Bent Out of Shape

December 7, 2010

He Who Will Not Be Ignored came home yesterday with another reading comprehension homework assignment, the usual “read the story and answer questions” exercise that bores him to tears. Sometimes the story is just that – a short piece of fiction – but sometimes it’s a factual article or news report. Regardless of the content, either She Who Must Be Obeyed or I always read the text first, so we can verify He Who’s answers. This particular assignment set off all of our bullshit detectors, right from the title: “Strange Mysteries: The Boy Who Could Bend Spoons.” (I scanned the entire assignment; it’s a single page that you can see here.) It begins:

Uri Geller was different from other little boys.

At the age of three, he surprised his mother by bending her spoons and soup ladles just by looking at them.

It goes on from there, ending with the notorious SRI tests of Geller:

One test had Uri concentrating very hard on a magnetometer, which measures the strength of a magnetic field.

The scientists said “although it was scientifically impossible,” the needle moved each time Uri was asked to concentrate on it.

We were gobsmacked. Of all the topics a child could be asked to read about, how did this collection of outright falsehoods wind up in a textbook? The first thing we did was tell He Who that he was reading a story, and it wasn’t true. He immediately spotted the paradox: “Do I answer True or False to ‘Uri could bend car keys.’?” Since it was a reading exercise, we asked him to answer based on what he had read.

Once the homework was done, we decided to extend the “teachable moment” by explaining how we knew that Geller was a fraud. We told him that our friend James Randi had exposed Geller’s tricks many times in the past, well before Mythbusters was ever on television, and showed him this clip:

http://blog.belm.com/belmblog/video/Randi_Discusses_Geller.mov

Convinced that he understood Geller’s antics, I turned my attention to the assignment and the book in which it was published. You can see from the scan that the page was taken from a book called Strategies That Work!, published by Teacher Created Resources, Inc. A quick look at the web site shows that the company was founded by a teacher and is set up to provide teaching resources; in our case a book of comprehension practice exercises.

From my time as an editor in a textbook division of McGraw-Hill, I know how these “ancillary materials” are created. Someone is paid to collect material from public domain, out-of-print, or permision-free sources, excerpt a few interesting paragraphs, and write a series of questions. Fortunately, the anonymous author of this set of exercises cited the source of the Geller story: Rachael Collinson. A bit of Googling turned up one relevant page, about her book Strange Mysteries. And that’s where the trail turns cold. It seems Ms. Collinson either believes in Geller’s “talent” or is a bit less critical in her evaluation of facts. I’d be curious to see what else qualifies as a “strange mystery”: Bigfoot? Ancient astronauts? The inexplicable popularity of just about everyone on the Entertainment Channel?

We will be having a few words with He Who’s teacher, whom we’re sure just sent home the next assignment without more than a cursory glance at the subject matter. He shouldn’t be expected to screen al of the reading material, but this particular bit of blather is the fertilizer that continues to feed Geller’s weed-like tenacity.

There’s another response to this charlatan, and that’s brutal humor. Check out the reactions to one of Geller’s more recent apearances:

Maybe if we all bombard him with sarcasm he’ll finally go away.

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