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2011 Houdini Awards

I always thought of Harry Houdini as a master trickster, fooling his audience into believing something had happened when, in fact, it had not happened. That’s not true. Houdini’s tricks — like escaping from a locked packing crate after it had been thrown into New York’s East River — were real. His “magic” was that nobody could figure out how he pulled them off.

In the November 1925 issue of Popular Science, Houdini wrote an essay describing his obsession with the other kind of mystifiers: those who claim to have supernatural powers. Every day of his 35-year career, Houdini wrote, he had been thinking about psychics who supposedly communicate with the dead. He visited dozens of them and, as described at length in the essay, uncovered all of their lazy tricks. To give just one fun example, Houdini showed how mediums, during pitch-black seances, used trumpets controlled by their feet and mouths to produce voices that their audience believed to be ghosts.

Houdini did not consider himself a skeptic, but rather a public servant.

“I am willing to be convinced – even to believe, if a medium can demonstrate to me that he actually possesses true psychic power,” he wrote. “The public wants to know whether there are such things as ‘spirits’… And as a servant of the public, which every public performer undoubtedly is, I consider it my duty never to let a chance slip of obtaining authentic data on the subjects regarding which the public is looking constantly to me for information.”

Journalists, at their best, are also public servants, reporting authentic data as much as they can. So in the spirit of Houdini, I’d like to call your attention to three writers who, in my opinion, masterfully uncovered fakery in 2011.

Brian Deer
In a threepart series in the British Journal of Medicine, Deer exposes how researcher Andrew Wakefield tricked (and continues to trick) millions of people into believing that vaccines cause autism.

Lawrence Wright
In his New Yorker profile of director and screenwriter Paul Haggis, Wright revealed that the Church of Scientology, in addition to being a Ponzi scheme, is guilty of no less than: forging military records that portray founder L. Ron Hubbard as a war hero; lobbying against the civil rights of homosexuals; physical violence; and child enslavement.

Christopher Hitchens
If anyone’s prose deserves a closer look over your holiday vacation, it’s Christopher Hitchens, who died on December 15. He wrote hundreds of crackerjack debunkings over the years. My favorites include “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” describing what it feels like to be waterboarded, and “The New Commandments,” in which he pokes holes in the Ten Commandments and suggests a few new ones. Perhaps most poignant is an essay in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, in which he uses his own experience with grueling cancer treatments to reassess the Nietzsche adage, Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The last paragraph of the piece hits hardest: “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”

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Check out Richard’s Houdini post from exactly one year ago!

Houdini image from Psychology Pictures, via Flickr

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

4 thoughts on “2011 Houdini Awards

  1. I’m in awe of the Brian Deer series, but I’ve never been able to stomach Hitchens. Everything I’ve read seems like pretension masquerading as skeptical muckraking.

    The 10 Commandments piece demonstrates a profound ignorance of how the document has been interpreted and discussed. He takes variation in text and interpretation as a sign of weakness when he feels like it and then slams it for being written in stone & dogmatic. He also claims the text is in the bible 4 times, when it’s only in there twice.

    The waterboarding piece is a sophomoric torture snuff piece. What did it actually add to our understanding of waterboarding? Considering existing documentation and the fact that other public personalities had already done the same stunt, it was purely a vanity piece.

    The cancer piece is a nice personal narrative discussing mortality, I don’t see any serious skepticism or examination of the bigger picture. It’s not like make people are walking around who consider “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” to be a blanket statement of truth.

  2. bsci,

    I obviously don’t agree with you about Hitchens’ work, but I agree that the idea of Nietzsche diehards is a bit of a straw man. It was a flimsy excuse for me to link to the piece, which I found quite moving.

    Thanks for reading LWON!

  3. The 3rd Hitchen’s selection was definitely moving.

    I like the blog & I’m a regular reader here though not a super-frequent commenter.

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