Anyone can bend a spoon.
But Uri Geller, self-styled psychic, says he can do it with the power of his mind.
Nonsense, says James Randi, self-styled debunker of psychics. In an April article in the International Herald Tribune, Randi -- a magician who performs under the name the Amazing Randi -- called Geller's spoon-bending act the kind of parlor trick kids used to learn from the backs of cereal boxes.
All of which has led to a $15 million defamation suit by Geller against Randi, which promises to become one of the odder trials ever to be heard in U.S. District Court here.
The case, scheduled for a preliminary hearing today, raises some perplexing legal issues:
When a person claiming to be psychic sues someone for belittling his powers, does the psychic prove the statements false by demonstrating that his abilities are genuine? Or is the challenger obliged to defend himself by showing how the trick was done?
In other words, who will be required to bend spoons in court?
While lawyers involved in the case debate that issue today, the debunker and his nemesis are lobbing verbal volleys at each other across the Atlantic.
For years Randi, 63, has made a virtual career of duplicating Geller's feats -- from bending spoons to restarting dead watches to reading hidden messages -- but only after alerting audiences that he is "a charlatan" and that it is all done through trickery.
Geller, 44, an Israeli citizen who lives in Berkshire, England, said that Randi has been out to get him for years, and that Randi is "obsessed" by his self-appointed mission of debunking psychic phenomena.
But by filing suit, Geller may have put himself in a risky position. As the plaintiff, he must prove that Randi called him a fraud while knowing that such a description was false and that he recklessly said it anyway. Spoon-bending is not the the precise legal issue, but it may prove to be the field of battle because it has been Geller's trademark act for years.
"I brought it into the world," Geller said. "No one was bending spoons with the power of the mind before me."
But he conceded that bending spoons in court could be tricky.
"I cannot summon these powers all the time," he said. "Onstage, I'm more relaxed. I don't have to prove anything. . . . In court I don't know if I'll be able to perform or not. If I'm in a bad spot, I'm in a bad spot. These are powers beyond my control."
From his house in Florida, Randi said he never meant his cereal box remark to apply to spoon-bending in particular; he says he was referring to everything Geller does. In any event, he said he is not worried.
"Truth is the ultimate defense to libel," he said.
The feud between the men dates back at least a decade and was the subject of a book by Randi, "The Truth About Uri Geller." The suit here is not the first time Geller has gone to court against Randi. An earlier suit filed in New York was dismissed for technical reasons; two others filed in Japan and California are pending.
Dragged into the dispute as an unwilling participant is the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a Buffalo-based group Randi helped to organize years ago. CSICOP has been named a codefendant in the case pending here, and to spare the organization as much legal expense as he can, Randi says he has resigned his membership.
In an open letter to skeptics groups around the nation, Randi said he has spent more than $150,000 defending himself against Geller's lawsuits, and that now he is broke.
"I'm in trouble, folks," he wrote. "I need help."
In response, the Skeptics Legal Fund has been established by Randi's defenders in El Cerrito, Calif. CSICOP's attorney, Washington lawyer James Grossberg, said this week that aside from the personal vendetta being played out, an important principle is at stake.
"This kind of libel suit is being used as a means of silencing debate on significant scientific issues," he said, and it could have "a chilling effect on full and frank discussion of these issues among the public -- including members of the scientific community."
Geller responds that he is not trying to silence anybody; he is just trying to defend his reputation. Through the years, he said, Randi's attacks have eaten away at his bookings, destroying his livelihood.
"I don't have any shows now," he said. "This is a cumulative thing. Over the years, it's certainly damaged me."
As for Randi, he said he's ready to show the world how to bend spoons. The exact technique depends on whether you are left- or right-handed, he said, but the principle is simple: "Do it when nobody's looking."