Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Believable Skepticism of James Randi

Recently the New York Times ran a story by Adam Higginbotham on The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi. Interesting read, that, and anyone - believer or unbeliever in the paranormal - does himself a disservice by ignoring it.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Randi. He has done much good by debunking frauds. He doesn't like to be called a "debunker," preferring investigator. Whatever. He seems to me more a flat-out debunker. His book on Faith Healers, which contains among other things his well-known exposing of Peter Popoff is a classic. Unfortunately, one that will probably remain mostly unread by those who would most benefit from it. Praise aside, He comes across to me as closed-minded, overbearing and at time self-righteous. That's my take of the man. Still I would say, ignore what he has to offer at your own peril.

But my purpose in this post is to highlight something I find interesting. James Randi is probably the picture ideal of the modern "scientific skeptic." In fact, the NYT article quotes Randi thusly: “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”

But interestingly, in this same article, there is this tidbit:

In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research.

He suggests this because scientists supposedly have been flimflammed by those claiming paranormal powers. The degree to which that is so is a matter of debate, but no doubt it has happened. In fact, Randi himself was responsible for flimflamming a group of researchers in the Project Alpha hoax.

Well, of course. Because all education and rational thinking aside, scientists and rationalists are, in the end, humans. Humans have biases and blind spots in their thinking. Personally, I'm skeptical of priests and I'm skeptical of scientific priests.

If science as a discipline is, as claimed, provisional and open to revision, then scientists who make sweeping pronouncements should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Right?

James Randi isn't a trained scientist and many prominent skeptics aren't. To the degree science reveals facts about nature, these must still be interpreted. How tempting it is to do this with an ax to grind.

In short, and with apologies to Adam Higginbotham, I don't find Randi's skepticism unbelievable at all. 


  1. I'd also encourage people to check out interviews with Randi, which can be downloaded as podcasts. His manner is a little abrasive, but his message of skepticism is valuable.

    1. Hey, Ahab ... long time no hear! Yes, Randi can be abrasive, even arrogant and snarky. But even though I don't agree with his scientific skepticism, I do think he is a great antidote for the overly gullible. And his The Faith Healers is very helpful.