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.
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.
on December 31, 1996
I saw a TV show about James Randi recently. In one scene, he visited a college classroom, posing as an expert astrologer. He had prepared, he told the class, detailed individual horoscopes based on each student's birthdate and birthplace. The students read these horoscopes, then rated their accuracy on a scale of 1-5. One student gave his horoscope a 4. Every other horoscope got a 5. The students were amazed: astrology worked! Randi then had them look at each other's horoscopes. Cries of outrage filled the room. All of the horoscopes were exactly the same. They had nothing whatsoever to do with birthdates, or birthplaces, or any particular student.
This book is full of such examples. Randi uses them, and scientific data, and consistently careful analysis of facts, to show that such ideas as astrology, biorhythms, transcendental meditation, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, and psychic surgery are, quite simply, nonsense. In 1964, he offered $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal power under satisfactory observational conditions. As of the 1982 publication date, over 650 people had tried for the reward, none successfully. Some of the attempts are described in this book. Funny how psychics who have "demonstrated" the ability to bend metal rods by will power can't do it anymore when they are no longer allowed to wander out of the room with the rods during the experiment!
A theme throughout the book is that people who want to believe something will accept the most absurd rationalizations in order to continue to believe it, in spite of overwhelming contradictory evidence. At the beginning of his chapter on psychic surgery, Randi quotes William Cowper: "To follow foolish precedents, and wink / With both our eyes, is easier than to think." A similar theme arises in Langdon Gilkey's "Shantung Compound", about Gilkey's experiences as a prisoner of war (see my review). Observing "moral" internees rationalize stealing food from each other, Gilkey concluded that the greatest power of the human brain is not to reason, but to rationalize doing whatever the brain's owner wants to do. For other examples of this phenomenon, read anything by a "Creation Scientist".
Unfortunately, Randi is a professional magician, not a professional writer. His sentences are not always clear, and he does not always cite references where they would be appropriate. But his observations are insightful, and his writing is entertaining. James Randi is a compassionate man, fighting a good fight.
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.
on August 25, 2004
As a professional magician, James Randi is the perfect person to see through the frauds and phonies who make a good living gulling the public. "Flim-Flam" deliciously exposes the flummeries of fakes like Uri Geller, Erich von Daniken, the Bermuda Triangle, psychic surgeons and meditation gurus - often with simple logic, facts and duplications of their "miracles." Compare Randi's homegrown picture of a levitator (really a teenager frozen in the middle of a trampoline bounce by a strobe flash) with the grainy and blurry "proof" of a TM levitation. You'll soon realize not only that Randi's shot is more expertly done, but how ridiculously easy it is to fake the "impossible."
After years of catching humbugs in the act, Randi gets caustic at times. But seeing the straightforward way he catches fakes is well worth the discomfort. People who claim to read blindfolded suddenly lose their abilities when Randi seals the crack in the blindfold with zinc oxide. Dowsers who swear they can find a steady flow of water flowing through a pipe six inches underground wander aimlessly and hilariously off the mark. Psychokinetic kids are caught on videotape using their hands to bend metal bars supposedly bent with brain power. The list of psychic gotchas goes on and on.
Randi exposes not only tricksters but also the fools who need to believe them. That includes scientists who think their awesome academic achievements make them impervious to deception. Reading "Flim Flam" is an education -- about people who go to not-so-great lengths to persuade others of their supposed powers, and more importantly, about the limits of human powers of perception. After all, without the flim-flammable, flim-flammers would soon go out of business. Rationality owes Randi a debt of gratitude for this book and for his life's work of exposing falsehood.
on June 19, 2011
I dispute both charges,
At least I will say that the subjects of this book deserve much, much more of the same.
These guys dismissed James Randi, and his excellent suggestions to help rig tests against common magic tricks, far more than this book delves into.
I'm sure that they found the holy grail of funding but they didn't really bother with the slightest controls. They were also very dismissive of those who suggested that they really didn't have any significant ones (i.e. James Randi).
In this book, Randi gives you morons no respect, at all. Point taken. If you want to fault him for that, I'm with you.
However, I think he gives you much more respect than you deserve.
In my opinion, he really let you off easy,
on June 2, 1998
Flim Flam, as the subtitle says, is about other delusions, and how James Randi investigates and exposes the tricks, frauds and fakery in the field of Psychic "Research". This field is really the wrestling arena for the con-artists who live by hype - either by fooling scientists, or in collusion with the pseudoscientists who live by money conned from good Samaritans, us - the tax payers and consumers and scientists of the normal. The Bermuda Triangle, Biorhythm, photos of fairies, ghosts and kirlia, levitation, pyramid power, Mayan visitors from outer space, tele-what-nots, TM and Z-rays are some of the "other delusions" exposed in this book. We know that these are bunk. But how do we convince our friends that they are? Give them this book. Show them how any of those so called psychic phenomena cannot stand the test of any skeptic with scientific approach which does not preclude the possibility of fraud or delusion or both. James Randi is the hit man of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and in this book you get an idea of how hard it is pull those punches.
Besides hundreds of names of people, places and institutions associated with these frauds, details from correspondence, this book has photos and diagrams of the hoax-rooms where the paranormal fakers did hoodwink and unnerve the rationality of the respectable scientists. The charts that were designed to fool the custodians of money - to be wasted through the propagation of pseudoscience of para-psychology and pollute the minds of the future generations of Americans with pure non-sense, the money that has been lost by genuine scientific and medical research - such charts have also been included in this book.
Issac Asimov in his introduction to this book rightly says, "Folly and Fakery has never before been dangerous as it is now" and that we therefore more than ever be grateful to Randi who deserves our admiration for his courage, diligence, perseverance, and the k! een senses needed for exposing these "rascals and knaves".
Dr. Russell Targ and Dr. Harold Puthoff are the Laurel and Hardy of Psi as a chapter title appropriately describes them. Reading this chapter it becomes at once obvious that if two scientists decide to cheat other men of science, tons and tons of our money can go down the drain. The directors of monies have to come up with an explanation for the misdirected research when the skeptics expose them. Because an apology would mean personal disaster, half-truths, rationalization, lies, damned lies, and, to back them up, statistical charts, and so on and on, until the consumer and tax-payer believes that there must be some truth somewhere beyond his common-sense beliefs. The fact that the Stanford Research Institute has been humiliated by these clowns, is only the tip of the iceberg of harm done by hype.
The flood of betting, lotto, and related software in the market is but the natural outcome of the pseudo-science of psi sanctified by misguided scientists who cannot tell the "law" of chances of mathematics from the laws of the physical world and believe that it can somehow determine the outcome of the roll of the dice, and their shortcut to fortune. If one just remembers that the people who sell such wares did not make money by the techniques they sell, but only by perpetuating wishful thought of the gullible, one would not be in that category any longer. Since the year 1964, Randi's Challenge to offer to pay $10,000 to any person who can demonstrate that she has any kind of paranormal power under fraud proof conditions still remains open. In chapter 13 Randi gives the details of this challenge and the conditions. The conditions can be obtained from him by sending a self addressed stamped envelope. To quote Randi "In response to that challenge, over 650 persons have applied as claimant. Only 54 (as of this writing) ever made it past the preliminaries, and none of them ever got a nickel.
on June 25, 2005
Flim-Flam! is a joy to read. James Randi's accounts are simply enthralling. Better than that, the book is intellectually edifying. How can it not be when it scrutinizes some of the most popularly known extraordinary claims around? One after another, Randi recounts audacious and weird claims and takes a no-nonsense approach to uncover their true nature, thus exposing the vacuity behind them; and at times, as a result, disabuses the innocent who honestly believe they have special paranormal powers.
Cutlery benders, water dowsers, psychics, levitation, magnet therapy, UFOs, sightings of fairies, table-tippings--he tackles them all, and more. Hailing from the Philippines, one of the sections that I read and reread is that on psychic surgery. I remember many years ago when I first heard of these "surgeons" I asked myself, "Could they be for real?" "How is that possible?" Today, of course I just laugh off such shenanigans (and scams). Randi has provided insights and info to dismiss such "operations" as plain hooey. He even provides several photos of how these tricks are performed, and tells us what those blood covered thingies purportedly pulled out of patients' innards really are. The real victims of these psychic healers, as Randi says, are the afflicted. Not only do they shell out not an insignificant amount of money for travel and lodging and various fees to avail of the services of these quacks, they risk endangering their lives by foregoing with the proper medical treatment by qualified medical doctors.
The skeptic in us all will love this work by the master of illusion. True to its title, it exposes hokum the world over. Believers in the paranormal and like phenomena will be wise to read this compendium in the hope that it will prod them to begin questioning their misplaced sympathies, to spark the necessary caution whenever any of us is faced with extraordinary claims. Before even being burned once Randi's indispensable contribution will--as it should--make us twice shy.
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.
on November 16, 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.