This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 13th, 2009.
Jim Underdown, welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe Jim Underdown point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots level. My guest this week is baño check, a world famous thought, Reider Mind Reader. He’s written numerous books on mentalism, including the influential psychological subtleties, and he’s invented various magic and mentalism effects, including Pen and Teller’s Bullet Catch and the original Buried Alive. He’s often sought out by various top entertainers around the world as a consultant, including Penn and Teller, David Blaine, Lance Burton, James Randi, Criss Angel, others. He’s received the Entertainer of the Year award two years in a row from the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. And he’s also been the recipient of the coveted Psychic Entertainer Association Creativity Award. He’s well known for fooling scientists at Washington University into believing that his supposed psychic abilities were genuine during the Project Alpha hoax of the early 1980s. Welcome to Point of Inquiry Check.
It’s a pleasure to be here.
We’ve been wanting on the show for so long, so much to talk about. Mentalism, skepticism, Project Alpha, lots of stuff. Let’s start off talking about your mentalism. First, do you like the term mentalist or mind reader or psychic entertainer?
You know, it’s interesting. It’s only been in the last few years. I think that people think they understand what a mentalist is because of the TV show, The Mental. What’s interesting about that is it’s very different from what a true mentalist is. We basically tape up, take our five nine census. We create the illusion of a sixth sense. Of course, all structured around magic. And we simulate what a psychic would actually do. Now, there are certain mentalists out there that wants you to believe they’re genuine. There’s some mentalists out there that only can get away with what they do by having people have a preconceived notion that they’re actually genuine, that we’re not. I mean, where we were all magicians and it’s just a different subcategory of magic. And a lot of mentalists don’t even like the term magician related to us. But that’s what it is, they say. Another category of magic.
So you use the term mentalists to describe your son.
You know what I do? More recently, I’ve gotten more comfortable with it. But mostly people have no clue what a mentalist is. It’s only since the TV show like phenomenon and the actual TV show from The Mentalist itself has come out, they start to understand it. It’s odd that I called myself a thought reader, which is very different than a mind reader, and I would explain it and put it in context for people that I can’t read your mind. And I would give specific examples and see if there was a woman sitting with a husband on a park bench. A pretty woman went jogging by and her husband turned and looked and the wife left the husband in the face. Well, if you were watching this, she would know what the husband was thinking, you know, when the wife was thinking, right. You haven’t read their minds, but you have read their thoughts. And that’s what I do. I read thoughts, not mine. You can once we have to show, they read my mind. Can’t do it. But if he punch me in the face, I might turn what you thought about the show.
Great. Okay, so your a thought reader. You’re a mentalist. You’ve kind of conceded this sore point among some people in the art that, hey, it’s all magic tricks, it’s all magical effects, it’s just couched in these more kind of paranormal theatrical presentations. Fine art. You got into all of this at a really young age, right?
I really start. Well, depends what what you say about that, because a lot of magicians get started when they’re like, you know, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
Like a magic kit or something.
Yeah, exactly. You know, and start going to conventions with their dad or their uncle or somebody like that. I started when I was 16 years old. I mean, I picked up a book by James The Amazing Read. I didn’t even really start performing at that point. I think I’d buy a book by James. Amazing, Randi. A good friend of ours. Of course, everybody listening to this show will know who he is. And it was the truth about Uri Geller. And up to that point, I had believed Gallah was genuine. I mean, I was a man. And when I was a kid in South Africa, two brothers a year and three years old, pretty much raised it by myself. So anything adults told me, I believed. I mean, hey, who would know? The analysts would know. And they convinced me that Gallo was genuine. I remember he came to Cape Town Springbok radio. I listen to him on the radio. We had no TV in South Africa at that time. And I heard Gallah and I convinced myself I could actually bend a pin with my mind, you know, very minutely. But I had bent it and it wasn’t. So I picked up Randi’s book that it opened up a whole new world for me. And I was a little bit upset, a little bit angry at the time because nobody had given me a different perspective about what this might be.
It sounds like, though, that this book, rather than just only telling you the truth about Uri Geller, it kind of radicalized you.
It did a lot for me. I mean, I because of my upbringing, because of being bad in South Africa with my two brothers, raising them by myself, sitting in the back of a class with a heavy coat on in the middle of summer, afraid the teacher was going to call me. I mean, I was socially inept. And when I read the book, not only was I angry, but I started to come up with ways to. Move, I’d move myself in other things, too, like making the clock go off early at the bell, go off early so we could get out of school early. You know, and I became I got attention from other students at that time, too. They started to bring me silverware from the cafeteria and I started to bend that as well. I got suspended for that for a little bit. They went to plastic silverware until I graduated. But it really, really changed my life. So much so that after a little bit I wrote Randy a letter, said, look, if you ever need a kid, try to fool scientists. I’d be happy to do it.
Wow. And that, in fact, that’s the perfect entree into discussing Project Alpha at my alma mater, Washington University. You’re involved in. Well, how to say it. You were teaching scientists there a lesson in how easy it is to fool smart people with these conjuring tricks. These scientists at WashU. They set up a project investigating psychic phenomena. Well tell me how you got in the mix there.
Yeah. You see, for years scientists had lamented that the reason there was no positive documentation of E.S.P was simply because of lack of funding. Well, it was Ramey’s contention and mine at the time as well, that it had nothing to do with lack of funding. Didn’t matter how much money they had, if they went in with a pro biased opinion, if they went in believing they would not use proper scientific protocol. Basically, what they would be doing is trying to document that own belief system. And even some of the scientists, some of the parapsychologists said, look, you know, if you think you can introduce a magician into the lab, go ahead and try it. You know, see if you can you won’t be able to do it. We also believe that scientists would think that they were too smart because they had APHC. They would think that they couldn’t before and therefore they would not accept the expert opinion if somebody could detect the trickery like the amazing Randi. So it’s something that we felt needed to be done at the time. And the opportunity presented itself from watching university was given half million dollars by McDonnell Douglas to study any phenomena they wanted, but it had to be a paranormal type phenomenon. That was given to Peter Phillips, the gentleman there. It was a physics professor, and he basically said he was going to study Peter Hamby, and he put out an Associated Press article, said, look, I’m looking for kids who can bend metal and move objects with their mind. I wrote to them and I was accepted.
Well, so you and your friend Mike Edwards, you beguiled these credulous scientists into believing that you had real paranormal abilities. What kind of abilities did you in a fake way demonstrate to the world?
You say, my friend Mike Edwards. At the time, I didn’t know Mike. Mike had already been accepted prior to myself. And the only thing Mike knew how to do was to bend the key rate. Didn’t know Mike up until that point. So he wrote Randy, I think he wrote or called Randy. I don’t remember for sure. I said, look, you know, I’ve been accepted. What do I do at this point? Randy, just this on board. You know, I’ve got some thoughts. Been working on this for a while. And I know another young young gentleman who has just been accepted. The name is Steven Shore, which is my regular name. And Mike and I hit it off and we did become very good friends. Now, in the early days, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We didn’t know if they’re going to be one way. We didn’t know how they were trying to detect the trickery. We assumed that they were. You’re trying to check and make sure that we were genuine for us to be looking for the trickery.
But you didn’t know how stringent the protocols were you? You were kind of going in blind.
We didn’t know what they were hiding from us. So in the early days, the bands were very minor. You very almost like a millimeter or something like that, because they were they would measure the spoons at the tip and in the center and at the end and with our bends were very, very slight things that could not even be seen on camera. It wasn’t till later when we started realizing how much freedom we had, that we really started to bend things abroad. We would make that they had other experiments to like trying to cause a Fuze to go off early. That was a little Fuze box. It might go off in 20 seconds. And our job was try to make it go off in like 10 seconds. And I found out that if you press down on the Fuze, it would look like it had blown. And I would switch it for a blown Fuze. And I came up with a lot of. Basically, they would present me with things that they wanted me to try to do. And I would always say yes. And within a few minutes, I usually came up with a way to to do it.
Mm hmm. So they thought you were gifted in some paranormal way and they were never skeptical that you might be a kid doing magic tricks.
You know, I can’t tell you what was in their head. As far as I know, they were never skeptical. Not until Randy presented some evidence we might be cheating.
Did they ever come close to discovering you before that? I mean, that you were a fraud? Who was kind of working with Randy in this way?
This is an interesting question, because after everything came out at the time, like where we say we were fakes, basically they had a spokesperson come out of the woodwork, somebody we had never met before from Adam Douglas and said, look, these kids had been asked, you know, they would ask if they were Trickster’s. Now, two of the things that Randy is in the very beginning is. Well, one of the things actually was if they ever asked us if we were magicians, we had to say yes. And we were working for the amazing Randy Jim Underdown.
You mean that he told you. Rules of the game. If they ever ask you if you’re a fraud, you fess up.
Absolutely. They never asked that. They never did research into our backgrounds. In fact, they checked Mike’s background. They would have seen that he was an escape artist and magician. They never check my background. They check my background. I had a room prepared by Randy for it.
And I was. They’re already saying that I was genuine because we knew that at some point we’re going to try to introduce me to a lot. I didn’t know what lab turned out to be this one in the end. They never asked is what Randy did at one point at a magic convention. He put out a little bit of a rumor that he had something going. You know, he was trying to force some scientists and then a had of parapsychological convention. Same ones that Peter Phillips were attending. He put out two rumors. The first rumor was the correct one that Mike and I were working with. Randy tried to fool the Mac lab, which was he MacDonell laboratory for secretary. And the other one was at the Mac lab, professors themselves who were working with the amazing Randi to try to fool the rest of the scientific community. So what happened when we came back after they had been at that convention, they came to Mike and I and I said, you know, we heard some rumors at this convention and they said the first rule was that you and Mike were working at a meeting. Randy, try to fool us. And I’m thinking in the back of my mind. And Mike was too. Oh, my God, OK. This is the end. This is it. And they started laughing. How ridiculous is that? We are an even funnier one than we the scientists working with Randy try to fool the rest of the scientific community. So they had a good laugh about it and they felt that both rumors were absolutely ridiculous. It was never a thing of confronting us. It was the thing of telling us how silly these rumors were that they hurt.
I’m interested. Whatever happened to these researchers? I mean, they were they really had the war pulled over their eyes. And and this kind of blunder, it could kind of be a what? A career buster.
You know, when we went in originally, Mike and I, we just felt that it was us against the enemy. You know, we never realized that these people were good people and that they were gonna be our friends and they were good people. They were very, very good people. Basically, they were just in an area that they shouldn’t have been in. They were using money that they shouldn’t have been using to conduct tests that they shouldn’t have been testing because they just didn’t have the skills to do this. And they turned out in the very end that when we came out, we said that was all an illusion. What they did was they wouldn’t answer the phone until Mike and I called them. And then it was a consistent thing. Well, what about this? What about this? What about this? Of course, there were some things that were coincidence. You know, there were some things that I just took guesses at and I couldn’t explain those things. But those were few and far between. It’s going to happen when you’re making a lot of guesses after that. Kyra Phillips kind of dropped off the radar. One of the other professors, it was there. He kind of just went off. He’s still working the proper psychological area. He still was teaching people how to expand their minds and how to do E.S.P experiments and things like that. Now, more recently, I was I was contacted by somebody and they’ve actually written a screenplay about Project Alpha and they spoke with other scientists. And my understanding is that they were all on board with this as well. And they were going to show the movie from both points of view. And now they’re just trying to raise money for the movie.
Well, count me in. Yeah, that sounds excellent. And what a great way to raise consciousness about how easy it is for scientists to be beguiled.
Absolutely. I mean, you know, the funny thing was we stayed at Peter Phillips’s house and on his bookshelf. He had magic wall. And that was one of the things that made us really cautious because we thought he must know something about magic. But I’m guessing he just didn’t look at them or just didn’t associate the two Jim Underdown.
Yeah. Didn’t connect the dots. Didn’t realize like like you were saying before, hey, I’m a scientist. I might have a cognitive bias that says I’m super smart, therefore can’t be fooled.
So, you know, it’s much smarter to be able to say, you know, I don’t have all the evidence when I when I lecture sometimes at colleges or at schools. One of the things that I do is I perform first and then I’ll ask, especially at high schools, I’ll ask kids, you know, raise your hands if you thought this was genuine and most of the hands go up and then I’ll say, raise your hands if you don’t think it’s genuine. And a few hands, maybe four or five hands will go up. And I’ll ask them specifically, I say, why don’t you think it’s real? And they’ll say, Because my dad told me so or because I read it in a magazine or something like that. I say, Well, you know what? You’re right. And a big smile goes across their face and they say. But for the wrong reasons. These other kids had something they couldn’t explain. They witnessed something they could not explain. You’re basically going on what somebody else tells you. You’re much better off saying, I don’t have enough information. I don’t have the skill set. I simply don’t know. I’m skeptical about it, but I don’t have enough information.
That’s an open minded kind of skepticism. And I want to finish up talking about that. But before we get there. So you did Project Alpha and you kind of stuck with deception or performing like that, started performing theatrically. Eventually you go on to be one of the most sought out campus entertainers out there. You did corporate stuff. You still do that. And you you’re one of most widely regarded thinkers in the field as well. So a lot of magicians. Can you not only look up to you, they flock to your lectures, et cetera. You’ve done consulting with really every TV magician out there. One of the most beautiful. Really the perfect example of dramatic magic that I’ve seen pennant tellers version of the bullet catch. You had a hand actually, in creating that.
I did. I was performing a bullet cash back in 1985 with a partner. We would do it at Nightclothes. We did it many different ways. My my partner was a. Man, sometimes he would be set on fire and I would have to fire it, take whatever for wriggle on ways that completely on fire and we would shoot a bullet from across the room, a marble into his mouth. They would put him out and hit comfortable that we did all kinds of weird, different crazy versions of Jim Underdown.
This is a classic in the history of magic. The bullet catch. You had your version.
Yeah. There’s been quite a few people killed doing it. And I had my version and I always thought my version was 100 percent safe. It was only a hundred percent safe method that I knew of. Ever that I’ve ever come across. And then one day, Penn and Teller came to town and they came to my house, showed up in the most ostentatious limousine you’ve ever seen. Those are his words. And it was it was huge. It was longer than my house itself. And they came in the house and tell us that, you know, Randy said, you know, we should ask you to stick in a videotape. And I stuck in a promo tape and they watched that. I think they would just be nice. In fact, one of the funny things about this was when they pulled up, my wife said, if you guys like talk show, feel free. She’s so used to me being on the road and coming home. And that’s all I want to do, is come in and take a shower. The Shiite led honey, they’re staying at the Ritz. I think they’re fine on that. So they watch this tape and then we went to go see their show. And that’s fundi. Tell us that look. I’d like to talk to. He called me. He said, I’d like to talk to you about the bullet catch. And I said, well, how did you know about that?
Because on the VHS there was just about. It was only about three or four seconds. It mentioned the bullet catching. You finished, you know, shooting a bullet. And that’s that’s all that you see. And I had even forgot it was on the VHS. And I it was on there. So I don’t remember. And I went back. Look. Yep. Sure enough, it was there. So I went to the hotel, took my gun and took everything that I need and started talking to tell her about it. And Penn sitting in the background and halfway through. Tell us how this will work. I mean, this is safe and that’s what I like, that it’s safe and that this idea. Sure. And tell us if I’d like to pay for it right now. I don’t know. I didn’t want any money for it. You know, they paid help, Randy, through the years. And from Randy, it helped them. And basically, you know, any friend of Randy’s is a friend of mine said, no, no, no, I don’t want any money for it. No, no, no. We insist. Tell you what, once you take my gun, because that’s what they want to take anyway. I want you to take everything, play with it. And if you think you can do something with it, come back to me and maybe we’ll talk about it then. And now, this is ten years later from when I invented my version. This is now 19, 1995.
And you’re no longer doing it in a show? I was doing it once in a while, but I had worked with a partner and then I started doing it solo when I stopped working with a partner and basically had a grip that held the gun.
But I wasn’t doing it that often. Maybe once a year, if if anything at that at that point.
So they came back to you eventually and yeah, they came back.
I mean, they did it right. They went to the FBI. They, you know, took gun lessons. You know that. I mean, basically, they really, really did it. Right. And finally, at one point, telecom me and he said, look, you know, I would like to bring you in this Saturday. I think it was like June 10th, 1995, working Ballies at the time. So they brought me into the 9:00 p.m. show. They flew me and put me up on a really nice hotel. My wife couldn’t make it a three bedroom house and I called me three bedrooms. Ron Lindsay Revathy said, you don’t want to sleep in one one night. The other one the next night and the other one the next night. Don’t worry about it. So let’s go see it. And it was fantastic. I mean, they had basically taken what I had given them.
They’ve taken bits and pieces from my method. They changed it. And it was now really almost beyond recognition. I mean, it was something that was perfectly Penn and Teller. And not only that, they they have a few different versions, which is unheard of with the bullet catch.
Well, it is among the most beautiful magic I’ve ever seen live. It’s just not.
And I you know, I I’m very humbled by the fact that they they close every single show with so Benitec, looking back at Project Alpha, these wash your tests, all that and then looking at your career after that, your influence in the magic world and your consulting in the way that you just mentioned, Penn and Teller, but also. Well, just really, it’s a who’s who you like. Every famous magician anyone’s ever heard of, you’ve somehow been involved kind of behind the scenes or or something. You’ve been on TV a bunch yourself, but you haven’t just stuck with performing. You’re not just, you know, The Mentalist, the mind reader, the thought reader. I mean, you’ve stayed with the skepticism, this kind of skeptical activism. Maybe that’s not how you’d characterize it, but maybe you can plot a trajectory of the magic to the skepticism. And even now you’re involved in testing paranormal claimants. Like last year at the amazing meeting, you conducted a test of the European psychic carny song.
Yeah, I felt that it’s been very important to stay within the skeptical community for numerous reasons. I mean, who better to catch another magician when they’re saying if they’re genuine? You know, this is what I do for a living. I mean, that area where it’s not just magic, it is mentalism, which is very closely related to what some of the psychics are doing. You know, and this this is where I learned I learned from them in the early days. You know, I used to go back in the books and and read about how they exposed somebody, the so-called psychics. And I took some of their methods and they enhanced them and I improved upon them. And that’s pretty much how I’ve gotten really well known within the magic community, was creating and taking those tools and creating new effects. Yeah, when it came to Connie’s site, I was approached and asked if I would be willing to test her, and I said that I would be willing to do that. Now, the protocol was put in place not by myself and by other people. My only job there was to make sure that she was not cheating. That was the only job that I had. She agreed ahead of time that I could be there. She knew that I was a magician. She knew that I was a mentalist. She said 100 percent that it would be fine. She agreed to all the controls, which is exactly what they have to do. She was a very, very polite. She was very, very easy to work with. I was not allowed to meet her ahead of time. But she was just I mean, just it seemed as if everything was going to be absolutely 100 percent perfect.
Very sincere. Yeah. Didn’t seem like a huckster.
No, not at all. Not at all. No. Well, you know, when you start. I got to say, when you start taking a look at some of her background and you start looking at some of the claims that she was making, there seemed to be a little bit of history going on, a little bit of publicity by step beyond that, which is something you have to do as an investigator. You have to step outside of yourself. You have to come in with an clean, open mind. You have to be fair to them. And that was my job, I thought was to give her all the respect that I could, because here’s somebody to say, look, you know, I’m going to come in front of all these skeptics and I’m willing to let you test me life. And for that, I had respect for her.
Mm hmm. And that test at 2am, it was leading up to the million dollar challenge, which is Randi’s offer to pay anyone who can prove their supernatural abilities under actual test conditions. What mutually agreed upon scientific conditions?
Well, the million dollar challenge has been there for quite a while. It originally was a I think Parady had ten thousand dollars when he looked up in New Jersey. And then I think he spoke with Penn and Teller. I can’t say for sure, but I think the way the events went.
And I think he was given the idea to go ahead and take donations from people that people basic will not donations.
But people were saying, look, you know, if somebody wins that BBB, you know, wins a million dollars, you know, then, you know, I’ll put money towards it, although pony up almost kind of sign a contract or an agreement that if if Randy discovers true paranormal abilities and someone that all these people who have made pledges pony up their money and pay the person the million.
That’s exactly right. But they turned out that that wasn’t good enough for some of the skeptical people. Well, when I say skeptical people, I don’t mean true skeptics. I mean see magicians posing as psychics in times like to give Randy a hard time when some of the networks and the boards, they said, oh, how are you ever gonna get their money? There’s no way to be sure of that. So Randy went out of his way and he found somebody will put the money in escrow. So the money was there. Even if people didn’t pony up, the money was there. Now people pony up and that money gets deducted from the money in escrow. But anybody going for that million dollars is guaranteed to get a million dollars if they passed the protocol.
Right. And you just mentioned the boards. You mean like the magic message boards? Every sub community has its own.
Unfortunately, they do, you know. Yeah. Unfortunately, on those boards, what happens is you tend to get people that are magicians that like to get a lot of publicity for themselves. And so they start screaming and hollering that the test is unfair or this is unfair.
And they just any way to then get attention and rank among that subculture are these kind of closed online communities where, you know, magicians in mind, readers in mentalists are all talk. And really the most controversial thing you could bring up is like James Randi. People get really riled up.
You know, it’s amazing. I there are some places and some that I joined some memberships where people hated me just because of my association with Randy. I mean, it was amazing how famous they could be.
You know, it was it and the hateful, mean things they would do or say when in fact, he’s done so much good for society. It’s just kind of a skewed view, I think.
No, no, no, it is. And there’s usually an agenda. I mean, there’s definitely almost always an agenda when people start attacking Randy. And that agenda is usually comes from the fact that they want people to think that they’re genuine themselves and usually not always.
But usually when we were talking about Calmy san, you mentioned having a clean, open, mind your phrase. I want to finish up by talking about being open minded while at the same time advancing skepticism. You resist this whole debunking thing. You know, some skeptics, maybe they’re beleaguered by the claimants. You know, they don’t take it seriously anymore. So they in a knee-jerk way, they just say this stuff can’t possibly be true. Come on. These are idiots or liars or frauds or charlatans or something. And they kind of begin with the conclusion that the claim is impossible. That’s not you, though.
No. You know what I have found through the years when people start to do that, they belittle the very people that they’re trying to convince. And as a result, they put up walls. They don’t break walls down. You’re much better giving people information so they can make a decision for them. So this doesn’t mean exposing magic. Because when you start exposing magic, what you do is I think sometimes you set people up. It’s much better to let somebody know that they can be fooled rather than always showing them how they were fooled.
Yes. So a little ounce of magic is not gonna make you a psychic audience.
No, I think that’s a dangerous thing to do. I think what you could do is, I mean, I have 10 ways to bend the key. If I teach somebody one way to bend the key and I say this is how you do it, they think they have all the ammunition they need. And now they get themselves into situations where the psychic or the so-called psychic is going to be able to take them down very, very quickly. Or they put themselves in a position where they see something and say, you know what? This has to be genuine. I know the trick method. This has to be real. So, again, you set them up for failure.
So magic informs skepticism, but it doesn’t follow that every skeptic needs to learn magic tricks.
Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
I think you’re much better off as a skeptic to be a sit back and say, you know what? I don’t have enough information. Let me call back and check. Let me call the amazing Randi. Let me call Jamie in Swift. Let me call somebody who has that knowledge, somebody that can help me.
Right. Jim Underdown banner check. We just scratched the surface. I look forward to continued conversations about all this stuff. It’s really interesting to me, as you know. I appreciate you joining me on Point of Inquiry.
My pleasure. Thank you very much. Jamie.
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