The Stargate Folly – It’s Never About The Science, It’s Always About The Funding

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On August 1, 1973, Johnny Carson introduced Israeli mentalist Uri Geller to America on The Tonight Show. Geller’s claim to fame was his ability to bend spoons with his mind. Admittedly a skeptic, Carson gave Geller more than twenty uninterrupted minutes to show his stuff to the audience. Geller never had a chance. Here’s why.

Carson sought to shame Geller. He suspected Geller was a fraud (for calling himself a psychic, but a very good illusionist). He contacted his friend James Randi, a magician and psychic skeptic, to trap Geller. When Geller showed up on set, he sat down between fellow guest Ricardo Montalbán and host Johnny Carson. In front of him was a table with an array of trinkets on it.

For the next twenty minutes Geller hemmed and hawed and didn’t do a thing. His “bent” spoon wasn’t very bent at all, with Carson sarcastically saying “A spoon that’s got a slight bend in it.” It was an outright embarrassment.

Years later, Adam Higginbotham asked Geller to recall his reaction (“The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi,” The New York Times, November 7, 2014). Higginbotham wrote, “‘I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,’ Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. ‘I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.’ But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on The Merv Griffin Show. He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. ‘That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,’ Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.”

The irony of this response has since been proven by behavior economics researchers. They have shown similar tendencies in testing subjects’ responses to receiving disclosures. Even when the person discloses to the subject that the person is taking advantage of the subject, the subject trusts that person more.

But Geller would soon have something more. He had the scientific equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. There was a reason why Geller was in America. His paranormal prowess was being studied by Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ of the Stanford Research Institute (“SRI”). The fruits of that study would be published in a paper titled “Information Transmission Under Conditions of Sensory Shielding,” in the October 18, 1974 issue of the esteemed science journal Nature.

The paper reported “In preliminary testing Geller apparently demonstrated an ability to reproduce simple pictures (line drawings) which had been drawn and placed in opaque sealed envelopes which he was not permitted to handle.” However, in refining this test to eliminate any accidental cuing of the subject, the results were lukewarm. Geller was able to do better than average at guessing the face of a die.

As for the bending of the spoon, however, Puthoff and Targ could only say, “It has been widely reported that Geller has demonstrated the ability to bend metal by paranormal means. Although metal bending by Geller has been observed in our laboratory, we have not been able to combine such observations with adequately controlled experiments to obtain data sufficient to support the paranormal hypothesis.”

While not as glowing as the conclusion written on the SCANATE summary of the SRI experiments, the one thing the scientists didn’t do was to disprove Geller’s claims. (The conclusion from the August 4-11, 1973 Geller experiments said, “As a result of Geller’s success in this experimental period, we consider that he has demonstrated his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”) Though more tepid, the paper was roundly criticized, not only from other scientists and science journals, but also by the editors of Nature itself.

Still, one is left to wonder who had the better publicity team – Geller or the SRI scientists. Following the Nature paper, a series of strategically placed newspapers stories elevated both Geller as well as the Puthoff/Targ team. Often, the headlines said more than the actual story.

For example, the Associated Press article published in the Austin American Statesman on October 23, 1974 featured the headline “Geller Breaks Barriers on Perception.” Before getting into the minutia of the Nature paper, the AP story says, “Geller repeatedly came up with right responses with scores far higher than by chance.”

Less than a year later, Al Martinez, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a page one story (above the fold, no less) which quoted James Fadiman of Stanford University saying, “One hundred years ago we’d have burned Uri Geller at the stake. Now we put him on the Johnny Carson show,” (“Seeking to Explain the Inexplicable,” Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1975).

It’s clear what might motivate Geller to garner all this publicity. He was, after all, a performer. But Puthoff and Targ weren’t too shy, either. Their prominent appearances in the mass media were very unusual for practicing researchers. (Astronomer Carl Sagan was also very public, but one could argue he had transformed from a researcher in the 1960s to a spokesman in the 1970s.)

The Martinez story offers a valuable hint. He writes, “In the past two years, an estimated $200,000 in federal grants had gone into psi (for psychic phenomenon) research.” Puthoff and Targ admit in the article they “await federal funding.” What better to legitimize their research than showcase the now very popular Uri Geller as their prime specimen. It also helped that former NASA astronaut and sixth man to walk on the moon Edgar Mitchell as well as well-known rocket expert and retired Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters Wernher von Braun backed SRI’s efforts.

The allure that “there’s something there” (as Martinez puts it) captivates the imagination. Comparable to the search for the Holy Grail, it compels one to great heights, sometimes beyond reason.

Randi wasn’t the only one to question Geller’s validity. Echoing critics of the Nature paper, Martinez wrote “A University of Oregon scientist shudders at the ‘incredible sloppiness’ of current experiments in metaphysics. A prominent science and mathematics analyst sneers at ‘claims that are immense and proof that is nonexistent.’ Even magicians are getting into the act. Many insist they can duplicate with trickery anything that is claimed to be paranormal behavior.”

That “University of Oregon scientist” was psychology professor Ray Hyman, who, like Targ, was an amateur magician. In an article written by Francine du Plessix Gray (“Now They Tolerate Parapsychology,” Washington Star-News, August 11, 1974), Hyman “refers to Geller as a brilliant conjurer who simply duped the SRI scientists by classical tricks and mentalist magic.” He said, “They already believed in ESP and therefore their goal was to make Geller as comfortable as possible in order to make him produce it.”

Although the term wouldn’t be coined until 1993 by Scott Plous in his book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, like other critics, Hyman believed the flaw in the SRI experiments (and the successor projects all the way through Project Stargate) was something called “confirmation bias.” This behavioral anomaly reflects the tendency to overweight information that supports your existing point of view.

We now know that Puhoff and Targ were constantly seeking funding from the CIA, the DIA, and various military intelligence agencies of the armed forces. We also now know that, during the height of Watergate in 1973, Congress took a closer look at all frivolous spending. Kenneth Kress, Project Officer for the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) assigned to the SRI lab, recalled in a now declassified internal report, “By the middle of May, 1973, the approval request went through the Management Committee. An approval memorandum was written for the signature of the DCI, then Dr. James Schlesinger. Mr. Colby took the memorandum to the DCI a few days later. I was soon told not to increase the scope of the project and not to anticipate any follow-on in this area. The project was too sensitive and potentially embarrassing. It should be tabled. It is interesting to note that OTS was then being investigated for involvement in the Watergate affair…”

Finally, we know that in early 1975, the CIA issued a (then) secret report stating, “…the research is not productive or even competent; therefore, research support to SRI was dropped.” By coincidence, that same summer the Los Angeles Times story appeared featuring the research surrounding the increasingly dubious Uri Geller experiment. For Puthoff and Targ, the coincidence (and motivation) of the timing could not be clearer. It was no longer about the science; it was about the funding. And they already had a template for success.

While Geller received all the flack, it’s actually the other subject of the Nature paper that proves more interesting. As Targ would later recall, “One day in June of 1973, right in the middle of our adventures with Uri Geller, Pat called Hal Puthoff.” What happened next solved their funding problems.

Next Week: Patrick H. Price – Savior, Savant, or Sacrifice? |

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