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Australasian ScienceJames Randi: An Honest Liar

As a professional magician and debunker of nonsense, James Randi has long been one of the most significant public figures in the world of organised skepticism and rationality.

Randi's conjuring career was based on deception, but he never claimed it was anything other than deception. What would happen, though, was that people would approach him after shows to tell him that they had seen similar tricks done by others who were claiming they had paranormal powers. They were using these tricks and pretending to heal people of illness or as evidence that they had powers that enabled them to predict stockmarket fluctuations, talk to dead relatives of people in the audience, and many other forms of deception where the deceit was not admitted and the powers were claimed to be real.

Quite reasonably, Randi saw this abuse of a form of entertainment as something that should be challenged. As he put it in an interview with Australasian Science: "It's for the purpose of entertainment, but when it goes beyond those bounds or it gets to the point where people's lives are being changed or their judgement or their knowledge of the real world is changed, that's when I step in".

People like to be deceived, which is why they like magic shows. I enjoy magic shows and I have seen things that would be almost impossible to believe if I didn't know that they were well practised, well-rehearsed and very well thought out tricks. I've seen conjurers catch bullets in their teeth and materialise an elephant on stage, and I've seen entertainers do things with musical instruments that are an absolute mystery to me as a mediocre guitar player. But in none of these cases did I think that people were using some kind of paranormal or supernatural ability to do these things. In fact, the magician cannot be very good if you can see how the trick is done.

Randi had enormous success in exposing the tricks of people like faith healer Peter Popoff and one-trick-pony Uri Geller. Of course, exposing these people doesn't always bring popularity, and there was the famous incident with Randi on The Don Lane Show where the host stormed off because Randi not only reproduced Geller's rather easy-to-do spoon bending trick but had bad things to say about spirit medium Doris Stokes. (In her defence, Stokes did a far more competent cold reading act than current psychic readers like John Edward.)

Ironically, one of the criticisms sometimes thrown at Randi by his detractors is that he really does have magic powers but simply lies about that in order to pretend that he is just doing tricks. I don't know if there is an adequate answer to that sort of accusation.

Another criticism based on a form of logic unknown to most people is that nothing Randi says can be believed because he has admitted to being a professional liar: saying the truth about what he does is an admission that he is not telling the truth and therefore he can't be telling the truth about anything else. The meaning of the word "sophistry" might have changed since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, but I'm sure Plato or Socrates could recognise its application here.

Can Organised Skepticism Survive a Civil War?
This question might be a bit of a mystery to people in Australia, where disputes between skeptic and atheist groups and their members are generally trivial, short-lived, and disappear after a couple of beers at Skeptics in the Pub. However, in the US there has been a major disruption in the atheist, skeptic and free thought movements, with some high-profile people declaring that other high-profile people should be driven from the movement; that the sort of things they say and do are outrageous and offensive to every right-thinking person; that misogyny is everywhere and women aren't safe; and that people who identify themselves as atheists or skeptics have an obligation to become involved in wider social issues. To an outsider it's almost like a new script for Monty Python's Life of Brian, with new names replacing the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea.

Randi hasn't been attacked personally in any of this, but many of his good friends have been subjected to some of the most vile accusations. Maybe some of these accusations have a grain of truth in them, but it's bizarre to see people who claim to be skeptics accepting hearsay and innuendo as evidence. Randi was tangentially involved because the organisers of The Amazing Meeting, an event run annually by the James Randi Educational Foundation and possibly the largest skeptic convention in the world, were accused of not doing enough to make the event safe for women.

"I certainly hope that there is no permanent damage caused by this," he says. "There have been some problems which we are looking into now, and we have to do some serious repair work on the movement."

I share Randi's optimism that this nonsense will eventually blow over and that everyone can return to the real job at hand, which is taking the fight to people who propose irrational thinking or do harm by promoting ideas that are not supported by either science or reality. Most of the people involved in this fight are too important to lose so I hope that this optimism is fulfilled.

There are more important issues out there than whether Richard Dawkins writes ham-fisted Twitter messages or that there is no exact balance of men and women as speakers at every conference. Luckily we seem to have avoided this nonsense in Australia, but as Thomas Jefferson didn't say (it was John Curran): "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance".

Greatest Achievement and Disappointment
If I had been asked to nominate Randi's greatest achievements it would have taken me a page to list them, but he was quite quick with his answer: "I think the creation of the James Randi Educational Foundation is the big feather in my cap, because it has served a lot of people very well over all these years". This organisation not only runs one of the most popular and prestigious free thought conferences in the world but runs educational programs and reaches out to the wider population to do more than simply preaching to the choir.

Recent changes at JREF could affect its future, but the optimists among us hope that the changes will be for the better and that Randi's influence and legacy will continue to play the important role that they have over the past few decades. The changes had not been officially announced when Australasian Science went to press.

When asked about his greatest disappointment, Randi's answer came as a surprise. "I don't really have much to complain about," he said. "We've done well financially through difficult times, and I receive a constant stream of feedback from people encouraging us to continue doing what we're doing. I don't have any great disappointments, certainly not in the skeptical movement. I'm very satisfied with the way things are happening."

I'm sure that most of us can look back over our lives and find something which we could have done much better or which perhaps we should not have done it all. It's a tribute to the man that he can look back over 86 years and say that there is very little that he would do differently if he had his time over again.

What Annoys Randi Most
I was also a little surprised when Randi answered my question about the sort of irrational thinking or nonsense that he would most like to see abolished from the world. His answer came immediately: "Homeopathy. Certainly homeopathy is the most obviously phony of these so-called miracle works, but because it is so universally believed in all around the world and so devotedly believed in, it can bring about death and illness. If I could see that goal I would be very, very satisfied.".

You might wonder why he would pick this particular form of woo over all the other sorts of things he has come across and challenged in his life, but it is something with which I agree. Homeopathy is unlike many other forms of superstition or alternative "medicine". For homeopathy to be true, almost all known sciences have to be wrong chemistry, physics, mathematics, quantum mechanics, and possibly even astronomy. It is something that simply cannot work.

Kinesiology: An Old Party Trick

Applied kinesiology is a reliable party trick where you get someone to hold something, test the strength of their arm and then get them to hold something else and show how their strength has changed. This is standard fare in chiropractors' offices.

I remember doing this once at a skeptic function by testing whether someone's strength changed between holding a packet of sugar and a packet of aspartame as any quack will tell you, aspartame is deadly and will make you feel weaker. The person chosen from the audience as a subject said later that I pulled much harder on his arm when I was trying to show that he was weakened after holding aspartame, but a video of the incident showed that I hardly touched his arm yet was able to push it down, while my feet came off the floor when I was pulling his arm down after he'd held the packet of sugar. He was there on stage yet he didn't realise what was happening.

This old trick is used as a way to sell supplements and fraudulent medical treatments to people who don't know any better. I should point out that it's almost impossible to deceive ballet dancers and gymnasts using this trick because they are trained to detect tiny changes in their position.

"The applied kinesiology thing is interesting in many different ways" Randi says. "It's very convincing to people who don't observe too carefully, and most laypersons don't observe carefully."

It might conceivably be possible one day to demonstrate that there really are meridians running through the body that can be affected by acupuncture, or determine that slight misalignments of the spine really can affect general health and the progress of infectious disease, or that a person's star sign says something about their personality, or that some crop circles are messages from alien civilisations but the likelihood of any of these is very, very slight. What it will never be possible to prove is that dilution of something to the point where there cannot even be a single molecule of the original active ingredient left can allow for any effect of that ingredient to remain.

A related debunking event for which Randi is famous is that several years ago the editors of Nature arranged for a group of people, including Randi, to visit the laboratory of Dr Jacques Benveniste, a French scientist funded by a manufacturer of homeopathic "medicines", who claimed to have established that water can retain the memory of chemical compounds it has come into contact with even if none of the original material remains. In 2000, Benveniste wrote to me to say that research proving the possibility of homeopathy would be published in major scientific journals within a year. We are all still waiting.

An Honest Liar
I can't think of a better title for biographical film about James Randi than An Honest Liar. The man is completely open about what he does, what he stands for, and his opposition to the sort of nonsense that charlatans use to deceive the public and take their money. In the case of medical quackery, lives are also put at risk. Over the decades Randi has used his remarkable conjuring skills and the power of his personality and intellect to tell us the truth by showing us how easily we can be deceived.

This film about his life and times has been receiving enthusiastic audience reactions at film festivals throughout 2014, including the prestigious Tribeca Festival in New York. Randi will be appearing at screenings of this film in Australia this month. Australasian Science is a sponsor of his tour.

James Randi has been an inspiration to me and to others for a long time. I've met him on several occasions, including when I was honoured to be a speaker at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, and it was a joy to spend some time with him for this interview. He might be 86 now but I hope he has many more years of honest lying ahead of him

This article was published in the December 2014 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

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