• The man who destroyed skepticism

    Scourge of psychics James Randi was no skeptic; our culture is poorer as a result

    Several years ago I was preparing a talk on the life of occult journeyer Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Someone on Facebook asked sardonically: "Will James Randi be there?" My interlocutor was referencing the man known worldwide as a debunker of psychical and paranormal claims. (That my online critic was outspoken about his own religious beliefs posed no apparent irony for him.)

    Last week marked the death at age 92 of James "The Amazing" Randi, a stage magician who became internationally famous as a skeptic — indeed Randi rebooted the term "skepticism" as a response to the boom in psychical claims and research in the post-Woodstock era. Today, thousands of journalists, bloggers and the occasional scientist call themselves skeptics in the mold set by Randi. Over the past decade, the investigator himself was heroized in documentaries, profiles, and, now, obituaries. A Guardian columnist eulogized him as the "prince of reason."

    I mourn Randi's passing for those who loved him, and there were many. But his elevation to the Mount Rushmore of skepticism obfuscates a basic truth. In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud. This has corroded our intellectual culture — in a Trumpian age when true skepticism is desperately needed. 

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    Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto in 1928, Randi became a celebrated stage magician and escape artist who appeared in prestigious venues and on television shows, including Happy Days. His stage aesthetics and devices were often brilliant and original. Randi toured with rock icon Alice Cooper in 1973, designing a mock beheading-by-guillotine for the proto-metal star. When claiming the garland of skepticism in the early 1970s, the MacArthur-winning Randi announced his intention of exposing phony faith healers and grifter psychics.

    Today, many people know Randi from the award-winning 2014 documentary An Honest Liar. But the laudatory and engaging profile tells its story in a fashion that skeptics traditionally decry: including only the magician's successful exposes (some of which were more questionable than the film allows) and obfuscating his darker and more lasting impact: making it more difficult for serious university-based and academically trained researchers to study ESP and mental anomalies, and to receive a fair hearing in the news media. Indeed, Randi ultimately cheapened an important debate over how or whether extra-physical mentality can be studied under scientifically rigorous conditions and evaluated by serious people.

    In a typical example, The New York Times ran a 2015 piece about a wave of fraudulent and flawed psychology studies; its lead paragraph cited a precognition study by Cornell University psychologist Daryl J. Bem — without justifying why it was grouped with polluted research or even further referencing Bem's study in the article. (I wrote to the Times to object. The paper has used several of my letters and op-eds, often on controversial subjects — this time, crickets.)

    J. B. Rhine (right) and Hubert Pearce experimenting with Zener cards. (Public domain)

    In the pioneering days of scholarly psychical research in the United States, roughly between the 1930s and 1960s, Duke University housed a highly regarded center for the study of ESP, founded by researchers J.B. and Louisa Rhine. Yet today the Rhine Research Center functions off-campus as a nonprofit organization and, while individual researchers and a handful of ​university labs soldier on, many college textbooks brand ESP research a pseudoscience, often citing Randi's work as the source of that opinion, so the topic is shunned by most academics and journalists who cover them. 

    As a historian and writer on metaphysical topics, I have spent time among fraudulent mediums, and I share Randi's outrage at their manipulations. I have no issue with his or others' targeting of stage psychics and woo-woo con artists — I join in it. But Randi made his name, and influenced today's professional skeptics, by smearing the work of serious researchers, such as Rhine, who, in founding the original parapsychological lab at Duke with his wife and co-researcher Louisa, labored intensively — and in a scientifically conservative manner that reverse-mirrored Randi's work—to devise research protocols for testing psychical phenomena. 

    In one of Randi's freely distributed classroom guides, he misleadingly stated that Rhine had reported only positive results in his ESP trials. In fact, in the early 1930s, when Rhine's lab opened, it was standard practice in the behavioral and life sciences to discount experiments with null or negative results. But Rhine was one of the first academic researchers to recognize this common practice as a problem, and then to explicitly reject it. By 1940, with the publication of Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, Rhine's lab took a leading role in reporting all results, positive and negative, ahead of the curve of other researchers.

    Randi's contemporaneous parapsychology skeptics, including science writer Martin Gardner and University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman, differed from Randi's uncritical dismissals by offering qualified respect to Rhine and his protégé Charles Honorton, with whom Hyman co-authored a paper validating Honorton's research methods. In a moment of intellectual probity, the skeptic Gardner wrote of Rhine in his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: "It should be stated immediately that Rhine is clearly not a pseudoscientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book. He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily, and which deserves a far more serious treatment." (Another notable contemporary was sociologist Marcello Truzzi — a self-described "constructive skeptic" — who criticized Randi's methods in the paper linked earlier. Truzzi coined the maxim popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.")

    To Randi, such moderate tones were alien. When criticizing the parapsychological research of University of Arizona psychology professor Gary E. Schwartz, for example, Randi repeatedly accused the researcher of believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and taunted him with the Trump-worthy sobriquet "Gullible Gary." Randi showed no compunction about brutalizing reputations and ignoring complexities. 

    Indeed, Randi showed willingness to mislead the public about testing certain paranormal claims — while simultaneously touting his "results" and trashing reputations. Such was the case with his public rebuttal to Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" proposes that "memory is inherent in nature." The biologist has written that "morphic fields of social groups connect together members of the group even when they are many miles apart, and provide channels of communication through which organisms can stay in touch at a distance. They help provide an explanation for telepathy." To this Randi retorted: "We at JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail." 

    Yet Sheldrake complained that Randi ignored his requests to see the test data. Reporter Will Storr of Britain's The Telegraph followed up with Randi and received a series of dog-ate-my-homework excuses — until the reporter realized that the Amazing Randi was either misleading him about the existence of tests, or was proffering an incredibly byzantine (and inconsistent) backstory that the results "got washed away in a flood." Unbelievable as Randi's responses were, he continued running down the biologist in public. This is what sociologist Truzzi dubbed "pseudoskepticism": rejection absent investigation. 

    Amid Randi's persistent and questionable media dings, academics began to recoil. John G. Kruth, executive director of the Rhine lab, experienced the chill firsthand in the 1980s. "As the old guard began to age out of the field," he said, "there were very few opportunities for new researchers to study parapsychology … younger students typically had to travel abroad or design their own study programs."

    Beyond scholarly circles, Randi set the template for a zealous band of professional skeptics, many of whom are science journalists or bloggers who focus on niche takedown pieces of people who study any form of ESP, mediumship, or anomalies. Even more damaging over the last decade has been a group of self-described "Guerrilla Skeptics" — winners of the 2017 James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Award — who wage a kind of freewheeling digital jihad on Wikipedia, tendentiously revising or trolling pages about scientific parapsychology and the lives of its key players.

    "While there are lots of anonymous trolls that have worked hard to trash any Wikipedia pages related to psi, including bios of parapsychologists," said Dean Radin, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in northern California, one of a few remaining scholarly parapsychology labs, "this group of extreme skeptics is proudly open that they are rewriting history … any attempt to edit those pages, even fixing individual words, is blocked or reverted almost instantly."

    Another case was Randi's yearly "million-dollar challenge," often held in Las Vegas, in which he tempted psychics with a cash prize. For years it was an annual charade to which virtually no serious observer or claimant would venture near. Journalist and NPR producer Stacy Horn, who wrote about Rhine's lab at Duke University in her 2009 book Unbelievable, queried Randi in June 2008 about his million-dollar prize. She told me:

    I had an exchange with Randi because I was going to have the following sentences about his million-dollar prize in my book:

    "To date, Randi's million-dollar prize has not been awarded, but according to Chris Carter, author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics, Randi backs off from any serious challenge. 'I always have an out,' he has been quoted as saying."

    I sent that to Randi to ask him if he really said that. …He wrote back saying that the quote was true, but incomplete. What he really said was, "I always have an 'out' — I'm right!"

    It seemed like he thought he was being amusing, but I didn't really know a lot about him yet. But it also seemed to indicate that the million-dollar prize might not really be a serious offer. So I asked him how a decision was made, was there a committee and who was on it? …He replied, "If someone claims they can fly by flapping their arms, the results don't need any 'decision.' What 'committee'? Why would a committee be required? I don't understand the question."

    At that point I wrote him off and decided to not mention his prize in my book since it just seemed like a publicity stunt for Randi.

    The Telegraph's Storr wondered what — besides organizing the yearly Vegas conference (discontinued in 2015) — Randi's nonprofit JREF actually does:

    More recently I've begun to wonder about his educational foundation, the JREF, which claims tax exempt status in the US and is partly dependant on public donations. I wondered what actual educative work the organisation — which between 2011 and 2013 had an average revenue of $1.2 million per year — did. Financial documents reveal just $5,100, on average, being spent on grants.

    There are some e-books, videos and lesson plans on subjects such as fairies on their website. They organise an annual fan convention. James Randi, over that period, has been paid an average annual salary of $195,000. My requests for details of the educational foundation's educational activities, over the last 12 months, were dodged and then ignored.

    The two years that follow, according to public filings, show executive compensation at an average of over $197,000, more than 20% of the Foundation's total yearly revenue. According to a contemporaneous analysis of 100,000 nonprofit CEO salaries, this figure nearly triples the average compensation in JREF's revenue class. 

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    Randi proved hugely adept at sound bites. Most researchers and scientists do poorly with sound bites. Such devices contributed to his being lionized in news coverage by observers who seemed genuinely unaware of his unwillingness to distinguish between parapsychologists who perform juried and meticulous work, such as scientists Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, versus the average storefront psychic. The "broad smear" and polarized thinking typify most professional skepticism today.

    Indeed, when encountering the efforts of clinicians, such as Rhine and Radin, Randi often played "move the goalpost." Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner made this pertinent historical observation in their book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness: "Greek science had a fatal flaw. It had no mechanism to compel consensus. The Greeks saw experimental tests of scientific conclusions as no more relevant than were experimental tests of political or aesthetic positions. Conflicting views could be argued indefinitely." Randi and his admirers embraced this flaw as a polemical device, often wearing down scientists and winning over journalists with perpetual, repeat-loop disparagement of ESP research and other science they disfavored, no matter how valid the methods.

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    We urgently need good skeptics today. We are living under the cloud of a president who spreads QAnon conspiracy theories and 5 a.m. Twitter smears, while questioning the gravity of Covid, the reality of climate change (as Randi did, too — along with a proclivity for eugenics), and the facts of responsible news coverage. Even in our truth-challenged times, however, Randi never stopped baiting researchers and punching down at eccentrics who may have been self-deluded about their psychical abilities.

    Yes, Randi may have bagged some con artists along the way. Senator McCarthy may have caught a few authentic Soviet sympathizers or spies. But at what cost? Each man laid tracks for future demagogues who proved less interested in defending facts than in promulgating smears and half-truths for personal benefit.

    I sympathize with those who want to challenge credulity and generalized references to psychical phenomena — and all the more with researchers and investigators who expose frauds. I sympathize, too, with those who have lost a man, a friend, and a spouse. But to the intellectual community, and anyone concerned with critical inquiry in general, Randi's legacy should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to restore sound practices when discussing or writing about contentious topics in science or any field. These are things that a showman can deter but never erase.

    Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian whose books include Occult America; One Simple Idea; and The Miracle Club. Twitter: @MitchHorowitz | Instagram: @MitchHorowitz23