Profile of skeptical guru James Randi

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50 Responses to “Profile of skeptical guru James Randi”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Incidentally, Razzle Bathbone is an excellent username.

  2. Razzle Bathbone says:

    Robulus said:
    “The idea is that a lot of inconclusive anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for clear and substantial proof.”

    I agree completely.
    However, I would add that this principle applies just as forcefully to claims we might subjectively consider to be “ordinary” as it does to ones that strike us as “extraordinary”.

    When a person claims to be a skeptic and yet feels comfortable deciding which claims do or do not require “extraordinary proof” (whatever that is), based not on evidence but on their attitudes toward the claims, be suspicious.

  3. Takuan says:

    I have in fact been to “Africa” and pronounce
    it fraud. They have secreted this other continent at the coordinates ascribed to this “Africa” and even gone so far as to staff it with millions of imposters and genetically engineered flora and fauna all in aid of the vast deception. But I am not fooled.

  4. Secret_Life_of_Plants says:

    I though Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy had taken over the JRF (JREF?).

    My vote is for anyone but Michael Shermer who wouldn’t know skepticism if it bit him on the ass. He should have stuck to making bike helmets.

  5. Razzle Bathbone says:

    @Alex M (28)
    “The only problems (if any) with saying ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof’ hinges on your definition of ‘extraordinary’.”

    That word is certainly the problem here. Remove it, and you’re left with “claims require proof”, the very basis of skepticism.

    “The only useful definition of an ‘extraordinary claim’ in my mind is ‘contrary to an overwhelming amount of evidence’.”

    If that were the popularly accepted definition of the term, then there would be no conflict here. Indeed, there would be no need to use the word “extraordinary” at all, since “claims require proof” is more than sufficient to cover a logical rejection of claims made in contravention of overwhelming evidence.

    “For instance, if someone claims to have invalidated the first law of thermodynamics, that’s something that flies in the face of an incredible amount of evidence. That’s an extraordinary claim.”

    And to other people, the claim that humans and chimps share a common ancestry is an extraordinary claim. This on the basis of the popularly accepted and used definition of “extraordinary”, which is the one most people will take you to mean when you say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.

    It is quite true that reasonable thinkers should not be required to defend against every wild supposition that comes along, but the blade cuts both ways. If you want to be able to reject claims you consider to be “extraordinary” on the basis of their extraordinariness rather than on the basis of the evidence, you open the door for those on the other side to do the same.

    There is no such thing as the tooth fairy, and there is no such thing as an extraordinary proof. The ordinariness or extraordinariness of a claim is entirely subjective. Therefore the “extraordinary claims” dictum has no place in a true skeptic’s argument.

  6. Alex_M says:

    #33, bullshit. You sir, have no clue how Science actually works.

    Science, as opposed to just about every form of knowledge before it, is NOT inherited dogma. It is NOT dependent on the authority of past figures or the authority of anybody. It is dependent on _evidence_. On experiments which can be _repeated_.

    And they ARE repeated, in classrooms everywhere. Constantly. (Higher-) Science education does NOT require you to take _anything_ at face value.

    We don’t believe white light is composed of different colors because Newton said so. We believe it because we can hold up a prism just like Newton did and get the same result.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Seconding the nomination of Penn Gillette, or of Penn & Teller as a unit.

    Those guys are skeptics of the first level, and Libertarian isn’t a naughty word.

  8. Dave Faris says:

    Thanks for pointing me to this article that I might have otherwise missed, even though I, too, thought they gave a little too much space in it to Uri Geller.

  9. Alex_M says:

    Razzle @ #20:

    The only problems (if any) with saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” hinges on your definition of ‘extraordinary’.

    The only useful definition of an ‘extraordinary claim’ in my mind is “contrary to an overwhelming amount of evidence”.

    For instance, if someone claims to have invalidated the first law of thermodynamics, that’s something that flies in the face of an incredible amount of evidence. That’s an extraordinary claim.

    You seem to imply that the evidence can’t be at odds with each other. It is – constantly. Science would be pretty easy if it wasn’t. It’s all about figuring out what claims are right, what claims are wrong, and why.

    If a single experiment speaks for one theory and another speaks against it (and the experiments can be considered equally reliable), then it’s obviously an open question, and both theories should be taken into account when you consider how to proceed with your research.

    But you do NOT need to take into account ‘extraordinary claims’, unless they have extraordinary evidence to support them. Because the vast bulk of evidence says they’re wrong.

    The established physicist does NOT need to take into account the guy who thinks he’s built a perpetuum mobile in his garage, because he’s most likely wrong – just like every other perpetuum mobile-builder hitherto in history.

    It’s about the burden of proof. If mister perpetuum mobile thinks he’s correct, he should have to go the extra mile and get very, very good evidence. Simply put, professional physicists don’t have the time or patience to explain to every crackpot where they made their first mistake.

    Once you demand something highly reasonable, such as a demonstration of their perpetuum mobile (remember Orbo?) or of human levitation or whatever, then the claimants disappear pretty quickly. And why would that be unreasonable to ask of them?

    Science is NOT averse to ‘extraordinary ideas’. In fact, scientists like nothing better than to discover something wholly unanticipated.

    However, that doesn’t mean science can (or should) value wild ideas in themselves. It doesn’t. Wild ideas are EASY. Wild ideas that _fit the body of existing evidence_ are not.

    The extraordinary theories in science, such as relativity or quantum theory, were not arrived at by wild-eyed ‘mad geniuses’ with a desire to revolutionize science. They were arrived at with great trepidation and hesitation. Max Planck, whose work was the first step towards quantum mechanics, spent most of his later years trying to disprove the implications of his own results.

    But in short: As a physicist, it happens some crackpot comes to me with some crazy theory that violates heaps of evidence. The person usually has an obvious lack of knowledge about ‘established’ physics. And on top of that, their claims are generally incomprehensible and obscure.

    Then they say “Prove me wrong!”.

    *WHY* would I *EVER* go along with that? That’s not arrogance on my part – it’s arrogance on the part of the crackpot who’s wasting my time. The game of science is open to all – but that doesn’t oblige us to listen to those who won’t obey ‘the rules of the game’.

  10. Takuan says:

    has it ever occurred to those that want to believe in magic that , if it existed, you would already be serving the magicians?

  11. Ito Kagehisa says:

    AlexM, although I make the same argument all the time (it isn’t science if you don’t do the experiment) my experience has been that most scientists don’t actually work that way, and that many skeptics have simply exchanged their forefathers’ sincere but credulous faith in black-robed priests for an equally sincere and equally mindless faith in white-coated scientists.

    To Randi’s credit, I have never seen him encourage such behaviour.

  12. jphilby says:

    The guys in the skeptic business hear about shady deals, cons, scams and theft a lot more than most of us do. I can understand their anger about those things.

    “Magic” for fun is great; love is a kind of “magic” most of us wouldn’t want to miss. But “magic” that steals from the unfortunate deserves all the lashes it gets.

  13. Razzle Bathbone says:

    @ 6
    The canard that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs” is actually unscientific in the extreme. Who decides whether or not a claim or a proof is extraordinary? Of course there’s a difference between mathematical proof and scientific proof, but even with scientific proof (the weaker of the two), either something can be repeated and verified under controlled conditions or it can’t. Either it has been experimentally disproven, or it hasn’t. There is no such thing as an extraordinary proof, and the ordinariness of a claim has no bearing on its veracity, especially considering that it’s a totally subjective, unmeasurable quantity.

    The “extraordinary claims” dogma makes a good litmus test for telling real skeptics from pseudoskeptics.

  14. Brainspore says:

    @Razzle #36:

    And to other people, the claim that humans and chimps share a common ancestry is an extraordinary claim. This on the basis of the popularly accepted and used definition of “extraordinary”, which is the one most people will take you to mean when you say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.

    But there is an extraordinary amount of evidence behind the claim that humans and chimps share a common ancestor, so the rule holds true.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Brainspore, do not confuse a lot of people speaking loudly with a lot of different things being said.

    There are only a few bits of actual evidence that humans and chimps share a common ancestor. There are very strong reasons to believe this that have little to do with physical evidence, certainly, but all I have to do is point out that most people are not capable of fractioning DNA or validating fossil evidence and immediately all of the physical evidence must be considered hearsay (at least to the common man).

    Believing things you can’t prove is faith, and for most people there is just as much provable evidence for the literal truth of the bible as there is for evolution. It amounts to “who are you going to believe” and not “what can you show me” since most people simply aren’t equipped to examine and analyze the evidence as individuals.

  16. nuorder says:

    I nominate the brilliant skeptic/podcaster/blogger…and, oh yeah, he is a Medical Doctor who specializes in Neuro-research, Dr. Steven Novella. If you haven’t heard his podcast “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe”…you will be instantly hooked and drawn in by the wealth of knowledge these guys (and one girl, Rebecca Watson) have to offer. Subscribe right away, you won’t be disappointed.

    They call the naive and gullible “true believers” and I can now understand why some skeptics can come off as “smug” and “enraged”, because if you were to hear all the stories they have pointed out that show homeopathy, alternative medicine, psychics, and other charlatans that try to penetrate society as the frauds they really are.

    There was one story about HIV deniers who believe that you need only to fend off HIV/AIDS with home remedies (homeopathy/water) and a healthy diet. One woman from Australia (with AIDS), ended up giving her newborn AIDS, because she refused to give her baby the necessary medicine to prevent the infant from contracting AIDS and she continued to breast feed her baby all the while being infected with the HIV virus. Obviously, her daughter ended up dying at the age of 4 and led and miserable and sufferable life for most of her short time on earth. Oh yeah, this was also the same woman who (while in India on vacation) contracted a stomach virus and had to visit the emergency room to receive a proper cure for her ailment. It is truly sickening the lengths some of the “true believers” will go to prove that their pseudo-science actually works.

    So, I can understand their rage; they are in the business of saving lives and furthering our knowledge about all things that are of “proper” science.

    Don’t get us started on creationism….You won’t win the debate, because we have the FACTS and TRUTH on our side which is backed up with actual science.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I nominate Derren Brown @ http://derrenbrownart.com/blog/

  18. Razzle Bathbone says:

    @Brainspore #39
    But there is an extraordinary amount of evidence behind the claim that humans and chimps share a common ancestor, so the rule holds true.

    By our definition of “extraordinary”, yes. By someone else’s, perhaps not. It is the proof that matters, not the subjective, unmeasurable ordinariness of the claim or the proof.

  19. Jonathan Badger says:

    @Razzle
    The idea that science can only disprove assertions is Popperian — basically no current philosopher of science believes that falsification is the only way science works. Nobody has disproven the existence of leprechauns but that doesn’t mean that it is scientific to consider that they might be responsible gold deposits until some positive evidence for leprechauns is presented. In this sense the extraordinary claim of leprechauns *would* require extraordinary proof (like a captured one on display, for instance).

  20. libraryboi says:

    “but it’s unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community…”

    I nominate Sam Harris – http://www.reasonproject.org

  21. nuorder says:

    The “True Believers” love to fall on the “Extraordinary Proof” argument when they continue to propagate their claims about the pseudo-scientific ideas of “Intelligent Design.”

    They try to pigeon-hole you in a debate by making you PROVE that evolution is a fact and not something made up to disprove religion. The fact is that we’ll never be able to give definitive evidence of every skeletal remain of all our ancestors, but the fossil record is compelling enough to prove that humans have evolved over a long period of a few million years. Do we have each and every descendant of our ancestors? Of course not, but do we have enough fossils on record to make a good case for evolution? Absolutely, and that is more than the “true believers” can claim about their biblical evidence that there is the possibility of another dimension that we would visit after we die.

    True Believers also love to “cherry pick” the evidence and find little things that contradict each other, but it is just what it seems…cherry picking….

  22. zikman says:

    wait, I want to hear more about this wine thing

  23. Brainspore says:

    I hadn’t heard about his cancer- that’s a real bummer. I’d say the duo of Penn & Teller would make the most logical replacement for Randi’s particular niche if it weren’t for the fact that their own ideology (hard-core libertarianism) sometimes clouds their objectivity.

  24. Razzle Bathbone says:

    @ Jonathan Badger
    The idea that science can only disprove is rather ridiculous indeed. That is why I did not say so.

    I do dispute that the notion of “extraordinary proof” has any scientific validity. Either there exists a sufficient amount of independently verified experimental data for a scientific theory to be considered proven, or not. There may be more or less controversy as the the rigorousness of the proof, but a true skeptic focuses on the evidence itself, not the subjective, unmeasurable “extraordinariness” of the theory.

  25. cognitive dissonance says:

    i think sagan’s the one who said randi is a national treasure, and i think it’s an understatement… the ‘Randi prize’ has spawned dozens more, i bringing it closer to $2 mill for any replicable instance of paranormal contact/activity/etc…

    randi was a great entertainer, and one of the posts was right that he never really said anything that sagan hadn’t already, but i think in that spirit, neil degrasse tyson (and to some extent michio kaku) is pretty entertaining and animated enough to get people on board. plus he frequents the stewart/colbet/conan shows and for an astrophysicist, does pretty well in the 18-40 demographic…

    i have been meaning to check out the skeptics guide to the universe podcast, and am delighted to hear its turned to crap before i jumped on bored. typical.

  26. Brainspore says:

    Razzle #40:

    By our definition of “extraordinary”, yes. By someone else’s, perhaps not.

    How about we just stick to what most scientists consider an “extraordinary” amount of evidence and accept that not everyone shares the same definition of every word.

    It is the proof that matters, not the subjective, unmeasurable ordinariness of the claim or the proof.

    By our definition of “proof”, yes. By someone else’s, perhaps not. (See what I just did there?)

    I reject the idea that all claims warrant the same level of scrutiny. If you told me “I sure could go for a sandwich right now” I wouldn’t waste time trying to prove or disprove that statement because

    a) I have no reason to doubt your claim, and
    b) True or false, your claim wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented.

    If on the other hand you told me “I can control the weather with my mind” I’d probably ask for a demonstration.

  27. gbv23 says:

    Yes, the long tradition of magician-as-debunker. He’s done well and made it to 81, so that’s a good run.

    Randi is not a scientist, and never graduated from High School. Whereas Dr. Gary Schwartz IS a scientist and has been an instructor at both Harvard and Yale.

  28. Secret_Life_of_Plants says:

    Steven Novella is great, very smart and straight-forward in his explanaitons.

    I used to really like the Skeptics Guide podcast too, but over the last year – it just seems so shrill. I really can’t handle Rebecca Watson. If ever a woman hated women, it is her. I’ve been taken aback by some of the anti-woman things she’s said. Maybe she’ll chill out now that she’s married.

    Also, for the podcast as a whole: there are only so many hours I can devote to hearing about Jenny McCarthy and vaccines.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      there are only so many hours I can devote to hearing about Jenny McCarthy and vaccines.

      Shouldn’t that read “fractions of an hour”? Or nanoseconds?

  29. Keneke says:

    I frequented the Randi forums for years, but I had to part ways when their concern over hucksters became outright hostility towards any belief at all. Maybe the anger was a phase in their history, but I am happy using skepticism in my life without succumbing to rage hidden behind a veil of “good”. I get enough of that from Republicans.

  30. robulus says:

    Razzle said: I do dispute that the notion of “extraordinary proof” has any scientific validity.

    Its funny I was reading wired this morning with my coffee and there’s someone in there getting hot and bothered about this too.

    I take your point, and I think this statement you’ve made is quite true.

    But this concept is generally used by communicators to help lay people approach things critically, and in conversational terms it is perfectly valid.

    I mean, if you could prove someone was really pscychic, in a way that met the demands of scientific rigor, that would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it?

    The idea is that a lot of inconclusive anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for clear and substantial proof.

  31. dculberson says:

    “pulling in nearly $200,000 a year”

    Uhh… sure that’s more than I make in a year, but that’s not exactly mad money.

  32. Brainspore says:

    Anonymous #40:

    …It amounts to “who are you going to believe” and not “what can you show me” since most people simply aren’t equipped to examine and analyze the evidence as individuals.

    I’ll grant that if the only reason you believe something is true is because one person told you so then it’s a matter of faith in the individual, but most big beliefs are based on more than that.

    I’ve never been to Africa but I don’t consider it a simple “matter of faith” that the continent exists because of the sheer amount of indirect evidence I’ve been presented with, from globes to photographs to people who claim to have been there. Of course it’s possible that there is a global conspiracy to trick me into believing that Africa is a real place, but that seems a much less reasonable conclusion.

  33. pewma says:

    they ran the same story in St. Louis’ Riverfront Times last week. Interesting story, but on a side note, I hate how degraded the paper (and many others in other cities) has gotten since Village Voice Media, Inc. bought them.

  34. Brainspore says:

    I was going to defend the “extraordinary claims” maxim but Alex M. summed up my thoughts nicely.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting a higher standard of evidence for claims that seem highly unlikely. Which statement are you more likely to challenge: “I had a delicious breakfast this morning” or “I rode a flying hippopotamus to work today”?

  35. Anonymous says:

    It’s funny, if you try to disscuss actual scientific evidence with these people, they back off. Dickie Dawkins did exactly this when talking to Rupert Sheldrake for a “high-class debunking exersice.” “Would you like to disscuss this actual scientific data Ricahrd?” “No no no..”
    They cannot face it because they know it contradicts there own outdated dogma.
    Examine your own fear/ingnorance along with actual scientific data.
    “The Earth IS flat! You’d better not contradict what I learned when I was growing up.”
    I bet Randy would love a public burning or two. Wrong Century mate.

  36. nanuq says:

    Randi never said anything that Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and a host of other eminent scientists haven’t said as well. Insisting that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof doesn’t seem all that irrational to me.

  37. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

    @ #5 KENEKE

    You’re absolutely right about some skeptics letting anger guide them, rather than rationality/logic/science, and that’s definitely goes against what they supposedly stand for.

    There’s plenty to be angry about when confronting hucksters who cause plenty of pain and suffering in this world (homeopaths, anti-vaccinators, spiritual healers, etc.), but that’s no reason to lose sight of your basic principles.

    I will add that any belief that is not based in reason, logic, rationality, and/or science, should be dismissed out of hand.

  38. Dave Faris says:

    How about love or admiration?

  39. Kimmo says:

    @#1: Sam Harris seems like a great bloke for the job, except I’ve never heard of him.

    I reckon the position requires someone already famous; a proven entertainer. After all, the idea is to popularise the notion of scepticism, innit?

    I immediately thought of Derren Brown, and second #16′s nomination. The guy is truly mindblowing, very cool, and can (almost certainly literally) sell ice to Eskimos.

  40. CANTFIGHTTHEDITE says:

    If your love or admiration for someone is based on an incorrect assumption about that someone, then yes.

  41. Razzle Bathbone says:

    Brainspore #42:
    “I reject the idea that all claims warrant the same level of scrutiny.”

    That’s lovely. Where exactly did you hear of this idea? If you wish to discuss what I actually wrote, rather than what you imagine I might believe, then by all means feel free to continue.

    In the meanwhile, There is still no such thing as an objective measure for what constitutes an extraordinary claim or an extraordinary proof, and the claim that the former requires the latter remains an argument suitable for use by pseudoskeptics (e.g. climate change skeptics, evolution skeptics) and not for the real thing. Enjoy.

  42. Jonathan Badger says:

    I didn’t like the tone of the article at all. As NANUQ said, there is nothing very surprising in what Randi is saying — namely that you should only believe in things if you have evidence. One doesn’t have to “revere him [Randi] like a religious leader” (does anyone?) to agree with this obvious observation.

    Not to mention that the article tries to make Uri Geller (a fraud who tried to deceive people for money) a sympathetic figure. Ugh.

  43. cognitive dissonance says:

    @ 33 ANONYMOUS

    I’ve heard about the Sheldrake incident, and as polarizing and vociferous as he can be (He IS “Darwin’s Pitbull” isn’t he?) I can’t say that I totally disagree with Dawkins in this case.

    Just because someone claims to have “scientific” evidence does not always mean its replicable, impartial, or even genuine.

    I mean, honestly, people believe that dinosaur fossils are PROOF that we once lived in a Flinstone society where man and dinosaur walked side by side.

  44. Daemon says:

    I loath any magician that attempts tells me how the trick is done.

  45. Brainspore says:

    @ Daemon #49:

    Randi doesn’t expose magicians’ tricks, he exposes frauds. Honest magicians don’t claim to have real powers.

  46. Brainspore says:

    The “extraordinary claims” adage isn’t a law of physics, it’s a freakin’ rule of thumb. Just because something isn’t 100% objectively quantifiable doesn’t mean it’s not a useful tool.

  47. LightningRose says:

    A Libertarian is just a Republican who wants to smoke pot and get laid.

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