Monday, 22 July 2013

The Secret Life of Uri Geller: a review

This documentary, shown on BBC2 21 July 2013, described how the psychic and entertainer Uri Geller, had had connections to various secret services since the 1970s.

A lot of the programme is confusing. It appears to be a number of interviews with people describing events that they cannot prove, or they make references to events that they're not allowed to talk about. A documentary about a subject that no one's willing to talk about is a frustrating one.

And the reason I call it confusing is because I can't tell if the maker is a supporter of psi, but is just generally ill-informed, or is a debunker of psi and has placed little mistakes throughout the programme as clue. Or, indeed, was unconcerned if it was true or not, and was just presenting a story.

For example, the soundtrack mostly works to undermine the narrative. Music from shows like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Dr Who (and even Monty Python!) plays in the background as people describe their experiences. Similarly, some of the captions are a little strange: Dr Kit Green is shown talking from “an undisclosed location” as if to breathlessly emphasise how secret this all is.

Some of these examples of secrecy are peculiar, for example Russell Targ's refusal to show the programme-makers the report they submitted to the CIA about Uri Geller. This report was declassified a long time ago.

The claims made for the research into remote viewing are not challenged. Targ describes Pat Price's success rate as “seven matches out of nine” for an experiment, but the original report shows six.

And these early experiments were beset by methodological issues. For example, the judges went (separately) to each location in turn to judge the session notes, and they were told to stand at a specified place at each location. Who chose this place is never made clear, and there's the risk that if it was chosen by someone who knew the targets and the contents of Price's session notes, they could have chosen the places based on that.

Another error is amongst some quick cuts meant to give an impression of the kind of successes the remote viewing project had. One of the sketches is matched with a round brick building. Except that this wasn't the target at all: it should've been the Louisiana Superdome, and that should be obvious from the written report. The meaning behind this juxtaposition of genuine RV session notes and fictional target makes no sense to me. Was this the documentary-maker's post-modern way of saying the truth isn't important: we write our own stories that we can believe?

The problem trying to find documented evidence of the kinds of claims in this documentary is that often the claim is of a nature that wouldn't be documented in the first place, such as the CIA's suspicions that Geller was just a magician sent by Mossad to fool the CIA into thinking that psychic powers existed.

Geller was never told that the SRI work was being financed by the CIA (although if he was genuinely psychic, I'm sure he would've known about it anyway) and on 22 June 1974 an internal memo stated that the parapsychology work at SRI would only continue if certain conditions were met. One of those conditions was that Uri Geller should not be involved.

I don't doubt that there are people in the military – as in all walks of life – who believe in psychic powers and want to use them to their advantage. And I wouldn't at all be surprised if, in the days after 9-11, someone tried to contact those remote viewers again. But did psychics really have a long history of successes during the government program? You won't find out by watching this show.

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