James Randi Responds to 'Social Darwinism' Controversy

James 'The Amazing' Randi

A few weeks back I posted about some controversial comments made by James 'The Amazing' Randi to author Will Storr which had Social Darwinist overtones. Over the weekend Randi has responded, initially by explicitly disputing the account as presented by Storr in his book The Heretics:

The statement “I’m a believer in social Darwinism,” did not come from me. In fact, I had to look up the expression to learn what was being referred to. This attack appears to be calling me a Nazi, nothing less. I demand that Mr. Storr refer me to the original sources to which we assume he has referred. Until then, I’ll only say that he has carefully selected phrases and statements out of context, not the sort of referencing that I would have expected from him.

However, not long after this statement from Randi, skeptic Hayley Stevens posted that she had heard the actual taped audio from the interview, and that Randi appeared to be wrong. She may also have put Randi or the JREF in direct communication with Will Storr, because earlier today Randi posted a reply in the comments thread to the story on Doubtful News:

Until just recently, I did not recall having spoken with Mr. Storr years ago about certain comments posted on randi.org, and I barely recall that event, even now This is an understandable lapse, since I’m constantly being interviewed, and often under circumstances that call for my attention to be otherwise directed, Also, some interviews occurred during a time of my life in recent years when my health – and thus my cognition – were not at their best. The unfair suggestion that Mr. Storr tried to provoke me, or that he’s a “bad guy,” is something I must dismiss, since I believe I would have remembered that sort of behavior. In any case, I now know much more about the described encounter, and I maintain that I would never have said I was a Social Darwinist, since I only recently learned in detail what that term really means, and in fact I was quite ignorant of the history of the movement organized around that false idea. I’ve been surprised that this was not obvious to people discussing the matter, but I accept that the conversation with Mr. Storr went just as described. No problem with that.

The entire post is a wee bit long to reproduce here in its entirety, so please head to Doubtful News read the entire thing. Personally, although I'm glad to see that Randi addressed the controversy, and came at it as a mea culpa (admittedly, belatedly), I have to say that I'm not overly impressed with it overall as a response: it seems to be a bit of a not-pology, contains some (to me) staggering hypocrisy, and has a number of the 'sleight-of-hand' tricks that I know Randi is skilful at weaving into his posts. But I'm also rather weary of this whole saga, and I imagine most others are too, so I'll just post my personal thoughts in the comments below for readers that are interested in the topic.

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Greg's picture
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Below are my own annotations to Randi's mea culpa. In doing so, I realise I may well open myself up, once again, to accusations of being a 'skeptic basher' or getting pleasure out of seeing Randi on the wrong end of the stick. As the actual goal of most of these posts has been to encourage more self-criticism within the skeptical community, to see these posts deflected in that way tends to suggest that I am wasting my time in writing them, and I almost deleted this one for that reason.

However, I'm fairly confident these are valid points towards examining Randi's apology in a critical manner, and I still believe that both organised skepticism and those outside the movement are better for such examinations. Skepticism is, after all, a necessary element to exploring the ideas that we post here on TDG, and a smarter, more constructive skeptical 'opposition' to weird claims can only be a positive in getting at the truth of these matters. Also, after seeing a number of what can only be described as sycophantic replies to Randi's response, I thought me putting my hand up to be the skeptical whipping boy once more might be worth the pain.

But lastly, I also want to mention that I was genuinely happy during this particular 'adventure' to see a number of skeptics who moved beyond a knee-jerk defence of Randi, to consider things more critically (among them, Hayley Stevens' post and initiative in talking to Will Storr directly, and this excellent, thoughtful comment by Blake Smith (Doctor Atlantis)). This presents a good lesson that we should be careful in assuming too much about individuals within a larger group that has displayed certain behaviours (which I myself was guilty of in my initial post). On the flipside, I was also completely unsurprised at a fair amount of flak that flew my way from a number of 'skeptics' about my post, so I also understand how easy it is to generalise about a group when you're getting attacked en masse.

I would like to point out I'm not a Randi hater - I have in the past acknowledged his good works, and many people whose judgement I respect have said he is genuinely a nice guy to sit down and talk to. I'm pretty sure also, when I spoke to Will originally regarding his research, that I noted that I actually enjoyed having him around as a cantankerous 'character' keeping things spicy. I do not believe, however, that he is above criticism, and beyond any personal errors he makes, I also think there's a fair case to be made that he inhibits science as much as he helps it (perhaps even more). I can certainly understand those who dislike Randi, given his history of viciously attacking parapsychologists (among others) to the point of trying to ruin their careers - while I enjoy the 'spice' of having Randi around, to some people his unsympathetic attention (and to be honest, plain ugly nastiness) would certainly be more poison than spice.

In any case, here are my comments to annotate Randi's mea culpa, for anybody that wants to weigh things up and come to their own conclusion. Some quotes are abbreviated for space considerations - please refer to the original post when in doubt of the context:

Until just recently, I did not recall having spoken with Mr. Storr years ago about certain comments posted on randi.org, and I barely recall that event, even now... Also, some interviews occurred during a time of my life in recent years when my health – and thus my cognition – were not at their best.

I do acknowledge that Randi is of advanced age and has been of ill health at times, and does a lot of press interviews. These may be factors in him not remembering making these comments. But I do think it's worth pointing out that Randi's "years ago" is actually less than two years - Storr's interview was as recent as July 2011. Not that far back in time to reach back into the memory bank. And Randi was apparently in fair health at this time, having just returned from a lecture tour of Norway, was present and giving interviews at TAM 2011, and was about to embark on a lecture tour of Canada.

The unfair suggestion that Mr. Storr tried to provoke me, or that he’s a “bad guy,” is something I must dismiss, since I believe I would have remembered that sort of behavior.

Fair play to Randi here for making sure that nobody attacked Will Storr as some sort of agent provocateur.

I maintain that I would never have said I was a Social Darwinist, since I only recently learned in detail what that term really means, and in fact I was quite ignorant of the history of the movement organized around that false idea. I’ve been surprised that this was not obvious to people discussing the matter, but I accept that the conversation with Mr. Storr went just as described.

I'm confused by this. Randi maintains he would never say he was a Social Darwinist, but also accepts that the conversation went as described? I also am not sure why Randi's complete ignorance of the term Social Darwinist, or its history, would be "obvious" to everyone discusing the matter, especially given the comments being debated.

I have said, many times, that I would do anything to prevent any young person from taking up drugs, and in fact I have had two instances in years past when I spent a lot of my time and money trying to do just that, and I failed. One of these people died, and the other, I was told a few years ago, is still a barely-surviving and tortured addict. That failure on my part still haunts me.

This is a touching anecdote, and assures us all that Randi certainly cares for young drug addicts. It does, however, stand in stark contrast to his own explicit comments on his own blog (not a an interview presented in a book), in which he even capitalises 'Poor Little Kids': "...Any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish by immediately gobbling down pills and injecting poison, is summoning up crocodile tears, in my opinion. They would - and presently do - mature into grown-up idiots, and Darwin would be appalled that his lessons were ignored".

Again, I'm confused here - which one is Randi's actual view on young drug users? Crocodile tears indeed...

Survival of the fittest works very well. It’s what is responsible for the present success of our own species, despite what individuals try to do to make us fail.

Wait, did someone lose the memo? Are we disavowing Social Darwinism or proclaiming it from the rooftops?

In our work with the JREF, my colleagues and I try to get individuals to think about what they’re doing by wasting their lives in acceptance of superstitious nonsense, because there are just no charities or government programs that provide that much-needed service. Folks, we care.

I'm pretty glad that the JREF couldn't get their hands on the likes of William Blake and W.B. Yeats. Because I care.

Though my Foundation is small, we’ve had a measurable and important effect on both young and old, internationally, and countless persons have expressed their thanks to us for educating them against false beliefs and attitudes.

Randi and the JREF have certainly done some good, I fully acknowledge that (e.g. charlatan-busting such as Peter Popoff, challenging parapsychology to improve methods, general contributions to helping people think skeptically). I also recognise they have done some bad too (though I don't mean this as a rebuttal to the point, only clarification of my own stance - I welcome any good done to the world).

I have always believed that people should be held accountable for the bad decisions they make, especially when society spends so much in time and resources to warn them of the likely consequences. I cannot understand how any informed adult who is aware of the facts may still choose to misuse drugs or alcohol. I believe that they should simply get out of the way of those who want a cleaner, better, safer and productive environment in which to raise their families.

The memo! Give the guy the memo, please!

I’m well aware that I sometimes “shoot from the hip” and speak on things about which I know very little.

[Insert Condescending Wonka meme image here].

(Sorry, that may be a facetious response, but it's honestly what I feel when I read these words based on a long history of watching Randi at work.)

In this present situation, I published my personal opinions about drug addiction without knowing very much about the neuroscience behind addiction, or the addiction recovery field. Not only did I say some deeply regrettable and insensitive things, but as I’ve learned more about the questions and issues at hand, I accept that I have been wrongheaded on a number of topics related to these issues. Even at 84, I’m still learning. Please bear with me, folks.

Good to see Randi pull back from his comments about drug addicts here. Although two paragraphs ago he just said "I believe that they should simply get out of the way". So is he truly "learning", or just posting what he thinks people want to hear?

When it’s pointed out to me that I’m wrong, as it has been by my colleagues in this instance, I admit my mistakes, only asking that the JREF and I not be treated as targets, fun objects to attack

I'm imagining there's a fair list of honest scientists interested in parapsychological topics who would be stunned to hear that Randi doesn't want to be "treated as a target, fun object to attack". This sentence literally had coffee coming out my nose - Randi has built his career around targeting people and making fun of them. Daryl Bem anyone? Heck, even I got called a 'grubby' for posting about the Million Dollar Challenge.

I’ve never even hinted that I’m perfect, and I have recognized faults, I’ve made errors, and I know it. I can only hope that my earnest and honorable efforts will survive my peccadilloes…

Again, good to see Randi in humble mode, noting that he has faults and makes errors.

I do want to note though that apart from these generalised acknowledgements of his faults, the specifics that his post acknowledged were (a) that Will Storr's account was accurate (while maintaining he would never say the things in the interview), and (b) that he was ignorant of the neuroscience of addiction (while saying still that he "cannot understand how any informed adult...may still choose to misuse drugs or alcohol" and believes "that they should simply get out of the way"). So we have basically two "I'm wrongs", in amongst passages saying "I'm not wrong".

The elephant in the room that Randi did not address in any detail was whether he was a believer in Social Darwinism. Randi mentions that he would never say explicitly that he was a Social Darwinist, because he didn't know what that means, and was not familiar with the history. But the real problem here doesn't lie in the term - it lies in the fact that what he said was Social Darwinism *in content* - both in a blog entry on his site in 2009, and again in an interview with Will Storr in 2011. To his credit, Randi quickly says Social Darwinism was a movement based around a "false idea". But how does he explain his comments in 2009 and 2011? And even within this very mea culpa, he continues to espouse SD themes. There is also, I will point out, no mention that he also made SD-aligned comments about people with mental illness. Hopefully he feels the same regret regarding those.

Again, much of the debate in the past few days has ended up at 'who is telling the truth, Will Storr or James Randi?' To me, that's been a distraction. Everyone asking that question has continued to ignore that Randi said these same things on his own blog a couple of years previously, explicitly.

But the question of who is telling the truth does bring up a larger question about Randi. I have stated quite plainly at various times as one of my criticisms of the man - in regards to his status as a protector of truth - that he baldly lies on a fairly regular basis. This fact is addressed at length in Will Storr's interview as well - I just didn't post about it in my original post. For example, in the Storr interview he basically confesses that he outright lied to his readers in the 'push a peanut across Times Square naked' controversy with Dr Gary Schwartz. This, in time, may end up having greater repercussions for Randi's standing than the little controversy we're addressing here.

So there's my thoughts, off the top of my head. I'm willing to be challenged and corrected on some of these points, as it's been pretty much stream of consciousness stuff. The Wonka thing was probably not needed, but it comes from plenty of frustration on Randi's viewpoint being accepted (almost always) uncritically, and the feeling that a bit of levity might be needed. I will likely be accused of 'skeptic bashing' for it, but I'm willing to take those licks as they are deserved. Just as long as those same people take Randi to task in future for the 'bashing' he regularly engages in, then fair play.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

emlong's picture
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The Amazing Reckless.

Tap's picture
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Greg, I think that most of your criticisms of Randi, both now and in the past, have been reasonable and fair. It has not escaped my notice that there are a number of people who are all too happy to take Randi's word as the final say on the matter, without doing any other investigation. Why don't they at least *explore* what the other side has to say? It's like they automatically assume that anyone believing in the paranormal is dishonest and that our statements can't be trusted. Which couldn't be further from the truth. There are plenty of good, honest people in this field.

I really wish that more people in the sceptical community were willing to revise their judgments on the paranormal community. Perhaps we need to work on our image? They don't need to respect our beliefs and ideas, but it would be nice if they at least respected *us* as individuals and were willing to trust our integrity.

Quote:

I'm imagining there's a fair list of honest scientists interested in parapsychological topics who would be stunned to hear that Randi doesn't want to be "treated as a target, fun object to attack". This sentence literally had coffee coming out my nose - Randi has built his career around targeting people and making fun of them. Daryl Bem anyone? Heck, even I got called a 'grubby' for posting about the Million Dollar Challenge.

Randi seems to me to be one of those people who can dish it out but can't take it. He has no problem viciously attacking decent people who don't deserve it, as you pointed out, but when the same is done to him, he cries foul.

I am no fun of ad hominem attacks and ridicule, so I don't approve of people applying those tactics to Randi. But I find Randi's hypocrisy in this area somewhat distasteful.

Perhaps Randi should be reminded of the sayings, "What goes around, comes around" and "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword." If Randi doesn't want to be mocked and made fun of, perhaps he should stop mocking and making fun of others.

Some sceptics complain about people involved in the paranormal as "hating" Randi or "bashing" him - but how are people supposed to feel, considering how rude, disrespectful and downright offensive Randi has so often been? I really think that Randi would be disliked a lot less if he would drop his bad attitude and just be *nice*. His pseudo-scepticism and refusal to even consider the possibility of the spiritual/paranormal would still be a problem, but if he actually showed us some respect, then he wouldn't be criticised/disliked nearly as much, IMO.

Imagine if Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin regularly made the sort of sneering comments and nasty attacks that Randi has so often made. I'm sure a lot of sceptics would be outraged and jump all over them. I just wish they could see that all we want is to be treated with kindness and respect. Which Randi does not do. I'm sure he's very nice to people who already agree with him, but surely it's a bigger person who can treat people holding opposing views with respect.

If Randi objects to mockery and ridicule, then it's hypocritical of him to indulge in so much (uncalled for) mockery and ridicule of others. It goes both ways. If he disapproves of that kind of behaviour, he shouldn't act that way himself. But no, it seems he *only* disapproves of mockery and ridicule when it's used against him.

I disapprove of all the ridicule and personal attacks myself, but it works both ways. Randi needs to *really* change his approach to the paranormal community and actually start treating us with some dignity and respect - simple common courtesy. And I think sceptics should be more critical of his personal attacks on people who have done nothing to deserve his vitriol.

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Here's the crux of the matter, as far as I'm concerned: Randi's been unscientific in his Social Darwinism ideas, just as he's been unscientific on his attacks on what he and his followers call 'Woo'.

Just as Social Darwinism is a pseudo-scientific distortion of Darwinism in order to conform to a particular political agenda, his a priori rejection of Psi & other topics --"it can't be, therefore it isn't"-- is also a distortion of scientific methodology bent to comply to his materialistic viewpoint.

He's ignorant of Darwinism, just as he's ignorant on a great deal number of issues, issues which he keeps talking about anyway as some kind of authority, sall while keeping his facade of snarky superiority in front of the cameras or all the people who spend quite a lot of money to go to Las Vegas, to a social event named after him --and yet members of the Skeptic community keep insisting they're no interested in 'hero worshiping'.

And most skeptics --save a few honorary exceptions-- are all too happy to just roll with everything Randi says. If it weren't for Hayley for example, people in that community would still be accusing Storr of libel because of that quote in the book.

That's not skepticism. That's DOGMA.

And now the founder of the JREF, an educational foundation whose goal is to promote critical thinking, claims that up until now he didn't know what Social Darwinism is. So either Randi is a liar, or even more ignorant than we thought, take your pick.

Now I finally want to say that I'm glad I don't go into 'skeptic-bashing' mode too often. Srsly Greg, how have you managed to do these kind of thing for so long?? ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
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I feel justified even moreso now in positing a conspiracy theory about people like Randi, Schermer, and Penn and Teller. They are a concerted psyop designed to frustrate the human potential movement. Ingo Swann was right for instance about the deep pocketed forces behind the attacks on the UFO data and on remote viewing. All of these alternative modes of thinking, speculation, and research open up vistas that make people less amenable to be herded together in little knots of fear and apprehension. The globalists really do want a vast slave class of automatons, and they really do employ gate keepers who try to slam shut the doors of perception. False flag events like 911 which made fear and unease paramount in human consciousness are clearly engineered to diminish people which is why all of the people I listed above take especial pains to mock and denigrate the 911 truth movement. Since 911 has nothing to do with the paranormal or "woo" really, I thought the focus on it by these people was pretty much a giveaway as to whom they were working for and what they really stood for deep down.

tihz_ho's picture
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...than most other counties combined

That's because in the US they charge by the pound :P

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the internet is a great tool for (among other things) the teaching of compassion & agape

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All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

SecretSun's picture
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Just ignore the Skepdicks. I'm fully confident that people who write for and read this blog are fully capable of discernment and are small "s" skeptics when it comes to separating wheat from chaff. Skepdickism is an absolutist and an annihilationist philosophy, and no matter how polite Sharon Hill or whoever pretends to be, in their hearts these people all fantasize about throwing all of you into camps. It really saddens me to see people who should know better falling for their fake politesse and their pretenses of reasonableness.

These people all turn and look away from Randi's endless transgressions the same way they ignore and toss out evidence that they can't understand or deal with. These episodes should be enough for any truly skeptical thinker that these people are all just blind followers, and a real researcher knows just how deep the moral rot goes.

These people don't care about Psi or UFOs- this is just typical nerd pecking order wargaming, something those of us who've spent their lives in fandom know all too well. Hardly any of these so-called Skeptics have any background or training in science- a lot of them have no higher education at all.

This isn't about reason or science, it's about not being able to get laid. It's about living with your mom well into middle age. It's about being picked last for gym class and sitting at home watching CPO Sharkey while everyone else was at the Prom. And in too many cases, it's about masking and denying some very, very troubling appetites.

That's what you are up against. Don't believe the hype. Don't play a game with a moving goalpost. The worst thing you can do in their eyes is ignore them. I also have to say that you turn away a lot of people by even wasting your time with Skepdicks- it gives off an unconscious signal that you are not convinced or committed.