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Skeptics Can Be Fooled

Dennis Stillings takes Randi for a Ride

by Guy Lyon Playfair

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“If a trick is well done, it doesn’t look like a trick. It looks real,” conjuror James Randi has been quoted as saying. He is absolutely right, and he should know, since on more than one occasion he has himself mistaken trickery for reality. It all began in 1981, when his ‘Project Alpha’ managed to sabotage a research programme by infiltrating a couple of young magicians, Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw, into the parapsychology laboratory funded by the late James McDonnell, a pioneer of the aerospace industry. There, they did their best for nearly two years to trick the researchers into proclaiming them genuine Geller-type spoon benders, which they never did in print. However, Randi’s revelation of his attempted hoax at a news conference sponsored by Time Inc.’s science magazine Discover encouraged the public to believe that since parapsychologists could so easily be hoaxed, although in this case they weren’t, none of their claimed findings could be taken seriously. It was a successful smear campaign, and may have had something to do with the closing of the ‘Mac Lab’ in 1985.

Then it was Randi’s turn to be taken for a ride. Soon after his outing in January 1983 of Edwards and Shaw, the newsletter of a small Minneapolis research group, the Archaeus Project, announced that a fund of $217,000 had been set up for a metal-bending research programme under Archaeus director Dennis Stillings, to whom gifted subjects should apply.

The newsletter was a fake. No such fund existed. Stillings printed just two copies of his fake newsletter and sent them to Edwards and Shaw, confident that they would pass them on to Randi, as indeed they did.

Randi then started asking around as to what the source of this funding was, and was told it might be Medtronic, Inc., the Minneapolis-based company making pacemakers where Stillings worked as librarian. Without bothering to check with the company, Randi assumed that it was the source, and on April 1st, 1983, a Discover news release signed by Randi had this to say about the latest of his ‘Uri Awards’ for the ‘silliest and most irrational claims in relation to the paranormal’:
To the Metronics [sic] Corporation of Minneapolis, who gave $250,000 [sic] to a Mr Stillings of that city to fund the Archaeus Project, devoted to observing people who bend spoons at parties. Mr Stillings then offered financial assistance to a prominent young spoon bender who turned out to be one of the masquerading magicians of Project Alpha – a confessed fake.

Not only had Randi fallen hook, line and sinker for Stillings’s bait, but he had managed to make a total of four mistakes in his brief news release: the nonexistent fund had been increased from $217,000 to $250,000, the Medtronic Corporation had nothing to do with it, and was misspelled into the bargain, and Stillings had never ‘offered financial assistance’ to Shaw, Edwards, or anybody else.

Having shown that it is really quite easy to hoax somebody who does not check his facts very carefully, or indeed in this case not at all, Stillings promptly did it again. A couple of weeks after the Discover news release, Randi received a letter from ‘Reid Becker, Program Manager, Charon Investments’ telling him that ‘a rumour has come to my ears that Medtronic, Inc., has received a “Uri” award for contributing a large sum of money to psychic research’ and asking for further details as some of his clients held stock in the company.

Randi replied with the extraordinary allegation that the naming of Medtronic had not originated from him – but from Stillings. He suggested that Becker should contact him for clarification.

Becker had no need to do this, for it was Stillings himself who had written the ‘Becker’ letter, on clumsily faked notepaper with no address or telephone number. He concluded that ‘This is a case where one is dealing with the very gullible. Randi and his associates, with the full force of their will to disbelieve, are unable to apply sound judgment about either their statements or their actions. Information supporting their beliefs is uncritically assimilated and then passed on in distorted form to the media.’

In other words, sceptics and even magicians can be, and have been fooled as easily as anyone else. Some are honest enough to admit it. Martin Gardner, for example, has confessed that ‘I consider myself a knowledgeable student of conjuring, yet I am frequently mystified by new tricks.’ So, as we have seen, are others.

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