Occult Phenomena

by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

for the Sunday Gazette


I would like to see the case of missing 12-year old Jaliek Rainwalker solved as much as anyone other than his grandparents, but coverage in the local media borders on giving credence to the occult. Channel 13, for example—my usual first choice for local TV news—reported in early January, without a hint of skepticism, that a “psychic” had been called in to assist police.
The Times Union did a little better; the lede of its January 18 story read “Three psychics joined the search for 12-year-old Jaliek Rainwalker last week, but information they offered officials about the missing boy failed to best anything offered by basic police science.”

Back on November 13, the Glens Falls Post-Star reported that Cambridge-Greenwich Police Chief George Bell defended use of a particular psychic, saying that she had assisted police in the Schenectady area in the past. "We checked with the Rotterdam PD, and she has credibility with them," Bell said.

It is unlikely that Rotterdam’s detectives are more credulous than those of other police departments. It is my opinion that police often give in to the fervent pleas of victim’s relatives to bring in an alleged psychic because they do not want to be accused of not trying their utmost to solve cases. But there are no true psychics; the occult power such people claim is scientifically impossible. There may be rare cases where a “psychic” guesses accurately, but that’s all it can be—guesswork.


Other occult phenomena

The same is true for a whole host of other alleged “paranormal” phenomena—extra sensory perception (clairvoyance), telekinesis (such as the phony “spoon bending” of Uri Geller), telepathy, astrology, fortune telling, dowsing, ghosts, and various other delusions such as L. Ron Hubbard’s “dianetics.” The two best known debunkers of such things are the Canadian James Hamilton Zwinge, a.k.a. James Randi, and the American mathematician Martin Gardner.

Billed as “The Amazing Randi,” Randi is a stage magician and scientific skeptic best known as a challenger of paranormal claims and pseudoscience. See  http://skepdic.com/randi.html for a long list of the monetary awards offered in countries all over the world for anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers under controlled conditions. No one has ever collected a penny from any of these sources.

I have deeply admired Martin Gardner since he began writing the Mathematical Games columns for Scientific American magazine in 1956, and continued to do so until 1981. He has written 60 books and counting (he’s only 93 and just getting warmed up), and he has contributed many an article to the bi-monthly Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Despite the best efforts of these people and others, a disappointing 25 percent of Americans claim to believe in one or another of many forms of paranormal phenomena for which there is not a scintilla of credible scientific evidence.


Extra Sensory Perception

When I was about twelve, I became aware that my father was intrigued by the stage and radio (and later television) personality Kuda Bux (1906-1981), “the man with the x-ray eyes.” Kuda Bux was an Indian fakir whose most famous trick was to cover his eyes with soft dough, blindfold himself, swath his entire head in strips of cloth, and yet still be able to “see.” While blindfolded, he would read the dates on coins held in a spectators hand, read the fine print of a magazine, thread a needle, and duplicate words he had supposedly never seen written. To see him in action, just type “Kuda Bux” into the search box of YouTube.com.

I can’t help but wonder whether, in 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster endowed Superman with x-ray vision based on knowing about Kuda Bux. But it is inconceivable that a real person could have eyes that can generate x-rays; energy generation of that kind cannot occur in a space as small as an eye. Even Kuda Bux did not claim that he really had such vision, or that he could detect incoming electromagnetic radiation from out beyond his blindfold. He said that he could “see” through extreme concentration, the “sixth sense” of the psychic, perhaps. But, rest his soul, he was a lovable fakir, but only if you spell that word slightly differently.


The art of prophecy


Anyone can make predictions, and for anyone who makes a lot of them, some small percentage will come true, especially if they are stated imprecisely. But the successful ones are always based on careful analysis of a present situation and projecting it into the probable future, not by “foreseeing” that future through imagined paranormal power. The most precise such prediction of this kind that I know of is that of maverick Air Force General William Lendrum "Billy" Mitchell (1879 –1936). In 1924, Mitchell was sent to to Hawaii and Asia by his superiors to get him off their backs. He came back with a 324-page report that predicted a future war with Japan that would start with an attack on Pearl Harbor. He did not live to see his prophecy come true 17 years later, nor would he have wanted it to, but after the attack came, the first planes to strike back at Japan were North American B-25 “Mitchell” bombers, the only American military aircraft type that has ever been named for a specific person.

 In the Reilly family chronicles, the only incidents that border on accurate prophecy, two of them over little more than one year, involve our second son, Michael. The first, when he was nine, occurred as we attended the “Expo-67” World’s Fair in Montreal. As we were boarding the monorail, Michael hesitated at the door and said “Dad, what if the doors close on us as we are halfway inside.”

“Of course they won’t,” I answered, “the engineer has his eye on mirrors and sensors that will make sure that won’t happen. But it did, and we were lucky to survive to tell of it.

By the next year, when Michael was ten, we headed off to vacation on Cape Cod. Late on a Saturday, as we neared our destination—a rental home in Dennis—Michael says “Dad, what if there is already a family in our house.” I answered, “Now Michael, I have the lease right here in my pocket, signed by the owner. Never fear.”

But it happened! The house was occupied by a large family from Long Island that included a baby and a grandmother. They had rented the house from an agent who, clearly, had not kept in touch with the owner. After much consternation, we agreed that, for the night at least, the family should sleep downstairs and we would take upstairs, expecting to settle things by calling the owner in the morning. Our lease had precedence, so the agent found a bigger and better place on the waterfront for the other family, and a few days later we happened to meet on the street and embraced as if we were longtime friends who hadn’t seen one another in years.

I do not count these incidents as prophetic, but rather attribute them to the natural apprehension of children. They are born with an innate sense of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong it will,” an inclination of probable evolutionary survival value to our species. What they should believe is Reilly’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will, but not necessarily right away.”


But sometimes it does!


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.