SGU Episode 24

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SGU Episode 24
January 6th 2006
PlaceholderSGU.png
SGU 23 SGU 25
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
Guest
JR: James Randi
Links
Download Podcast
Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Friday, January 6th, 2006. This is your host Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me today are the usual suspects: my brother, Bob Novella ...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: ... Perry DeAngelis, ...

P: Happy New Year.

S: ... and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good afternoon, everyone.

Interview with James Randi (0:32)[edit]

S: Happy New Year, everyone. This is our first episode for the 2006 year, and I'm going to get right to our guest on this episode. We are starting the year out with a fabulous guest: James Randi. James Randi is a renowned skeptical investigator and educator. He began his career as a professional magician performing under the name "The Amazing Randi" and now runs the James Randi Educational Foundation, which you can visit their website at randi.org. The JREF, as we call it, administers the famous million-dollar psychic challenge, which I'm sure we'll talk about. Randi is known as the scourge of hucksters, con artists, charlatans and quacks everywhere, as he delights in exposing their lies and deceptions, lectures extensively on critical thinking on skepticism and exposing fraud, the author of numerous books including The Mask of Nostradamus and Flim-Flam. Randi, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

B: Welcome, Randi.

JR: I doubt that!

(laughter)

S: Thanks for joining us. We appreciate you coming on.

JR: It's a pleasure to be here for my first visit, and I think I should announce right off the top that starting early in February we will be doing a podcast via our own website at www.randi.org. It's something I should have gotten into some time ago, frankly, Steve, and uh ...

S: Mm, hm.

JR: ... happy to be in yours and going to start my own.

S: Excellent! Another skeptical podcast is always a good thing.

E: Very good.

B: Randi, do you anticipate a weekly or monthly podcast?

JR: Oh it'll be weekly.

B: Weekly, OK.

JR: Yep.

B: I'm sure it's going to be very popular.

JR: Well, I hope so. We'll see.

S: Actually, we've been talking with I believe Linda and some of your people about having one-stop shopping for skeptical podcasts, or at least mutual links so people can go to one location and access all of the skeptical podcasts that are being made out there. There's only a few of them out there. I mean there's Skepticality, there's our podcast, there's one in England, and yours would be the fourth that I know of. I don't know if you know of any others.

B: Not off hand.

JR: No, I don't, no.

Sylvia Browne (2:40)[edit]

S: So, why don't we start by talking about your favorite psychic, Sylvia Browne.

JR: No, no, my favorite "claimed psychic."

S: "Claimed psychic."

B: Ha, ha.

S; It's always implied, because there are no such things as psychics. So do you want to just give us the update. Tell us about Sylvia's fabulous performance on Coast-To-Coast the other night.

JR: I haven't heard it, yet. It's been sent to me in some form or another whereby I can listen to it. But I haven't done that, yet. She still grates me, and her voice is so gravely, to say the least. (in a gravely voice) "This is my imitation of Sylvia Browne."

S: Right, right.

B: Ha, ha.

JR: And that's doing her credit. I haven't listened to it, but I have gotten enough excerpts from it word-for-word that it's pretty obvious she had a serious flub.

S: Right.

JR: That's the only way you can describe it. And yet people have said to me – I was just speaking with, what was his name? – Roger Friedman of ...

S: Well the Fox News did a report.

JR: Fox. It's Fox News, I'm sorry.

S: I have that article in front of me, actually.

JR: Yeah, well he missed something in that article, obviously. He said that the challenge had never been accepted. Well, it's been accepted by hundreds of people.

S: Right.

JR: And particularly by Sylvia Browne (with an e). Sylvia accepted that back in was it 2001 or something. I forgot ...

S: 2001, yeah.

E: 2001.

J: Yeah, and it's been up on our web page ever since, as you know. You can click on it. We've got a new clicker on our web page this week, and it's to download the video, fifty seconds of it, from the Larry King show – "Larry King Live", pardon me – show that she did back then on that date in which she very distinctly accepts – yes she will accept the challenge, and she will accept the test. And then of course her first excuse is right off the bat within the first month or so: "I don't know how to contact Randi."

S: Right.

JR: Duh! Indeed. Let's face it: this is a psychic and she doesn't even know to use the phone book? I don't think so.

S: You're really hard to track down, Randi.

JR: Yeah.

S: It's hard to get a hold of you.

JR: Hard to find me. Google knows nothing about me, of course. But, she finally gave up on that particular aspect, and she simply turned away all our mail, that is email and registered and certified mail. Refused it all. We did get a delivery to her office though by a fellow who lives within sight of her office. And I'd better not specify anything more, or he'll be getting grenades through the window. He went over actually disguised as a messenger, walked in, and put an envelope down on the desk, and then walked out. Apparently, I would imagine it got to Sylvia, but it didn't have my name on the outside or any letterhead, it was just addressed to "Sylvia Browne." So she heard about it. She knows very well about the challenge.

S: Right.

JR: She's always known about it.

S: Yeah. I saw that clip on your website, and although she accepted the challenge, because she had to, she was on the spot, she had a decidedly sour look on her face. She was clearly unhappy about being put on the spot about that. And I know, as you said before, con artists don't want to take this test.

JR: Of course not.

S: The people who are self-deluded are the ones who take the test. Con artists know they can't pass the test.

JR: Well in a couple of cases we have had some knowing fakes, not for the million dollar challenge but some years ago when it was only a thousand dollars. I had them take me up on it, but they backed out very quickly because they found out something which rather disappointed them: I know what I'm talking about.

E: Ha, ha, ha.

S: Right. That's right. You know what the tricks are. Let's get back to the recent flap of Sylvia Browne. Io have some of the transcript here. Basically, there was a recent incident where thirteen miners were trapped in a coal mine explosion, and everyone was very anxiously waiting to see what the outcome of this would be. It didn't look very good. The news looked very grim. Late at night or early morning, actually, at the time when she happened to be on the Coast-To-Coast show, the news came out that most of the miners had been found alive, which was very, very, very shocking and surprising, because nobody was expecting that.

P: That was just around midnight.

S: Right. Perry was actually watching this live. He was ...

P: Right.

S: You were caught up in that, weren't you, Perry?

P: Yes, I watched the whole thing.

S: And Browne, the news was given to Browne on the Coast-To-Coast show, and she responded that she knew that they were going to be found.

B: Oh, awesome.

S: She knew that they were alive. And then, some time after that, I think it was a couple hours in real time, ...

P: It was about quarter to three.

B: Two or three hours.

S: ... the news came out that it was all an error, that twelve of the thirteen miners were in fact dead, and the thirteenth was in critical condition. And Browne was given that news on the show, and ...

B: How did she react?

S: She totally collapsed. What could she do? She just back-tracked and fumbled and said "Oh, I don't think there is anybody alive. Maybe one. How crazy for them to report that they were alive when they weren't." It was an utter, open-faced failure on her part. Not the first time, but it was particularly poignant because of the really incredibly erroneous news report that had came out, took her utterly by surprise.

JR: Yeah well, we refer to that, I think, Steve, as a "fiasco," is it?

S: Fiasco? That's being generous I think.

JR: I've got to point out something if I may here.

S: Sure.

JR: Sylvia said something to Noory after the thing had been reversed.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: And as you just mentioned, she tried to feed them back exactly the same message that she had given them before, but turned around.

S: Right.

JR: In other words, she knew that was the case. She also said "Well I didn't say they were alive." Duh. Any kind of excuse, but she also said something else that sort of got by everyone. She said "Remember, I was on here with you." Now what's she's trying to imply by that is that since she was busy doing that radio program, she didn't have the means to look at CNN or any other news source and find out that it was exactly the opposite to what had been represented. What people don't recognize necessarily is that she was on the telephone with Noory. She wasn't in the studio with him, she was on the telephone. So she had access and she had people all around her who could rush up to her with a piece of paper and stick it under her nose, of course. That might have gotten by a lot of people. She had every means of finding out that she was wrong.

S: That's right. She could have been doing what we are doing right now, which is sitting in front of a computer with pulling up web sites and getting access to real-time news while we're talking on the show.

JR: Sure.

S: But it didn't help her in this case, obviously, because the news was false, and it just led her to make that erroneous statement. Tut this is what we see all the time is whenever there's a high-profile, national case, whether it's Chandra Levy, a missing person, or whatever, the psychics never seem to predict these major, unexpected events.

E: Never.

JR: How strange.

S: Isn't it? Isn't that odd. So but still, Sylvia Browne refuses to take the Psychic Challenge, and yet the day counter, I noticed, has turned into a week counter. I guess there were too many digits for the day counter.

JR: Yep. We couldn't keep up with it.

S: Maybe you go to a year counter eventually at some point.

JR: Or centuries. Who knows?

B: I saw Sylvia an a Larry King episode just about ten days ago, with Von Praagh and some psychic I wasn't familiar with. I believe her name was Char?

JR: Char Margolis, yes.

E: Yeah. I've seen her.

B: OK. And one of the token skeptics really had it in for Sylvia because of the whole million dollar prize, and she came up with some lame excuse about how she really can't do it because other people that have tried to do it have had trouble, and it's not fair, and just all these lame excuses.

S: Yeah. It's easy to say that.

P: That's what they all say whenever we bring up Randi's challenge. Any sort of paranormal kook, they simply say it's unfair.

S: Right.

P: It's all nonsense.

Million Dollar Psychic Challenge (11:02)[edit]

B: Yeah. I have a couple of comments about the million dollar prize. I just, like you guys, the million dollar prize I think is such a great feather in the skeptic's cap, because what could these paranormalists say about this. Why don't they just do this? There's not one greedy paranormalist in the country that won't take a trip down to Florida and try ...

JR: No, no, no, no, no, no.

B: ... to win this money?

JR: No. Let's kill that rumor right there. You don't have to take a trip down to Florida.

S: Right.

JR: That's the point.

B: OK.

JR: Anybody who makes out application for the prize, and this is 97% of them so far, have been tested right where they are.

B: OK

JR: Very, very few people have come to Florida. The only people that have ever come to Florida, two women from Lithuania as a matter of fact, who came all the way over – we insisted they don't, that we could have them tested there. And we had the people all set up for it. But they actually got on a plane and came over here, and of course they fell on their collective nose.

E: Right.

S: Right.

JR: But we have had people who live right here in Florida, a matter of an hour or so away, who have driven into the Foundation here and have been tested.

B: Uh, huh.

JR: But I couldn't let that go by. Pardon me for interrupting.

S: That's all right. In fact, Bob misspoke. In fact, we've tested several applicants locally here in Connecticut for you.

JR: Yeah.

S: So you have people regionally all over the place who can do the testing.

B: Preliminary testing.

JR: It's certainly not necessary for anyone to travel to Florida. We'll do it right where they happen to be.

B: Now there's a couple of misconceptions about the prize that I'd like you to talk about a little bit. A lot of people know about it, but still some people persist in believing these problems with the prize, such as "Oh, does he really have the money?" And also that it's inconvenient and a problem or troublesome for a real paranormalist. Could you kind of address those issues to assuage their some of these feelings that people have about the money and the fact that it's a difficult process, it's not fair, in essence, to the people with the real ability.

JR: Rather than going through a lot of details on it, I'll say this. We have an FAQ section under the challenge on our web page. You click on the challenge there, you'll come to FAQs. That's all handled beautifully in there. Briefly, I'll get into it. First of all, the big objection right off the bat is "No, there is no million dollars." Well, we get rid of that very easily. All anyone has to do is make a phone call, send an email, get on a fax, whatever means – anything short of telepathy, better than telepathy I should say. They have to get on the line and get ahold of us and simply ask for a copy of the proof of it. We send them a Goldman-Sachs document. We refresh it every month, because they send us monthly documents, saying the total amount that's in that account. Now, we're only liable for one million of that, and I think currently it's at 1.1 million or some such amount. We take the interest off the top of it every now and then. The fact that the prize money is available cannot be argued. It's there.

(unintelligible)

JR: Yeah. Not only that, it is actually titled – the name of the account is "The James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account." It's specified that it can't be used for any purpose except to be awarded to the person who will pass the simple test.

P: Excellent! Very simple.

JR: Now, the other questions you had there, you were saying that it's difficult. Well, how do they know it's difficult if they don't know what the test is going to be? I frequently get calls from people or emails from people saying "How do you test these people?" What a dumb question. That's like saying "how do you play the violin?" in twenty words or less. It depends on what their claim is. As I've said so often, you claim you can fly by flapping your arms, just step over to the window and we'll have this test done in a few seconds. Whoops! You lose. These are very easy tests to do. They are very direct. They are very simple, and we don't design the tests. That's very important that we specify that. We do not design the test. We can assist in the design, the protocol design, of course. (coughs) Pardon me, I'm emotionally overcome, here.

P: (chuckles)

JR: What we do is we work with the claimant, the applicant I should say because they haven't become a claimant, yet. We work with the applicant to devise a test that the applicant and ourselves will agree is a fair, proper, and definitive test. That's where the big rub is in this thing. Some people we've argued with – one fellow for four and a half years – a PhD out of California. We argued with him for four and a half years over how to establish a protocol, and he kept changing his mind all the time. So we will design one.

S: They're just grasping at straws really. They're just trying to claim that the prize hasn't been won because it's unfair. But they really have nothing to back up that claim. That's just a way to dismiss what are the real implications of it.

JR: There's another thing going here, too. They also claim that the prize has already been won, and that I've refused to award it. Now many people have claimed this. But these are people who we've never heard of before. When they give me their names, I look them up in our records, we haven't got any trace of them whatsoever. But this again is the only way most of these people have out. And in some European country, they can get away with that.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: The local broadcaster will say "Ah, now we know that you actually won the prize but James Randi wouldn't pay up." Of course, they don't bother to contact me.

S: No, that would be doing real journalism.

JR: Yeah. You wouldn't want to have that.

S: They can't be bothered with that.

JR: No, no, no.

Uri Geller (16:55)[edit]

S: So talking about I should say infamous pseudo-psychics that are gun-shy now of the Randi psychic challenge, before Sylvia Browne there was Uri Geller.

JR: Who?

S: Right. Who? Who's certainly not what he used to be, but I still see his name popping up all the time. There was a – recently he was on a radio show where somebody mentioned your challenge and, you talked about this I think two weeks ago on your on-line journal Swift.

JR: Oh, yeah.

S: And he promptly insisted that the caller be cut off and said "I refuse to deal with all skeptics and cynics," lumping skepticism and cynicism together. Have you any recent run-ins with him, or is he history?

JR: More importantly than that, he said that he hasn't bee doing spoon bending for ten years. Duh!

S: Ha, ha.

JR: He does it every opportunity he gets because he doesn't have anything else.

S: That's all he can do is the simple conjuring.

B: That's his schtick.

JR: That's like saying that Fred Astaire gave up dancing. Yeah, right. What else do you do? Poetry? Juggling? I don't think so, no. This is ridiculous. He's a one-trick pony, this guy, and he bends spoons. That's what he does. He doesn't do anything else. He doesn't tap dance, either.

S: Yeah he's pathetic. I don't know if this is actually true, but he claimed to be earning – this is a few years ago – a million dollars or more being a dowsing consultant, basically telling companies where to drill for water or oil or whatever. I mean it's unfortunately believable that he could actually scam companies out of money like that. It always galls me when con artists rip people off for such huge sums.

JR: Well there's a more of a con to it than you folks may realize, that not only is the basic claim a con, but the claim about the claim is a con, because he said that he'd been paid millions by these people. He hasn't! He was paid something like I think thirty thousand dollars by Zanex, was it, in Australia, I believe. I don't remember that whole history. He's got such a long and sordid history that it's hard to remember all the details. And they wanted their money back.[1]

S: Ha, ha.

E: Uh oh.

S: So it's a phony fraud. It's not even a real fraud.

JR: A fake fraud. That's the worst kind.

B: Part of me thinks that if these companies are just so naive enough to go in with that, I have very little hard feelings for them that they lost all that money.

JR: OK. Let's be a little kinder about that.

B: I know.

JR: Zanex was not a company that was fooled by Geller. No! It was their CEO who independently – and they sued him for it afterwards – who independently ...

S: Mm, hm.

JR: ... decided to give the money to Geller. And he did that without the Board approval, and that's why they turned on him, because it was an individual who was enamored of Geller.

S: That's right.

P: I see. I see.

B: OK.

S: You can think of corporate entities as being large, anonymous things, but really real people get hurt, people who have stock, people who have their retirement accounts, employees, so even though it may be a big company that's being defrauded, individual people still get hurt. Of course it's easier to get emotionally upset when it's a little old lady who gets screwed out of her retirement money. That's always a little bit more easy to sympathize with. But I think wherever the con occurs, there's always an innocent victim somewhere who is harmed by it.

JR: Yeah. Oh, yeah, and in fact, it adds to the whole public view of miracles and such and it promotes it. So that's harm that's done right there.

S: That's right. That's sort of the indirect harm is anything that promotes belief in the supernatural, anti-scientific modes of thinking has a ripple effect of harm that may not be immediately apparent. Often I think the most tangible place where that causes harm is in health care. I know you don't do – many of the challenges don't involve direct health claims, but you have investigated medical scams before. I know the two that come to mind are psychic surgery and the French homeopathy researcher Benveniste.

JR: Yep.

Jacques Benveniste (21:00)[edit]

S: I remember you gave a very, very entertaining lecture about your investigations of Jacques Benveniste, right, is that his name?

JR: Yes, Jacques.

S: Jacques, is it? Why dont you tell us about that? How did that go?

JR: I was called – I'm trying to think of years, again. I've had so many years I not good at recalling years. I was called when I first moved to Florida, I was called by John Maddox who is now Sir John Maddox, pardon me, Sir John Maddox who was the editor of Nature magazine at that time. Now as you probably know, Nature is one of the highest-ranking science journals ...

S: Mm, hm.

JR: ... scientific journals, I should say, in the whole world. He called me and he asked me if I would be interested in going off to Clamart, a little town outside of Paris, to investigate this thing, and I said that I wasn't terribly familiar with it, but I would familiarize with it. We agreed to go along with Walter Stewart, who at that time was working for National Institutes of Health in Washington. Walter was rather dedicated to exposing quackery, and he had come upon an awful lot of it in his work with the NIH. So I agreed to do that, but hardly had I hung up the phone before the phone rang again, and lo and behold, there was Benveniste himself, whose English was excellent, very well educated man. He said how pleased he was to know that I was coming along to Paris because I would have a possibly alternate point of view. Little did he dream ...

S: Right.

JR: ... how alternate. And that that would be very welcome in the investigation, etc. And he was happy to have me aboard. That, as I suggest to you, rapidly changed after I arrived. We went over. I was accosted by two leading French scientists in the lobby of the hotel the minute I arrived who took me aside and told me that I was doing a very, very bad thing here, that I was questioning the integrity and the ability of a leading French scientist. I said "Well, after all he is making a claim which is not very believable. I'm willing to believe, but we have to see the evidence. We have to see the experiments done." "Oh, but this just isn't done, Mr. Randi, and particularly because you're not an academic. No academic would do this," which I suspect is quite true. They were just astonished that I would dare to do something like this. Now I don't think they were sent by Benveniste. They were just genuinely alarmed that I would disturbing the French academic world, and indeed I was. To make the story much shorter, we did. We went in. We saw a whole series of tests. They started their tests all over again; did a whole run for us. And we found out quickly that it was not being done in a legitimate manner at all. That they were cutting a lot of corners. That when we double-blind-controlled the samples, that is we took the samples that they had already labeled and we re-labeled every one of them in a closed area and recorded on video the whole process so it couldn't be doubted, that that's what was done. We actually videoed it from the moment that the lab assistant brought the tubes to us and laid them down on the table and kept it on camera at all times with no interruptions, and had a continuous audio track going in the back. We recorded that way and on paper and then showed the paper in close-up on the video camera to show that we had recorded exactly what had happened. We then asked the lab assistant to come back into the lab and pick up the tubes again, which were now relabeled so that if they knew which ones had been treated and which ones hadn't they couldn't use any influence on them except if homeopathy really worked. So he did the test and no significance was shown whatsoever, and of course then they came up with the rationalizations which went on up until Benveniste's death, a matter of a few months ago.

S: Right. Yeah I think I recall you saying they were scoring the plates, basically counting the number of bacterial colonies or something ...

JR: Yeah.

S: ... in a non-blinded fashion, and they were counting them based upon whether or not it was supposed to have been a response to homeopathic remedy or not.

JR: Yeah. As a matter of fact, you see there were some controls. Now the controls were outside of whether or not it was a treated set of samples. In other words, you had a basic set of samples there, X number of tubes, about half of which had been treated with the homeopathic compound and half that hadn't. And then you had some blanks. This is what we called the controls. You've got to get the nomenclature clear here. And Elizabeth Davenas, the one who was doing the counting under the microscope, one occasion she was sitting at the microscope and she was counting with a little clicker in her hand, you know, one of these digital ...

S: Yeah.

JR: ... clickers, and she was going click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. She stopped, looked at the number, it was fifteen or something, and she recorded fifteen on her sheet. And then she took the slide out, and as she was going to put it back, she looked down and put it back in the microscope again. And Walter Stewart, who was standing there, said "What's wrong?" She said "Oh, no, that's a control." And she counted again, and she got something like four this time.

B: Oh.

JR: Now, counting these things – you're counting something that doesn't show up very clearly in the microscope slide. You have to make a ...

S: Judgement call

JR: ... judgement call on whether or not its an exploded basophil or not.

S: Which is a bubble, right.

JR: Right. It's not like A or B or it's there or it's not there. It's a decision that you have to make. It's an evaluation. So that showed that since she recognized that was a control, it shouldn't have had any exploded basophils on it. It should have been just blank.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: So, anyway, that's just an example.

S: That's basic. I mean that's like an extremely basic thing in science is having ...

JR: Oh, absolutely.

S: ... objective outcome measures and blinded scoring so that you can't bias it.

JR: It's got to be double blinded, not just single-blinded, it's got to be double-blinded.

S: Right.

JR: And by that we mean – and we might as well explain to those who don't know – I sure you guys do, but double-blinded simply means that no one who's involved in the experiment and present at the experiment knows what the results are supposed to be or what the judgement call should be.

S: Right. And the absence of that really invalidates their entire line of research, which you showed very dramatically. I mean it's a question – John Maddox asked you to do this. Was there any publication that resulted from your investigation?

JR: Oh, yes.

S: Where was that published?

JR: That was in Nature.

S: It was published in Nature, OK.

JR: It followed within a week in Nature. They rushed to get it in there because they were getting so many questions from all over the world. "What were the results? What were the results?"

S: Right.

JR: And they published it in Nature, and then they did a replication, I think, something like a year or so after that, an attempt at independent replication. And though there were some puzzling results in it, and I've forgotten exactly what those were, certainly the replication showed the same kind of results.

S: It was basically negative.

JR: Yeah.

S: Yeah. Now Maddox had agreed to publish in Nature at one point a meta-analysis of homeopathy clinical trails, and he did it he says after the fact, he published it in Nature in order to spur debate about the topic.

JR: Yes.

S: But what in fact happened was the scientific community was utterly disinterested in debating the topic, and the homeopathic community just used that as endorsement of homeopathy, and Maddox later said that that was the worst decision he ever made as an editor. Chronologically, did he ask you to do this test after that meta-analysis? Do you know if this was his sort of way of making up for that error?

JR: That's a good question. I'm not sure at all. No, I don't really know. I haven't been in touch with John for a couple of years, now.

S: Yeah.

JR: "Sir John," pardon me.

S: Yes. It's incredible. It was an example of – obviously he's a world-renowned scientist and publisher of Nature, which is the most prestigious basic science journal in the world. And he was so easily blind-sided by the homeopaths, basically because he didn't realize, which is what I perceive in my colleagues and in general in the medical and scientific field, they don't realize that the alternative medicine crowd and paranormalists in general are not playing by the same rules of fairness that scientists are playing by.

JR: Exactly, exactly.

S: They completely blind-sided him, when that happened.

JR: There's something else here to be considered. John was surprised that the world of science wasn't terribly interested in what Nature had done. But if he had published something on what, as they call him, Father Christmas or we know him as Santa Claus and flying reindeer, they would have been equally uninterested, ...

S: Right.

JR: ... because they knew from the beginning that this concept of homeopathy is juvenile.

S: Absolutely.

JR: It's not worthy of consideration. But it is worthy of consideration, and I'll jump to Carl Sagan here, Carl Sagan used to get scolded all the time. People would say to him, and I heard one man say to him at Cornell: "Carl, you're an astronomer. You should be doing astronomy." But Carl was much more useful than as a mere astronomer, because he brought all of this crap to the public attention, and he fought the battle valiantly against pseudo-science, as we know. And the same thing happens with scientists who look, and they say "Who the hell cares about homeopathy. That's nonsense." But the public cares about it, and the public is being victimized by it. And that's – they don't seem to have enough social sense or social responsibility that they should get in there as they did at one point with astrology and say "Hey, astrology is total nonsense." And objections to astrology is what gave rise to the formation of CSICOP.

S: Right.

JR: The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal many, many years ago.

S: That's right. I work within the field of medicine, and I find the exact same thing that your rank and file academic scientist and even the clinical practitioner, they think of the whole body of spiritual medicine and so-called complementary alternative medicine is just nonsense and it's really not worthy of their time and attention. Academics have this sense that it's tainted, that somehow if they deal with it in any way, it's silly, and it sort of is a smudge on their academic reputation, and they really just don't want to touch with a ten-foot pole. I totally agree with you is what that leads to the paranormalists having free rein. Essentially free rein to defraud the public and to carry on their own agenda. And it's really, it's very disconcerting, and there's really a very small number of scientists, the number's greater than zero fortunately, but it's a very small number of scientists who, like Carl Sagan and like others, see this problem and actively take it on.

E: Exactly.

S: Sometimes we feel like the voice crying in the wilderness. It's hard to get people to listen to us.

JR: Very true. Very true.

S: People are either true believers or they don't care.

JR: That's right.

S: And ...

B: Steve!

S: Yeah.

B: I think it would be great to have more scientists talking about that, just like you do, but I'm also afraid like you touched on earlier, that just because someone's a scientist doesn't mean that they are an expert in other fields that aren't in their domain, or they're not familiar with, like you said, they're not playing by the same rules.

JR: Very true.

B: Sometimes this might force scientists to actually endorse some of these things because they're hoodwinked like the average Joe Citizen as well because they're just not familiar with the techniques ...

S: That's right.

B: ... like a magician would be, someone who's familiar with psychology and how people believe in misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

S: That's right.

B: It could be a double-edged sword.

S: Well, amazingly not all scientists are skeptics, or they may think they are but they are just not equipped to deal with this world, the world of deception.

JR: And not all of them have the expertise that they need to have.

S: Absolutely.

JR: The thing about scientists that strikes me very strongly is they saw a paper on it. Well so-and-so is a PhD and he published a paper on it. They seem to believe, many of them, not all of them by any means, but many of them tend to believe that if it's written by a legitimate guy with PhD after his name, that it's got to be so. Now science doesn't prove anything, and I think that's something that shocks a lot of people to hear me say it.

S: Right.

JR: Science doesn't discover facts. Science discovers statements about the universe around us, which seem – that appear to make a valid statement about how the universe works. But that statement is subject to correction either now or at any time in the future, subject to better or different evidence. It's subject to total cancellation or adjustment or validation. It's subject to all of these things. It's a tentative statement ...

S: Right.

JR: ... that appears to be correct.

B: The goal is to get closer and closer to the truth, knowing that you will never actually reach it.

JR: No, of course not. You can't get anywhere near it.

B: Right.

JR: I often say to my audiences that one drop of water, one drop of any selected water from anywhere you want to name could occupy a crowd of scientists for the rest of their professional lives, and they wouldn't be able to say "Now we know everything about that drop of water."

S: That's right, because there's always deeper levels of knowledge or reality, and also everything is tentative, as you say. But I think there's another huge misconception that keeps cropping up, is the difference between the authority of an individual scientist or an individual institution or an individual paper or study versus an evolving consensus of the scientific community. I think what you're saying, well somebody reads a paper or a scientist has a certain belief or claim, and they think, they attach some sort of authority to that, but in reality, that's meaningless because there are papers and scientists all over the map in terms of claims and beliefs and evidence. The only thing that really has any reliability in my opinion is a mature, established consensus of opinion that's built upon multiple, multiple, independently replicated studies. But the media for sure doesn't perceive the difference between those two things.

JR: Or they choose not to.

S: It's lazy and easy for them not to, so they just choose to cite expert scientist X who makes this fantastic claim, and that's a good enough authority for them, and they're not apparently bothered by the fact that what scientist X has to say is contrary to a very well, a deeply well-established scientific consensus. So just one of the many hurdles that I think that we deal with in this arena of skepticism.

JR: Right. Right.

Changing Minds (37:23)[edit]

P: To change the topic slightly, I was wondering, Randi, in all your many years of testing have you ever after someone failed one of your tests, and they've all been failures, have you ever had somebody say "Well, I guess you're absolutely right. I have no such ability. I'll stop making such claims."? Have you ever had anybody react anything like that?

JR: Oh, yes. Certainly. It's never lasted.

B: Ha, ha, ha.

JR: It's never lasted. It happened, for example, when we were doing dowsing tests with multi-millionaire Dick Smith in Australia many years ago. We did very comprehensive tests of these dowsers. We had eleven of them, and he got them all into his office, and they're all in a group there, and he had to ask them the question, now we had the cameras rolling at the time, and he had to ask the question: "I'd like to by a show of 'ands" (I've tried to do my Australian accent), "I'd like to see a show of 'ands, how many of you might have changed your mind, now, about your dowsing abilities?" And no hands went up. Then one gentleman made a tentative motion with his right hand, and finally he did raise his hand. Dick of course jumped on him right away and said "You've changed your mind?" And he said, "Well, I really have to think about twice, now. I've never had an experience like this. I have to seriously doubt whether or not my belief in this is really sound." And Dick turned to me with a big smile on his face, and the gentleman left shortly after that. They all disbanded, and we went on talking with the reporters who were there, and Dick was actually giggling with glee. He carried on, he said "We've never had anyone reverse themselves." And I said, "Dick, give him a couple of weeks."

S: Right.

JR: "And he'll think of an excuse." Well, I was wrong on that. It only took him twenty minutes, because he called in. He stopped at a public phone on his way out of the place where we were at that moment. He called in and said he had been thinking it over, and it was the walkie-talkies we were using at the time. This was many, many moons ago. And he said ...

S: Walkie who now?

(laughter)

JR: ... walkie-talkie that we were using because they put out an RF emanation, you see. OK. He figured that's why he was wrong. Now, subsequently he was tested in Perth, Australia, the other coast of Australia, by Dick Smith and another group, and he went right off the charts in negative results. As a matter of fact it was almost Psi-missing if you know what that is.

S: Right. Right. Worse than random.

JR: Yes.

The Amazing Meeting 4 (40:00)[edit]

S: Before we forget, let's not forget to plug the Amazing Meeting 4. This is the fourth annual Amazing Meeting, which is run by the JREF, and it's coming up at the end of this month, January 26th to 29th, and this is going to take place in Las Vegas. So who do you have lined up for this conference?

JR: Oh my goodness, don't start me. Murray Gel-Mann and Nadine Strossen and all kinds of very, very interesting people. The subject this year is "Science and Politics and the Politics of Science."

S: Mm, hm.

JR: By that, we mean how well science does in politics, and it's not doing very well because of the Bush administration, of course, which is science-bashing left and right.

E: Oh, yeah.

JR: And the "Politics in Science" is how people in science are subject to political pressures, and how they as academics have to fight their way around and try to evade certain restrictions that are put on them by the politicians out there. They have to continue to get funding, and yet they can't say poo-poo words of any kind or they're in big trouble. So it's going to be very, very captivating, and of course we've got Penn and Teller, and of course Richard Wiseman, and we've got Phil Plait, of course, the Bad Astronomer. He's a fixture.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: We've got, I mentioned Penn and Teller, yes, we've also got the Mythbusters coming out.

S: That show's great.

JR: Oh, not only a great show, but they're great guys, too. They really are fun.

B: I've watched a bunch of episodes. I love the show. The guys look like a lot of fun. One thing, though, I wish that they would cover more paranormal topics. I know it's difficult because you have to actually build stuff that explodes to make it interesting, but I wish they would tackle some more paranormal topics on their show. They haven't hit many of them.

JR: Well, you know, Penn and Teller are doing a pretty damn good job of that.

S: Yeah, they are.

JR: With their Bullshit series. Certainly.

B: Oh, absolutely.

JR: We've got some heavy people out there batting for us, you know.

B: Oh, I know, I know, I'd just love to see them tackle just a couple more.

S: It's not really their shtick, though. They do more with urban legends than with paranormal stuff.

JR: You have to understand that. But I must stay the registration – we just got more registrations today, even. It's going to go right up to the wire I'm sure, but it's going to have to cut off very soon, now. I don't think we can take more than another twenty or twenty-five perhaps because the big auditorium there will only handle 710, so we've got to be well short of that.

S: What are you capping it at, then?

JR: Probably at 690, because there will always be media people that have to be accommodated.

S: Right. So next year you're going to get a bigger place?

JR: It looks like we're going to have to, because this is beyond our expectations altogether.

S: Are you going to keep it on the west coast, or are you ever thinking of moving it to the east coast?

JR: Well, we're even thinking it of moving it internationally, Steve.

S: Yeah.

JR: We're contemplating the idea of doing one in the UK. That may mean doing two a year.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: But it's a very good fundraiser for us, so that wouldn't be out of the question, at all. We've been promised all kinds of good things if we were to take it to England, because that makes all of Europe – they have pretty good access to England.

S: Yeah.

JR: And rather easily and rather cheaply. So it makes it very attractive to them. But we're just testing that market, now.

S: I see. So you make money at these conferences.

JR: Oh, yes. No, we do very well.

S: That's great!

JR: It's about half of our entire budget.

E: Wow!

S: That's interesting, because CSICOP is always complaining that skeptical meetings lose money, but I guess that's just the way that they hold them.

JR: Well, maybe. Of course we have the auctions and we have the celebrity dinner. Jamy Ian Swiss, by the way, well of course I failed to mention him, Jamy Ian Swiss is going to be there again. But not only that but I don't know how many – I think we've got like four or maybe even five sessions with him that are sold out to the roof. We actually expanded his audience somewhat, that is, made the permissible audiences. I think he only wants something like thirty people at a time ...

S: Yeah.

JR: ... and we had to expand that somewhat because his tickets sold almost instantly.

S: Just out of curiosity, do you remember off-hand, is Chris Mooney slated to speak? He wrote the book The Republican War On Science. It seems right up the alley of the...

JR: I think we went after Chris, but he wasn't able to help us this year. Perhaps next year.

S: Yeah, he's a busy guy, yeah.

JR: There's always a number of – Mr Harris, what's his first name? The guy who wrote, what is it, The End Of Faith is it?. Yeah, The End Of Faith. What's his first name? It's Harris. Not Sam Harris. In any case, he will probably be helping us out next year.

B: Sam Harris?

JR: Yeah, I believe it's Sam Harris.

S: Sam Harris. OK. Well it sounds like it's going to be a great meeting. If anyone listening to this in time, you might want to pay a visit to randi.org and sign up. Get one of those last spots. Unfortunately, we will not be able to make it this year. I definitely hope to make a future meeting. And definitely if you have it on the east coast we'll make it.

Books (45:20)[edit]

S: So, are you working on any books at the moment?

JR: Ah! Am I working on any books?

(laughter)

JR: Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? Let's get real, here. I've got two of them in the works, and one of them is called A Magician In The Laboratory. I won't have any problems getting publishers, I think, for that. Nor for another one which is simply called Wrong!, with an exclamation point.

E: Ha, ha. I like that.

B: Hm, hm, hm, hm.

S: To the point. I assume the Magician in the Laboratory is about your investigations of more scientific studies or scientists that were bamboozled by paranormalists.

JR: Yes, and it will deal very in-depth with the Benveniste event as a matter of fact.

S: Great.

JR: Benveniste died last year. Very, very tragically on the operating table, brain surgery as a matter of fact. So I'm a little freer to say things that I might not have said before.

S: Right. Right. The dead can't sue.

JR: Yeah, exactly.

S: And in Europe, just as an aside, the libel laws are much more liberal. The threshold is a lot lower than in the United States.

JR: Particularly in the UK. In the UK they're really medieval because you can literally sue someone for wearing a tie that offends you. Now, that doesn't mean you can win.

S: Right.

JR: And it doesn't mean that the justice is actually going to allow it to take place, he's going to accept it. But, it does mean that legally you can do such a thing. And people sue people for saying something that offends them in a public speech, even.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: It's an astonishing set of laws. And it means you have to retain a lawyer, of course, and you have to go through all this expense.

S: So it's easy to file harassment suits.

JR: Oh, yes. Of all kinds. Anything that has a libel suit in the UK. You can sue people for anything.

S: Yeah. I mean it's bad enough in the US, but the US has a more of a reasonable threshold for ...

JR: Yes, indeed.

S: ... for proof.

JR: And you should know that Uri Geller has a very hard time bringing civil cases in this country, now.

S: Just because lawyers are unwilling to take his cases because of his track record?

JR: No. Well, that's one reason I'm sure. But the other reason is that he was declared by the Supreme Court as being a "litigious individual", and that's all that a judge needs to know when he sdeciding whether or not he's going to accept a case from someone.

P: Good.

S: So that's the mark of death, huh? The kiss of death.

JR: Yeah, and we make sure the judges know about that.

S: That's good. That's good to know. So that's definitely – so we can feel more free to trash Uri Geller on our show? Is that what you're saying?

JR: No. I didn't say to libel him.

S: I didn't use the "L" work (unintelligible).

B: The "T" word.

JR: To discuss him in a serious manner. Let's put it that way.

S: In a scientific and cold manner.

JR: Yes.

S: I notice on your Swift on-line, an excellent on-line newsletter, a must read for all skeptics, for anyone intelligent, actually, the banner is very interesting. Again, this is a psychic fiasco. You have the case of Robbert van den Broeke, who is a Dutch alleged psychic who was giving a reading on a television show, I guess.

JR: He did it too well.

S: He did it a little bit too well. He was spontaneously giving a reading of the wife of a cameraman and saying she had a past life.

JR: No, no. Well, yes, that's right. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

S: And gave details of the previous life, which were remarkably detailed. And it turns out that the details could be found on a website with a simple Google search, including – he reproduced a typo in his reading, which clearly brands his reading as plagiarism.

JR: That he got directly from Google, yeah.

S: Right, right. So its hard to argue with facts like that.

JR: Well, there's another thing coming up, which I won't reveal now. It's going to be on next week's page folks, so stay tuned. How about Robbert (with two b's). Yeah, Robbert apparently pulled some other fact sheet stuff on them, and that's going to be revealed next week.

S: But you make the point in your newsletter that this is as clear as day. Anyone with a brain can see that this guy was just dredging information from the internet and regurgitating it as if he were reading it, and he was caught red-handed because he reproduced a typo. But, he's not going anywhere. I mean this is not the end of his career, because these pseudo-psychics survive these kinds of gaffes. Sylvia Browne will survive her gaffe on Coast-To-Coast.

JR: Oh, yeah, Of course.

S: The will to believe is just too strong, even for such ...

JR: It's not only the will to believe, it's the need to believe.

S: Yes.

JR: The need. I used to say that people want these things to be true. No, they need them to be true, because it fulfils their fantasies, it gives them a picture of the universe which is much more acceptable than reality, and they need it to be true. They need it desperately.

S: And that is an issue that we confront often, because frequently we find ourselves confronted with people who are just not dealing on a rational level. So we can make all of the scientific, rational, logical, evidence-based arguments that we want, but the fact is they believe for reasons entirely other than reason and evidence.

JR: Very true.

S: How do we get through to these people? Do we just say OK, they're impenetrable to logic and evidence so we don't worry about them?

JR: Yes, we do.

S: That certainly is the default. I don't know of anyone who's really come up with a good alternative. Is there any way to get them to at least in some cases to perhaps fulfil their needs in more rational or reasonable ways?

JR: It happens occasionally. We always try to do that. It happens occasionally. I've had people call by here with a tattered copy of "Flim-Flam" and say they went through it in detail trying to pick holes in my argument and finally decided "Gee, maybe the man's right", and they came by to sort of apologize.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: All they get for that is a hardy handshake and another copy of Flim-Flam.

S: Right.

JR: Nonetheless, it does happen every now and then. By and large, the convinced believer will never be unconvinced, because they just can't believe that they fell for something like that. "No, I wouldn't fall for something like that."

S: Right.

JR: "I'm not a fool." It doesn't mean they are a fool. It means they may be naive. It may also mean that maybe they're not educated, as educated as they might be or they need to be in these cases. It doesn't mean that they're fools, however.

S: Right. But there's huge cognitive dissonance ...

JR: Yes.

S: ... when people are confronted with the evidence basically that they have been led to believe something that is utterly false and perhaps even foolish. And there's psychological literature which shows that for example like in cults where a specific, dated claim was made: "The UFO's going to take us away next Tuesday."

JR: Yeah.

S: And next Tuesday comes and goes. Again, to any thinking person the claims were disproven. Following those kinds of revelations that should wake people up, people believe even deeper and will typically go on recruiting drives following those kinds of episodes.

JR: There's an excellent book out on that subject, by the way.

S: Yeah.

JR: When Prophecy Fails. I don't recall the names of the co-authors. They're sociologists. But it's beautiful, because the end of the world was coming for these people. They were absolutely convinced of it. They had given away their property. They were in the white robes and the sandals on the mountain. The whole – the picture that you dread happening again, but it will happen again, and it's happening right now, I'm sure, someplace in the world. But, then their rationalization after it all failed.

S: Mm, hm.

JR: It's just astonishing. It's hard to believe.

S: Yeah.

JR: I often quote a woman who stood up in an audience after I had had a question and answer period following one of my lectures, and she stood up, and it was about the last question that was going to be asked, and she said "Mr. Randi, if you'll pardon me I think I've solved what your problem is." And there was a titter of laughter around the audience, and I smiled and I said "Well, pray tell, what is it?" She said "I believe that you're over-obsessed with reality."

S: Over-obsessed with reality.

(laughter)

JR: And the audience started to laugh and clap, and she thought that was approbation. She thought that they were accepting her.

S: Right. Right.

JR: That this was for her. And she turned around, held up her hands, and smiled at the audience, and sat down looking very smug. I just paused for a minute and I said "You may be right"

S: You may be right.

JR: She clapped her hands and she told me afterwards, she came to the foot of the stage, she said "Well I'm glad I got through to you." I didn't make much comment on it.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

E: What is there to say?

JR: She's probably still thinking she's the one who got through to me.

S: Right. Now Steve Pinker has something very interesting to say about the whole rationalization thing. He's a psychologist at Harvard who wrote ...

JR: Who we're hoping to get for next year, by the way.

S: Yeah. He's excellent. I'd love to have him on the Skeptics' Guide.

JR: He'd be wonderful.

S: But he, in his book, The Blank Slate, he writes about a lot of the neurology and psychology literature, which shows that most of the time what people do on a day-to-day basis is they believe things for essentially subconscious, emotional, hard-wiring reasons. And then most of our conscious thought is spent not deciding what to believe, but rationalizing what we already do believe. That's actually how most people operate most of the time. We just believe things for subconscious reasons, and most of our cortex is spent just rationalizing those emotionally-held beliefs. And I think what we do as skeptics often is just really rawly show that process in action.

JR: Oh no, Steven is brilliant.

S: Yeah, he is. But it's very sobering to think about the idea that that's basically just human nature. That's how our brains work.

JR: Yup. That's the way it goes.

S: And I do see what we do as skepticism in general, just science and reason, as really the best way to transcend the limitations of human nature. Maybe that is the way we are hard-wired to be, but certainly we can overcome it, just through the application of reason. I think of as one synthesis of our message, I think that that's it.

P: Randi, were you heartened by the recent Intelligent Design decision out of Dover?

JR: Oh, yes, but we know that it's going to rise again.

S: Yeah.

JR: It's one of those unsinkable rubber ducks, as well. It hasn't gone away permanently, not by any means. I was heartened by it. Of course Pat Robertson told us that Dover better not appeal to God ...

S: Right.

JR: ... because they've turned against him.

B: How pathetic is that?

JR: God is a little – he's sort of touchy on things like that, from what I understand. Though I was heartened by it, that's not the end of the battle, not by any means.

P: No, but that judge's ruling was pretty scathing, I thought. It was good. Yeah.

JR: Oh, it was. Not only that, he was a staunch Republican ...

E: Yes.

JR: ... and a church-going Christian, the whole thing. Which shows that people in a position like that have to do what they were elected to do. And he did it. And my hat's off to him. Kudos!

P: Hear, hear.

S: Absolutely.

E: Definitely. Definitely.

P: Definitely.

S: It's true these belief systems never go away, but we can have a victory in that they can be marginalized, and their impact and influence can be greatly marginalized. The good thing about this is that this is now a legal precedent, and even though we'll never be able to get rid of Creationism because, again, it's a religious belief, it's not a scientific belief, its ability to influence public school education can certainly be taken away with these legal victories. So I think it's very meaningful, these kind of victories. So, James Randi, again the James Randi Education Foundation. You can visit his website at randi.org. Randi, thank you once again for being on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

JR: And I must say people will be tuning in sometime – I guess it will go up on February 10th, according to my calendar here, we will have our own podcasts starting at that time of the year, and we hope that people will be clicking in on us, too.

S: Absolutely. Again, it was a pleasure, we appreciate it. We hope to have you on again sometime in the future.

JR: Certainly.

B: Thank you, Randi.

E: Thank you.

JR: Thank you.

P: Thank you, Randi.

S: Good luck at the Amazing Meeting, and hope we will catch you at one of those in the future.

JR: As May West once said, "Luck has ...", no, she said "Goodness has nothing to do with it," but luck has nothing to do with it, Steve.

S: OK.

P: Hear, hear.

S: You're right.

JR: It's hard work, believe me.

S: Take care. So that was great to have James Randi on the Skeptics' Guide. I hope again we have him on again sometime soon. He is, of course, probably the biggest celebrity in skepticism, if there is one.

B: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

P: Yes. Well deserved.

E: Yes.

S: Very entertaining, very fun to talk to. He has a million stories.

P: He gets it.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

E: Ha, ha, ha.

P: Randi gets it.

S: Well the hour went by very quickly, as it always does, especially when we have such an interesting guests on our show. But, the hour is up, so Bob, Evan, Perry, thank you again for joining me.

E: Thank you.

B: Our pleasure, Steve. See you next week.

P: See you next week, everyone.

S: Until next week, this is you Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For information about this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theness.com. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.

References[edit]

  1. Zanex
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