feel the same way.

It seems to me that the problem you all have is not that all of the putative phenomena that you have been discussing are bogus (for if it is possible to dream the future, then what is definitely impossible?) but that you lack the evidence to support them."

I then went on to say that I quite disagreed with the sentiments just expressed by the President of the Society, Professor Ian Stephenson, who had objected to Dr Blackmore’s suggestion that there should be greater cooperation between sceptics and parapsychologists. He said that that would be like asking him to work with members of the Flat Earth Society!

At that a murmur of approval had gone round the room.
"Bloody sceptics! Not working with those bastards!"

I continued "Your problem is that you do not have the evidence, even though precognition is true! I know it is true because…" (and here I began to fumble for words and repeat myself a bit, for I was rather nervous) "like the man quoted in this book, William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, now a member of the House of Lords, I have dreamt the future, but I agree with him that this is not enough by way of evidence to expect others to change their view of reality."

This is the gist of my spiel.

I am certain that I repeated the name and progressive credentials of William Rees-Mogg. That particularly lodged in my memory because of the clumsy way in which it must have come across.

On the morning of January 13th 1989, I wrote to Dr H. Breederveld of the Synchronicity Research Unit in Eindhoven.
In August 1988 I had sent some coincidence material to Dr Blackmore.
When I spoke to her at the SPR conference she said that she was unimpressed (I was pretty sure that she had hardly read it) but suggested that she could pass it on to Dr Breederveld, also present at the conference, if I wished.

On January 11th 1989, Breederveld telephoned to say that he would like to see some more. I wrote:

Dear Dr Breederveld,
I was interested to hear you say that you had said to Dr Blackmore that you thought that synchronicity was the best chance of proving that there is something in parapsychology. Obviously testimony by itself is unlikely to change any scientist’s mind, for there already exists a mountain of testimony for all sorts of putative paranormal phenomena… but this is just not good enough if you want scientists to start changing the laws of physics… William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, makes the same point in his autobiography An Humbler Heaven when he says that since the age of eleven he has had several precognitive dreams.
Even though these experiences have, naturally, destroyed his faith in scientific materialism and reductionism he sees no reason for him to expect scientists to change their minds because of his testimony.

Neither have they…
Around 7 p.m. on the same day that I wrote this letter, January 13th 1989, I thought back to an incident I had seen on TV in 1988, where James Randi, author of such sceptical works as The Truth about Uri Geller, had bent a teaspoon whilst a television presenter held it in his hand.
Afterwards Randi explained how he had managed it.

"Talent, and a lot of practice".

But a stage conjuror replicating a feat that Geller claimed as evidence of his paranormal powers does not in itself constitute a clear-cut refutation.

I had noticed a distinct difference in the techniques of Geller and Randi. Randi could be clearly seen applying pressure to the spoon.
And Richard Milton would later tell me that he had interviewed Geller, watched him bend a spoon in front of him, photographed it and then continued to observe it bending after Geller had placed it down on a table and removed his hand from it.
Also Randi could not replicate other feats of Geller, such as altering a weight on a scale, or affecting the dial of a Gaussmeter.

Geller has been filmed doing those in a laboratory in 1972.

Randi’s explanation for the feats was that the cameraman had deliberately staged some of the shots, and repeated that claim in a 1982 reprint of the original book in which he had made it, despite the cameraman having denied its truth.

And Randi does not subject himself to laboratory testing.

See the films here-

What conclusion did I draw?
That Geller himself was to blame for this mess.
Having made claims of miraculous powers it was then absolutely encumbent upon him to provide evidence of them under the most rigorous controlled conditions and before the world’s most sceptical minds.
I knew that he had done some such tests, with impressive results.

But I also knew of Randi’s infamous Project Alpha hoax where he had sent two young conjurors into the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research and there they had convinced the investigators that they possessed genuine psychokinetic powers.

It still seemed indisputable to me that Geller ought to be presenting himself for still more laboratory testing.
Geller might point out that his claims of paranormal powers had led to his being been hired by various oil and mineral companies to prospect for them. He was paid principally on a results basis, and had made a lot of money out of it.
The Israelis had also used Geller in an attempt to knock out the ground radar during the 1976 raid on Entebbe airport.

The truth about Uri Geller?
The answer to this question remained infuriatingly obscure. It was still possible to believe or disbelieve in his powers.

Around 9 p.m. on January 13th 1989 I watched a TV comedy programme called A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. It was a series of sketches, the penultimate one being a spoof at Uri Geller’s expense.
Stephen Fry played the part of a TV presenter whilst Hugh Laurie’s character was a foreigner claiming the ability to paranormally bend spoons. This, he said, caused him problems.
"When I walk down the street people shout after me ‘Freak!’"
He then gave a display of his wondrous powers by taking a spoon between his hands and bending it.

"Well I can do that," responded Fry, picking up a spoon and bending it himself by applying obvious pressure. "Are you sure that it isn’t ‘Fraud!’ that people shout after you?"

Fry and Laurie then introduced their final sketch by saying that it had been written and judged suitable for TV by "The former editor of The Times Sir William (now Lord) Rees-Mogg".
They then repeated this. "The former editor of The Times Sir William (now Lord) Rees-Mogg." It was set in a barber’s shop, and as it began there appeared across the bottom of the screen
... ... ...

Most unlikely that two so odd and distinctive references to William Rees-Mogg should so coincide?
That´s what I thought.

But, that Geller has at least on some occasions cheated seems now to me to beyond dispute.
I was disgusted when I saw the video of him patently appending magnets to his forehead to influence a compass.
... ... ...
On December 14th 1999, over ten years later, I was playing on the Internet Chess Club with Andrew Martin. I told him that I was having lunch the next day with Uri Geller.
A moment later I found myself playing over in my head the lyrics of the song Love Is In The Air, which I do not think that I had heard in a long while.
Then Andrew typed in these very lyrics as kibitzing comments. "Love is in the air" and then a few seconds after "Everywhere I look around."

I responded by saying that this formed a coincidence, and asked whether his TV or radio were playing in the background, looking for some simple explanation. He said that neither was and that the lyrics had just popped into his mind.
... ... ...
On December 15th 1999, I attended the literary lunch in London where Uri Geller was launching his new book Mind Medicine.
To my right was seated Dr Ian Fletcher. I introduced myself and asked if he thought Geller was fraudulent. He said that he thought him genuine.

He explained that he had an interest in conjuring, and was indeed a member of the Magic Circle.

But Dr Fletcher had once seen Geller bend one of the dials of a wristwatch beneath the glass covering. He was very familiar with the techniques of a stage magician, being one himself, yet he found this and some other feats executed by Geller quite inexplicable.

By contrast, when he had been invited by Randi to scrutinize him at close quarters he had not fallen for standard devices used by magicians.

For instance, if a person is looking at an object held in silence by a magician in their hand then they will tend to automatically respond to his suddenly speaking to them by glancing up at his face. With the person’s gaze thus averted the magician is granted the opportunity to practice his deceptions.

But Dr Fletcher kept looking downwards, and so prevented Randi from pulling off the trick.

After lunch Geller addressed us. He invited us all to hold up a spoon or our keys as he, without touching them, attempted to bend them.

We all shouted, "Bend!" in unison.
Nothing happened to my spoon.

The gentleman seated on my left, Basil de Mel, then showed me an identical one that he had been holding. It was quite a heavy dessert spoon, and now showed a very clear bend in its handle. Geller had been a good twenty metres away.

But I had not seen it actually bending.

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