There are two methods you can use to bend spoons. (They both work just as well on forks, keys, and a variety of other objects, usually small and metallic. Spoons are traditional.)
The first one is to be psychic and use your magic psychic powers. Much distorted cutlery has been presented as the result of claimed paranormal abilities. Uri Geller, for example, has made a decades-long career out of doing almost literally nothing else. You can just tap into some strange cosmic energy, and alter the state of matter through the sheer force of your will, according to your desires. You can harness this inexplicable artefact of nature, a phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the potential of which has ramifications beyond imagining for the socio-economic development of our species, and use it to make your kitchenware go a bit wonky.
That’s one way.
The other way is to just hold a spoon and bend it. Using your hands.
The second way is much easier.
But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, simply using obvious brute force renders the whole activity rather pointless. Because this method is so easy, it’s also deeply unimpressive. Anyone can bend a spoon, after all – but it takes someone quite special to be able to bend a spoon with only the power of their mind.
Which leads us to a question brimming with potential and overflowing with possibilities. Suppose you used the second method of bending a spoon, and just brought your arm muscles into play to give it a bit of a twist, but then – and this is the clever bit – you use some cunning misdirection of some sort, and dress it up as an example of the first method, to make it look like you’re demonstrating psychic powers.
Now wouldn’t that just be a thing.
I’d be surprised if nobody’s thought of this before.
Now, don’t get flustered before I’ve even said anything controversial. All I’m asking you to accept at this point is the simple fact that bending a small metal spoon with your hands is entirely possible, and so is inaccurately claiming that you were using psychic powers to do it. Look, here’s Hugh Laurie doing exactly that:
I’m pretty sure I could do that too, by just bending some spoons and going “Ta-da!” But that doesn’t really prove anything. The above demonstration is, obviously, part of a comedy sketch, and it’s funny because it would only bamboozle a stupid person. It seems fair to ask: could a better version of a similar trick be performed, so that non-idiots would be taken in by it?
Well, I’m going to suggest that it could. And I don’t think this is very controversial, either. If you’re going to disagree at this stage, and argue that nobody possessing the wherewithal not to drool all over themselves could ever possibly be fooled by some sort of trick, and persuaded that a bent spoon hadn’t simply been bent by physical force alone… well, good luck with that in a world where people who still think wrestling is real manage to get dressed in the mornings without help. People are always getting taken in by fake stuff, even intelligent people. If you’re a trusting person, and inclined to believe in psychic powers already, then it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might, in theory, be able to trick you.
For instance, take a look at this guy bending spoons:
That’s Michael Shermer, and he’s definitely using the second method to do it. He’s a skeptic, and he openly admits that he’s doing tricks. But he makes it look pretty good, doesn’t he? If he were to tell you he was using psychic powers, you wouldn’t have to be a complete idiot to believe him. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s just bending things with his hands, at any rate. It looks a lot like things look when people claim to be using the first method, and demonstrating real paranormal abilities.
Even if you think that Shermer’s demonstration isn’t quite as convincing as someone you’ve seen who claims to be genuinely using the first method (the fork thing isn’t all that subtle, for instance), it still seems possible that someone with their mental faculties grossly intact could still be fooled. If Shermer were unscrupulous enough to attach grandiose claims of psychic mastery to his techniques, and maybe hammed up the performance a bit, it could be moderately persuasive. The kind of people who might find it plausible wouldn’t have to be stupid or clueless at all, just like Uri Geller’s millions of fans aren’t all dribbling idiots. A lot of them are adequately functioning members of society.
A number of tricksters like Shermer are out there, bending spoons through non-magical means, and can be found all over YouTube. Many of them take the approach of confessedly bending spoons by the second method alone, and inviting us to marvel at how this can be made to look like the first method. Others will also show us the secrets behind the tricks they’re using, and give an even greater insight into how the effects of the first method can be simulated.
In short, if you put on an act just like these guys show you, you can make it look a lot like you have psychic powers. And not just to stupid people.
All the second method boils down to is “bend the spoon with your hands”, but disguising what you’re doing is where the interesting skills lie. For one thing, it’s important that people aren’t watching your hands too closely while you’re just exerting brute force. Cause a distraction, divert people with some attention-grabbing patter, move your hands somewhere out of sight, point at something else – anything that’ll give you a brief moment where you can give the metal a quick twist, so that when onlookers next see it, the bend is there.
Obviously if they look back to find it suddenly sharply bent, though, it might occur to them that they just missed you doing something devious. This can undermine your magical kudos, but luckily there are plenty of optical effects and quirks you can take advantage of too. If you’re moving the spoon around a lot, it’ll be hard for anyone to tell how bent it actually is, and you might be able to make it look like it’s becoming increasingly curved as they watch, even if it’s staying the same. You can see this sort of effect by holding a pencil horizontally in front of you, near one end, and waggling it up and down. The way the other end flops about will look loose and rubbery. (Try it, and you can really see the effect. Remember, we’re still not talking about stupid people. Even intelligent brains get easily confused by things they weren’t designed to be able to cope with.)
Also, a straight line can look either more or less curved depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it. I suspect that Michael Shermer is using this point to good effect in his final demonstration in the video above. The rod is bent from the time he holds it up, but the bend is held horizontally, in line with the plane on which you’re seeing it, so it still looks flat. The bend comes into view as he rotates it, but he’s making other gestures and telling you to see it bending upwards, so the truth might not be obvious.
Now, although this might all be a jolly interesting exercise, I must add that none of this has any direct bearing on anybody who’s actually using the first method – that is, anyone really bending spoons with genuine psychic powers. That’d be like miming to a Mariah Carey track and expecting Simon Cowell to give you a record deal. They’re not affected by the details of how a similar effect can be faked, because they know that they’re doing something completely different.
But we don’t know that. And these details are extremely relevant to our assessment of performers claiming to use the first method. Shermer could have claimed to possess psychic powers, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that many people would have believed him – but, because of his honesty, we know that those people would have been mistaken.
Who else might also be mistaken?
It’s not just the case that the second method can look a lot like the first – on top of that, people who claim to be using psychic powers often really seem like they’re doing tricks. Uri Geller may be a good example of this (depending on whether he’s calling what he does “magic” or “mystificationalism” today). This video seems to show him simply bending a spoon while people are distracted from looking at it directly, as well as providing supportive evidence that his broken spoons look like they’ve been bent repeatedly.
And then there’s his famous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he doesn’t bend any cutlery by any process, paranormal or otherwise. This makes sense if we were to assume he’s using the second method: he can’t just blatantly bend them, because that wouldn’t make for an interesting demonstration, and he can’t work with his own props which are designed for this very purpose, so there’s really nothing he can do. It’s harder to reconcile it with the idea of actual psychic abilities, which inconveniently fail to function every time we try to get a good look at them.
So, we have:
– a claimed paranormal phenomenon which is less than paradigm-shattering in its scope to begin with,
– a simple and naturalistic method by which the same effect of this phenomenon can be achieved,
– a plausible set of reasons why this naturalistic method could be mistaken for something more ground-breaking,
– an example of people demonstrating what a powerful illusion this naturalistic method can provide,
– a number of good reasons why certain individuals might be motivated to disguise this non-event as something more remarkable,
– some evidence that the man most commonly associated with this phenomenon could be using exactly these techniques to do just this,
– and a complete lack of verifiable examples of the phenomenon actually taking place in a way that can’t be easily replicated by conjurers or practised amateurs doing tricks.
Let’s stop being impressed by this now.