I’ve been in an awkward position lately. At “The Science of Consciousness” powwow in Tucson, Arizona, last month, three men told me they had bent spoons telekinetically, at least in part. (I mention the spoon-benders in my third and fourth posts on the conference.) Skeptical, I did some research and discovered that Skeptic Michael Shermer has addressed paranormal spoon-bending (see this video). The problem is, I just slammed Skeptics for spending too much time debunking “soft targets”--like, um, spoon-bending. I also knocked Shermer for promoting the deep-roots theory of war, which I fear fosters pessimism toward peace. Since then, Shermer and I have been whacking each other on Twitter and elsewhere. But consistency is the hobgoblin… etc. Plus, I remembered fondly when legendary Skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi solved a puzzle involving my daughter and a world-famous physicist. So I appealed to Shermer for help in solving the riddle of spoon-bending, and he, being a fundamentally good person, responded. If Shermer and I can set aside our differences to solve a problem, world peace is possible! Our email exchange follows. –John Horgan
Horgan: Michael, I know it's a little odd asking you this, given that we've been butting heads online, but I need your expert opinion on a “soft target.” I met three people at the consciousness conference in Tucson who claimed they had bent spoons at "spoon-bending parties." All three described the same process. They rubbed the shaft between their fingers, it got warm and soft, and they could bend it, practically in knots. One showed me photos, like the one I’ve attached [which illustrates this post]. The fact that this happens at "parties" with spoons supplied by the party-giver makes me suspicious. I'm wondering if there are trick spoons, made out of some kind of alloy that softens with a little friction. I saw your spoon bending video online, so I thought I’d ask you.
Shermer: It's easy to bend spoons in that particular twisted fashion: hold the handle in one hand and with the other grab the bowl of the spoon and bend it away from you until it is twisting back toward you. Not twisted clockwise or counterclockwise but outward, down then back up. Works best with cheap spoons. I’ve done it at Denny’s, for example. People think you're twisting it. They can't imagine another way. That's where the magic happens.
I did it once during a Scientific American cruise to Bermuda. A guy was telling me how skeptical he is. But he once saw a spoon bent in this fashion, and since he couldn't think of how it was done normally he decided it was paranormal. As he was describing the effect, I slipped the spoon on the table to below the table and bent it as I described above, and as he finished his story I presented it and said, "Did it look like this?" He said, "Oh crap," and started laughing at himself.
There are, in fact, many ways to bend spoons and forks, and unlike me real magicians do it smoothly and elegantly, and it’s beautiful to watch. The great Banachek, for example, is the master at it, and you can watch him at work here.
As for spoon bending parties, I've been to some. No one ever bends a spoon without touching it, and they always have to use force to get it started. It's true, once you've weakened the neck of the spoon through repetitive bending, you can get it to the point where it appears to melt to light touch, but that only happens after proper preparation. It takes some practice to make it look smooth. You can prepare spoons before a party to soften them up, but there are no trick spoons that I know of--except for the ones that Richard Wiseman prepared for a conference in which he had over 800 people bend spoons at the same time, a world record!
As for the consciousness scientists, I have found these conferences to be attended by a wide variety of people, from very skeptical to very gullible. But when it comes to spoon bending, I guarantee they are all either deceiving or self-deceiving. No exception.
Horgan: I just bent an Ikea Sedlig-style spoon as you recommended. Problem is, I can't bend it back to where it was, so now it has a kink in it. Totally worth it, though. Thanks!