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MICHAEL SHERMER ON

James Randi & the Skeptical Movement

In 1992 we founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine and publicly launched them on March 22 at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a lecture by James “The Amazing” Randi on “A Report from the Paranormal Trenches.” Randi’s talk started a tradition of monthly lectures at Caltech that continued through 2015 and now evolved into the Science Salon podcast, enabling us to reach orders of magnitude more people with our message on the value of science, reason, and skepticism.

That too was Randi’s life mission, so when he founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) we gladly gave him our mailing list so he could generate interest and support for his special brand of skepticism, and when JREF launched The Amazing Meeting (TAM) we once again supported it through our mailing list, advertising in Skeptic, and participation in nearly every single TAM over the years. In turn, for many years Randi penned a regular column in Skeptic (‘Twas Brillig) in which we gave him nearly free reign to talk about anything on his mind, which was almost always entertaining and educational. At age 92 Randi led a long life, and below Skeptic contributors and Junior Skeptic Editor-in-Chief Daniel Loxton, an expert on the history of skepticism, puts Randi’s work into context. To that I would add a little more context, loosely based on passages from my book Why People Believe Weird Things, and a tribute I wrote to Paul Kurtz upon his passing in 2012.

Skepticism dates back to the ancient Greeks, well captured in Socrates’ famous quip that all he knows is that he knows nothing. Skepticism as nihilism, however, gets us nowhere and, thankfully, almost no one embraces it. The word “skeptic,” in fact, comes from the Greek skeptikos, for “thoughtful” — far from modern misconceptions of the word as meaning “cynical” or “nihilistic.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “skeptical” has also been used to mean “inquiring,” “reflective,” and, with variations in the ancient Greek, “watchman” or “mark to aim at.” What a glorious meaning for what we do! We are thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective, and in a way we are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas, consumer advocates of good thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim.

The Enlightenment, on one level, was a century-long skeptical movement, for there were no beliefs or institutions that did not come under the critical scrutiny of such thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and others. Immanuel Kant in Germany and David Hume in Scotland were skeptics’ skeptics at the birth of skepticism that was the foundation of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and their influence continues unabated to this day. Closer to our time, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley were skeptics par excellence, not only for the revolution they launched and carried on (respectively) against the dogma of creationism, but also for their stand against the burgeoning spiritualism movement that was sweeping across America, England, and the continent. Although Darwin was quiet about his skepticism of the new form of spiritualism spreading across the cultural landscape and worked behind the scenes, Huxley railed publicly against the movement, bemoaning in one of the great one-liners in the history of skepticism: “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.”

In the late nineteenth century the “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll carried the torch of reason to century’s end, which was picked up in the first half of the twentieth century by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Harry Houdini, who stand out as representatives of skeptical thinkers and doers (respectively), railing against the irrationality and hucksterism of their age. Skepticism in the second half of the century began with Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, launching what we think of today as “the skeptical movement,” which James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, Carl Sagan and others so courageously organized and led to the end of the century, launching us into a new millennium of reason and science.

To that end, Randi’s talk that launched the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine at Caltech is a timeless talk that we are pleased to present in this issue of eSkeptic in video and audio formats, along with a transcript. And we intend this to start a new tradition of regular releases from our archives of the lectures that took place at Caltech, delivered by a pantheon of scientific luminaries and enlighteners, including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, Christof Koch, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, John McWhorter, Lisa Randal, Philip Zimbardo, Michio Kaku, Alison Gopnik, Leonard Mlodiow, Kevin Kelly, Sean Carroll, Kip Thorne, Nancy Segal, Patricia Churchland, Paul Churchland, Victor Stenger, Napoleon Chagnon, Donald Johanson, Susan Blackmore, Eugenie Scott, Jack Horner, Michael Ruse, Margaret Wertheim, Robert Zubrin, Seth Shostack, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Bill Nye, Paul MacCready, Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton, Janna Levin, and many more.

Please enjoy Randi’s extraordinary talk and look forward to many more to come as we keep alive the skeptical tradition.

DANIEL LOXTON ON

James Randi, Skeptic Extraordinaire

The skeptical world has lost a towering figure in James Randi, stage magician, lightning rod, and co-founder of the modern skeptical movement. In 1976, Randi joined philosopher Paul Kurtz, astronomer Carl Sagan, psychologist Ray Hyman, science writer Martin Gardner, and other motivated science advocates and critics of fringe claims to establish North America’s first formal skeptical organization, then known as CSICOP—the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now called CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).

Randi may be the single most influential person in the history of skepticism from the 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century. His classic book Flim-Flam! is a defining text for scientific skepticism. He pioneered many of skepticism’s investigative techniques, and many of the arguments and attitudes of skeptical activists. While much of the skeptical literature consists of historical sleuthing and critical analysis, Randi was known for his distinct activist approach to confronting paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. His dramatic public exposé of televangelist Peter Popoff remains one of the clearest modern examples of a fringe proponent unmasked by evidence gathered in the field. Most skeptics would describe Randi as a powerful inspiration for their own work, myself included.

As an activist and showman, Randi certainly stood out. He adopted an outspoken, confrontational public persona beloved by his fans and detested by critics. Sagan said Randi was “accurately self-described as an angry man.” Science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote that “Randi strikes back and when the pseudoscientists howl, he knows he has hit the mark.” Beginning in 1964, Randi trumpeted a direct challenge to paranormal claimants: “perform any paranormal feat of any kind under the proper observing conditions” mutually agreed in advance, and win $10,000. That prize eventually grew to $1 million, yet it went unclaimed. Though many were tested, no one ever succeeded in demonstrating any paranormal power whatsoever.

Randi leaves behind a husband and many devoted friends. I did not know Randi well, so I will leave it to his loved ones to eulogize him as a person. I’ve been asked instead to briefly consider his legacy as a “founding father” within the history of skepticism.

That question is complex because people are complex. Like Houdini and Barnum before him, Randi was a showman first. His public persona was larger than life, while his private life was largely unknown for most of his career. He crafted and curated his public persona, from his chosen legal name to his choice to come out as a gay man at age 81.

His activist work on the public stage is his most visible legacy. It would frankly be difficult to overstate the impact of his work upon organized skepticism. Randi’s contributions to skepticism were foundational and monumental. It’s likely that the worldwide network of skeptical organizations would never have happened without Randi’s energy and example.

At the same time, Randi’s greatest contributions were sometimes controversial. His Project Alpha, for example, sent magicians undercover into a parapsychology lab where they posed as psychics. The lab was fooled completely, and embarrassed when Randi revealed the truth. Similarly, Randi hoaxed Australian media into giving press coverage to a fake guru Randi had invented from whole cloth. These projects were widely celebrated by skeptics. They also forced skeptics to consider questions such as the ethics of using deception in our work (a discussion that skeptics and our critics continue to this day).

Magicians have been leaders and essential partners in the necessarily multidisciplinary study of paranormal claims since the days of Houdini. For decades, Randi was the preeminent skeptical magician. He approached paranormal claims with a vast store of specialized expert knowledge that scientists and journalists lack. No one was better qualified to expose, for example, the stage magic trickery of so-called “psychic surgeons” who preyed upon cancer patients for money. By the same token, Randi was not a scientist. He sometimes misspoke on scientific questions in which he was not an expert. (His doubts regarding climate science led me to argue in 2009 that there are “limits on the kinds of scientific arguments into which skeptics may responsibly wade.”)

How do we even begin to weigh such a long and extraordinary career? Randi helped to create the movement I love. All skeptics are indebted to his work. So too are the people rescued from swindlers by Randi’s debunking. Especially notable were his campaigns against the heartless frauds of psychic surgery and fake bomb detecting devices.

His work will be discussed for decades as we continue what Randi began. He was one of skepticism’s fiercest, most visible, and most influential advocates. The skeptical project will not be the same without him. His exit from this stage leaves us now to decide how the show must go on.

Reflecting on Randi’s successful debunking, Sagan said, “it would be as dangerous to rely on him to expose all the quacks, humbugs, and bunkum in the world as it would be to believe those same charlatans.” Randi was one man. He couldn’t do everything, and he couldn’t do it forever. And yet, the work of James Randi and his pioneering colleagues actually did change the world, at least a little bit. They directed our notice to urgent problems ignored by mainstream society. Their attempts to grapple with those problems provide examples for us to learn from, adapt, and expand. It falls on us to accept that challenge. “If we don’t want to get taken,” Sagan said, “we need to do this job for ourselves.”

A classic lecture on skepticism was given by James Randi on March 22, 1992 at the inaugural session of the Distinguished Science Lecture Series hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society in California (1992–2015). James Randi presents an amazing first-hand analysis of astonishing claims encountered in his European visit. New-found freedoms stimulate rampant pseudoscientific practices in eastern bloc nations. With wit and wonderfully illustrative examples, Randi teaches us several lessons on the scientific investigation of unusual claims. This lecture transcript appeared in Skeptic magazine 1.1 (1992).

Read the complete transcript of the lecture, listen to audio recording, or watch the video below:

A Report from the Paranormal Trenches

I am in a very peculiar business. I appear on stages around the world as a conjurer. Now the American term for it is magician. It’s not a good expression because if you look in the dictionary the strict definition of a magician is one who uses magic. And magic, at least by the definition I prefer from a leading dictionary, is the attempt to control nature by means of spells and incantations. Now, ladies and gentlemen, in my time, as you might have guessed, I have tried spells and incantations. No good. You can spell and incant all you want; the lady will still be on the couch, waiting patiently to float into the air or will be imprisoned in the box with the saw blade descending upon her unprotected midriff, and in some danger of being severely scratched, if not worse! Spells and incantations don’t work. You have to use skulduggery. And let me make it very clear what the magical trade—the conjuring trade—is with a precise definition: it is the approximation of the effect of a true magician using means of subterfuge and trickery.

The magician, in the American usage, is an actor playing the part of a wizard. We are entertainers. I don’t think that there are many folks — but there are some out there by David Copperfield’s own admission to me — who still believe that they really can do the things they purport to do. After a magical performance we’ve all undergone the same experience, all of us in the trade; you get people coming to you afterwards and saying: “I really enjoyed what you did; thank you so much for coming.” And you say, “Well, it’s great to be here. I’m happy that you were pleased with it.” Then they say, “You know, the business with the bottles that multiplied. Obviously, that’s a trick. And the one where you did the thing with the rings and the ropes. That’s a trick too. But the one where you told the lady what word she’d chosen out of the newspaper — that, of course, can’t be a trick.” I’d say, “Yes, that’s a trick, too, but it’s disguised as a miracle of a semi-religious nature.” And they wink at you and they say, “Sure.” Then they walk away and tell their friends afterwards, “Well, he won’t admit it, but we all know.”

Watch James Randi in the inaugural lecture of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series

There is a hunger, a very strong hunger, within us all to believe there is something more than what the laws of nature permit. I’m not just saying audiences that watch the magician. I mean within us all. We’d like to have a certain amount of fantasy in our lives, but it’s a very dangerous sort of temptation to immediately assume that it must be supernatural or occult or paranormal if we don’t have an explanation for it. I can tell you that in my life I’ve spent a great deal of time investigating and observing and carefully noting and making use of psychology. I am not a psychologist; I have no academic credentials whatsoever, so I come to you today absolutely unencumbered by any responsibilities of that nature. There is no dean who will call me on the carpet tomorrow morning and say, “You shouldn’t have said that.” You see, I’m in the business of giving opinions from an uninformed point of view, except from the point of view of a skeptical person who knows how people’s minds work and often don’t work.

It was mentioned in the introduction to this talk that at the current rate of scientific growth, in a certain number of years scientists will consist of every human being on earth, as well as all the animals — the donkeys, the burros, the whole thing. Well, my friend David Alexander remarked to me, in a cruel aside, that even today certain parts of certain horses have become scientists. And that is quite true; I have met many of them and though they have Ph.D.s, you’d hardly know it. I’ve just come back from a project that’s ongoing at the moment and I’ve seen that principle at work. I must share with you another thing in passing. I have a theory; this is only a theory, and it is at present unproven. But observations so far tend to support its possible validity, with my advance apologies to Ph.D.s in the room. I have a theory about Ph.D.s and the granting of the degree itself. I am outside the field, not an academic, so as a curious observer I have many times seen films of, and in a couple of cases actually attended ceremonies where Ph.D.s are created. They are created, you know. The Ph.D. itself is earned, of course, but then the person who has passed all the tests and done all the right things in the right way and has been approved doesn’t become a Ph.D. until one significant moment where a roll of paper, usually with a red or a blue ribbon around it, is pressed into his or her hand. At that moment that person becomes a very special class of being known as Ph.D.

There is a hunger, a very strong hunger, within us all to believe there is something more than what the laws of nature permit. I’m not just saying audiences that watch the magician. I mean within us all.

Now, I have noted at those ceremonies, and perhaps you have observed it as well that the man who gives out those rolls of paper wears gloves. Why? Why would he want to wear gloves? Is the paper dirty? I don’t think so. Is there something about that roll of paper, or perhaps the ribbon, that he doesn’t want to contaminate him, and he doesn’t want to touch his skin? I’m going to postulate — just an idea — that perhaps there is a secret chemical that has been genetically engineered which is on the surface of that paper so that when the Ph.D. candidate receives that roll of paper this chemical is absorbed by the skin, goes into the bloodstream and is conducted directly to the brain. This is a very carefully engineered chemical which goes directly — please don’t laugh; this is science — goes directly to the speech center of the brain and paralyzes the brain in such a way that two sentences from then on, in any given language, are no longer possible to be pronounced by that person. Those two sentences are, “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. […]

Read the complete transcript

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