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November 9, 2014 9:06 AM   Subscribe

The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi Profile of a national treasure. What else is there to say?
posted by Pararrayos (55 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I want to watch a conversation between James Randi and Alan Moore. Just sitting and talking, for hours. The mad, bearded American skeptic and the mad, bearded English sorcerer.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2014 [15 favorites]


We are blessed to have James Randi, he is truly a miracle.
posted by Catblack at 9:19 AM on November 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


Randi is actually Bigfoot.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:53 AM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


A little disappointed that the NYT didn't find room in its profile to mention that Randi used to tour with Alice Cooper in the seventies, both as a performer and as the designer of his guillotine and other props.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:58 AM on November 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


If you're in the UK and can get iPlayer, please do watch this documentary on Randi, it's fantastic:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ndsb3

(It also covers off the Alice Cooper stuff)
posted by chrimble at 10:01 AM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have opinions I don't know how to articulate in a coherent way after reading through that glowing profile.
posted by bq at 10:04 AM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


You gotta love Randi, that "slight, gnomish figure with a frothy white beard," but I don't know exactly what to think of the "slightly nonplussed" woman with the blue streak in her hair. I'm having trouble imagining her being "slightly confused so much that (she is) unsure how to react," or "slightly unperturbed." How perturbed was she?
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:17 AM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Previously on Metafilter: Amazing Randi comes out as gay. I was so happy for him then, but also so sad that it seemed like such a complicated thing for him and he felt he had to wait until age 81. A painful irony for a man whose career has been about knowing the truth and speaking it without fear. No criticism intended! I'm glad for him now. Just a particular gay story I won't ever forget.
posted by Nelson at 10:20 AM on November 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.

“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”


I think Randi should subject these assertions to some unbelievable skepticism. Or even some garden-variety skepticism. I'd be interested to see what empirical evidence exists for these rather sweeping claims.
posted by layceepee at 10:27 AM on November 9, 2014 [21 favorites]


And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.

Yeah, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, those lazy, weak, unthinking men falling in line with the herd.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:32 AM on November 9, 2014 [15 favorites]


The mad, bearded American skeptic

Quibble: born Canadian, though I think he's since gotten American citizenship

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:41 AM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


They choose to believe it because it’s easy.

The really cool theologians choose to believe it because it's hard.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:52 AM on November 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


The mad, bearded American skeptic

Quibble: born Canadian, though I think he's since gotten American citizenship

Well, he's actually a dual citizen who was born, raised and started his career in Canada. So for those of us north of the 49th that qualifies as Canadian.

Now if we were talking about Celine Dion or James Cameron I'd ague in the other direction.
posted by acroyear at 10:57 AM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


When James Randi married Deyvi Peña, Metafilter's own eviltiff performed the ceremony.
posted by peeedro at 10:57 AM on November 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


He's responsible for one of my favorite TED talks, where he starts out revealing the microphone is actually a beard trimmer, his glasses (which he needs) actually have no lenses, then consumes an entire bottle of "homeopathic sleep aid" to illustrate all the ways you can be fooled. Very charmingly done.
posted by nevercalm at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


I doubt we'll see better.
posted by fairmettle at 11:30 AM on November 9, 2014


I can understand and sympathise with Randi's ultra-ascerbic take on religion, even though I think it's both wrong and ultimately harmful. A closeted gay who's lived a public life in the US throughout the last half of the latter century, he's spent a very great deal of time and energy in direct contact with the very worst of the religious con artists, revealing their shysterism time and again, only to see them brush everything off and return to huge flocks of adoring marks.

You and I may see religion as a far more nuanced, deep and complicated aspect of humanity and society, but if I'd lived his life, I doubt I'd be ready to settle down to a deep discussion of the numinous as it illuminates the contradictions of the internal life in a world of cosmic beauty and existential terror.

And do see the BBC documentary, if you can. It's very moving and unsettling in unexpected ways.
posted by Devonian at 11:36 AM on November 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


You don't need to be ready to settle down to a deep discussion of the numinous as it illuminates the contradictions of the internal life in a world of cosmic beauty and existential terror to eschew making claims about the private and sociological phenomenon of religious belief that you can't support with scientific data.

And if you excuse his leap of faith in this area because Randi was a closeted gay who's lived a public life in the US throughout the last half of the latter century, whos spent a very great deal of time and energy in direct contact with the very worst of the religious con artists and apply his own analysis, you might conclude that his belief about religious conviction reveals that he is weak and he chooses to believe it because it's easy.

I wouldn't apply that judgement to either Randi or to religious believers without more proof to support it than I've seen in either case.
posted by layceepee at 12:02 PM on November 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


That picture looks like the Amazing Randi is the newest (and best!) addition to the faculty of the Discworld's Unseen University.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:58 PM on November 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


There's much to admire about James Randi, but I think I'd start with the eyebrows.
posted by fredludd at 1:23 PM on November 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.
“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”


I used to think like that, too. Now, there is evidence that we humans are hardwired for magical thinking, so I've softened my stance. We are all susceptible to it, and I often find myself having to consciously counter this type of thinking in my own head. Isn't that is why Randi has to work so hard at trying to remain rational - because it's unnatural? But, perhaps because he does work at it, he's right to think he's stronger than many.
posted by sudon't at 1:40 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, those lazy, weak, unthinking men

Randi is a treasure, especially for putting his own illusionist skills at the service of discrediting actual con artists.

But I think he typifies a comment Richard Brown of spacetimemind made about modern in-your-face skeptics, that they are just plain ignorant of philosophy.

Which is highly ironic, because it is philosophers who first alerted us to the concept that perception and language are flawed tools and simply trusting them blindly is not always a good idea.
posted by localroger at 2:18 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


>"They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy."

I think Randi should subject these assertions to some unbelievable skepticism. Or even some garden-variety skepticism. I'd be interested to see what empirical evidence exists for these rather sweeping claims.


Oh yes ha ha, it's totally the same thing: him putting a critical eye to people who swindle and cheat, and him offhandedly offering why he thinks people are taken in by swindlers and cheaters.

Randi may have no direct scientific evidence on why they're taken in. But he's allowed to have suspicions, and he's allowed to say them out loud, and he does, and they're the same as mine. And I'm sure Randi would welcome efforts towards getting to the bottom of it, so long as people got to the bottom of it, and worked towards rectifying it. As would I.
posted by JHarris at 5:40 PM on November 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Somehow Randi totally gets a pass from me to insult my religion as much as he wants. It's sort of how Chuck D gets a pass to hate rock music I guess. He's just too awesome in so many other ways to care about him being polite. Unlike other skeptics, where their anti-religious raving is just the tip of the douchebaggy iceberg, Randi seems like he's just a lovable old gadfly whose blindspots dont detract from his overall brilliance.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:14 PM on November 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


The more I read the article, the more I admire and respect Randi. The story of his battles against Uri Geller is great, and saddening for what it cost Randi, and removes any empathy I might ever have had for Geller.

While we all have blind spots, I think few people have gone through as much as Randi has to minimize his. Meaning, unless you're prepared to do the work he has to attempt to see the world rationally (I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you that he has no direct line to the truth), then it doesn't really make sense to talk about his blind spots, because your own are probably bigger.
posted by JHarris at 6:30 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh yes ha ha, it's totally the same thing

Unlike many of his followers I think Randi's heart is in the right place; he is careful to be fair and not consider any random test a "debunking," and he seems genuinely saddened by the plight of those people who are genuinely convinced they have powers but cannot pass the test.

I admire Randi. He has faced actual deliberate cunning frauds and dragged their chicanery into the light, sometimes at significant personal risk.

But there is a definite blind spot in Randi's worldview, or at least in the way most of his followers have taken up his cause; true skepticism is skeptical of everything. When you are resorting to things like The SubconsciousTM or "latent psychokinesis" to explain something within the framework of your perfect faith in simple mechanical materialism, you're not being skeptical.
posted by localroger at 7:11 PM on November 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


please, please, please always include the SLNYT tag. i don't subscribe and i try to choose my ten per month articles wisely. that said, he's the best.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 7:28 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


When you are resorting to things like The SubconsciousTM or "latent psychokinesis" to explain something within the framework of your perfect faith in simple mechanical materialism, you're not being skeptical.

"The subconscious" is a thing that exists, although the idea does tend to attract a lot of woo. The idea of a "collective subconscious" is something that I don't think has stood up to experimental rigor, but I'm not aware of Randi explaining anything using it? "Latent psychokinesis" is something I don't think Randi, or those other skeptics you refer to, has ever resorted to to explain anything. In fact, it sounds seriously like the kinds of things he'd debunk. What are you talking about? Can you provide an example?
posted by JHarris at 9:56 PM on November 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not too surprised to once again see the usual low-grade of commentary about atheism, but I am pretty thrilled to read it getting a fair shake in a mass media publication like the NYT. It's a sign of important cultural progress that his rational approach to living is now reported as much of a non-controversy as his sexuality.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:52 PM on November 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


"They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy."

The moment I read this sentence, I flipped tabs over to this thread, saying to myself, "I'll bet at least three people have ignored the substance of this article to focus on this quote, and are going to try to start this same tired fight again."

If you'd like to know how I learned to channel my amazing psychic powers of deduction, please send $49.95, care of the JREF.
posted by Mayor West at 5:51 AM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]




The documentary linked above is also making the rounds of the film festival circuit under the title An Honest Liar. (At least I think it's the same, it's the same people involved.) Agreed that it's very good and worth watching.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:20 AM on November 10, 2014


Previous metafilter post about sexual harassment at the James Randi educational foundation.
posted by medusa at 12:17 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sigh. Feet of clay.
posted by bq at 2:55 PM on November 10, 2014


"The subconscious" is a thing that exists, although the idea does tend to attract a lot of woo.

Indeed. It is often used as a universal toss-bin for anything that seems too well witnessed to just dismiss but too weird to be compatible with scientism.

As for latent psychokinesis, that's just what one of our mefi brethren suggested when I mentioned that I not only couldn't shuffle cards (despite heroic efforts on my part to prevent a slug from collecting in the deck) but I must somehow be unable to flip coins, because the I Ching produced weirdness just as compelling as that of the Tarot. I personally believe that a materialistic universe (still the most likely kind) is just as incompatible with things like ESP and psychokinesis as it is with ghosts. However, it is very stupid to dismiss out of hand the accounts of thousands and thousands of people, many with nothing to gain and experiences that are extremely hard to explain conventionally.

The tendency among self-proclaimed skeptics is to dismiss those accounts with buzzwords. Randi is actually more principled than most of his peers in this way.
posted by localroger at 3:04 PM on November 10, 2014


Wait, so you're arguing in favor of psychokinesis??

"Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that. I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference...If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk."

That doesn't sound like Randi was fully aware of the extent of Shermer's actions. Reading the segment of the article the quote comes from makes that more evident. It sounds more like cultural innocence than endorsement, which I think is believable considering he's gay and doesn't drink.
posted by JHarris at 3:35 PM on November 10, 2014


That doesn't sound like Randi was fully aware of the extent of Shermer's actions. Reading the segment of the article the quote comes from makes that more evident. It sounds more like cultural innocence than endorsement, which I think is believable considering he's gay and doesn't drink.

Cultural innocence? As a defense of a man who made a career of debunking cultural bugaboos?

And while he might not have known the extent of Shermer's actions, he didn't exactly seem too interested in finding out what that extent was, either.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:58 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, it's a sound bite. Who knows if he was interested or not, or if that information was offered? I'm just giving him the benefit of the doubt. I could be wrong.
posted by JHarris at 4:02 PM on November 10, 2014


Wait, so you're arguing in favor of psychokinesis??

No.
posted by localroger at 4:07 PM on November 10, 2014


Well, it's a sound bite. Who knows if he was interested or not, or if that information was offered? I'm just giving him the benefit of the doubt. I could be wrong.

The point is that he should have been interested, that he should have been looking for information. Not just writing it off as "boys will be boys".

And at this point, I don't see any reason that the freethought community should be given the benefit of the doubt, considering how these issues have been treated. After all, they are skeptics - let's hold them to their own standards of thought.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


JHarris, suppose Randi wasn't fully aware of the extent of Schermer's actions. Suppose that all he knew, as he says himself, is that there were multiple credible complaints that Schermer had misbehaved with women. What else do you think Randi would need to know before it was incumbent on him to take some action to help make TAM a safe space?
posted by layceepee at 4:32 PM on November 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


In fairness to Randi, his life experience probably prepared him as poorly to deal with the issues women face in public venue as it prepared him well to sniff out frauds using illusionist tactics. His entire method is to conditionally accept things at their face value, while skeptically evaluating their merit. It's a hard thing for anyone to accept that an old friend and colleague is a far more terrible person than one has previously realized and Randi was probably in the midst of that realization that he made the quoted comment.
posted by localroger at 4:45 PM on November 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


JHarris, suppose Randi wasn't fully aware of the extent of Schermer's actions. Suppose that all he knew, as he says himself, is that there were multiple credible complaints that Schermer had misbehaved with women. What else do you think Randi would need to know before it was incumbent on him to take some action to help make TAM a safe space?

Well, specifically, a strong definition of "misbehaved with women," a term that could, considering his age, encompass adultery or simple sex. He specifically said, if Schermer had engaged in violence, he would have been right out. Does rape count as violence? How do we know what he meant by "misbehaved," or "violence?"

Anyway, my point is only that it is dangerous to throw a person under the bus because of one thing said in one interview. Interview questions can be presented in different contexts when conducted than then printed, and so can answers. The meanings of words can be tricky things, and that's not even accounting for the possibility of misstatement, both on the part of the interviewee and the interviewer. Not to mention, Randi is a very old man now, at 86. You might think he's as sharp as ever, but maybe he isn't.

Overall however, I'd say Oppenheimer's article (the one the quote was linked from) is very good, and it's given me some food for thought, certainly concerning Shermer. The incident isn't even mentioned on his Wikipedia page. I am wondering now what Randi thinks about Dawkins' misogyny?

As for localroger's statement regarding telekinesis, I'm confused. What is your point? Randi doesn't believe in it, but you said he explained things by taking recourse to it? When did he do this? If he doesn't, why did you bring it up?
posted by JHarris at 6:46 PM on November 10, 2014


but you said he explained things by taking recourse to it?

No I didn't.
posted by localroger at 7:10 PM on November 10, 2014


FOR REFERENCE Please try to turn off your GRAR WOO response long enough to actually parse the goddamn sentence this time.
posted by localroger at 7:19 PM on November 10, 2014


OK since I realize you're helplessly enthralled to your fixed worldview and probably incapable of disabling the GRAR response, I will direct you to the words that's just what one of our mefi brethren suggested and state for the record, under oath, that our mefi brethren was not in fact James Randi.
posted by localroger at 7:24 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


JHarris, here's my opinion: if Randi knows that a speaker from a convention hosted by his foundation, which pays Randi $200,000 annually, has been the subject of multiple credible complaints that he has misbehaved with women who were attending the convention--even under the mildest possible definition of he word "misbehaved"--then he has a professional obligation to take action, absent any ethical concerns.

Given that the post identifies Randi as "a national treasure," including the link strikes me less like throwing Randi under the bus than providing useful balance. I wasn't aware of the information in the linked article until it was included here, and I found it shocking and disappointing.
posted by layceepee at 8:07 PM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


Oh please. localroger, it doesn't appear you are arguing in good faith. Your previous comment to the one you quote from says:

But there is a definite blind spot in Randi's worldview, or at least in the way most of his followers have taken up his cause; true skepticism is skeptical of everything. When you are resorting to things like The SubconsciousTM or "latent psychokinesis" to explain something within the framework of your perfect faith in simple mechanical materialism, you're not being skeptical.

THAT is the one I'm referring to. It sounds very much like you are saying that Randi "and his followers" are resorting to "things like The SubconsciousTM or 'latent psychokinesis'" to explain things. If this is not what you're saying, then explain what you are saying, or if you made a mistake, or hell even if I'm misreading you. Or maybe my reading is "helplessly enthralled to my fixed worldview."
posted by JHarris at 12:55 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


layceepee, I've thought more about the article in the past couple of hours, and I think I'm coming around more to your side of things. I will reserve further judgement for later.
posted by JHarris at 1:00 AM on November 11, 2014


JHarris, what I said was inexact, because Randi himself hasn't really addressed the issue of things that still seem too weird to be real. However, a lot of people who follow after him do, and they very frequently appeal to The Subconscious, and one person right here seriously put forward latent psychokinesis and that wasn't the first time I've heard an appeal to a lesser / more believable kind of paranormality when all else fails to explain something away.

In any case I think you are working very hard overtime to misread what I've written about this because while what I said wasn't exact, it's not all that hard to figure out what I meant.
posted by localroger at 6:10 AM on November 11, 2014


You can say I'm working very hard to misread something, but that doesn't mean that I am! Goddammit, I only responded to you in the first place because it looks like you're saying that Randi believes you can move things with your mind, which is stupid and diametrically opposed to everything the man stands for, and that's something that has to be called out.

Now, you can say you made a mistake, that's fine and no skin off your nose, heaven knows I've made more than my share of typos. But saying what you said was "inexact" isn't the same thing, that's imprecision, not contradiction.

Your statement conflates what Randi said with what a MeFite has supposedly said. But CTRL-F psychokinesis shows that it doesn't appear anywhere in this thread except in your and my comments, and neither does anyone else here seem to mention it. The term is novel to your comment. It's not a long thread, so I've also scanned the earlier thread and not seen anything that even resembles it in meaning.

Whether they appeal to "the subconscious" too, well, I don't know, I don't follow Randi as closely as you appear to, but people pick up things they don't realize all the time. That doesn't seem controversial.
posted by JHarris at 11:03 AM on November 11, 2014


I, too, think it sad that Randi wasted money on Geller. It should be enough to show that you can duplicate his act. You've given people the tools with which to make a decision.
I'm always torn about how to treat con artists. I mean, don't people have a responsibility not to be taken in, especially when it's already been shown, over and over, to be fraudulent?
I have no sympathy where the con is driven by the mark's own greed, and only slightly more where it's driven by people's desire to believe in the supernatural. But Geller was hurting no one, merely putting on a show. Who cares if some people are taken in, or want to believe it's real?
posted by sudon't at 12:17 PM on November 11, 2014


It was in a recent but different thread. Where it was also a huge derail.
posted by localroger at 12:43 PM on November 11, 2014


Well, I hadn't seen that thread. Context matters, ya know.
posted by JHarris at 12:49 PM on November 11, 2014


chrimble: "If you're in the UK and can get iPlayer, please do watch this documentary on Randi, it's fantastic:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ndsb3

(It also covers off the Alice Cooper stuff)
"

I just got around to watching this, and have to nth the recommendation. It was masterful. In addition to learning plenty about Randi's life and work, it gave some real food for thought.

It's available on iPlayer for another 2 weeks (if you're going to watch it, watch it all the way through).
posted by Gordafarin at 5:06 AM on November 17, 2014


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