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The Art of Deception Revealed

Posted in LiveScience by Skepdude on February 13, 2009

The great fake psychics are great improvisationists. This means that a really good pseudo-psychic is able to produce phenomena under almost any circumstance. A quick mind and a good knowledge of the techniques and psychology of deception are all that is needed. Sometimes, only a quick mind is enough.

In one early test of telepathy, in 1882, pseudo-psychic G.A. Smith and his accomplice, Douglas Blackburn, were able to fool researchers of the Society for Psychical Research. In a later confession, Blackburn described how they had to think fast and frequently invent new ways of faking telepathy demonstrations.

Once, for example, Smith had been swathed in blankets to prevent him from signaling Blackburn. Smith had to guess the content of a drawing that Blackburn had secretly made on a cigarette paper. When Smith exclaimed, “I have it,” and projected his right hand from beneath the blanket, Blackburn was ready. He had transferred the cigarette paper to the tube of the brass projector on the pencil he was using, and when Smith asked for a pencil, he gave him his. Under the blanket, Smith had concealed a slate coated with luminous paint, which in the dense darkness gave sufficient light to show the figure on the cigarette paper. Thus he only needed to copy the drawing.

I was lucky enough to learn the art of improvising from one of the greatest “teachers” on the subject, the Amazing Randi. I had met him only a few hours before, nearly twenty years ago, and he was already teaching me how to conduct a perfect swindle!

A puzzle

Randi had come to Italy to help us promote CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and he was expected to be on a talk show in Rome to discuss his work and talk about the Committee. The host, an actress called Marisa Laurito, asked him what he was going to do in front of the cameras, and he said that he planned to duplicate a drawing made by her in secret. She agreed and asked what was needed.

Just some paper and some envelopes,” said Randi.

“Chiara,” said Marisa, addressing her secretary, “please, go and get those things from the office.”

Randi shot a glance at me and said “Massimo, maybe you should accompany her, to see if they are the right size.”

The right size? I did not know what the right size was; I had never seen him perform up close, and I could not imagine what was needed. But, as soon as I was going to open my mouth, Randi smiled and said, “Go, Massimo, please,” pushing me ahead.



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