Amazing spoon bending

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2008 8:34 pm

It’s incredible to me that some people still buy into psychic spoon-bending. This silliness was promulgated by the faux-psychic (like there’s any other kind) Uri Geller back in the 70s, and has been rigorously debunked by James Randi. But there are still groups out there who do spoon bending like it’s a mental training exercise, along the lines of fire walking.

But it’s a trick, a sham, a fake, a hoax, a cheat, a con, a fraud.

I can prove it. If you take over 800 critical thinkers — self-proclaimed non-believers in anything psi — at a meeting to celebrate skepticism, give them each a spoon, and tell them to bend it with the power of their mind alone, what do you think would happen?

Richard Wiseman and Tracy King have the answer. And they have the video to back it up.

Richard is my evil twin and also a professor of psychology in England. He studies unusual thought processes, like how we perceive change — you may have seen his color-changing card video, for example.

So he and Tracy staged this spoon-bending exercise at TAM 6 in June, and we participated with gusto. It was fun! And I have my broken spoon along with Mrs. BA’s as souvenirs, right next to a third one bent by Randi his own self at TAM 5.5.

If you watch the video closely you can see me in the front row sitting next to Randi (Banachek and Adam Savage are there, too!). Note the closeup of BABloggee Jewel (with the red hair); her husband is next to her. BA minions are all over this video!

Skeptics bending spoons at TAM 6

Of course, this isn’t proof that people like Geller aren’t bending spoons psychically. But which do you think is a better explanation? There is a psychic power that defies all the known laws of physics that have been so carefully tested for centuries… or that someone is pulling a scam, something we know humans have a predilection to do?

Comments (87)

  1. Evil German

    Ok next year I will attend. In my opinion TAM needs more (evil evil) Germans :)

  2. a-HA!

    Definitive proof that skepticism is actually a conspiracy of corporation-raised psychic babies to restrict knowledge of the truth of psi to the select few who rule the world!

  3. Leo

    “There is a psychic power that defies all the known laws of physics that have been so carefully tested for centuries…”

    Quantum physics and relativity have been tested for centuries? And all the laws of physics are already known? So that discrepancy between the observed mass in the universe and the observed motions of things in the universe is just some massive psychic illusion? ‘Cause otherwise there’d be something science didn’t know, wouldn’t there?

    Skeptics seem to be as full of bull as the psychics they denounce.

  4. IBY

    Must be psychic! “no other explanation” ^_^

  5. @BA that was fantastic. I’m glad there was video, because your description of this made me so want to see this. :D Thanks for posting this. I didn’t go to my regular *con this year, and I might switch over to TAM next time it comes around if I have to chose just one.

    @ Leo: Please, L2read and L2parse. – “There is a psychic power that defies all the known laws of physics that have been so carefully tested for centuries…” That’s all the laws which are known; it’s not the laws, all of which are known. Also, please L2Occam’s Razor. Thanks.

  6. TheBlackCat

    “Quantum physics and relativity have been tested for centuries? ”

    Psychic powers don’t get anywhere near quantum physics and relatively. They use those for justification (as does all woo, it seems), but they really violate plain-old Newtonian mechanics and thermodynamics (both of which have been studied for centuries). Quantum physics and relativity are very weak at our scale, that is why they took so long to find. They also violate quantum physics and relativity, but since at the scale psychic powers are supposed to operate at both are equivalent to Newtonian mechanics that isn’t important.

    As for the rest, mandy already explained how you misread that.

  7. Leo: Seriously, do I need to spell out what laws of reality psychics would be breaking? Or what new laws would need to be introduced, laws that should affect a myriad other observations?

    How do psychics know what’s inside a box? X-Ray vision? The ability to be in two places at once, or to sense mass (including shape and color)? How about ones who claim to see into the future, or read minds, or project their astral selves across space and time, perhaps faster than light? Or ones who talk to the dead, yet never seem to be able to get a straight answer?

    None of that rings any bells with you?

    And even if we ignore all that — a very, very tall order — we still have hundreds of people who can replicate all these powers using nothing but tricks. People like Penn, Banachek, Randi, Jamy Ian Swiss, Ian Rowland, and so many others I have seen myself?

    You can choose: reality is full of bull, or psychics are. But reality, by definition, is real. That narrows the playing field for the choice considerably.

  8. Awesome. I’m in that picture, at the far right (the brown hair and beard, just behind the grey hair and beard guy). Eerily, I also took a screen cap and labeled the front row :)
    http://jollybloger.blogspot.com/2008/07/spoon-bending.html

  9. DLC

    Phil. I agree with you but stipulate that anyone can do a psychic reading with a bit of training or the assistance of a shill, or both. Likewise with spoon-bending. I’m way out of practice with my prestidigitation, but I used to be able to do the spoon-bending trick. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it’s like most close-up magic in that it depends on the magician’s ability to use misdirection.

  10. If psychic powers were real, they would be such a powerful adaptation that (unless the mutation rendered you sterile) they would rapidly dominate the genome, right? ‘Nuff said.

    The other question about goobers like Geller is why they only bend spoons – instead of, say, bending the barrel of the main gun of an Abrams tank. Why just spoons? Because it’s a bitch to palm a tank, isn’t it? (I wouldn’t put it out of reach of Banachek though..)

  11. Normal Dude

    Leo, before you call people full of BS, maybe you should take a reading comprehension course.

    Here is a free lesson. Let’s break this down:

    BA: “There is a psychic power that defies all the known laws of physics that have been so carefully tested for centuries…”

    You: Quantum physics and relativity have been tested for centuries?

    Me: Ever heard of Newton?

    You: And all the laws of physics are already known?

    Me: Notice that he says KNOWN laws of physics. It was that word in his post that occurred before “laws of physics”.

    You: So that discrepancy between the observed mass in the universe and the observed motions of things in the universe is just some massive psychic illusion? ‘Cause otherwise there’d be something science didn’t know, wouldn’t there?

    Me: See above.

  12. madge

    I would LOVE to get to TAM UK! I would need to get someone to look after my husband and kids for a couple of days which would be a problem. I haven’t managed it in ten years! :(

  13. annette

    My psychic powers were out of tune with the universe that day. I still have my spoon, unbroken. *sigh*

  14. Phil said:

    “Leo: Seriously, do I need to spell out what laws of reality psychics would be breaking? Or what new laws would need to be introduced, laws that should affect a myriad other observations?”

    I find that last clause intriguing. If the laws of physics allowed for psychic powers, how would that affect our observations of the universe as a whole (e.g. stars, the speed of light, galaxies, what-have-you)?

    Naturally it’s only speculation, but I think it would be a fascinating topic to hear some learned scientist expound upon.

  15. Quiet Desperation

    You: Quantum physics and relativity have been tested for centuries?
    Me: Ever heard of Newton?

    QD: Newton invented relativity and quantum physics!?!?!

    Wow, we’re *my* textbooks ever wrong! :-o

    Way to go, Isaac! I didn’t know he took calculus all the way to tensors.

    I also hear Copernicus developed superstring theory as adjunct to heliocentrism.

    Ok, I’ll stop now. :)

  16. RICHARD: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say.

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.

    RICHARD: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Yes, we’re all individuals!

    RICHARD: You’re all different!

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Yes, we are all different!

    IRON MAN: I’m not.

    PHIL: Shhhh.

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.

    RICHARD: You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves!

    RICHARD: Exactly!

    FREETHINKING SKEPTICS: Tell us more!

    RICHARD: No! That’s the point! Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!

  17. Quiet Desperation

    So how is the trick done? And anyone who plays the “never give away magic tricks” card will have my righteous terror rained down upon them. Someone told all those people. Either that or I will hire Penn & Teller to give them a wedgie. And don’t think I can’t afford it.

    If it involves pre-breaking the spoon, I will be underwhelmed.

  18. Quiet Desperation

    Never mind.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7neOXKLrgzk

    Hmmm. The shaking part is good. It looks like it’s soft and wobbling.

    A variant:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSR5kinMX3Y

    Seems harder to master, but it spookier looking.

    And then there’s this one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JN2vQanXjRA&feature=related

    I’d totally hire that kid for parties.

  19. Consider yourself underwhelmed :)

  20. Normal Dude

    “You: Quantum physics and relativity have been tested for centuries?
    Me: Ever heard of Newton?

    QD: Newton invented relativity and quantum physics!?!?!

    Wow, we’re *my* textbooks ever wrong! :-o

    Not sure if this was a joke or not (if it was, my apologies), but Phil never specified modern physics like QT. Leo made that one up all on his own.

  21. Chip

    So in the video titled “The Science of Spoon Bending” on the page Phil linked too – when of Dr Mark Miodownik of the Materials Library, King’s College London describes “breaking the crystals,” is that the same process as “metal fatigue”?

    http://www.spoonscience.com/

  22. Ok… so this video proves that people who say they can bend spoons with their minds are really just using their hands? MIND BLOWING

  23. bad Jim

    As I understand it, the trick does involve pre-breaking the spoon.

    I saw it demonstrated on the Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was the host, I think . The magician sorts through a pile of spoons, surreptitiously pre-stressing them, so that a little shaking will make them droop. Fingers are strong, the necks of spoons are weak.

    As someone who, as a child, lost some silverware in the sandbox, I think that this is both abuse and misuse of spoons.

  24. Brian

    What a reveal, eh? Bet you totally weren’t expecting that.

  25. Philip from Australia

    I was SO dissapointed when I learnt how to break a spoon. But yes, it is impressive.

    But all magic makes you feel underwhlemed when you know how it is done. I know. I’ve studued a but of magic in my time. That and balloon twisting. Which is a lot easier than you’d think. Once you blow the sucker up (THAT could be magic).

    But this is why I don’t like mentalism. You bring a card to the top of the deck, saw a woman in half, levitate someone… People KNOW it’s s trick… and can be entertained.

    But break a spoon… and you have special powers. Cold read… you have special powers. I so hate people who hoodwink others. I wish mental abilities were real. I do. That would be cool. But they should prove it in a lab, not on a stage.

    Show us something impressive… Mass spoon reconnecting. I’ll bring the spoons. I have SO many broken spoons. (I like to use cheap ones… they cost less).

    Maybe I should try for TAM next year… I dunno… Dragon Con… TAM… Dragon Con… TAM… Dammit.

    Philip

  26. Gimel

    Oh. My. God. Geeks having fun! ;P Really now, you shouldn’t make fun of all those people still believing in psychic powers… No, sorry, even I don’t believe my last sentence. BTW: methinks that “spoons and other metal object don’t bend without ‘helping’ them manually” IS sort of law of physics. And it HAS been tested for centuries. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific ‘truth’, isn’t it?

  27. So anyone can do spoon bending, but FORK bending… that takes REAL psychic power.

    ;)

    J/P=?

  28. It was soooo much fun! And not a single bit of magic. And getting the lesson before hand from Teller was pretty cool, too.

    I cannot wait until the next TAM! I wish I was going on the Galapagos cruise, but alas, it was not in my budget this year.

    @John Paradox – Interestingly, one of the items that went up for auction was a complete set of silverware bent by Banacheck – and it was all still functional. It was really neat.

    Thanks for linking to my site Phil! :-)

  29. Grand Lunar

    I have to wonder; does anyone believe Uri Geller anymore?
    If they do, they ought to see this video.

    Geller=owned.

    Also,

    Psychics=doomed.

  30. It really is ridiculous when you ask, why spoons? Why not bend forks, butter knives, or pie servers. And even if this did demonstrate true psychic ability, it seems to be a useless and destructive talent.

  31. Jan

    Not a good blog post, Phil. Nowhere do you explain to the undecided HOW the trick is done. The folks determined to believe could interpret the video to mean psychic power is so powerful that even in front of skeptics, the power of mind could still win over.

  32. Robert

    “…or that someone is pulling a scam, something we know humans have a predilection to do?”

    Like HG Wells War of the Worlds hoax, or the Y2K scam, and oh, yeah, evolution and Global Warming!

    Robert

  33. Speaking of Geller, if you want a good belly-laugh, go to the website of the lovely and talented April Winchell:

    http://www.aprilwinchell.com/audio

    Scroll down to, “Celebrities who can’t sing, so they talk to music”, and you’ll find our favourite cutlery-mangling superstar.

    Turn it off before your ears start to bleed though, and I recommend you temporarily move any pet canaries or goldfish into another room just in case.

    This site is also an indispensable internet resource for anyone who can’t get enough “Terrifying Christian recordings”, German ABBA covers, and William Shatner singing hits of the sixties.

  34. Sir Eccles

    Here’s the problem though.

    To a true believer (and I sometimes count Uri in this group because sometimes I think he forgets it is just an act) the response to something like this is “well of course anyone can fake it, but to really bend a spoon with the mind takes psychic powers”. There is just no easy way to argue with such a person and it’s the same whether it is evolution or spoon bending.

  35. Mike

    But since you’re both goateed, doesn’t that neccesitate that both of you are the evil twin? (assuming the fundamental laws of multiversal twining hold up of course)

  36. Michelle

    What a big waste of spoons!!! Hey!!!

    Spoon bending makes me angry! These spoons could’ve been used for SOUP!

  37. As Randi has said, if Geller is bending spoons using psychic power, he’s doing it the hard way.

  38. Andy Beaton

    It really is ridiculous when you ask, why spoons? Why not bend forks, butter knives, or pie servers. And even if this did demonstrate true psychic ability, it seems to be a useless and destructive talent.

    Not even God Himself could bend a spork.

  39. Dave Hall

    Robert Says:
    “…or that someone is pulling a scam, something we know humans have a predilection to do?”
    “Like HG Wells War of the Worlds hoax, or the Y2K scam, and oh, yeah, evolution and Global Warming!”

    HG Wells War of the Worlds hoax?? What hoax is that?

    H.G. Wells wrote a NOVEL called War of the Worlds back in 1898. Wells never hoaxed anybody there. Everyone knew it was a work of fiction.
    Orson Welles produced a version on October 30 1938 for his weekly radio show Mercury Theater on the Air. Some people who probably tuned in late and missed the opening announcements took it for real. As Welles and the script writer Howard Koch did not intend to defraud the public, it wasn’t much of a hoax. Or were you referring to the 1953 George Pal movie?
    The only real hoax was someone telling me the Tom Cruise version was a great movie!

    “Y2K scam.” I’ll grant you that one, but it only worked on the gullible who usually listen to late night AM radio. There were lots of profits to be made writing books about the computers crashing in a world-wide apocalypse. Almost everone pushing the Y2K BS had something to sell.

    Evolution as hoax. If you can look at all the collected evidence and conclude it is all fake, well there is a scam going on. But the hoaxing is coming from the creationist and “Intellegent” Design bunch cherry-picking out whatever does not fit their preconceived notions and mythology. Again most of the audience for that are probably Art Bell fans too.

    Don’t worry about global warming being a hoax. Before we really feel the effects, the Mayan Calendar will run out, Jesus/Mohammad/Qutezaquatl/FSM will return, The Eight Horseman of the Apocalypse(Conquest, War, Famine, Death plus second stringers; FEMA, Infomercial, Painful Rectal Itch, Roland Emmerich)will ride through town that huge comet will hit us right on Area 51, and we’ll all be toast in 2012.

    BA: sorry ’bout the rant–I just finished a Venti Shot in the Dark!
    Sqqqqqeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

  40. madge

    That is one shoddy batch of spoons! I think you should ask for a refund. I mean those things could be dangerous! I-madge-ine if one were to break off in your mouth! Or the scalds that could occur if the bowl was to drop off when full of steaming hot soup, or rice pudding or porridge…Mmmmmm (madge sneaks off to get something to eat) :)

  41. FUN! I SO wish I had been there.

  42. KC

    It’s quibble time: Phil said the following:

    “If you take over 800 critical thinkers — self-proclaimed non-believers in anything psi . . .”

    Actually, that’s not critical thinking. That’s 800 self-proclaimed non-believers in anything psi. Critical thinking would not rule out that psi could exist *but* would insist on evidence when anyone claims that it does.

    If anyone can bend spoons psychically, here’s a suggestion for a test: Place a spoon inside a bell jar and bend it without touching.

    For anyone who wants to do this a a trick – or to detect hoaxers – keep in mind that metal fatigue isn’t the only way to pull this off. Sometimes all you need is brute force, a thin spoon, and a moment of misdirection.

  43. Quiet Desperation

    I think that this is both abuse and misuse of spoons.

    Don’t worry. Remember. There is no spoon.

  44. Daedalus

    I cannot even begin to explain either fire-walking or spoon bending; however, having participated in both, I can tell you something happened. As for the spoon, it was a table spoon, and although I normally could not bend it with one finger, something happened and I was able to make two rotations of the spoon. With fire-walking, my wife and I both did it. The fire was hot, and our feet were bare….no injuries. I have found two types of people both with closed minds, ones that say it cannot happen and the other, with equally closed minds, that it is some unknown power we have. Neither can answer what happened. I have given up trying to explain it because both of these events defy all scientific logic as I know it, but then again, I experienced it.

  45. Michelle

    Pretty simple…. The skin under your feet is actually pretty thick and resistant, and wood is not a good heat conductor, Daedalus.

    I remember that cool guy explained a lot of these tricks on an episode of BS. It was great.

  46. amphiox

    Daedalus, I don’t personally know about spoon bending, but firewalking is well known to be within the range of human capability and completely explainable by normal laws of physics and human physiology. Look it up. There’s a wealth of info available on it. It does not defy scientific knowledge one bit.

    A few more thoughts.
    1. A positive claim requires positive evidence. The negative claim requires no evidence. It is the default position in the absence of evidence. It is the null hypothesis that stands until evidence is found to disprove it.

    2. If humans are really capable of bending spoons by psychic power, a few things follow that would also have to be true:
    a) Humans should be able to bend any metal object of equivalent size and strength. There is nothing special about spoons.
    b) Technology should be able to replicate and amplify the feat, and bend metallic objects of far larger size and far greater stiffness. There is nothing unique about the human brain. It works according to the same laws of physics and chemistry that everything else obeys.
    c) Any individual who really has this talent should be rushing to have themselves tested and investigated in order to determine how this ability is achieved so that it CAN be replicated and amplified with technology. Think of the boon to manufacturing and construction this would be (not to mention the military applications!). Think of the billions of dollars such a technology would be worth to whoever gets the scoop on the patents involved.

    I don’t see very many of these so called psychics pursuing option c. This makes me quite suspicious.

  47. TheBlackCat

    Daedalus, fire walking requires nothing other than basic thermodynamics, like heat capacity and heat transfer. The coals have a low heat capacity and a low rate of heat transfer, therefor if you move reasonably quickly you won’t get burned. It is the same principle that allows someone to sweep his hand through a blowtorch as long as he does it fairly quickly, or through a candle even if you do it slowly, without even feeling warm.

    As for the spoon, I would wager a guess and say it was metal fatigue. This is where repeated motions in a metal cause microscopic cracks in the metal that build up, expand, and ultimately weaken (and eventually break) the metal object.

  48. KC: nope, I disagree. If you believe in something you’re not a critical thinker; “believing” in this case means thinking something is true without or despite of evidence. True critical thinkers don’t believe in anything; they wait for evidence (or proof, if you will) before trusting something is correct.

  49. KC

    Phil, that’s my point. Your statement comes across that you believe psi doesn’t exist. That doesn’t sound like waiting for evidence. Seriously, and I’m not saying that as a goad. Even though at the end you don’t discount that it could exist, that statement at the top doesn’t come out that way. Now, I don’t know why anyone with psi abilities would want to go around bending spoons for fun and profit, and I’ve yet to see a professed psychic dangle a spoon by the very tip of the handle and make the bowl part curl upwards. But I won’t categorically say that psi doesn’t exist. Neither will I categorically say that it does.

    Bending spoons isn’t that mysterious a a trick. The longer the spoon the better due to leverage, and as I ate lunch I thought of another way to stymie a hoaxer: Give them one of those spoons that are just a short bit of metal set in a plastic handle. And I note that those who claim to bend spoons psychically haven’t claimed Randi’s prize, which should be easy money if they could.

  50. Of course I think psi power doesn’t exist. “Psychics” have had centuries to prove that they can do better than random chance, but never — not once, not ever — have they. How long do we wait?

    Does that mean it’s impossible? I wouldn’t say that, because I’m a scientist, and I know that even one chance in a googol is still a chance. But when speaking realitsically…

  51. amphiox

    I don’t think it is impossible for something functionally like psi power to exist/evolve in a biological system. Some organism might evolve the ability to generate strong magnetic fields, similar to how electric eels generate electric fields, for example, or communicate with one another using radiowaves, or infrasound (ie something like telepathy). But the question is whether such abilities exist in human beings, and there is no evidence for that.

    And I would like to repeat my previous post. The positive claim (X exists) requires evidence, but the negative claim (X does not exist) does not require evidence. It is the valid null hypothesis when evidence is not available. And when you know that multiple attempts have been made in the past to find the positive evidence, and still none was found, your confidence in the null hypothesis is increased.

  52. Ian

    The thing that always disappoints me about these sorts of demonstrations debunking spoon-bending is that they specifically address the form of spoon-bending practiced by magicians like Uri Geller. They don’t touch at all the form of spoon-bending practiced by everyday people at spoon-bending parties, like the one Daedalus describes above and the one or two my mother has been to. My mother is completely certain that she has personally bent a spoon using qi, and I cannot for the life of me convince her otherwise.

    In her account, after some concentration, the spoon (or fork) suddenly becomes soft and easy to bend, like molding clay. She wasn’t very good at it herself and could only get in a couple of twists before it would seem to “freeze up” again, but she noted a couple of other women, personally known to her, who just went to town with it and were able to bend the spoons into extravagant shapes with no apparent effort at all.

    My belief is that there is some form of self-deception going on with this, but I have no basis for understanding or demonstrating that. As one of the organizers of the event, she was able to bring several of the spoons home with her, and she is quick to point out that these are ordinary, relatively sturdy table spoons with no apparent pre-existing weakness. My uncle, a strong man and a skeptic, unbent and rebent some of them, and while he was able to do it easily, he admitted that it did require a significant amount of strength. It strains credibility to think that a group of breast cancer survivors could appear to do it effortlessly. What evidence can one present to counter that?

  53. Viewer 3

    Finally, Phil shares my philosophy.

    “Does that mean it’s impossible? I wouldn’t say that, because I’m a scientist, and I know that even one chance in a googol is still a chance.”

    Which is the point everyone seemed to miss the last time I posted about this physic stuff. Yes, if anything like this were possible it would defy our “known laws” that have been tested and proven a million times. But even our “known laws” that have been retested over and over may have unforseen loophopes when certain undiscovered forces are introduced to the equation. The ways we have “proven” our laws of physics have been bound by tests conducted with all known forces, elements and variables. Who knows what else is out there that we have no idea about.

    I’d never believe in psychic abilities unless it were proven in a lab, not on some ridiculous spoon bending infomercial. But until then, even if it seems absurd, I think it benefits all science to not call something “impossible”, but rather “virtually impossible by pretty much every stretch of all known science”.

    At least that’s how I prefer to look at it.

  54. Irishman

    Viewer 3 said:
    > I think it benefits all science to … call something … “virtually impossible by pretty much every stretch of all known science”.

    Most of us abbreviate that “impossible”. YMMV.

    I realize the subtle distinction you are making, but for most practical circumstances the result is the same.

  55. TheBlackCat

    “In her account, after some concentration, the spoon (or fork) suddenly becomes soft and easy to bend, like molding clay. She wasn’t very good at it herself and could only get in a couple of twists before it would seem to “freeze up” again, but she noted a couple of other women, personally known to her, who just went to town with it and were able to bend the spoons into extravagant shapes with no apparent effort at all.”

    I would need some more details. What did she do to make it go soft? Was it just sitting there on the table? Did she try to bend it, concentrate really hard, then try again and it was easier? Was she flexing it back and forth for a while and then it got soft? Was she rubbing it? Did she give it to someone else and then got it back? What was she doing when this conversion took place? How much interaction did she and others have with the spoon before she bent it? What were the specific instructions given to her by the person leading the exercise? There is simply not enough information on your description to say what was going on.

  56. Viewer 3

    Irishman said:
    > Most of us abbreviate that “impossible”. YMMV. I realize the subtle distinction you are making, but for most practical circumstances the result is the same.

    Whatever suits your tastes. You’ll be apart of the group that’s laughed at centuries from now when certain obscure things that were deemed “impossible” suddenly become the subject of serious scientific study. Perhaps not psychic powers, but surely something else that “most people”, as you say, call impossible.

    But I suppose you’re not concerned with what happens centuries from now. And good for you.

  57. Arthur Benjamin can square 4 and 5 digit numbers in his head – and very quickly, I might add (pun not intended, but I’ll go with it). Is he doing so through psychic or magical means? Nope. There is a method to it, that he shared with us, but it will take lots of time and practice to get good at it – like pretty much anything. And if you don’t know the method, it can seem an impossible feat. My point is, just because you don’t understand how something is done, it does not mean that it is being done though some supernatural means.

  58. Ian

    Irishman said:
    > Most of us abbreviate that “impossible”. YMMV. I realize the subtle distinction you are making, but for most practical circumstances the result is the same.

    Whatever suits your tastes. You’ll be apart of the group that’s laughed at centuries from now when certain obscure things that were deemed “impossible” suddenly become the subject of serious scientific study. Perhaps not psychic powers, but surely something else that “most people”, as you say, call impossible.

    But I suppose you’re not concerned with what happens centuries from now. And good for you.

    At this point, I would place the odds that psychic powers exist at one in a million, at best. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

  59. Daedalus says:
    I cannot even begin to explain either fire-walking

    If you think fire-walking was dramatic, try walking across a pool of molten lead. Remember to wear a breath mask, since lead vapor is toxic.

  60. Grand Lunar

    @Jan;
    “Not a good blog post, Phil. Nowhere do you explain to the undecided HOW the trick is done. ”

    James Randi’s website has this info. Least, last I knew.
    YouTube videos on Randi also show this.

    Besides, the blog post is meant for those familar with the spoon bending claim. You could’ve ASKED, rather than complain about the lack of explaination.

  61. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I find that last clause intriguing. If the laws of physics allowed for psychic powers, how would that affect our observations of the universe as a whole (e.g. stars, the speed of light, galaxies, what-have-you)?

    But even our “known laws” that have been retested over and over may have unforseen loophopes when certain undiscovered forces are introduced to the equation.

    There really isn’t much if any leeway for new fundamental forces that biology could use. (And the old ones are known and fail to explain say telepathy in combination with constraints from observations, such as absence of radio emissions.)

    And before you raise recent discoveries like dark energy, it was a known possibility in GR. Strictly speaking GR is an effective theory since it doesn’t incorporate QM in the full nonlinear description. OTOH string theory can incorporate all known forces, and AFAIU by entropy observations you can see that this runs out of state space for any smaller structure. (Nature is neat that way, it is a closed and consistent system, and sometimes it shows up. But – aargh! Can’t find the reference today.)

    @ amphiox:

    It is the valid null hypothesis when evidence is not available.

    Indeed. It is also an implicit consequence of theory parsimony. Unless positive evidence shows up, no extraneous objects will be included in later explanations anyway.

    Believing in psi is exactly like believing in garden fairies. Except that more people hesitate to claim that they believe in, or are agnostic about, fairies. Special pleading is worse enough within religion, but using it to defend indefensible claptrash is worse. Fairies are also cute ideas, but they don’t get the extra helpings of woo like psi gets. I ask you, is that fair?

  62. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “smaller structure” – strictly speaking, fine-graining into more fundamental states. As someone noted, it is bad pedagogy to confuse matter structure with energy states around entropy, since people conflate them so often.

  63. Lurker

    You’ve really got a man crush on this Randi guy. Has he ever actually done anything other than be old and snarky? What’s the source of your fascination?

  64. Lurker, try reading Flim Flam and The Faith Healers for starters. Maybe check out the JREF website at http://www.randi.org .

    One of the first times I saw Randi was on Oz TV in 1980 on the Don Lane Show. Don was a believer in in woo and when Randi was getting stuck into, I think, Geller Don got annoyed scattered some of Randi’s props, told Randi to piss off and stormed off. Leaving a rather bemused Randi sitting on the couch. I think the video is available on Youtube somewhere.

    Randi has been pissing off the woo heads ever since. Yes, he is old and can be snarky. According to Websters snarky can mean sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner. That comes with the territory and is part of his charm.

  65. Damon

    ::snore:: Boring, Phil. Nobody believes in this stuff, any way.

    Maybe you should stop splitting hairs and go back to trying to debunk real mysteries like ghosts and UFOs?

    Oh, that’s right: You can’t. Because even shills like you know they’re the real deal.

  66. TheBlackCat

    Randi is known as “the bull dog of the skeptics movement” and “the hitman of the skeptics movement” for a good reason. He is one of the main people actively confronting and challenging woo-woos. He goes undercover and organizes undercover operations involving others, he goes on the news and talk shows, he organizes tests, and much more. He is responsible for bringing down Uri Geller. He destroyed the reputation of the parapsychology field with Project Alpha, where the amateur magicians he planted became the stars of a major parapsychology research program using simple magic tricks. He exposed the gullibility of the press by creating an entire fake religious movement from scratch and getting the Australian press to buy it wholesale (do a search on “Carlos” and Randi). And he has suffered greatly for it, including getting sued by Uri (that seems to be Geller’s main way to deal with critics).

  67. Lurker

    Shane: I thought this was supposed to be a blog about astronomy. This Randi guy does not seem to fit that bill nor does fascination that the author of this blog has for him. Then again this blog seems to be mostly about the author’s annoyance with – and intolerance of other points of view and a penchant for name dropping —- so I guess this old Randi guy fits in.

  68. TheBlackCat

    Uh, Damon, Phil had a post on UFO’s two days ago. And no, we don’t think ghosts are the real deal, either.

  69. Leonardo

    I always assumed that the spoon trick was done with a trick spoon partially made of Gallium. It’s a metal that melts at 86 degrees F, and so would easily melt in your hand if you rubbed it (skin is about 91 degrees F), yet would be solid at room temperature.

  70. Lurker, Phil’s posts are about many things. Mostly astronomy but lots of antiscience stuff too. Check out her tags for this post for example, Antiscience, Cool stuff, Debunking, Science, Skepticism, Video Blog .

    It is his blog and he can write about whatever he wants to. You don’t have to read it. If you want to read the posts on astronomy check the tags.

    If you did some research about Randi you would find why he is the Grand Old Man of scepticism and rationality. He is an example and hero to many people. He is a cantankerous old bugger too, but as I said, that is part of his appeal. You’re allowed to be a little cantankerous when you’ve been doing this sort of thing for as long as he has.

    That being said Randi has everthing to do with astronomy. He is, after all, a star of the reality based community and he has had an asteroid named after him :-)

  71. Peter B

    Damon said: “Boring, Phil. Nobody believes in this stuff, any way.”

    Are you kidding? Haven’t you read some of the posts in this very thread? There are still lots of people out there who think spoon bending requires psychic powers, and thus people like Uri Geller get to make a living from exploiting gullible people.

    Showing up the fakery is an important part of educating people to use their noggins a little more.

  72. Harold McTestes

    Ian,

    I’ve read similar accounts of what you and Daedalus have experienced. Famous author Michael Crichton has an interesting account of the phenomenon as well.

    http://www.crichton-official.com/features-spoonbending.html

  73. Let’s try it again, new group, bring your own spoon (no plastic).

  74. Dr Mark Miodownik from Kings College London (in the video), Prof Richard Wiseman & Dr Phil Plait. What do they have in common? Beard – check. Rectangular glasses – check. Receding hairline, cut short – check. I’m in good company.

    I wonder if these traits can be linked to intelligence or do intelligent people just long to look like this? ;-)

  75. Quiet Desperation

    Not sure if this was a joke or not (if it was, my apologies),

    Even with everything I wrote after what you quoted, you’re not sure I was joking? I mean… *really*? Copernicus and superstrings? Are *you* joking?

    but Phil never specified modern physics like QT. Leo made that one up all on his own.

    Gosh, I guess that’s why I quoted Leo and you, and not Phil, huh?

    Seriously, are you gaming me?

  76. Irishman

    KC said:
    >> “If you take over 800 critical thinkers — self-proclaimed non-believers in anything psi . . .”

    >> Actually, that’s not critical thinking. That’s 800 self-proclaimed non-believers in anything psi. Critical thinking would not rule out that psi could exist *but* would insist on evidence when anyone claims that it does.

    Phil Plait said:
    > KC: nope, I disagree. If you believe in something you’re not a critical thinker; “believing” in this case means thinking something is true without or despite of evidence. True critical thinkers don’t believe in anything; they wait for evidence (or proof, if you will) before trusting something is correct.

    KC said:
    > Phil, that’s my point. Your statement comes across that you believe psi doesn’t exist. That doesn’t sound like waiting for evidence.

    Phil Plait said:
    > Of course I think psi power doesn’t exist.

    Here is a perfect example of a different philosophical assumption. The distinction is between 2 position vs 3 position thinking.

    2 position thinking says there are 2 states or positions – either you believe in yes, or you do not believe in. It is an on/off relationship, no intermediate states.

    3 position thinking syas there are 3 states or positions – you believe in yes, you believe no, or you have a neutral middle position with no belief. Thus you don’t concluse psi is real and you don’t conclude psi is not real, you merely conclude no one has proven psi true but hold psi could be possible.

    To a 3 position thinker, a 2 position thinker is making a belief (by Phil’s definition of thinking something without or despite evidence) that something does not exist. The 2 position thinker says there is either affirmative belief for something, or the default position of not accepting as true.

    These 2 positions will go around and around and never reach agreement because neither accepts the other’s assumption and most people are unable to see the disagreement is over the assumption, not the status of evidence for psi. Or aliens, or whatever.

    Viewer 3 said:
    > Whatever suits your tastes. You’ll be apart of the group that’s laughed at centuries from now when certain obscure things that were deemed “impossible” suddenly become the subject of serious scientific study. Perhaps not psychic powers, but surely something else that “most people”, as you say, call impossible.

    I reserve “impossible” not as a label for things that are merely unexplained, things that we do not have a theory to support, but rather things that also go against existing scientific knowledge – data and theories and laws and such. So how sophisticated is your understanding of the scientific process? I’m fully aware that my judgments of possibility and impossibility are limited by the knowledge we have now, and that future knowledge may unlock in specific cases some feature that contradicts certain portions of what we currently think we know. And if I’m alive when that happens, I will happily admit my ignorance and change my mind. But till then, I can only go by what I know now.

    > But I suppose you’re not concerned with what happens centuries from now. And good for you.

    How can I possibly worry about what people centuries from now will think of me? I’m too busy wondering what the Billion Chinese think of me. And the Billion Indians. And Africans – I hate that I don’t know what some guy in Botswanna thinks of me. Maybe he thinks I’m a lunatic. I couldn’t stand that.

    Maybe some day First graders will be taught that the Universe is a hyperdimensional geodesic and they will laugh at the people of the 21st century for not knowing that. But how can I possibly care?

  77. TheBlackCat

    @ Irishman: your “3rd Position” is not a position at all, it is the refusal to take a position. Reality is either one of two ways, either psi exists or it doesn’t. Looking at the evidence, you can either draw a conclusion that the latter is true, that the former is true, or you can refuse to take a position at all. Phil, looking at the evidence, has drawn a conclusion. There is nothing wrong with that. The evidence may not be 100% certain, but it is strong enough that a large number of people feel confident in drawing the same conclusion. Will they change their belief if new evidence comes around that contradicts that position? They will if they are good skeptics. But given the evidence available they feel the best tentative conclusion is that psi does not exist. This has nothing to do with belief, it has to do with drawing the best conclusion from the evidence available.

    To give an example, one person says gravity pulls objects down, another says gravity can pulls objects up. Would it be proper to refuse to draw a conclusion at all on this debate? Of course not, because all evidence indicates that gravity pulls objects down. It is possible that tomorrow someone may find gravity actually pulls objects up as well, but based on the evidence we have right now the first conclusion is the one better supported by the evidence.

    Someone saying they refuse to accept that gravity pulls things down simply because no one has conclusively proven gravity can never pull things up is not taking the high ground in the debate, that person is simply refusing to participate. We have to constantly draw conclusions in our everyday life based on incomplete and imperfect evidence. To refuse to do so would mean you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning out of fear that the electromagnetic force will fail you and you will fall through the floor to the center of the Earth.

    There is nothing wrong with drawing a conclusion based on the best evidence available to us right now, so long as you are ready at a moment’s notice to change that conclusion should evidence that contradicts that position present itself.

  78. Irishman

    TheBlackCat, I agree that the neutral position is the lack of drawing a conclusion. The point is that from the 3 position point of view, there is a distinction between drawing a conclusion that something does not exist and not drawing a conclusion. Whereas for a 2 position person, not drawing the conclusion that something exists puts you in a de facto state of concluding it does not exist.

    I do not state the superiority of either position. I am trying to point out the philosophical difference that underlies many arguments around here (such as about the existence of God and what “agnostic” means).

    >@ Irishman: your “3rd Position” is not a position at all, it is the refusal to take a position.

    No, you are misuing the word “position”. Or rather, using it different than I did. I used “position” such as having a switch that has settings, or positions. You put the switch in 1 and you get off. You put the switch in 3 you get on. You put the switch in 2 you get a dimmer knob. I am differentiating between “position” and “conclusion”. You are taking “position” to mean “conclusion about whether psi is true or false”.

    > Looking at the evidence, you can either draw a conclusion that the latter is true, that the former is true, or you can refuse to take a position at all. Phil, looking at the evidence, has drawn a conclusion.

    Okay, that appears to be a 3 position viewpoint. But when I read Phil’s statements, I get what appears to be 2 position arguments. He exhibits either/or arguments. A 3 position thinker can accept that there is no strong evidence to support psi, that lots of weak evidence does not equate to strong evidence, that many psi claimers are fakes, and that there are numerous explanations for seeming psi effects (i.e. psychology), and still think that psi is something that is not actively disproven, ergo there is a possibility that it exists. Thus the neutral position.

    2 position thinkers get mad at 3 position thinkers for being indicisive, and accuse them (the 3 position thinkers) of being closet (or not so closet) believers in the thing because they (the 2 position thinkers) can’t accept the viewpoint that there is a neutral middle.

    3 position thinkers get mad at 2 position thinkers who are skeptics because they (the 3 positino thinkers) feel that they (the 2 position thinkers) are being irrationally dismissive and drawing an unwarranted conclusion while claiming to be open-minded, when to them (the 3 position thinkers) open-minded means allowing the possibility it could exist just that it hasn’t been proven so.

    I am not advocating for either. I am attempting to educate that the distinction exists.

  79. >>At this point, I would place the odds that psychic powers exist at one in a million, at best.
    >>That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

    I’ll go further. Psychic phenomena have never been definitively observed in humans or any animal or plant on the face of the earth. There are over 6 billion humans, plus all the humans that have ever lived in the last 100 years (to be fair and not include ancient witch doctors and shamen who didn’t know any better), plus all the animals and plants that exist and ever have existed in the last 100 years.

    On just people alone, that’s odds lower than 1:7 billion. If you include all life on earth (why should humans be the only ones to exhibit magical powers), the odds stretch into the 1:10^12 or worse.

    Can you imagine… Telekinetic whales? Spoon-bending squids? Mind-controlling bacteria?

  80. you can also MELT spoons:P in hot water/tea/coffee that is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIbYiO5BRYk

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