Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

Kickstarter: An Honest Liar

Last year I mentioned a documentary-in-development about skeptic James 'The Amazing' Randi, titled "An Honest Liar". The film-makers have now turned to Kickstarter to raise $148,000 to finish the project.

An Honest Liar profiles the colorful life of famed magician turned professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi as he embarks on a series of public crusades to expose America’s psychics, faith healers and con artists with religious fervor. But you never know whether to trust a master deceiver - and there's more to Randi's life than meets the eye.

I think it's a worthwhile project - Randi is certainly a fascinating character to study, and has lived a very interesting life. I hope that the film-makers will be delving into the "colorful" aspect of Randi's personality, rather than simply making a hagiopic, though I'm not encouraged by the call to arms in the blurb: "You can help fund our film and spread a call for reason and critical thinking and save the world from falling back into the Dark Ages!" Ugh, the old Dark Ages trope. Anyhow, if you'd like to see the documentary come to fruition, or at least are interested in the pledge reward packs, then kick in some dollars to help them reach their goal (currently around $35,000 raised out of $148,000, with a month still to go, so looking promising).

On a related note, Randi's Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) is under heavy discussion in the blogosphere again after Steve Volk wrote a blog post taking Sam Harris to task for saying that there was “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part in the controversial test. This in turn inspired responses from skeptics Steven Novella ("Defending the Million Dollar Challenge") and Sharon Hill ("Looking for the best answer: Sorry it burst your paranormal balloon").

There's very little I want to add, as I've laid out most of my criticisms of the Million Dollar Challenge previously. To keep critiquing it, or James Randi, over and over again just seems like I've got a bug up the proverbial about it all, when I really don't. So I'll just quickly list a few things that came to mind while reading these responses to Steve Volk's blog, and which keep coming up repeatedly in critiques of my own article:

Firstly, Sharon mentions in her post websites that "enjoy bashing James “The Amazing” Randi", and Steve Novella takes issue with Steve Volk's blog post, saying "The attack amounts to one giant straw man, typical of such criticisms...this post, like all criticisms I have seen, focuses on Randi the man." I've looked at Volk's blog a few times, and I can't see how Novella would come to this conclusion - it focuses nearly entirely on the MDC, with just an early mention of Randi as a 'cranky elf'. I bring this point up because whenever I mention the MDC, I seem to face accusations of flagrantly attacking Randi. Indeed, in his own response to my original article, he described me as a "grubbie" who had written a "tirade" attacking him. One would think that skeptics would appreciate articles taking a skeptical stance on someone's claims, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

However I must give credit to Steve Novella for making a certain point clear. This has also been mentioned by Randi and D.J. Grothe previously, but let's put this one up in lights so it can be referenced from now on (for reasons to be discussed below):

The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon....

The million dollar challenge is not designed to scientifically test subtle or tiny effects, but rather to test the dramatic claims of people who are publicly proclaiming they have genuine paranormal abilities.

Randi et al may well have "always been crystal clear about this" (I agree they have mentioned this, I'm not sure I would extend it to being "crystal clear"), but the fact remains that in debates over parapsychology, the MDC has become some sort of trump card that is often thrown on the table by skeptical debaters - "if he's so sure he's proven precognition, why doesn't he apply for Randi's prize?". Indeed, the ENTIRE REASON for Volk's article was Sam Harris invoking this argument - so Steven Novella would perhaps be better off aiming his corrective comments at him, rather than Volk. So too with New Scientist, who asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi's million dollars.

We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem's famous experiments ("Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi") - an editorial that Novella himself described as "the best thing to come out of Bem’s research" - we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon:

[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)

Hrmm - does that mean Wagenmaker et al need to readjust the prior probabilities for their Bayesian analysis...? (/musing aloud).

My final concern about the Million Dollar Challenge, which I have mentioned previously, but doesn't get mentioned by too many other people, is that I find the ethics of the whole thing rather questionable. It's not for testing subtle psi effects - Steve Novella makes that clear above (though if the comment referenced in this post is by him, maybe someone should tell Randi). It can be used as a tool for shaming high-profile frauds - though I would argue the insane odds (which are fine for risk management, not so much for finding things out) sadly gives any of those people a very rational excuse for not participating. Caught in the middle between those two ends though are the people who do apply - generally people that believe they have some power, and think that they can exhibit it to an amazing degree. There is little doubt that a portion of these claimants are either unbalanced, or desperate. To use them as cannon fodder for what is a publicity stunt, to me, is deplorable. And may just come back to bite the JREF at some point.

I consider the MDC an embarrassment. Skeptics may try to see that as a personal attack on Randi, but it's not. Skepticism is a prerequisite for exploring these areas...I just find it a shame so few skeptics practice it. If I want to attack Randi, I'll do so on the basis of his creative personality or his social Darwinism, or other often ignored facets of his personality and opinions. Seeing it as a defence of the paranormal would be more correct, but only in so much as I would like to see open, fair discussion of these topics without reference to an overhyped, unintelligent publicity mechanism designed to bring attention to Randi.

Magician Dunninger Reveals 'Spirit Swindles'

Legendary stage magician Joseph Dunninger demonstrates some of the tricks employed by fake mediums in the first five minutes of this rare 1937 Pathé News video recording. Like his contemporary Houdini, Dunninger pre-empted James Randi by offering a $10,000 prize to any psychic who could demonstrate powers that he could not explain by normal means. And like Houdini and Randi, he used this challenge to his advantage as a method of publicity.

(via @Daniel_Loxton)

The Laws of Physics Are Completely Understood

Physicist Sean Carroll, speaking at James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting", tells how anomalous phenomenon simply can't happen because the laws of physics are completely understood:

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.

The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

There's a lot of elements to like about the talk, and Sean Carroll is no doubt a smarter man than me, but the pre-emptive debunking of apparent anomalies in science (such as parapsychology and the evidence for the survival of consciousness) - in effect, saying that we need not even test these anomalies because the laws of physics are already understood and preclude them - left me thinking of another well-known scientist's thoughts on the apparent completeness of science. Considering the alternative scientific viewpoints from the likes of physicist Henry Stapp, on theoretical explorations of the possibility of an afterlife, and Dean Radin's recent work on conscious influence in the famous double-slit experiment, the famous (though possibly apocryphal) fin de siècle quote of Lord Kelvin immediately came to mind when contemplating Carroll's pronouncements:

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

Within a few years, science was turned on its head by relativity, and followed by quantum mechanics. One can only wonder if current-day anomalies, such as those explored by parapsychologiests, might one-day lead to some similar revolution, this time involving consciousness or information as primary elements of the cosmos.

The Man Who Astonished James Randi

In 1982, James Randi set out to test the claims of Dr. Arthur Lintgen, a physician from Pennsylvania:

He doesn’t read minds, tell the future, or talk to the dead, but can he can tell you what songs are on a vinyl record just by staring at it, and no, he doesn’t need the label. Lintgen claims he only became aware of his strange ability when challenged at a party in the 70′s, and found, to his surprise, that he could correctly identify records just by looking at the grooves.

“Friends of mine with more scientific and musical knowledge than I have tried it unsuccessfully,” he once told the New York Times. “I don’t know how I do it. I have terrible eyesight.”

In 1982, the ABC television series That’s Incredible decided to put Dr. Lintgen to the test in front of an audience, and to the astonishment of Stimson Carrow, then the professor of music theory at Temple University, Arthur was able to not only correctly identify 20 different unlabeled records, but was able to identify their pieces and composers.. all from about 15 feet away. The audience was astonished.

That kind of stunt might have been enough to impress viewers at home, but there were still many who remained skeptical of the man who could see records. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not pre-taped television episodes. After all, it’s not like TV has the greatest track record of honesty.

So what happened when 'The Amazing' set out to test Dr Lintgen? Read the entire story at Who Forted?.

$#it New Age Girls Say

I'm in a bad mood, and I need a LULz fix before the weekend starts —hope you get a kick out of it too.

If you feel identified in any way with the video, like STOP it, k? Peppering your dialogue with Choprenglish is not going to get you any closer to your Pleiadian guides.

[OK, feeling better now...]

Randi's Partner Avoids Prison

In the sentencing hearing for James Randi's long-time companion Deyvi Pena (aka 'Jose Alvarez') today after his conviction on a charge of identity theft, the judge declared his desire to imprison Pena for two years, saying his actions constituted "a serious crime that deserved punishment." However, by the end of the hearing, the magistrate was persuaded to hand down a sentence consisting of six months of house arrest, followed by three years of probation:

Hurley repeatedly said he was concerned about the message it would send to be lenient on Alvarez, whose real name is Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga. Jose Luis AlvarezThe judge told Pena he came to court ready to sentence him to two years in prison. But after hearing passionate pleas for mercy and testimonials to Pena's generous, loving nature, Hurley said, "I am prepared to change that sentence."

..."I want to express my deepest regrets," Pena said. "It was never my intention to cause trouble for anyone."

Randi, 83, a native of Canada, told the story of how he proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen and cherishes this nation's freedoms. He said that opportunity was foreclosed to Pena by U.S. immigration policies at the time.

"He was tempest tossed. He was cruelly treated," Randi told the judge. "This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt."

...Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, a relieved Pena hugged his friends one by one.

As per usual, I think Randi's being a bit loose with the truth here in saying "no one was hurt" - for instance, the victim of the identity theft reportedly missed his sister's wedding due to passport problems arising directly from Pena's actions. However, from all reports Pena is quite a lovely person, and two years in prison may have been a bit of a harsh punishment in my eyes.

Hopefully, given Randi's somewhat advanced age, the couple can now continue with their life together, though the end of the criminal case now allows for deportation proceedings to possibly be initiated. Pena is hoping to obtain political asylum in the United States based on a fear of persecution for his homosexuality back in his native Venezuela.

And I guess the other question that many would like answered, once again, is "when did Randi know?"

Update: A couple of recent court documents have been posted online, notably the defense's Sentencing Memorandum and Request for Variance" and an appendix of personal testimonials from the likes of Randi, Penn & Teller, and Richard Dawkins vouching for Jose Alvarez. The latter document sheds some interesting light on things such as Randi's financial position ("a shambles" in 2010, largely due to being allegedly fleeced by a contractor renovating his house, damaged in a hurricane in 2005) and the generosity of Randi and Alvarez/Pena to others (paying for flights, funerals etc. for friends and family unable to afford them). On a sidenote, the testimonial of Richard 'Rick' Adams also leads me to believe that he is the likely owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, and benefactor of the JREF, that I (probably wrongly) guessed previously as being Jeff Bezos.

See also:

Randi Goes 'Round the Bem

James Randi has announced his 2012 Pigasus awards, and in the scientist category has given it to Daryl Bem, for his experiments exploring the case for a precognitive ability in humans. Yes that's right, Randi frowns upon people doing science. Fail:

The winner of the Pigasus Prize in the scientist category is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research that has been discredited on many accounts by prominent critics, such as Drs Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella and Chris French. Such examination shows very strange methods used by Bem to prove his case, which ends up unproven - though the popular media, of course, have chosen to embrace it.

Do Drs Wiseman, Novella and French really believe that Daryl Bem should be the winner of an award that Randi says he bestows upon "the most deserving charlatans, swindlers, psychics, pseudo-scientists, and faith healers"? And do they believe that Bem's research employed "very strange methods" and that it has now been "discredited on many accounts" [my emphasis]?

Anecdote is Evidence, Redux

Last year I did a short commentary when what can only be described as a 'witch-hunt' began against British 'psychic' Sally Morgan, after a couple of phone-in callers to a radio show suggested that they heard people feeding her information via a wireless earpiece at her show:

Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)"...

...So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)".

As I said at the time, my criticism certainly wasn't meant as support for the validity of 'Psychic Sally' - it was instead a reaction to how hearsay from just a couple of people could spark outright attack against an individual. Not to mention that such an irrational, reactionary attack was being led by self-labeled 'rationalists'.

My reason for bringing up this issue is that last night Derren Brown played the same Dublin theatre where the incident originally happened, and he spoke to the staff there. This is what he subsequently tweeted:

Assured by the crew here that it was NOT Sally's ppl cuing her. It WAS just lighting ops chatting with window open. (They were making fun: show was apparently not good). The 'not good' bit obviously subjective. Point was, no sneakery from the lighting op room. There you go.

I haven't seen that retweeted by *any* of the high-profile skeptics who originally accused Sally Morgan of being fed information (let alone an outright "I shot my mouth off, my bad"). Poor form.

Klass Act?

Billy Cox - writer of the Devoid column/blog that often covers stories on the UFO beat - has posted an interesting anecdote about his own experience with well-known UFO skeptic Phil Klass:

Klass was a prolific writer who dismissed the Walton controversy as confabulation in his 1983 book UFOs: The Public Deceived. De Void was just beginning this forlorn and dreary journey back then. No reason for a newbie to doubt him. Except for, well, maybe this one case in Klass’ book concerning three people who suffered acute UFO radiation burns in Texas in 1980. Klass’ take on what became known as the Cash-Landrum incident stopped me cold. Because I’d actually done my homework on that one. And that’s when I got that first queasy feeling that the American press was routinely quoting a man who had a pathological disregard for truth.

It's a good cautionary tale about giving too much authority to leading skeptical voices. It caught my eye because it echoed my own experience with Martin Gardner's 'debunking' of medium Leonora Piper - a story which I was very familiar with, and which thus allowed me to see how loose Gardner was with the facts in achieving his goal.

Replicating Psi

LiveScience is featuring an article on the unsuccessful replication of Daryl Bem's controversial precognition experiment by skeptics Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stuart Ritchie, after their paper was posted on the open-access journal PLoS ONE:

Bad news for Miss Cleo and other alleged clairvoyants: A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real.

Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious, but the research is important because it refutes a study published in a psychological journal last year that claimed to find evidence of extrasensory perception. That research, conducted by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, triggered outrage in the psychological community when the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced in 2010 that the paper had been accepted for publication. Psychologists immediately leapt on Bem's statistics and methods, finding reasons how he may have come up with the unbelievable results.

But the real key to a strong scientific finding is reproducibility. If no other researchers can replicate a particular result, it's not likely that the result is real. So University of Edinburgh psychologist Stuart Ritchie and colleagues decided to mimic one of Bem's experiments almost exactly to see if they would also find evidence of psychic powers.

The results were clear. "We found nothing," Ritchie said.

The LiveScience report also quotes Daryl Bem as saying, in his official response to the negative replication, that this one failed study does not automatically invalidate his positive results - and that some attention should be paid to the alleged 'experimenter effect', where skeptical researchers get negative psi results, and neutral/pro-psi researchers get positive findings:

In a response to be published alongside Ritchie and his colleagues' research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, Bem wrote that it was still "premature to conclude anything about the replicability" of his experiment. It takes multiple replication failures to definitively refute a study, he said.

Bem also suggested that because Ritchie, Wiseman and French are skeptical of psychic abilities, they might have unwittingly influenced their participants not to display any clairvoyance. (The computer-based design of the study, however, is supposed to help prevent researchers from biasing their participants.)

"This does not mean that psi[psychic phenomena] results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin regarding the experimenter as a variable in the experiments that should be included in the research designs," Bem wrote.

Now, I think it may be a stretch for Bem to invoke the 'experimenter effect' explanation - unless we stretch it to some sort of telepathic or psychokinetic influence - as Bem himself set up the study protocol specifically to run via a computer in order to minimize the experimenter interaction.) And if we do that, I'm not sure how you could ever really study psi in a standard scientific manner. On the flipside, as I've noted previously, skeptics need to be careful of writing Bem's 'experimenter effect' concern off as 'special pleading', given that arch-skeptic (and lead author on the negative replication paper) Richard Wiseman himself has previously published papers discussing this possibility.

What I was amazed by though was what the LiveScience article *left out* from Bem's response...and also what Wiseman, French and Ritchie have thus far failed to share in every mention I've seen regarding their negative replication. According to Bem: