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CSICOP Holds Workshop in San Diego

The Editors

Volume 6.2, June 1996

A workshop on “Feats of the Wonder Workers” was held on March 23 and 24, 1996, at the Regency Plaza Hotel in San Diego. Sponsored by the Educational Branch of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the workshop attracted participants from all over the country. Dr. Bernard Leikind, CSICOP consultants, presented details concerning firewalking and the bed-of-nails, and Dr. Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of CSICOP, led a discussion about and gave demonstrations of some of Houdini’s illusions, the “spirit tie-down,” and the difficulties of proving a negative.

Physicist and workshop co-instructor Bernard Leikind demonstrates one of many methods of 'self torture' whose secrets were revealed to participants

Physicist and workshop co-instructor Bernard Leikind demonstrates one of many methods of “self torture” whose secrets were revealed to participants

Dr. Leikind, a physicist, revealed the secret of firewalking, which does not require any special preparations or beliefs. Anybody can do firewalking, as Dr. Leikind has. The audience enjoyed his anecdotes from these events and his digressions into other “amazing” phenomena such as steel-rod bending and the bed-of-nails. There is a solid scientific reason firewalkers are not burned. For burns to occur, the heat from the smoldering embers or coals, or the hot stones, must penetrate the skin and elevate the temperature of the underlying tissue. The time the skin is in contact with the heat source is too short for this to occur if the walker steps briskly and the bed of coals is around 10 feet long.

Dr. Nickell, a magician and author, took the participants through the history of wonder workers and their performances, with examples from previous centuries. Among these were the tricks of cannon ball catching. Much of this information can be gleaned from books about magic available in many libraries. However, often, they needed no tricks, just exceptional physical abilities as seen in the strongmen and sword-swallowing acts. The trademark of most of the famous performers, including Houdini, was meticulous preparation and flawless execution. Dr. Nickell showed this point by twice escaping from a strait jacket after having his wrists bound with a Siberian chain and handcuffs, and his thumbs locked in thumbcuffs, once behind a screen and then in full view of the audience.

A brave workshop participant tries his hand–and more–at escaping from a strait jacket. He succeeded!

A brave workshop participant tries his hand–and more–at escaping from a strait jacket. He succeeded!

These demonstrations were most useful in focusing the discussion on what it means to be skeptical of paranormal claims. For example, it is not enough to come up with an explanation, and expect it to be the explanation! The scientific approach demands that one come up with multiple plausible explanations, and then conduct controlled tests of each. It is important to remind people that truth matters, and that the search for truth, even when it takes the form of “de-bunking” deeply held beliefs, is worthwhile. The experience of what is taken to be a paranormal event is very real to the person who has the experience. We should not ignore their subjective reports, but we do not have to believe them. We can ask them for objective and scientific evidence to support their claims. Otherwise we are trapped in the situation of having to prove a negative. In other words, skeptics should ask the believers to prove that Santa Claus’ reindeer can fly, rather than the skeptics trying to prove that they cannot fly.

Dr. Leikind pointed out that, compared to today, people alive thousands or hundreds of years ago lived incredibly chaotic lives, with no reasonable assurance that they would survive from one year to another. They did observe regularity in the movement of the stars and planets. It may have been natural to take as a hypothesis that the stars and planets contain information about events on earth. This hypothesis, called astrology, has been elaborated upon throughout the centuries, but even some ancients knew that it was not correct. Scientific tests of astrological forecasts also show that they are incorrect.

Joe Nickell seems securely fettered–with a padlocked wrist chain, handcuffs, and thumbcuffs–but was free presently

Joe Nickell seems securely fettered–with a padlocked wrist chain, handcuffs, and thumbcuffs–but was free presently

Magician and mentalist Mark Edward entertained after the banquet with an excellent performance showing his “mental powers.” At least some of us enjoyed being thoroughly fooled by several of his acts. He did not explain how he did his acts, but he did state that no paranormal events were involved. There is a clear difference between a magician who entertains and a charlatan who claims supernatural powers. Certainly no one present had any reservations about magic performances put on solely for entertainment. CSICOP has no interest in investigating or revealing trade secrets of magicians. Only when the tricks are used to defraud money from unsuspecting people does the matter become of concern. This stance is in the tradition of many magicians going back to Houdini and earlier performers.

The next workshop is tentatively scheduled for August in Buffalo, New York. CSICOP promises that the snow will be melted by then so that the participants can enjoy a four-day course “Introduction to Critical Thinking.” We highly recommend that you participate.

Related Information

This review originally appeared in Rational Inquiry, the newsletter of the San Diego Association For Rational Inquiry.