158 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2004
James Randi is well renowned as one of the world's most prominent skeptics, as well he should be. He has offered a million dollar prize to anyone who can prove in scientifically controlled tests that they possess some kind of paranormal power. Go figure, no one has ever been able to do so, and most self-proclaimed psychics, diviners etc have simply refused to be tested. A common excuse is that 'negative vibrations/energy' from non-believers interfers with their 'powers'. Translation: "I can prove I can do anything... as long as it's only to people who are already firmly convinced that I can."
This book's most interesting sections include accounts of some people who have tried to claim this prize, and often descriptions of the trickery they tried to pull. Famous scams and flim-flammery are also discussed. The perpetrators range from the honestly mistaken, to those manipulated by others (including children) to the deluded to the knowing liars. It's not a read that will lift your opinion of humanity, but it's well worth reading.
The book is not without its flaws. Randi is correctly portrayed as pissed off - and given the insistent idiocy he deals with, perhaps that's no surprise. The topics veer through a hodgepodge of the allegedly paranormal, making it read a little too episodic. At times, the prose gets dry. For example, the chapter on the Cottingly Faeries goes into technical details about cameras, which I had a tough time understanding.
Worth noting are some false claims that negative reviewers have made on Amazon. Randi does NOT maintain a dogmatic insistance that all paranormal claims are false. He bases his belief that such claims are hooey not on faith, but on evidence, having seen many (many, many) which are false, and none that have proven true. That's merely rational thinking. He does not claim "There are no paranormal powers and I can prove it." One cannot prove a negative like that. [Quick: can you play the tuba? Can you PROVE to me that you can't?] Moreover, the burden of proof does not lie with him. If I say I can fly like Superman, you say I can't... who do you think should be assumed correct barring evidence about my claim?
This book is a good one for those who value rational thinking. There are others that are better written (To name just a few: Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World", Robert Park's "Voodoo Science" and Randi's own, more focused "The Faith Healers") but I still give it high marks.
95 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2002
I formerly referred to another book available from Amazon.com as a great primer for those challenging New Age nonsense and other contemporary fads. A fellow skeptic challenged that claim saying this one is better. I agree!
Randi exposes more foolishness than any other of the texts I've read, from Arthur Conan Doyle and his taste for fairies, to the Maharishi to UFOs. And he's not subtle about his distaste for it. Granted, he does give credit to those who really believe in their craft. For instance, there are dousers and the like who really believe they're gifted with the talent for the bizarre. There are others, however, who are simply crooks who've lined up a gullible public with their credit cards. I actually appreciate Randi's powerful attitudes. Why get so "political" as to soft pedal crooks? He doesn't.
The book is a good primer because it covers so many subjects, and because it describes the reasoning process. Sure there'll be the people who dispute his findings. But one will convince them of nothing. At least the reasoning process illustrated by this volume will convince those capable of reason.
The ONLY reason I don't give it 5 stars is that some of the samples he gave would be better illustrated on a stage or a show; it was a bit difficult for me to follow them in writing.
Aside from that, I think this should probably be required reading for, say, high school seniors, those particularly prone to the charlatans of silly New Age fads and other quackery. But anyone wondering about such fads could gain a great deal from Randi's prose.
36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2000
Come closer, dear reader. I, the amazing psychic Patriki, will tell you all about yourself. You are a skeptic. You do not believe in the claims of phony psychics (those unlike the great Patriki), spoonbenders or UFO researchers. You do not believe in the powers of the Bermuda Triangle. You are a rational person.
Good for you. James Randi's "Flim Flam!" is a fairly well-written and well-researched expose of some of this century's greatest con artists and their self-deceived cousins. Each chapter focuses on a different case, describing in detail the flim-flammer's case, then picking it apart claim by claim. And herein lies the problem. Randi is a methodical, detailed man, well versed in scientific method. He also seems to like the sound of his own typewriter, never using a single paragraph when five will do.
I underwent the same phenomenon during each chapter I read. At first, I was deeply interested. As I continued reading, I kept flipping to the end of the chapter to see how much more of Randi's grandstanding I had to put up with. "And then I did this!" "And then I did that!" Couple this with his penchant for melodrama and his tendency to address the subjects of his exposes by name ("Yes, Mr. Geller, it means exactly that!")and you have a pretty odd book. I understand his desire to be complete, but if you call your book "Flim Flam!" (with the exclamation point), one assumes you are writing a book to entertain first and inform second. Otherwise, you would call your book "An Investigation into the Validity of Paranormal Claims", so people would expect a book full of dry scientific lab notes.
In the end, of course, I cannot fault Randi for being thorough, as it is this quality that allows him to prove his point. And most of the book is extremely entertaining. It saddens me that the only people who will read it and get anything from it are people like you and I, who are already convinced.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2000
Randi is not only a professional conjurer, but also serves as an individual dedicated to exposing the illegitimacy of parapsychology, and other forms of pseudoscientific/supernatural beliefs held by people. Confidence in his affirmation that any form(s) of parapsychology, and many other unexplainable phenomena that are widely believed to be true are in fact not, is backed up by his offer of now $1 million. This book is a collection of Randi's encounters of that very group of individuals that claim to posses the supernatural abilities in question. The basic thesis of this book is that these supernatural phenomenas do not exist and their occurrences are quite explainable. The responsibility then, is rests on both the scientific community and ourselves, to not fall victim to their ability to deceive.
Randi does well in keeping the content light and relatively easy to read. His light sarcasm well reflects his lack of respect for false claims of the supernatural and other pseudoscientific beliefs. While the book consists mostly of accounts of objective observation, there are modest stints of ideas and opinions of the author, which keeps the book accessible to readers not looking to have to bore through only scientific account and analysis. The loose usage of the word(s) damn/damning to present ideas of the corruption of scientific ideals was amusing. Randi also does well in keeping his book for the most part, free of religion and its influence in science; rather, he chooses to focus on scientific explanation of respective phenomena.
A problem with the book was that Randi did not delve very deeply into the reasons behind the phenomena of those purporting evidence of the supernatural. Sparsely inserted throughout the book, the rest of reading consists of the actual encounters and experiments of Randi to discount the claims. When Randi does make a point to examine the reason behind some of the fallacies, they are short and concise. Some of these points include the need of the individual to believe in his/her's or other's "powers", economic attraction, or poor scientific investigation.
Another problem had of the author was his tendency to indulge in complicated details of the experiment. While one versed and knowledgeable in statistical charting and mathematical analysis may have understood the chapter on the fallacies of biorhythms in one reading, I found it difficult to fully grasp the ideas presented. The same went for the analysis of the Cottingley Fairies, where his careful explanation of the different uses of cameras and effects got to be drudging to read. Sometimes, the technical analysis of the many cases encountered by Randi were too drawn out and detailed, or boring, for an average reader to follow. Some are looking for more of a quick overview along with basic explanations of the hoaxes.
It is in these point that this book may not be for everyone. Detailed descriptions of procedures and outcomes of experiments impedes the flow of the book as a whole. Also a lack of psychological and social explanations and ramifications of such pseudosciences and paranormal phenomena may leave some desiring a reallocation of emphasis; from the book's strong emphasis on detail of the actual experiments to a more balanced approach, covering more explanation of root causes, and the ramifications of these delusions. As a whole, the book is witty and informative. It is amusing to read of failed ploys of trickery and manipulation. Essentially, we a have a text that serves as a directive for us to think for ourselves, and be skeptical and examine information that is given to us everyday. Yet, the book is written as if we think and know as Randi does, and this is where it fails to appeal and be accessible to everyone.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 1999
In Flim-Flam, James Randi explains the trials and tribulations of his attempts to separate true paranormal activity from what just looks like paranormal activity. For those who wish desperately to believe in paranormal activity at any cost this book will serve no purpose. For those truly interested in proving the existence of the paranormal this book is a must. A person who is sincerely interested in psychic phenomena will not wish to be tricked by con artists or people who erroneously believe they are psychic. The fact that there are con artists in this world is an undisputed proven fact. Psychic phenomena are not. Therefore, the study of psychic phonemena must be geared towards eliminating known causes in order to be meaningful. This is what James Randi does and what he so clearly chronicles in Flim-Flam. His detractors are generally those who have a stake in believing or in having others believe in psychic phonemena irrespective of whether their belief is justified by the real facts. Flim-Flam's age shows in the examples Randi uses but the activities he investigates are still pertinent examples. If Randi has one fault it is his alegence to the Magician's Code. As an expert professional magician Randi has special insight into tricks often used to imitate psychic phenomena and often he replicates the event in question to show it can be done with conjuring tricks. But many times he won't give away the trick. I think fewer people would be fooled by con artists if they actually knew the techniques behind the con. Even so, James Randi is at his best in Flim-Flam. It is a very enjoyable and fascinating read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2011
(Now hold still while I read your aura. Yes, my spirit guide is telling me something, that you are experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort in your back, or perhaps your shoulders. And this is typical of someone born under your star sign, you know? Of course you do - your type is very insightful, even if you do sometimes let little things escape your notice from time to time. Here - I have a medicine that will help you, a special homeopathic formula that I mixed myself. It's proof against all aches and pains. Yes, I have a spoon somewhere around - no, not that one, that one's bent. I could tell you that I got the recipe from visiting aliens, but you would never believe me. Perhaps it was Atlanteans....
Ah, there is one other thing.... My spirit guide tells me that there is another spirit who would talk to you - someone you miss very much. I'm getting the letter P, or maybe G.... Does that mean something to you? Ah, good, good. My abilities have increased a hundredfold since I started transcendental meditation, and I credit the Master with my improved skills. Well, our time is almost up. I have to go charge my dowsing rod with the crystals that were given to me by my young daughters. They say that the fairies gave them to them, and who am I to say otherwise? But I will say this before we part - the numbers of your name, crossed against your biorhythms, tell me that you must not enter into any dealings of a financial nature this week.
You can leave your check on the table by the door.)
There is one truth that I have learned in my days, and that there is no idea so ridiculous, so implausible, so poorly-defined, that someone, somewhere won't fall for it. Whether it's psychic surgeons, aura readers, tellers of the future or viewers of past lives, UFO hunters, witch doctors, table-tippers, spoon-benders, mind-readers or water-dowsers, if you can figure out some simple slight of hand, the odds are good that you can convince someone you have supernatural powers. A few blurry photographs and some enthusiasm, and you can have aliens on our shores. Some clever guesses and a keen knowledge of human nature, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.
If you're like me, it's enough to make you want to disavow humankind and just go live somewhere off in the woods. Thankfully, James Randi is not like me.
A longtime magician and skeptic, James Randi has been one of the driving forces of modern skepticism. Since his 1972 debunking of spoon-bender Uri Geller, he has been an authority on people who claim to have supernatural abilities. He has traveled the world in search of these people, revealing the methods by which they knowingly or unknowingly deceive people who want so desperately to believe. This book, written in 1982 and well in need of an updated and revised edition, documents many of Randi's investigations in painstaking and unrelenting detail.
He tells us first of the hoax perpetrated by two young English girls, one which was good enough to capture not just a credulous nation of newspaper readers, but a man regarded as one of the greatest minds of his time - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths released several photographs which showed them surrounded by gossamer-winged fairies. The public went wild for their story. Experts were called in to examine the photographs, and they all pronounced them genuine. The girls were interviewed, their cameras and equipment checked out, and no evidence of trickery could be found. In any case, believers said, two young girls would have no incentive to lie to the entire nation like this, would they?
Well, they did. Perhaps it wasn't their intention to deceive the world, but that's how it turned out. As of Randi's writing, they hadn't admitted it outright, but a year after publication, they did. What started as simple fun with a camera and some paper cut-outs escalated into something uncontrollable by two young girls, and a legend was born.
Elsie and Frances may have been innocents overtaken by events, but there are far more people who are fully conscious of their deceptions. A Holy Man who promises everything up to and including the ability to fly if you just follow his word and his special meditation technique. Researchers so intent on discovering psychic powers that they disregard even the most basic of experimental controls. People who manufacture fake artifacts to support their belief in ancient alien astronauts. There are those who take money from the unwitting and those who don't, some who treat the ability they believe they have with humility and those who don't. The weird, the arrogant and the dangerous - Randi's seen 'em all. And every time another one pops up, he knows what to look for.
Belief is a weird thing. Under careful examination, every claim that Randi has seen has fallen apart. He has listened to them carefully and asked a very simple question that seems to elude so many others: How else could this effect be achieved? As a lifetime magician (though he prefers the term "conjurer"), Randi is an expert at getting you to think you see something that really isn't there, and he brings this expertise to bear when he investigates claims of the paranormal. What's more, he has a very good grasp of experimental procedure and how to test for a specific effect, and he is ruthless in making sure they are adhered to.
But - and this is important - Randi is fair. If you come up to him and say, "Randi, I can see auras which tell me who the all gay people are," he won't just laugh in your face and say that you're crazy. He'll listen to your story, how your power works and how you use it, and then propose a simple test to see if it really exists. The test is to be double-blind, so when the target people come in and check the "gay" or "straight" box, that information is kept from both the aura-reader and the person administering the test. What's more, the psychic has to agree in advance on the conditions of the test, signing a promise (rarely kept) to accept the results. Tests are usually done multiple times, just to give the subject a chance. When the results come in as negative - as they always have thus far - Randi doesn't gloat. He doesn't laugh and say "I told you so." In fact, in one chapter he mentions that he feels bad sometimes, telling people who honestly believe they have a unique gift that, in fact, they don't.
I suspect that Randi really wants supernatural powers to exist. I think he wants to meet someone who can move objects with her mind, talk to the dead or find water just by concentrating hard. Why else, then, would he have his Million-Dollar Challenge? What is described in Flim-Flam as a $10,000 reward for proof of supernatural abilities has grown significantly. Not because Randi is richer, but because he feels that his money is absolutely safe. Yet I think he would be happy to be able to give it away one day.
This book should be required reading for everyone who has encountered what they believe to be the paranormal. It is detailed, it is harsh and it is unequivocal in its assertion that if you see someone doing something that logic demands cannot be done, chances are excellent that it's a trick rather than super-powers.
Unfortunately, the True Believers will invariably be unaffected, and that is something else that Randi takes great pains to show. No matter how often someone was shown to be a liar, a fake or a fraud, there were always supporters ready to make excuses. The psychics themselves are also very good at inventing reasons why their powers cannot be tested - the wrong kind of weather, interference from the cameras that are recording the tests, or just bad energy from the skeptics in the room. All the logic and science in the world won't convince those who don't want to be convinced.
As much fun as it is to read about The Amazing Randi rushing about the globe to put hoaxers in their places, it's also a little depressing. It was written in 1982, on the heels of Randi's book The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposed the spoon-bending psychic as a fraud, so you would think the one-two punch of these books would be enough to put paid to ridiculous beliefs in ideas that were demonstrably false. Well, you'd be wrong. Newspapers still run horoscopes every day, you can get a biorhythm app for your iPhone, psychics and mediums still rake in tons of cash, and there still innumerable people who put their faith, money and lives in the hands of psychic healers - only to lose all three.
But Randi is undaunted. He started the James Randi Educational Foundation to support critical thinking and skepticism, he's still active in the skeptical community, and he's still accepting applications from people who want his million dollars. He may have hoped that this book would be a nail in the coffin of psuedoscience and woo, but even though that didn't pan out, he never gave up. One by one, case by case, the Amazing Randi has stared down the wild-eyed stare of unreason, and he has never blinked.
For that, I will always be grateful.
The tinkling noises you will hear as these pages are turned are the scales falling from many eyes. The groans are from the charlatans who are here exposed to the light of reason and simple truth. It is a light that pains them greatly.
- James Randi, Flim-Flam!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2010
"In this book, I will hit as hard as I can, as often as I can, and sometimes quite bluntly and even rudely." This quote in the early pages of Flim-Flam! by James Randi sets the tone for how he plans to disassemble the delusions that are maintained by not only those who claim to observe and participate in pseudoscience and paranormal activity, but the scientific authority who believe the claims at face value. In his book, Randi is not afraid to call people liars, cheaters, fakes, and sometimes just plain stupid to get his point across. Toss in the occasional sarcasm and Flim-Flam! becomes not only educational and eye opening but entertaining as well.
Randi begins his assault on delusion by debunking the story of the Cottingly Fairies from 1920. His style of debunking this delusion is to present the evidence as it was presented in 1920 then proceeds to analyze the holes in the story. Randi and I share dismay at how easily the experts were so quick to accept the photos provided by the girls as concrete proof of the existence of fairies. One of the "experts" was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Surely the creator of the best detective of all time is infallible, right? It turns out that Doyle's actions make him look more like Holmes' sidekick Watson.
Randi invents a good system for testing the legitimacy of any paranormal event by creating twenty questions that skeptics should ask themselves. He proves the effectiveness of his system by applying it back to the Cottingly Fairies story. In this way, Randi gives the average skeptic a good ruler to measure any kooky claim one may encounter.
Randi spends a lot of time shooting down philosophies that no one would believe if they were just a little more informed. One such philosophy is astrology which Randi claims is "[T]he oldest of the claptrap philosophies." It seems that he entertains himself by proving astrology wrong since he describes the truth how astrology says a person is born under certain signs at certain dates while the sun is actually always under a different sign. Randi says it best when he asks if there is something fishy besides Pisces. He has even given people the horoscope of a known serial killer and they say it matches them perfectly. I had my doubts about astrology before reading Flim-Flam! but the inconsistencies in astrology presented by Randi solidified my skepticism.
One of my favorite kooky stories in the book is about Ingo Swann, a man that claimed to have travelled to Jupiter before any probes had been able to float by. A similar story was told by Harold Sherman. The best part of the story is when two scientists from the Stanford Research Institute, Targ and Puthoff, believe the two cosmic travelers. Targ and Puthoff compared the claims with the results from probes and determined they were very similar. In response to Targ and Puthoff, Randi makes a two page list with each claim by the travelers next to the claim's accuracy (there are many misses). It quickly becomes clear that Targ and Puthoff had extreme cases of the will to believe and ultimately made themselves look foolish. Randi actually made me laugh out loud by comparing Targ and Puthoff to Laurel and Hardy later in the book. The best part of the whole "cosmic traveler" story is when Swann, presented with the facts about Jupiter and how he was wrong, suggests that he shot past Jupiter and went to a different planet! Well that explains it, doesn't it?
Randi likes to use sarcasm, one of my personal favorite tools, to put the cap on several of his points. After showing that Transcendental Meditation(TM) has no statistical effect on the crime rate and employment rate of the city in which it is practiced (a claim that TM makes), he announces "Let's hear it for the Maharishi Effect! It's is obviously a roaring success." He also says that it is comforting that a person using TM will not invisibly levitate through his bathroom floor.
Randi's anger is most apparent when he discusses the phenomenon of Psychic Surgery. Being a magician, Randi knows it is all B.S. He shows pictures of himself performing the fake surgery and reveals the tricks behind it, all the while damning those that pass it off as real.
Of course no book about the paranormal would be complete without a UFO section. An example of how Randi likes to make people look dumb is when he went on a radio show and described that he had seen a set of lights flying north. People started calling in and saying they had seen the lights too. Before it got too crazy, the hoax was revealed. I now see why Randi gets angry that people believe some of the crazy things that they do. After reading this book I too am angry at some of the crazy claims of the world.
I recommend Flim-Flam! to anyone with common sense and skepticism. It disproves many crazy things that people believe but it also gives the skeptic an extensive template for judging any paranormal claim's legitimacy.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2009
James Randi gives a thorough description of a diverse variety of "phenomena" and disproves basically all of them--dowsing, mind-reading, astral projection, psychic photography, psychic surgery, levitation, contact with spirits, and more. It's hilarious to see some of the things that people claim and to see how easily they can be seen through (those pictures of fairies? Get out of here!) and for others that you kind of know are fake but can't figure out why, it's interesting to see what the explanation actually is--as well as the excuses that are continually given as to why they don't work.
I can identify personally as I've had quite a few friends who claimed they can make themselves disappear, have lifted objects with their minds, etc. My attitude was always "well then DO it", but they usually dodged the question by saying I never saw it b/c I didn't believe in it, or gave some other excuse like "it invokes such powerful energy I can't take it lightly". I still know a few people who make supernatural claims, but now I can tell them "did you know there's a million dollar reward for that?" (Almost all of these people, despite saying they have supernatural powers, are strapped for cash.)
As much as I'd love to believe that things like telekinesis are possible, so far no one has been able to prove it, and I'm not going to believe in something ridiculous just because it's an appealing concept.
But what's so bad about believing in psychics and magic, if that's what you want to believe? Randi talks about why it is actually harmful to blindly believe in such things. Not only does it make you vulnerable to predatory charlatans (think of the people with missing loved ones who in desperation spend thousands on "psychics") but it can also endanger your health (Randi has a chapter on "psychic surgery" and describes how people use this phony treatment, which is just one of many, instead of getting real medical help).
I still would say that The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan was more of a life-changing book for me. This book was a little bit hard to follow in some parts, in the way it was written and in the descriptions of trickery, although I still found it a very valuable book. Sagan's book focused mostly on alien abductions, people's lack of education, and beliefs in psychics and new age as opposed to science, but this book goes into details about the specifics of some trickeries that Sagan's didn't. Both books are valuable to someone who is new to skepticism.
When this book was written, the reward for proving any kind of phenomena was $10,000. The reward has now been raised to $1 million and has still been unclaimed. This book was written before Sylvia Browne became a household name and before Charmed and other magic-themed drivel became trendy among the mainstream. Even though it written in the 80s, this book is still just as relevant today--maybe even more needed today than when it was originally written.
Even though he spends a lot of time disproving beliefs that people hold dearly, he has a nobler purpose than just calling people stupid--he wants people to think clearly and critically so they are not taken advantage of, and to disprove sleazy people who take advantage of others.
He includes a short epilogue that basically encourages people and tells them they are unique individuals and that even without psuedoscience there are still fascinating things about being alive. When you learn about actual science and real things about the universe, there are so many things that are much more cosmic and amazing than a bunch of silly magic fairies!
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2004
While Flim-Flam! does not conclusively prove that the paranormal doesn't exist (to be fair, it's rather impossible to do so; the lack of proof for the paranormal does not conclusively prove the lack of existence), it does a good job in exposing the deceptive claims that have bamboozled the human race even until today.
James Randi gives many case studies of supernatural claims that have turned out to be false, and shows how easily decieved we can be.
The book is easy reading with Randi's sarcasm seeping out every now and then. An interesting book, and an eye-opener; recommended for those who need a healthy dose of skepticism.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2004
Fortunately, Randi doesn't have to teach us that there are no unicorns or Tooth Fairies, but he does try to cover all the other wierd and foolish things people believe (or have believed at some time in their life.) If you know better, then this book will be entertaining, if you are still a believer - this book will give you some real anxiety.