- Dogmatists of any stripe are fundamentally wounded, whether
they're Islamic terrorists, Christian abortion-clinic bombers or magicians
with an ax to grind.
- Picture this: A little boy with an imagination and a
sense of wonder begins futzing with a deck of cards, sleight of hand ...
as that boy delves deeper into magic, it's revealed to be nothing more
than a world of smoke and mirrors, of "cons" and "marks."
Stage magicians, like lawyers and secret agents, make a living from deception,
so perhaps they assume everyone else does, as well. From that perspective,
the connection between stage magic and skepticism makes sense.
- What's more important, what science knows or what it
doesn't (yet)? What's more beneficial to scientific inquiry, an open mind
or a sense of self-importance? These are questions that beg to be asked
of the skeptical movement, which convenes in Las Vegas this weekend for
The Amazing Meeting, a benefit for the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(The conference takes place at the Stardust and features Murray Gell-Mann,
Nadine Strossen, the Mythbusters, Penn & Teller, Mac King, Jamy Ian
Swiss, Phil Plait, Julia Sweeney, and Michael Shermer.) After all, while
it's true that opportunists profit from the murky worlds of the paranormal
and the unknown, and that some people will believe anything, it's also
true that scientists have falsified data to get grants or overlooked inconvenient
phenomenon to maintain the status quo in their field.
- Well, as iconoclastic writer Charles Fort once noted,
"Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and
changes its name."
- But let's not generalize. Let's examine the contributions
made by Randi, the skeptical movement's leading figure, to science and
- Randi can be eloquent and is quite the showman; he is
also wildly intelligent-he got a MacArthur genius grant in 1986. But according
to his detractors, Randi's main qualities are his malice and hypocrisy.
He's hell-bent on tearing apart anyone he deems a kook, including distinguished
scientists and Nobel Prize-winners. This is amusing, as Randi has no scientific
credentials whatsoever (although he did once write an astrology column
for a Canadian tabloid and host a paranormal-themed radio show).
- In 1997, Randi threatened to fly to Sri Lanka to persuade
Arthur C. Clarke to stop advocating cold fusion. (Clarke, a genuine scientific
visionary, inventor of the communication satellite and award-winning author,
received degrees, with honors, in physics and mathematics.) In 2001, on
a BBC Radio program, Randi attacked Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize-winner
and professor of physics at Cambridge University.
- Why? Josephson was interested in the possible connections
between quantum physics and consciousness. Randi also has a penchant for
lawsuits-he once tried to sue a writer known for covering the UFO beat,
simply because he printed some unflattering but verifiable information
about the magician. Randi left the Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) because of all the litigation against
- Charismatic psychic Uri Geller, whose abilities have
been tested by a number of prestigious laboratories, has probably been
Randi's biggest target. In the process of attempting to discredit the psychic,
Randi has also attacked institutions, like Stanford, intrigued by Geller's
alleged abilities. He defamed two eminent scientists, Harold Puthoff and
Russell Targ, calling them "incompetent." At the time, author
Robert Anton Wilson wryly observed, "Randi was not there, yet he claims
to know what was going on [during the experiment] better than the two scientists
who were supervising it. The only way he could know better ... is if he
had 100 percent accurate telepathy."
- Randi is probably best known for his infamous million-dollar
challenge to "any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic,
supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind" under what Randi refers
to as "satisfactory observing conditions."
- Ray Hyman, a leading Fellow of CSICOP, has pointed out
that Randi's challenge is illegitimate from a scientific standpoint. "Scientists
don't settle issues with a single test ... Proof in science happens through
replication." If Randi's challenge was legitimate, he would set up
a double-blind experiment which he himself wouldn't judge. But considering
his hostility toward scientists receptive to paranormal phenomena, this
doesn't seem likely. His "challenge" is rigged, yet he can crow
that his prize goes unclaimed because paranormal phenomena simply does
- Compare this outlook to the philosophy adopted by followers
of Charles Fort. Forteans (a term coined by screenwriter Ben Hecht, who,
along with Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken and Oliver Wendell Holmes, was
a member of the original Fortean Society, formed upon Fort's death in 1932)
entertain the notion that anything is possible until proven otherwise.
- Some are scientists, some are street musicians. They
are neither gullible nor pompous, neither "true believers" in-nor
coldly dismissive of-anything. And they have a sense of humor largely missing
from Randi's crowd.
- "In and of itself," says a man once denigrated
by the skeptical movement, "skepticism has made no actual contribution
to science, just as music reviews in the newspaper make no contribution
to the art of composition."
- The universe is full of mystery, as well as charlatans.
It is up to the individual to weigh evidence objectively. Just don't use
your intuition to do so, or you could be the skeptics' next target.