5X5 Episode 82

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5X5 Episode 82
Psychic Surgery
2nd December 2009

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5X5 81 5X5 83
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Psychic Surgery[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about psychic surgery. Psychic surgery is a process that is popular in the Philippines and Brazil, mainly. And it is the process of appearing to do surgery without making an incision or cutting open the body in any way. It was first described in the 1950s by reporter Ron Ormond, who termed it "fourth-dimensional operations"; what later became known as psychic surgery.

B: Some of the tricks of the trade of psychic surgeons include using a plastic thumb that they wear so that they can hide fake blood and even bits of animal tissue inside. Sometimes you might see them kneading the patient's stomach, which kind of makes it easier for them to pull of the thumb to release its contents. They also use many other standard magician tricks, like palming and sleight of hand, and they can also famously pretend to stick their fingers inside the person—fourth-dimensionally, I guess—by simply just bending the fingers as they go down.

R: And of course, psychic surgery has been continually debunked, again and again, usually by magicians including Penn and Teller, and, of course, James Randi, who performed it on the Johnny Carson show, I believe—The Tonight Show, and then explained exactly how it worked, and still, people fall for it.

E: They sure do, and one of the more popular psychic surgeons these days, that at least I've seen on YouTube and elsewhere, is a fella by the the name of Stephen Turoff, who runs the Danbury Healing Clinic in Chelmsford, England. And if you do any searching for this fellow, you can take a look for his website or you can go to YouTube and look up "conning the conmen", in which some skeptics go and investigate him and basically reveal him for what he is: a huckster; a fraud.

J: Did you guys also know that there's psychic dentistry? And this is also done by faith healers and, basically, people get this who prefer dentistry without the benefits of anesthesia or dental drills. And these people who practice this can basically fill cavities just by touching your teeth.

S: They fill them with air?

J: No, they fix them.

R: Really.

S: (chuckles)

R: With hopes and dreams.

S: This is one of those "alternative healing modalities" where there can't be much in the way of self-deception going on here. You have to be doing conscious fraud—palming chicken livers or animal parts, pretending to stick your hands in somebody's belly and them pull out whatever badness was causing their symptoms. And you take their money and send them home to die if they had a fatal illness. It really is among the more clearly deliberate fraud as well as just plain cruel.

R: Yeah, fans of Andy Kaufman may know that when he got cancer, he was very desperate and went to a faith healer, and obviously it didn't really help him.

S: In the movie, I was really pleased to see that they actually show Andy Kaufman getting the "psychic surgery" and he notices that the healer had the chicken parts palmed in his hand and he realized that the joke was on him. And the next scene was him in his coffin. Yeah. They showed that for what it was.

E: And another celebrity who fell victim to the fraud was Peter Sellers, whom Randi told stories of having met just a few months before he actually died and talked about his experience with the psychic surgeon and there wasn't much Randi could do or say at that point. Peter Sellers was very convinced that they were performing something real. And sure enough, a few months later he was gone.

J: Sadly, we see a lot of people opt for psychic surgery as a last-ditch effort, because all other modern medicine had failed at that point to be able to cure it and the sad fact is that modern medicine can't cure everything. And a lot of people turn to this as a last-ditch effort to get some help.

B: But it's especially tragic, though, Jay, when people forgo conventional methods that could have helped them and do this and it has happened where they go, and of course the psychic surgery doesn't work, and because they missed that opportunity of using conventional medicine, they die. So it's even more tragic in those cases.

S: Yeah, it's not just exploiting the desperate; it's actually killing people, because you're depriving them of modern medical care with the fraud. And interestingly, even though psychic surgery has been thoroughly shown to be nothing but sleight of hand—an absolute fraud, the proponents still find some way to claim that it's legitimate. So now some are calling it "placebo surgery" and that there is a measurable beneficial placebo effect from getting psychic surgery done and that that's enough to justify the operation, which is... actually, it's... first of all, it's completely absurd. It turns the whole notion of medical ethics on its head, but that's becoming an increasing argument within the world of so-called alternative medicine; just say, "yeah, sure, it's a placebo and that's enough to justify what we're doing".

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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