You may or may not have heard of Ted Serios, a Chicago bellhop who briefly came to prominence in the 1960s for his purported ability to psychically impress images onto Polaroid film. For a long time, I thought Serios had been thoroughly debunked. I believed this because I had read a convincing online explanation of how Serios faked his "thoughtographs."
The explanation, provided by Nile Root, is simple enough. In order to produce his thoughtographs, Serios made use of a cardboard tube that he called a "gismo." Serios claimed that the gismo, when placed against the camera lens, helped him to focus his energies. Root says that in fact Serios hid a small mechanism inside the gismo - a tiny cylinder with a lens at one end and a slide (a photographic transparency) at the other. When he placed the gismo near the camera lens and pointed the camera toward a light source, the slide was illuminated, and the camera took a blurry, distorted picture of the slide. Then Serios, using sleight of hand, would slip the cylinder out of the cardboard gismo and pocket it.
Back in the '60s, Root contacted the main investigator of the Serios case, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud, and informed him of his suspicions.
After seeing the demonstration by Serios I wrote to Dr. Eisenbud --- in part:
. . . I believe the recognizable images, which are unrelated to the existing environment at the time, are produced by Mr. Serios by a combination of short focal length lenses and various kinds of transparencies, which he adroitly conceals in front of a Polaroid camera . . .
Dr. Eisenbud ask me to demonstrate to a "committee" of eight men, all doctors except two, my method of making photographs similar to those made by Serios. I was greeted with skepticism and criticism at the meeting and I realized quickly that debunking was not a popular field to enter. As we sat around a conference table, I did not take five to eight hours to obtain an image; I did not attempt sleight of hand and of course drank no alcoholic beverages [as Serios routinely did].
I did show them how easy it is to make images similar to those produced by Serios.
However, to my surprise, I sat before a group of believers of the paranormal. (I could not fathom the naivete and gullibility of these professional men.)
A few days later Dr. Eisenbud sent me a copy of a three page letter he received from one of the members of his committee, the Chief Physicist and Engineer, Research and Engineering Department of a major Denver company. In part he said:
He (Nile Root) did produce interesting camera effects using his detectable gimmicks under conditions selected by himself. In my opinion he proved absolutely nothing.
This is pretty damning stuff. Root decisively exposed Serios as a fraud, and the investigators blithely ignored his evidence. The story was so persuasive to me that for several years I had no further interest in Serios.
Recently, however, I read Rosemarie Pilkington's new book, The Spirit of Dr. Bindelof. This fascinating book recounts a series of seances held in the early to mid 1930s by teenage boys. The Bindelof account is well worth reading for its own sake, but in addition the book provides an excellent overview of "physical" (as opposed to mental) mediumship and related psychic phenomena. One of the cases Pilkington explores is that of Ted Serios. And here I learned a few details that Nile Root had neglected to mention in his explanation of Serios' phenomena.
First, an investigator would frequently put his hand over the gismo, blocking any light from entering it, yet Serios would still produce an image.
Second, Serios did not always use the gismo, and was able to produce images without it.
Third, Serios produced his images while being filmed continuously by a camera crew on more than one occasion - a precaution that would seem to minimize the likelihood of sleight of hand.
Fourth, sometimes Serios did not even hold the camera or the gismo, which were in the hands of an investigator.
Fifth, Serios at times produced an image on a camera that was some distance away from him - as far as 66 feet in one instance.
Sixth, Serios also produced images on a camera that was in another room altogether.
Seventh, Serios was placed inside a Faraday cage - an electromagnetically shielded environment in a laboratory - with the camera outside the cage; he still produced an image.
These facts, which Root somehow overlooked, perhaps give us a new understanding of those naive and gullible professional men who informed him that his tricks, while interesting, were irrelevant to the test conditions under which Serios operated.
My curiosity aroused, I looked at the treatment of Serios in James Randi's well-known (some might say notorious) book Flim-Flam. In a chapter titled "Off the Deep End," Randi deals with the Serios case. Serios, says Randi, "discovered that by using a simple little device and gathering a few simple minds around him, he could work magic." He gives the example of a case where Serios was asked to produce a photo of a nuclear sub, the Thresher, and instead produced a photo of Queen Elizabeth. Randi implies that Jule Eisenbud regarded this obvious "miss" as a "hit," and sarcastically summarizes Eisenbud's speculation that the words Elizabeth Regina, when manipulated by complicated wordplay, could translate into Thresher. "What? You didn't see it?" Randi jeers. "You'll never be a parapsychologist at that rate!"
I recently purchased a used edition of Eisenbud's book The World of Ted Serios, and the first thing I did was to look up this incident. I admit that I am not all convinced by the alleged Elizabeth-Thresher connection, which seems like obvious "reaching." But here is Eisenbud's most significant comment, with emphasis added:
Without question this [i.e., the Elizabeth photo] would be judged, as in fact it was, a completely inappropriate response, a clear miss in relation to the target asked for.
In other words, Eisenbud did not score the Elizabeth photo as a hit. He scored it as a miss. His speculations about wordplay are entirely irrelevant - a detour that may or may not be of psychological interest, but which has no bearing on the statistical testing of Serios' abilities.
By the way, Randi also forgets to mention that Serios first produced "several pictures of the submarine Nautilus" in this test, before coming up with the Elizabeth photo. Presumably we are to believe that he just happened to have his cylinder preloaded with shots of a submarine that day.
Randi also makes much of the fact that a "prominent conjuring authority" named Persi Diaconis, asked to observe a session with Serios, "was able to switch a whole batch of film right under [Eisenbud's] nose." He implies that Serios could have done the same thing. Maybe. But the investigators were watching Serios. They had no reason to watch Diaconis, who was there as an observer, not a test subject.
Randi concludes that Eisenbud's "ego simply does not permit him to realize that he was duped, and he will carry his delusions with him to the grave." Sounds like something that might be said of a certain high-profile media skeptic, doesn't it? "At the very least," Randi finishes graciously, "it seems that Dr. Eisenbud is not rowing with both oars in the water."
Nice. But instead of trying merely to get Serios, Randi and his fellow skeptics might try getting serious ... for once.
As I make my way through Eisenbud's book, which is surprisingly entertaining, I will occasionally supply updates and corrections to this post.
A minor correction: Serios' "gismo" was not made of cardboard, as I thought. Rather, it was plastic. Later, experimenters would fashion gismos for Serios, using the black paper that came with Polaroid film packs.
One piece of additional information about the gismo is that it was invariably sealed at both ends with cellophane. The cellophane was taped in place. This was Serios' normal habit, not a condition imposed by the experimenters. The tape was periodically checked to make sure that Serios was not removing it in order to slip something inside the tube. The replacement gismos whipped up by experimenters were also sealed. Neither Nile Root nor Randi mentions the fact that the gismo was always sealed, even though this detail is obviously relevant to their hypothesis.
Serios was also strip-searched on some occasions. No hidden devices were found, though I suppose one might speculate that he was hiding something in his mouth or rectum, or had secreted it in the room.
Some accounts of the Serios sessions imply that everyone involved consumed a lot of alcohol, impairing their observation and judgment. According to Eisenbud, it was Serios and Serios alone who consumed alcohol, which he claimed to need in order to lower his inhibitions. None of the experimenters drank anything other than water or fruit juice.
One more thing: In his book Flim-Flam, James Randi writes, "Eisenbud, demonstrating perfectly the irrationality of his kind, issued a challenge to me ... It was his inane idea that I submit to a preposterous set of controls ... I was to allow myself to be searched - including "a thorough inspection of all bodily orifices" - and then "stripped, clad in a monkey suit, and sealed in a steel-walled, lead-lined, windowless chamber. I had to be drunk as well. Then I was to produce pictures. Why? Because Ted Serios operated under those conditions, said Eisenbud ... If this great investigator and peerless observer required Serios to perform under the conditions he outlined for me, why didn't he mention it earlier?"
But Eisenbud did mention it earlier. A whole chapter of his book (the chapter titled "Tour de Force") discussses tests of this kind. Randi seems to mean that there is no single test that meets all of the above conditions. But there were many tests that met several, or even most, of the conditions.
I do agree that the demand that Randi be intoxicated during the test was unnecessary and silly. But the other conditions seem reasonable enough, given that Serios himself was strip-searched (including a body cavity search), was sewn into a "monkey suit" (a tight-fitting one-piece garment without pockets), was made to operate inside a sealed room, was made to produce pictures without holding the camera, etc.
As an aside, it is interesting to take note of Randi's style of argument. He addresses the Serios case on pp. 222-227 of the first edition (1980) of Flim-Flam. This relatively brief treatment includes the following snipes at parapsychology: "simple little minds ... silly ... delusions ... You'll never be a parapsychologist at that rate! ... Isn't parapsychology just grand, folks? ... the psi nuts ... any parapsychologist will hesitate to look too carefully ... the irrationality of his kind ... inane ... preposterous ... nonexistent are the powers of Serios and the objectivity of those who investigated him ... naivete ... duped ... he will carry his delusions with him to the grave ... perhaps Dr. Borje Lofgren [ ] had it right when he described parapsychology enthusiasts as 'decaying minds' with 'thinking defects and disturbed relations to reality' ... Dr. Eisenbud is not rowing with both oars in the water."
On the book's dust jacket, Isaac Asimov is quoted as saying of Randi, "His qualifications as a rational human being are unparalleled." If a constant stream of malicious innuendo is the hallmark of a rational human being, then Asimov was right on the mark.