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Robert A. Steiner (1934-2013)

Robert Sheaffer

January 8, 2013

Steiner at speaking podiumSteiner at the 2002 CSICOP Conference in Burbank, CA.

Magician and skeptic Robert A. Steiner died on January 4, 2013 in a nursing home in Concord, California, at age 78. A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay area, Steiner was a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and spoke at several CSI(COP) conferences. A professional magician, he was a former president of the Society of American Magicians, and a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. He also was a Certified Public Accountant.

Any social event where Steiner was present typically had him giving an impromptu public demonstration of “psychic powers.” He always explained to audiences afterward that he had fooled them with a trick. He was also a life member of Mensa, and frequently hosted social events for Mensa, for skeptics, and other friends, at his home in the East Bay. These events typically included a demonstration of his “psychic” powers, always delivered in a presentation filled with humor. For a number of years, Steiner sponsored an annual Leap Year’s Day party, whether or not the year was divisible by four. Always held on February 28, at midnight it would be determined whether or not the year was a Leap Year by polling the guests’ calendar watches to see how many read February 29, or March 1.

Steiner at a party with many othersSteiner performing magic at a Mensa party he hosted in his house.

Steiner and I were close friends for many years. In 1982 he and I founded the Bay Area Skeptics, a local skeptics group that is still operating. Steiner was also a close friend of fellow magician James “The Amazing” Randi, and knew practically everyone in the magic world. One time when Steiner and I were on a flight going to a CSICOP conference, he spotted fellow magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., who greeted him as an old friend. Steiner was also a close friend of Dr. Wallace Sampson, M.D., one of the leading scientific critics of ‘alternative medicine.’ Sometimes Sampson and Steiner would do a joint presentation on bogus medical practices, and Steiner would demonstrate the kind of ‘psychic surgery’ practiced in the Philippines, appearing to pull copious amounts of chicken guts from the abdomen of a surprised “patient.”

Concerned about a steady parade of foreign “psychics” who were uncritically accepted while making tours of Australia, in 1984 the Australian Skeptics arranged for Steiner to travel Down Under to perform as psychic Steve Terbot. “Terbot” did numerous major TV and in-person appearances. Nobody saw anything fishy about him, the media almost never bothered to check Terbot’s credentials (“There are no credentials in a field that studies something that does not exist!” Steiner once said). Terbot became an instant psychic celebrity. He appeared on the widely-watched Tonight with Bert Newton show three times: twice as “psychic” Steve Terbot, the third time as skeptic Bob Steiner, explaining how he had fooled millions of people (see http://www.skepdic.com/steveterbot.html).

Steiner coordinated the entire Bay Area operation of James Randi’s elaborate “sting” of the televangelist Peter Popoff, who was receiving ‘messages from God’ via a concealed radio receiver in his ear. (Steiner invited me to participate, but because of work and family commitments I could not. As a consequence of their strict secrecy, I did not even find out the nature of the “sting” they had under way until its completion.) Steiner lined up the communications expert, Alec Jason, and the primary “patient,” Don Henvick, who three separate times was miraculously chosen from among thousands to be “healed” by Popoff, the last time in drag.

While living in New Jersey during the 1970s, Steiner ran for Congress as a Libertarian Party candidate. He was the author of Don’t Get Taken (Wide-Awake Books, 1989), a book on how to protect yourself from frauds and scams. He wrote the article on Cold Reading in the Skeptical Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Michael Shermer, editor).

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at www.badUFOs.com.