IN an article entitled “Unravelling The Indian Rope-trick”, in Nature, English researchers Richard Wiseman and Peter Lamont describe their systematic investigation of one of the world’s best known paranormal exhibitions. There are many accounts, some first-hand, yet when investigators have searched for performances of the trick, even offering rewards, no one has come forward with a demonstration.

In the present investigation, 48 eye-witness accounts were collected from the literature on the topic, of which 21 contained enough information for Wiseman and Lamont’s analysis. Their procedure was to compare the time elapsed between seeing the trick and reporting it with the nature of what was described. The “lapse” ranged from two to 50 years, and the accounts were allocated to five categories of apparent “paranormality”. The least impressive tricks, category one, were of the type “boy climbs rope, then climbs down”, and the most impressive, category five, “boy climbs rope, disappears, then reappears in basket which has been in full view of audience”.

Analysis by two statistical methods showed a high correlation between lapse and category. The account with the shortest lapse was accompanied by a photograph, but a spoil-sport skeptic showed this to be of a pole-balancing act, and the “witness”, when challenged, admitted this was so. Wiseman and Lamont conclude that, as time has gone by, a witness’s recollection of a pole-balancing feat becomes embellished with magical additions, so that, in reporting the performance decades later, boys disappear and are later found in the audience. The researchers claim this study to be the first to substantiate statistically the skeptical suggestion that testimony becomes exaggerted with time.

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