Usually I honor scientists on their birthdays (or in one case, on my birthday), but today I want to honor Harry Houdini (1874-1936). Known best as a magician and escapologist, he did a lot of work during his later career as a debunker of psychics and mediums. The tradition of professional magicians and illusionists taking on practitioners of pseudoscience continues today through people such as James “The Amazing” Randi, which makes me think there’s probably something about knowing what it takes to pull off a spectacular illusion that leads stage magicians to skepticism about claims of the paranormal.
Houdini was part of the Scientific American investigation of spiritualists. Many trained scientists were taken in by spiritualists because they tended to trust in their own senses; Houdini, knowing how easily senses can be fooled, was better able to find the trick. Similarly, Uri Geller fooled several scientists with his spoon-bending tricks in the 1970s, but failed to trick James Randi and physicist Richard Feynman (himself an amateur magician).
Spiritualism isn’t nearly as popular today as it was in the 1920s, but psychics and other fortune-tellers continue to operate in huge numbers. So, I’d like to think the (non-corporeal, non-table-turning) spirit of Harry Houdini lives on in the work of those today who put paranormal claims to the test.