Extraordinary Occurrences: The Time James Randi Said "Yes"

Extraordinary Occurrences: The Time James Randi Said “Yes”

Today marks the 84th birthday of the one and only James Randi, the man loved (some might say worshipped) by skeptics the world round and squarely hated by just about everyone who claims to have a paranormal power of some kind.

Randi, a magician by trade, set up the James Randi Education Foundation in 1996, an organization that offers a whopping one million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate their extra-human powers under watchful scientific eyes. This challenge has never been bested and remains the bane of psychics, spoon benders, healers, and even ghost hunters.

Sure, Randi might not be well liked by those claiming superpowers, but his contributions to the field of paranormal research are valuable and necessary, even if those contributions consist of saying “no” more times than we care to tally. In a forest of extraordinary claims, it’s nice to know there’s someone pulling weeds.

It seemed fitting that today, on his birthday, we should look at one of the very few instances that James Randi was presented with an incredible feat.. and instead of shaking his head and uttering that word he’s so familiar with, widened his eyes and said “yes”.

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The Man Who Stared at Notes

Dr. Arthur Lintgen, a physician from Pennsylvania, is a man who claims a seemingly extraordinary, if somewhat less than useful, talent. He doesn’t read minds, tell the future, or talk to the dead, but can he can tell you what songs are on a vinyl record just by staring at it, and no, he doesn’t need the label. Lintgen claims he only became aware of his strange ability when challenged at a party in the 70’s, and found, to his surprise, that he could correctly identify records just by looking at the grooves.

“Friends of mine with more scientific and musical knowledge than I have tried it unsuccessfully,” he once told the New York Times. “I don’t know how I do it. I have terrible eyesight.”

In 1982, the ABC television series That’s Incredible decided to put Dr. Lintgen to the test in front of an audience, and to the astonishment of Stimson Carrow, then the professor of music theory at Temple University, Arthur was able to not only correctly identify 20 different unlabeled records, but was able to identify their pieces and composers.. all from about 15 feet away. The audience was astonished.

That kind of stunt might have been enough to impress viewers at home, but there were still many who remained skeptical of the man who could see records. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not pre-taped television episodes. After all, it’s not like TV has the greatest track record of honesty.

James Randi Meets Dr. Lingten

James Randi first became aware of the claims made by Dr. Arthur Lintgen a year after his appearance on That’s Incredible, when he was approached by Time magazine to conduct a more scientific test of his astonishing ability. Though highly skeptical, Randi agreed to head the controlled investigation and even agreed to a few stipulations set forth by Arthur: the music to be identified had to be post-Beethoven classical recordings. Lingten also admitted that he could not identify unpopular contemporary classical compositions or spoken word.

So in 1982, Randi gathered his own collection of  recordings, including one spoken word recording and one duplicate recording for use as controls, covered both the label and the matrix numbers, placed each record in identical packaging, and after traveling to meet Lingten, finally had an assistant shuffle them. An article published by the Los Angeles Times in 1987 does a fine job of recounting the events of that test:

Lintgen, a very nearsighted man with thick glasses, took the first recording off the pile, removed his glasses and placed his eye at the edge of the recording and slowly rotated it. He looked slightly puzzled.

“I think that this is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony,” he said. “However, there is an extra movement in here that I can’t understand. Is it a strange recording?”

Randi replied that he could offer no clues. Lintgen examined it further and declared, “Yes! It is the Sixth Symphony, but it also contains an additional overture that I will guess is the ‘Prometheus Overture.’ ”

Lintgen was right.

He then pulled out another recording from the batch and identified it as Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

At that time, Randi did not know if the recording that Lintgen was holding was indeed Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” but he knew that there were at least two different copies of that piece in the controlled test. At this point, Randi knew the man had the talent.

Lintgen pulled out the next recording and said with a wink, “Ah. You are trying to fool me! This is a different recording of the same piece.”

Randi was astonished. Not only did Lingten correctly identify the duplicate recording, but he told the group of investigators that while it was the same piece, it was performed by an entirely different orchestra. A German orchestra, to be exact. Lingten then went on to point out two other controls, a vocal recording of So You Want to a Magician and a recording that he called “just gibberish” that turned out to be Alice Cooper.

Randi later recounted his shock in the Skeptical Enquirer saying, “certainly, Arthur Lintgen comes as close to (a real magician) as I ever hope so see!”

Wild Talents or Psychic Powers?

So did Arthur Langten win the million bucks? Well, not exactly. You see, while the James Randi did finally brush off his skepticism and agree that Arthur did indeed possess an extraordinary talent.. it was just that: a talent. The secret to the doctor’s success didn’t lie in tapping into some unknown consciousness or untested psychic power. The secret to Arthur’s talent was in the grooves.

When Lantgen completed his astonishing task, Randi could hardly believe it. “How could he possibly accomplish this?” he asked. For Lantgen, the answer was simple.. he loved music.

“I have a knowledge of musical structure and of the literature,” he told the New York Times, “and I can correlate this structure with what I see. Loud passages reflect light differently. In the grossest terms, they look silvery. Record companies spread the grooves in forte passages; they have a more jagged, saw-tooth look. Soft passages look blacker. I also know how the pressings of different labels look, so I can often figure out who is conducting.”

Arthur Lintgen’s incredible knowledge of music, right down to how and where it was recorded, gifted him with one of the world’s greatest party tricks, at least until the advent of the compact disc. Using the power of deduction, Lingten could use the quality of the pressing, the length of the grooves, even the depth of the grooves, to identify the compositions he enjoyed so much. It might not be supernatural, but it’s still amazing.

So no, Arthur didn’t walk away a million dollars richer, but he didn’t mind. In fact, unlike so many fraudulent psychics, phony faith healers, or paranormal investigators with broken radios, Arthur never believed for a second that his talents were supernatural, and saw it merely as a fun side effect of being an audiophile.

Randi, who I can only assume was finally exhaling, agreed.

Happy birthday, James Randi!


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15 Comments

  1. FoeApple

    08/08/2012 at 8:41 AM

    Amazing. Its a shame his talent was made useless in the very blink of an eye when tapes were made.

  2. Ashley

    08/12/2012 at 4:17 AM

    But still, I want a psychic to prove Randi wrong, just once! There is so many of us out here who want to believe with all our hearts in the supernatural. So, we need someone anyone to come forward and truly show the public that “what I do is for real!”

    Who won’t someone take a chance??

    • PopeRatzo

      09/19/2014 at 7:05 PM

      James Randi has already been proven wrong. Psicop’s own research confirmed a psi effect.

      Read the book, “Fringeology” for details.

  3. Donna Anderson

    08/12/2012 at 3:44 PM

    You know, I’ve only heard Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge mentioned a few times, and then it was just in passing. So maybe it needs some new publicity.

    But Lintgen’s talent is amazing. Useless… but amazing. Back in the day I bet he could have made a bundle at sock hops.

  4. Moi

    08/13/2012 at 9:09 AM

    James Randi has been successful in dragging the names of highly credentialed researchers through the mud, convincing the public that they were nothing but purveyors of woo. He and other pseudoskeptics have been a HUGE detriment to the progress of science, so I find it strange that the tone of this post is mildly hagiographical, as if Randi was just waiting, praying for someone to convince him of the reality of the paranormal when the reality is far different. James Randi is a liar, scientifically illiterate, and a criminal:

    http://physicalismisdead.blogspot.com/2012/07/james-randi-is-liar-and-he-still-hasnt.html

    http://physicalismisdead.blogspot.com/2012/04/james-randi-is-scientifically.html

    http://physicalismisdead.blogspot.com/2012/06/james-randi-is-criminal.html

    http://physicalismisdead.blogspot.com/2012/03/james-randi-doesnt-know-anything-about.html

    http://physicalismisdead.blogspot.com/2012/01/james-randi-dowsing-rods-and-further.html

    Anyone who still thinks Mr Randi is doing the scientific community a favor or that he is some actual free-thinking educator needs to see the man for what he really is.

    • Cooch

      08/13/2012 at 9:32 AM

      I have a feeling you might thoroughly enjoy the response one of our other writers had to this post: “Against the Debunkers”.

      I don’t think I’d ever go so far as to say that Randi was waiting to be convinced. He already *is* convinced, but of the impossibility of paranormal claims. Why else would he have taken so long to actually believe that Lintgen wasn’t performing some kind of deception? Don’t get me wrong, I think Randi is a crusty old curmudgeon responsible for the current “cult of skepticism” atop which he remains seated on a golden throne (I also despise the word “woo” more than I can explain in mere words), but the fact is – the guy has taken a massive dump on the careers of many people who profit off of other’s pain – phony career psychics, faith healers, etc. Regardless of his opinions on things like ghosts, monsters, dousing rods, etc.. things that don’t really affect us, his contributions toward educating the public about scam artists should be appreciated.. even if *he* is not.

    • Random

      08/15/2012 at 11:56 PM

      Yeah, those links aren’t going to convince anyone. The whole idea is that someone can do the extraordinary in a controlled environment, then people will believe. There are quite a few videos on YouTube that slow down cameras to show that Uri is a fraud when performing some of his tricks, it’s really hard to assume not all of what he passes off as supernatural isn’t fraud as well. Once a cheater always a cheater… For example. Supernatural is all faith based, very hard to convince someone with the faith that they are being conned and very hard to convince someone without faith it exists ( without solid proof).

    • Pace

      08/16/2012 at 9:24 AM

      That’s cause it IS woo. You really want so hard to believe but there is no proof. The paranormal is not like religious faith: prove God did or didn’t do something. It’s easy enough to show you have psychic powers: be correct in a prediction or reading or hidden card guess. Debunking the paranormal is doing science a service: it can’t be proved, the end, don’t waste our time. Your hatred is palpable, but why not just accept the fact that while we’d all like some kind of extraordinary power to be real, this just isn’t.

  5. James Randi

    08/15/2012 at 11:24 AM

    Ummm, I’ve never known Dr. L. to do his feat “from about 15 feet away.” He’s done it for me several times, but always holding the disk… I remain astonished at his very specialized talent.

    • Greg Newkirk

      08/15/2012 at 11:38 AM

      Holy cow! Thanks for swinging by our little rag-tag blog, Mr. Randi. As for the whole “15 feet away” thing, that’s actually quoted from the November 19, 1981 New York Times article regarding Lintgen’s appearance on That’s Incredible. The title of the article was “The Man Who Sees What Others Hear”. Here’s the portion in question:

      The event was arranged and filmed by the ABC-TV program “That’s Incredible,” which plans to air the segment early next month. Mr. Carrow had “never heard of Dr. Lintgen” before ABC called and asked him to administer the test. “We chose mainstream music – the Beethoven Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Strauss, the Tchaikovsky ‘Nutcracker’ – things the audience could relate to. Not only could he do it, he could recognize some of them 15 feet across the room.”

      Could have been a mistake on their part, sure, but maybe he just took extra special care to impress you!

      • Sean

        01/05/2013 at 12:40 PM

        If I recall, another article mentioned that he was most often asked to identify beethoven’s fifth, and so was able to guess correctly without seeing the record itself- just not in every case.

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  8. Suzee

    03/20/2014 at 6:15 PM

    I think that Randi’s great; there are tons of frauds out there. However, there is a serious flaw in the $1million challenge. That being, anyone who really did have any special powers would never, in a million years, step forward and make that publicly known. Why not? Because, how long do you think such a person would remain free, before hordes of blackmailers, government agents, and sundry other types who could profit from controlling such a person, grabbed his ass or threatened his loved ones in order to force him to do their will? Even if you don’t believe Franz Bardon had “it”, hey somebody did, and they grabbed his ass. It’s absurd to think that anyone with a brain would put themselves out publicly like that.

  9. Mr. Dark

    02/17/2017 at 3:31 PM

    Don’t get me started on Randi. You can’t simultaneously debunk things and throw out most of the basic rules of scientific investigation, which he’s done multiple times when approached about the million dollar award. By placing limits on what will be accepted as ‘proof’ that go well outside those normally found in basic scientific experimentation, he renders the whole thing just another of his illusions: a party trick where he knows the outcome before the audience.

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