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Fakirs, fakery and the facts

Are psychic powers real or bunkum? Ex-magician Richard Wiseman took science into paranormal realms

Throughout history religious leaders have performed apparent miracles, often using such demonstrations to attract followers.

A few years ago I and some colleagues travelled to India to investigate several "Godmen" who claimed to be able to materialise small golden trinkets in their hands. We attended several religious services and filmed the Godmen materialising gifts for their followers. It was an impressive display. But, having worked as a professional magician, I know it is difficult to detect well-practised sleight of hand.

After long negotiations we persuaded several Godmen to participate in the first controlled studies of their alleged abilities. At the start of each test we checked their hands for hidden trinkets. Then we placed a clear plastic bag over one of their hands and sealed it round their wrist, thus preventing them from smuggling anything into their hand. We then asked them to produce something in their bag-covered hand.

The phenomenon mysteriously dried up. Moreover, when we analysed our film we discovered evidence suggestive of trickery. The Godmen seemed very skilled at realising when the people around them relaxed their attention and used the opportunity to secretly transfer trinkets out of their pockets and into their hands.

Another recent project, carried out with Peter Lamont from Edinburgh University, examined the testimony relating to the legendary Indian Rope Trick, an illusion many people returning from India have claimed to have seen. Some say the trick was performed by an Indian fakir in the open, that a small boy climbed a rigid rope, disappeared and reappeared a few hundred yards away. Magicians agree it would be impossible to perform such a trick and that it is a frontrunner for miracle status.

The witnesses told their stories to various newspapers over the years. We examined whether these accounts altered over time. We found that people whose reports were made just a few years after seeing the trick said simply that they saw a small boy climb up and down a rigid rope. A few years later, they said that they had seen the boy disappear. A few years later still and they claimed that not only had the boy vanished but that they had seen him reappear some distance away.

This suggests that people's testimony becomes exaggerated over time and that it is unwise to put too much faith in religious miracles that go unrecorded for years after the event.

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