Deceptively exposing deception

29th June 2022. Reading Time: 9 minutes General. 1909 page views. 0 comments.

In a book I am reading (for the 100th time) something is standing out today more than ever. It talks about people using deception as a means to expose deception. Let's look at project alpha where skeptics used deception to expose flaws in a process highlighting an ethical mess. We also discuss some of the things that happen in the general paranormal field with the need to confront the basic notion of two wrongs not making a right.

Do you ever just decide to sit down and re-read or skim over your favourite book for the 100th time?  Do you ever read something in that book and it is almost like you are reading it for the first time?  Well, that is what happened to me this evening and what then inspired this post.  Firstly, if you haven't read the Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew L Tompkins, I highly recommend it.  From someone whose office is kitted out with Houdini, Keller and Thurson magic posters and is a lover of the paranormal, the combination will come as no surprise to you.  Houdini is referenced heavily as is his involvement with the spiritualist community.  His exploits are certainly not new to me and I have written about them many times.  I am actually working on another article that will be coming out in the next week or two about egoism and the paranormal. while we talk about the paranormal field having no room for egos (which is something I also believe), figures like Houdini would not have reached their level of acclaim without arrogance or ego so where does it leave us?  Anyway, that will be discussed in much more detail at a later date. 

As you can see I have a poster problem!

So as I was reading the book again, the below paragraph really resonated with me because I am currently focusing on this topic

Historically, many magicians have taken a professional satisfaction in exposing self-proclaimed spiritualists and psychics who also make use of trickery and misdirection.  Instead of acknowledging their feats as illusions, such charlatans have attributed their powers to magnetic fields, spirits or extra-sensory perception.  Paradoxically, exposure of such chicanery has sometimes itself involved elaborate hoaxes and deceptions.  Harry Houdini donned elaborate disguises and employed networks of spies to infiltrate and disrupt spiritualist organizations.  James Randi orchestrated an elaborate hoax that ran for several years, in which fake psychics infiltrated a parapsychological lab.  In effect, these plans involved stacking lies atop lies in an attempt to reach the truth.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mind by Matthew L Tompkins (2019)

Lately, I feel like there has been a lot of discussion in the paranormal field.  I mean there is always a lot of discussion within the paranormal field, but some days it is louder than others.  I tend to keep away from most of it and keep to myself, but it doesn't mean I don't see or know some of the things that happen.  Sometimes the behaviour can border on what we call gatekeeping.  It is different people setting and voicing their own standards as to how they feel the paranormal field should be run.  While some of the activities people get up to in the paranormal field tread a very a thin line that can see people sway either way, as humans, we also have a general moral compass of what we think is wrong and what we think is right and I like to think for the most part we stick to that.  With no regulation in the paranormal field, we often see things that the majority of us feel is wrong so some take it upon themselves to call out or expose these behaviours.  I guess I am the kind of person that stays out of it all because I am non-confrontational and I let people be.  That doesn't mean I don't agree with a some of the things that go on.  It is just how I am and you will notice I never involve myself or my page in any dramas for or against because I just don't have the headspace for it.  I used to be more involved at a paranormal community level many years ago, but I guess I just got sick of all the drama and decided for my own mental health to just stay away from it and focus on my writing.  There are others however that feel quite vocally that such behaviour needs to be called out.  In the past there have been accounts or people whose sole purpose was to do this.  You will still find podcasts, channels or people who spend their entire time not necessarily investigating the paranormal, but calling people out or exposing what they feel is dodgy behaviour.  What happens though when information is obtained or exposed itself by using deceitful means?  While people may not necessarily be dressing up in costumes like Houdini did, there are still acts of deception used to expose deception in what Tompkins above described as 'an attempt to reach the truth'.  If we are using deceptive methods to do this, whose truth are we reaching?  Is it their truth or your truth?  Is there any truth if there is deception involved on both sides?  Does using deception to expose deception mean one is just as bad as another?  Do two wrongs make a right?

James Randi's parapsychology hoax (Project Alpha)

James Randi was a famous magician who you could say followed in Houdini's footsteps by exposing fraud within the paranormal community by using his knowledge of magic.  He is most famous for his 1 million dollar challenge which would be awarded to someone that could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.  He is also another controversial and somewhat polarizing figure due to his antics, arrogance and ego (much like Houdini).  Again something I will cover in another article.  In 1979, not satisfied with the television psychic celebrities he had exposed, he drew his attention toward the field of parapsychology.  His aim was not necessarily to disprove psychic ability but more to expose the limitations of the research itself in what was dubbed as Project Alpha.  The McDonnell Laboratory was publicly advertising for psychics at the time to participate in a volunteer study.  He arranged for 2 'fake psychics' to volunteer' suggesting they had genuine psychic ability when in reality they were magicians or illusionists that were able to use their skills to deceive the testers.  The men were tested for almost 4 years.  It was then that Randi held a press conference where they first demonstrated their abilities and he then announced they were not psychic at all but plants he had used to infiltrate the organisation.  The publicity that followed meant that the lab lost its funding and eventually closed.

The New York Times Feb 15 1983

Randi's hoax is a fascinating case study in how a magician can influence a scientific investigation.  One on hand, critics argued that Randi's orchestrated deception was itself unethical - and indeed, if Randi had been a scientific researcher, get would surely have been subject to censure by professional and academic institutions.  On the other hand, as an outside actor he was able to make a dramatic and powerful point about the potential pitfalls of attempting to conduct paranormal research with human participants.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mind by Matthew L Tompkins (2019)

As Tompkins mentions, you have two sides here.  What he did was unethical but it made a statement.  Reading this I cannot help feel sad that the lab lost its funding.  You had people here trying to do what they felt was genuine research and were deceived and then humiliated in such a way.  Was there a better way that this could have been handled?  Did it have to be so public?

Randi is hurting the field with his gross exaggerations,'' says Dr. Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University and editor of Zetetic Scholar, a journal devoted to the skeptical analysis of paranormal claims. ''In no way will his project teach psychic researchers a lesson and make them more likely to trust to magicians' advice. Quite the contrary. This outside policeman thing sets up magicians as the enemy.

Feb. 15, 1983 The New York Times

Do techniques like this backfire as the above piece suggests?  I know I am certainly not a fan of how it went down and when talking to a lot of people within the paranormal, the methods Randi used are criticised and often discussed more widely than what was exposed.  So while there was deception exposed, ultimately a lot of people don't see that and look at the deceptive methods used to expose them.  An example perhaps of how two wrongs don't make a right.  I suppose it brings me back to a lot of the comparisons I see on social media.  Do we have to be so vocal about things publically?  If we do an in such a way does it then make us look just as bad or to the point that people then just feel attacked and not quite getting the original point?  At the time we may think we are doing the paranormal community a favour, but are we hurting people in the long run?  Are we hurting ourselves in the process?  Who gets to decide who is wrong and who is right in a field that is unregulated?  We call for regulation but how we can even decide or agree who that regulatory force would be?  I don't have any answers here, it was just something that I wanted to discuss because I feel we should at least discuss it and maybe it may make us think or even take accountability.  Maybe we are guilty of a bit of gatekeeping (I think we all are at some point in time even if it is privately) or maybe we have done something that we look back now and say 'I shouldn't have done that'.  We are humans and we make mistakes and I like to believe that the large majority of the paranormal community are genuine but sometimes naive.  We learn from it and it makes us better people and better researchers, especially when we are willing to learn.  Would be willing to learn from our mistakes if they are cast all over social media for others to see and critique or would we become defensive and defiant?  How we approach a person or topic can be the deciding outcome here and we all have a part to play.  There will however always be those that feel rules or a moral compass don't apply to them.  So what do we do in these circumstances?  Should people be held accountable or exposed for blatant deception?  We may or may not agree as this is a really difficult topic to approach and I don't know if there is even a right or wrong answer.  What I want to walk away from this thought is a final thought. 

While our methods may not be as elaborate or dramatic as those of Houdini and Randi, we have to ask the question: is using forms of deception to expose deception the way to go?  

To read more about Houdini's methods, see my article Harry Houdini and the art of disguise

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