But can Sparky really read minds? With a $1 million prize at stake, professional skeptics at L.A.’s Center for Inquiry — West are about to put the “wonder dog” to the test.
Forces good and evil from dimensions near and far, including the almighty Christian god, have been called forth to manifest themselves. Mighty unseen spirits, elemental and sacred, are beseeched to demonstrate their omnipotence in an awesome display of their mysterious power.
“In the name of the Father, spirits of the dark being, gods out of our space: With the power of God through Jesus, we succeed!” incants Mark Joramo.
From across the known universe, the forces summoned by Joramo assemble at a nondescript industrial building near Ballona Creek and throw their collective power against a small flap of aluminum foil held in delicate balance by a paper clip.
The foil shifts about a centimeter.
And thus Joramo stakes his claim to immortality.
Or a long stay in a mental institution, depending on how you look at it.
Joramo is jumpy. He’s been making his little flap of foil bounce back and forth for more than an hour now, but it doesn’t always cooperate. In fact, it’s only jumping when he predicts it will about half the time. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that that success rate isn’t impressing the people hovering around him with stopwatches and clipboards.
Joramo seems particularly unhappy that he’s been asked to wear a surgical mask to make sure his weird invocations aren’t influencing the airflow in his apparatus.
The contraption looks like something an office worker with an overactive imagination might throw together after a trip to the company supply cabinet. Housed in an ordinary cardboard box that could be used for shipping a few books (there’s even a mailing label still on it), various items are mounted within, including the flap of aluminum foil, a drawing compass, and a small fan.
The only moving part (other than the fan) is the foil flap, which is suspended between the compass arms by what looks like a straightened paper clip. It can thus pivot on a horizontal axis, like a little propeller. As it’s struck by air currents generated by the fan, the flap wobbles from left to right over a distance of about half an inch. It’s painfully obvious that the slightest touch or change in air pressure sends the flap in one direction or the other.
But Joramo is convinced that what actually makes the little flap jump — or stand still — is his ability to call up extraordinary forces of ethereal power. His invention is a telekinesis device, Joramo says, and it’s animated by his ability to draw on the help of Jesus Christ and various other beings.
Why the God that created all living and unliving matter in less than a week would give a rat’s ass about the relative position of a flap of flattened metal isn’t clear. But such fine points take a backseat to matters of far greater importance.
Specifically, the million bucks Joramo thinks he’s got a chance of winning.
For years, the magician and famous skeptic James Randi has offered a cash award to anyone who can prove psychic ability under conditions of scientific reliability. The Florida magician originally put up $10,000 as a prize, but has increased it several times. Today, his offer stands at $1 million. Randi gets a steady stream of would-be claimants seeking to demonstrate supernatural abilities — too many, in fact, for Randi and his testers to handle. (None, obviously, has so far satisfied Randi and scored the cash.)
To weed out the many prize seekers, Randi relies on regional testing sites. In Los Angeles, the magician turns to a group of men and women working out of a building near Marina del Rey.
And on a recent day, the testers at the Center for Inquiry — West, led by executive director Jim Underdown, closely observe Joramo and his quivering piece of aluminum foil.
A videotape of the test shows that Joramo didn’t fare very well. After much haggling, he and Underdown agreed on a scripted procedure they repeated 160 times. Each time, Joramo set his flap to the right and predicted whether it would stand still or flip to the left in the ensuing 10 seconds. Then he let go and began his invocations.
“With the power of God through Jesus, we succeed!” he chanted. About half the time, the flap did what he predicted. During the other half, the gods didn’t cooperate, apparently. But even this modest success rate was deceiving. After observing Joramo for some time, Underdown noticed that he seemed to be subtly cheating in the way he set up the flap. Also, Underdown noticed that each time Joramo predicted the flap would hold still, he would keep his hands away from the box. When he predicted that it would move, he would place his left hand very close to the flap (to give the gods a target, he said).
Underdown worried that this influenced the air currents in the contraption, and he asked Joramo to keep his hands away regardless of his prediction. When he did, Joramo’s success rate plummeted.
Joramo vowed that he’d convince Randi not to make him wear a mask or keep his hands out of the box. This kind of restrictions, he said, were unfairly defeating him and his helper spirits.
But Underdown gave him the bad news: Joramo wouldn’t be in a position to demand anything of Randi, since he wouldn’t be seeing him. Joramo’s telekinesis device had performed so poorly, Underdown and CFI — West wouldn’t be sending him on to Florida.
Underdown tells New Times that he was surprised by Joramo’s reaction to the news. In almost all other cases, he says, self-described psychics are defiant, despite the hard proof of scientific evidence, and insist they have supernatural powers. But the observation that his little foil flap was reacting to air currents, not gods, seemed to come as something of a relief for Joramo.
“He said he was glad he could put this chapter of his life behind him,” Underdown says.
Joramo concurs. The San Diego man says he had given up a job as a software engineer and spent four years preparing to win the Randi prize. It’s left him penniless, he says. He now lives in a group home where residents are recovering from drug addiction and mental illness. Joramo says he’s the only unafflicted one in the house, and he hopes that he’ll eventually get back to his former occupation.
Although he’s given up chasing the Randi prize, Joramo says he still believes in his telekinesis box. He designed the device, he says, to communicate with a “secret life form” that he discovered inside a crystal. The foil flap’s movement, Joramo is convinced, is the life form’s way of speaking in a sort of paranormal Morse code. Joramo claims a “task force” is working to decode messages at a rate of about 25 words an hour.
Asked how many people are on the task force, Joramo answers, “One. So far.”
On the telephone, Jim Underdown sounds the way you’d expect him to, with a slightly hoarse voice that brings to mind a professorial, older, and probably chronically unhappy sort of person who’s managed to land a job as a professional spoilsport.
In person, however, Underdown doesn’t fit that description at all. He’s just turned 40, and he’s amiable in a way that strikes you as utterly genuine. With his close-cropped dark hair and solid build, he could be on TV playing roles as a gregarious firefighter or a friendly beat cop with equal aplomb. In fact, Underdown has acted; he’s also taught school, built houses, and even tried his hand as a stand-up comic. “I’ve led a Renaissance life,” he jokes.
After doing some volunteer testing that impressed people at CFI, he was offered the job of running the L.A. center. For a little more than a year Underdown has operated it out of a warehouse that the organization will soon abandon. CFI recently bought a new building on Hollywood Boulevard near Vermont Avenue and will be moving there in the spring. In just a few years CFI has gone from renting a simple office to leasing the current warehouse and now to purchasing a building in Hollywood — Underdown and his staff have overseen remarkable growth for a nonprofit organization that relies on donations and magazine subscriptions for its income.
Underdown likes to believe CFI’s growth reflects a backlash against what he characterizes as a lot of supernatural nonsense kicked up by irrational millennial fears. The rise and fall of the Psychic Friends Network and telepsychic hotlines like it, the massive popularity of The X-Files, increasing public acceptance of astrology, numerology, alternative medicine, and New Age beliefs — Underdown says that plenty of people, particularly in a place like L.A., where many make their living in science-oriented jobs, are fed up with media gullibility and a credulous populace.
In fact, Underdown and his colleagues have no truck with any of mankind’s spiritual agents. Atheists of one stripe or another (the abundant labels they take — secular humanist, agnostic, freethinker, and their variations — are fraught with differences too slight to bother with), the doubters at CFI pursue their role of casting out demons with a, well, religious zeal. (CFI — West’s eastern counterpart is in Amherst, New York. Both centers are funded by two nonprofit organizations: CSICOP, or the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which examines psychic claims and publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and the Council for Secular Humanism, which promotes church-state separation and an ethical system without belief in a higher power. It publishes Free Inquiry.)
When New Times first asked Underdown several months ago about the work he did at CFI, the executive director said he was negotiating a particularly difficult upcoming test of psychic phenomena. Gordie Rosenberg, the owner of Sparky the Wonder Dog, a prolific canine actor who, besides making frequent television and film appearances, could also allegedly read Rosenberg’s mind, was angling for a Tonight Show appearance based on his attempt at Randi’s million-dollar prize. Underdown said Rosenberg wasn’t happy that he’d first have to get past Underdown and CFI’s testers before he could go for the big cheese. And he was even less happy to hear that Underdown was laying down strict rules about how the test would run.
But Underdown said the conditions were a necessity. It wasn’t that he thought Rosenberg and his dog would necessarily try to pull a fast one on CFI. In fact, Underdown says few self-described psychics are outright fakers, cynically taking advantage of a naive public. Instead, many mediums truly believe in their abilities.
They aren’t fakes, Underdown says, they’re simply deluded.
Dowsers are a good example, he says. Also called water witches, dowsers use steel rods, tree branches, or other devices held in delicate balance to locate things — traditionally water, but today any number of things — underground. Such people often don’t think of their craft as supernatural in nature. Some even speak of it in scientific terms.
And no other group has tried more often for Randi’s big prize.
On his Web site, Randi reserves a special section just for dowsers curious about cashing in. No other group, he writes, believes so strongly (and honestly) that its powers are genuine. And despite failing every objective test designed by Randi, the dowsers cling to this belief. “Even after they have clearly and definitely failed, they always continue to believe in their powers,” writes Randi on his Web site. “Each dowser goes away from any trial of their powers dismayed by their failure, puzzled at the reasons for their failure, but always capable of coming up with a reasonable — to them — excuse.
“The bottom line,” Randi adds, “is that they all fail, when properly and fairly tested. There are no exceptions.”
Just ask San Fernando Valley resident Frank Mashenko. Last spring, Mashenko approached Underdown at a conference put on by CFI, a gathering for fellow skeptics on a number of subjects. Mashenko described himself as a skeptic and a CFI fan, but told Underdown he had been taught dowsing by a friend and believed in it. He said he was willing to submit to a test to show that his particular ability — finding electrical wire buried in the ground — truly worked.
CFI supplied New Times with a videotape of the test. Underdown conferred with his colleagues to come up with what they believed was a fair and objective test of Mashenko’s abilities. Mashenko said he could use steel rods held in his hands to locate electrical wire buried several feet in the ground. Underdown asked him if he could pinpoint the location of a section of wire placed underneath one of two Persian rugs, each of which would be lying on a stretch of open ground.
Mashenko said it would be child’s play.
To make the test strictly scientific, Underdown had everyone, including himself and Mashenko, go inside the CFI building, while a CFI member, Brian Hart, went out by himself and put the wire beneath one of the rugs. Then Hart left the scene. When Mashenko came out, neither he nor Underdown nor anyone else present knew where the wire was — and therefore Mashenko would be unable to read any sort of visual cues from the people around him. The two rugs had been subdivided by a grid system laid down with masking tape. Mashenko stood on the rugs, one after the other, and carefully walked over them, waiting for his two steel rods to indicate the wire’s presence by coming together. (Skeptics like Randi say the dowser unconsciously moves the rods or wires on his or her own, in something called the ideomotor effect). Mashenko carefully used the rods to locate precisely where he believed the wire was.
And each time Mashenko was way off. Six times he tried to find the wire, and six times he failed. Five times he wasn’t even standing on the right rug.
Mashenko came up with lots of excuses — there was “interference” here or there, he complained. But Underdown had specifically asked him to “clear” the ground in advance to make sure he wouldn’t be getting confusing signals from something else under the grass.
“It went totally lousy,” Mashenko tells New Times. “I was an inspector on construction for the FAA. And I had a lot of different contractors. Several of those guys just take two copper wires or coat hangers and walk across the ground where they’re going to dig and mark off where they get an indication, and every time they find what they’re looking for. If they find a gas line by mistake, they could be dead.”
Mashenko says his contractor friends taught him how to use the rods to find wires under the ground. But he says he’s no expert, and he thinks the men who taught him would have had better results in Underdown’s test.
“I seem to have been written off as a hoaxer,” he says, sighing.
Sparky the Wonder Dog is late, but the film crew from the Learning Channel that has set up equipment at CFI’s warehouse is glad to hear that Gordie Rosenberg has called and said he and his Border collie will arrive soon.
Underdown and his CFI testers take advantage of the time to finish their preparations, which include covering a glass wall between two rooms with a cloth. They intend to put Sparky in one room and his owner in another. Meanwhile, the TV crew makes adjustments to several cameras that will record simultaneously what’s happening in each chamber.
Rosenberg claims he can telepathically send a number from 1 to 5 to Sparky’s mind, prompting the dog to bark the same number of times. The dog’s accuracy, Rosenberg says, has amazed friends and audiences, and few doubt that the animal and its owner truly do communicate through some sort of extrasensory perception. Even The Tonight Show is interested in Sparky’s powers, Rosenberg claims.
The date for the CFI test has been pushed back and rescheduled several times. Sparky, after all, is a busy dog, making regular appearances in commercials, music videos, and films.
When New Times first contacted Rosenberg, the Santa Monica resident said he was happy to give an interview, but that getting access to Sparky would be another matter. Any meeting would have to be cleared with Sparky’s agent, he said.
On the day of the test, however, Sparky shows up with only Rosenberg.
Rosenberg wears a colorful tie, denim shirt, and jeans and looks relaxed. He shakes hands all around and then turns his attention to his dog, which is clearly excited by all the people and equipment. To distract the hyper dog, Rosenberg takes out a flying disk toy and sends Sparky chasing after it.
The telepathic dog goes nuts.
“He loves it. He loves all this shit,” Rosenberg says.
While Sparky chases the disk into the far reaches of CFI’s offices, Underdown explains the parameters of the test to Rosenberg. The Learning Channel producer, meanwhile, asks Rosenberg to sign a release form.
“Do I get SAG fees?” Rosenberg asks him, apparently not joking.
While final preparations are being made, Rosenberg plays with his mutt and talks about how he discovered their psychic connection. It had been at a movie studio where a music video was being shot. Rosenberg says he and his dog were in separate parts of the studio, but he had shouted at Sparky, “How many?” while thinking of a number. And Sparky had barked the same number of times. Again and again, he says, they repeated the trick. “It gave me goose pimples,” Rosenberg says.
Both of them are psychic, says the 43-year-old, whose main business is renting out jet skis to the public and to video and film companies.
With the CFI testers almost ready, Rosenberg decides it’s time to warm up Sparky’s intuition.
After struggling to get the collie to give up his toy, he gets it to sit on a chair. Rosenberg picks up a handful of placards and then stands a few feet in front of the animal.
Rosenberg picks out one of the cards and holds it in front of him so he can read it. The number 3 — which Sparky can’t see — is represented in three ways: as a numeral, as a hand with three fingers held up, and spelled out as a word.
“Okay, Sparky,” Rosenberg says, trying to get the dog’s attention until the animal locks his eyes on him.
“How many?” Rosenberg shouts.
Sparky begins barking loudly, his stare unwavering. After three yaps, the dog shuts up.
Rosenberg replaces the card with another. This one has a two on it.
Sparky begins yelping again. This time he stops at two.
A dozen more times, Rosenberg cycles through the five different cards, and his dog lets rip healthy barks while his eyes are locked in a laserlike gaze.
After a while, however, it becomes quite plain how Sparky is working his magic.
After positioning a new card and shouting “How many?” Rosenberg holds perfectly still as his dog begins barking. Sparky continues to bark while watching Rosenberg intently. When the dog has reached the correct number, Rosenberg suddenly tilts the card and begins to put it away, his entire body shifting its posture. Seeing this visual cue, Sparky shuts up.
Occasionally, Sparky lets out an additional, and incorrect, yelp after Rosenberg has tilted the card, and he admonishes the dog.
“Come on, Spark. You can get it right. Do it right this time,” he says. Several more times, Sparky lets out a bark either too early or too late. It seems to make Rosenberg tense.
And even before the CFI test begins, Rosenberg starts making excuses. Sparky hasn’t been the same since getting in a fight a few months earlier, he says. But he’s willing to do the test, and now Underdown is ready for him.
Underdown had seen a videotape of Rosenberg and Sparky earlier, and guessed that the dog was relying on some sort of visual signal. To test whether Sparky is actually reading Rosenberg’s mind, he wants to put the two of them in separate rooms with a barrier between them. Sparky will be able to hear but not see Rosenberg.
Rosenberg agrees to the conditions. But making it work is another matter. He puts Sparky on a chair in the first room, where a camera is aimed at him. But as soon as Rosenberg leaves to go to his own room, the dog jumps out of the seat.
The Learning Channel producer groans.
After several more futile attempts, Rosenberg decides he has no other choice but to tie his dog down. He wraps its leash several times around the chair’s arm, and the dog has no place to go. Sparky slumps on the chair, his head drooping.
Rosenberg goes to the adjacent room. The man and his dog are each now on camera.
Rosenberg picks up a placard. It bears the number 3.
“OK, Sparky. How many?” Rosenberg shouts — this time bellowing the question so Sparky can hear through the glass wall.
The dog, looking a little confused, begins barking.
With no visual cue to stop him, Sparky barks six times.
“Sparky! Quit it!” Rosenberg yells, and the dog finally stops. Rosenberg looks stressed. Sparky, meanwhile, looks bewildered. “Do it right. Come on!” Rosenberg yells.
He reaches for another card while Sparky lets out a random bark or two. Rosenberg yells at him to hang on. He waits until the dog quiets down, then holds the card up so the camera can see it. It’s the number 2.
“Sparky! How many?”
“Quit it! Shut up!”
Sparky’s yaps are starting to lose their strength. Rosenberg grabs another card. This time it’s the number 5.
After six barks, Sparky shows no signs of stopping.
“Sparky! You gotta quit!” Rosenberg yells.
Rosenberg asks to take a break. His dog looks demoralized. After a brief pause, Rosenberg tries to psych Sparky up.
But without the visual cue, Sparky just doesn’t know when to quit.
With the 5 card showing, Sparky barks eight times.
With the 1 card, Sparky yelps four times.
Looking exhausted, Sparky now goes into a never-ending series of barks, each more of a full-body convulsion than the last.
The test is clearly a disaster.
“Sparky! Sparky! You’re not doing it right!”
Rosenberg decides the people watching the test are causing Sparky’s distress. Saying that the witnesses are confusing the dog with their thoughts, he banishes everyone but Underdown to a distant part of the building.
The cameras, however, continue to roll, and Sparky does no better.
When the witnesses return, Sparky has been untied and let out of his room. And Rosenberg seems upset.
“It’s so embarrassing,” he says, shaking his head. “One up for the skeptics.”
Underdown appears sympathetic, and tells Rosenberg it’s obvious Sparky has been reacting to what he sees, not to what he perceives telepathically. Underdown explains that when Sparky hits the right number, Rosenberg moves the card and nods his head. Unable to see those cues, Sparky had yelped six, eight, even nine times, only stopping when Rosenberg yelled — even though none of the cards had a number greater than five. But Rosenberg appears unhappy with that explanation.
“We’re going to work on it,” he responds. “I appreciate everybody’s time. Hope you got some good footage,” he says to the television crew.
Outside the CFI facility, Rosenberg says he doesn’t buy Underdown’s assessment. “Without a doubt there’s a psychic thing,” he says. Sparky was barking too much and barking randomly, Rosenberg says, because of seizures he has had since a fight with another dog. Rosenberg had earlier told Underdown that sunspot activity had aggravated the seizures. Asked by New Times if that was true, Rosenberg would say only that sunspots did have something to do with Sparky’s poor showing.
The dog, meanwhile, just looks glad to be out of the warehouse. Trotting to Rosenberg’s car, Sparky appears none the worse for wear.
Since the dog’s unconvincing performance, Underdown says Rosenberg has asked for another test, but Underdown let him know CFI wasn’t interested.
Underdown says he and his fellow testers spent several days before the test trying to think of all the different ways Rosenberg might be signaling his dog, as well as different ways to detect it — even, Underdown says, if the trigger had been by smell.
But in the end, he says, it hadn’t been very hard to debunk Sparky the Wonder Dog.
Rosenberg counters that he feels cheated by CFI. He hadn’t wanted so many people at the test, and he says the CFI testers had no intention of being convinced that he and his dog communicated telepathically. “The Randi prize is a scam,” he says. “Nobody will ever get paid.”
Underdown isn’t ruffled by Rosenberg’s complaints. The test they devised was the most objective and honest they could design. It wasn’t CFI’s fault that Rosenberg and his dog failed so miserably.
Indeed, recent encounters with dogs, dowsers, and a very strange fellow and his telekinesis box, Underdown says, have only whetted the appetites of CFI’s testers. In a few weeks, he says, they’ll be moving to the big time.
When CFI relocates to Hollywood, he says, they’ll find themselves in the capital of fuzzy thinking. He can hardly wait.
“Scientology, here we come,” Underdown says, and lets out a big laugh.