by Skylaire Alfvegren
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 objective thought.
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 him.
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 not exist.
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.