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

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:

Randi's Partner Pleads Guilty

James Randi's domestic partner, David Pena (formerly 'Jose Alvarez'), today pleaded guilty to passport fraud in a Florida courtroom. In doing so, Pena's attorney Susan Dmitrovsky outlined her client's "compelling reason" for committing the crime:

She said that when Pena was an art student in New York City he took on a new identity so he didn't have to go back to Venezuela and continue to face "horrific persecution" as a gay man. He resolved not to go back to Venezuela after someone had put a gun to his head in a bar, Dmitrovsky said outside of court.

Pena believed he was taking on the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a dead man, his attorney said.

"It was done strictly for survival," Dmitrovsky said. "It was a deep secret that he's glad is now out in the open."

When Hurley asked Pena about his residency status, the artist responded, "Right now, I'm illegal basically." The judge warned Pena that after his sentencing, it was a certainty that immigration authorities would launch deportation proceedings.

...Pena stole the identity a year before he began traveling with Randi in the magician's crusade to expose mystics, faith healers and psychics as frauds. Randi testified at an October court hearing to Pena's true identity, acknowledging he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago.

...Randi attended Wednesday's court hearing, but Dmitrovsky said that neither he nor Pena are talking to reporters about the case until after Pena's sentencing.

Beyond the risk of deportation, Pena could also be facing up to 10 years in federal prison at his sentencing on May 17.

An Honest Liar

"An Honest Liar" is a documentary work-in-progress about the life and work of James 'The Amazing' Randi. Looks excellent:

An Honest Liar will chronicle how a curious child rose to the ranks of showman and then advanced to renowned demystifier of paranormal claims. We will hear firsthand about his celebrated debunking of the spoon-bending Uri Geller and his many visits to the Tonight Show where he exposed the faith-healing Peter Popoff. The film will bring to life such schemes as “Project Alpha”, where two magicians posing as psychics fooled a scientific study on paranormal powers and the famous “Carlos Hoax” in which Randi unleashed a fake mystic upon the people of Australia.

Interspersed with episodes from his past, the film will go behind-the-scenes while Randi prepares for another grand scale debunking. With the precision of a seasoned magician, Randi will research, plan, and assemble an Ocean’s Eleven-type team for a carefully orchestrated exposure of a fraudulent religious organization.

Featuring such experts as Penn and Teller, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and Adam Savage, among others, An Honest Liar will explore skepticism, illusion, and the psychology behind belief. The result; an engaging, enlightening and comic experience that, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, will leave you asking, “how did they do that?”

Grailers will know that I've made it a bit of a hobby to occasionally prick the ballooning mythos surrounding the exploits of the Amazing one, but I also find him, as a cult figure (oh the irony), a fascinating character. Looking forward to seeing this documentary in full.

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The Carlos Hoax...Hoax?

Okay, I know this is getting a little tiresome, but here's another one of my 'clarifications' regarding the whole Amazing Randi mythos. While reading what is overall an interesting article about deliberate skeptical hoaxes at the Doubtful Newsblog, I noticed that Randi's infamous "Carlos Hoax" is described with these words:

With the “Carlos hoax”, Randi recruited a performance artist who played the part of a channeler communicating with a 2,000 year old spirit. The act was to show how uncritical the media were about such claims. Carlos continued the act that enthralled audiences. The press never questioned the authenticity or verified his claims. This exploit demonstrated how easy it was to manufacture a story whole cloth, dupe the public, and manipulate the gullible media, who just ate it all up. [my emphasis]

James Randi himself has said that the Carlos hoax - which he organised in 1988 at the request of the Australian version of 60 Minutes - "proved that the media can be willingly seduced so long as they are convinced that surrender to bunk will increase ratings, circulation, and general satisfaction of the consumer". Here he is discussing the infamous stunt on Youtube:

In the video above, Randi notes that "the major lesson to be learned from this hoax was that it was the media, not we, who actually created and nurtured the Carlox entity… He became a character who was accepted as a genuine though transitory phenomena." But was this really the case? The footage excerpts from 60 Minutes seem to show the media questioning Carlos' authenticity. For instance, the famous 'water-throwing' incident on the Today program occurred at the end of a rather hostile interview by hosts George Negus and Liz Hayes, when Negus asked "why did you come in this morning, apart from for a little more publicity?" As José Alvarez and his 'manager' stormed off, Negus simply states "I think we've proved our point", followed by Liz Hayes saying "I think it speaks for itself."

A contemporary report by the Australian Skeptics agrees with this. In an article for The Skeptic, Tim Mendham points out a fact that seems to have become comprehensively-ignored in the modern mythos that has grown up around the Carlos Hoax: "None of the media coverage was credulous; all disbelieved that Alvarez was genuine". In fact, according to Mendham – writing shortly after the Carlos events – "to a certain extent the whole hoax backfired":

As an exercise to prove that the local media were somewhat lax in doing research and effective checking of claims, proved its point, but on the other hand the media were extremely cynical (if not sceptical) of Alvarez' claims, and he received no sympathetic coverage at all. The Today program's hosts, Negus and Elizabeth Hayes, were particularly scathing.

Indeed, given the attitude of the Australian media toward Alvarez, it seems more than likely that the lack of background checks wasn't because they were gullible, or wanted to spoil a good story, but because they were already convinced he was not genuine and were happy to attack him in person on their shows (though I don't think any of us would suggest that media aren't sometimes too lax in checking sources).

Mendham's original report runs counter to most recent skeptical representations of the events that I can find - rather than "scathing", the Australian press are now said to have never questioned Carlos' authenticity. For instance, according to Skeptic's Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll (writing in Skeptical Inquirer) the media "took it for granted they were who they said they were and did what they said they did."

But what about all that uncritical radio and newspaper coverage? Mendham again:

John Tingle's radio coverage consisted solely of an interview with Skeptics president, Barry Williams - he even refused to say where Alvarez would be performing and the Daily Mirror story simply factually reported the waterthrowing incident.

In his YouTube account, Randi also explains that the Carlos scam was enabled by "a rather cute gimmick: Carlos could stop his pulse by a simple means that got by the most astute observers, except from one member of the Australian skeptics, who easily solved it. But none of the media paid any attention to him, of course. The story was far too good to die!" But did "none of the media" really pay any attention? Mendham again:

Terry Willesee, after screening Alvarez' first appearance on Sydney TV with a satellite interview, followed this up with an interview with Skeptics national committee member, Harry Edwards, who explained how Alvarez' number one trick, stopping his pulse while being 'possessed', was achieved.

In fact, not only did the Terry Willesee show run a skeptical explanation of the heart-stopping stunt, but also one of their researchers actually rang Randi regarding José Alvarez/Carlos. Randi's reaction, rather than to admit the hoax, or to give cautionary advice about this particular individual, was this: "I managed to avoid answering the question of that researcher, who came away with the impression that I’d said I never heard of him." So when a media channel actually checked with the world's most prominent skeptic on this topic, he basically scammed them himself – and yet went on to bemoan how the Australian media didn't include skeptics' opinions on the matter...

So maybe it's more about depriving the fire of oxygen, and the best method for dealing with the Carlos affair was to ignore it altogether? Some in the Australian media did exactly that. Mike Carlton, morning commentator on 2GB radio, said he had not been fooled, and had simply put his press-kit in the "round filing tray" (the rubbish bin). Kevin Sadlier of The Sun said he did the same. Strangely though, Randi took these journalists to task for *not* covering the Carlos tour. "If so many persons in the media knew that the public were being lied to, why did they insist upon allowing them to fall for such fakery? Could it be that it was not in their interest to offend the public’s preferred tastes?". But when the media *did* cover Carlos, and according to Mendham in a unanimously skeptical fashion, Randi trumpeted the fact that "Any kind of publicity will attract an audience". Damned if you, damned if you don't!

But not according to Barry Williams', then-President of the Australian Skeptics:

Certainly, 60 Minutes proved its point that a charlatan can gain free media publicity by the perpetration of stunts. I am however dubious of the truth of the old axiom “Any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right”. The media may well have a duty to protect the public from false claims, and I believe that the great majority of the reasonable public would have been protected by the clearly skeptical manner in which most of the media covered Carlos.

So what of the gullible Australian public? They were apparently so taken with Carlos, that when the program A Current Affair featured a confrontation between George Negus and Jose Alvarez/Carlos, according to Negus it was the first time that audience phone reaction had favoured him (anybody familiar with either ACA's audience, or the Australian public's general opinion of Negus, will understand how telling *that* fact is).

But didn't Carlos' have a vast following in Australia? According to the 60 Minutes report, the Opera House hall "was packed", showing interviews with the those who had come because "they saw it on TV". But according to Mendham:

Australian Skeptics came, as we had seen it on TV too. The hall was by no means full. Our estimate put the audience at about 250-300, as opposed to the 60 Minutes' 400-500; the Drama Theatre holds a maximum of 550. A large percentage of the audience were sceptical (if not Skeptical), with an even larger proportion thus unconvinced after the session was over. We subsequently learned of many who, having intended to attend, had been turned off by the poor performance Alvarez had given on TV.

…Other TV programs replayed interviews with those at the seminar who had not been convinced by Alvarez/Carlos (including the author of this report). This was in response to the 60 Minutes coverage, which only showed believers and failed to interview any of the known Skeptics.

…Following the revelation on 60 Minutes that the whole affair had been a huge (and expensive estimates ranged from $50,000 to $200,000) set-up, there was an immediate response from the media. In fact, there was probably greater coverage for the hoax than for poor old Carlos.

This coverage for the hoax itself, rather than 'Carlos', was ultimately the best result of this project. In the end, the Carlos Hoax *was* successful - at least, as a publicity tool. Despite the mediocre results, a certain mythos has developed around the stunt itself, so much so that the general perception of it now is that it showed what dupes the public and media can be. And given the seemingly blind acceptance of this hoax as being a raging success, in a very meta way, it has...

And while we're talking meta, then we can't go past the fact that José Alvarez himself turned out to be a hoax. In late 2011, Randi's life-partner was arrested for identity theft - federal authorities accusing him of stealing a New York man's name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987...right before he traveled with Randi to Australia to perpetrate the 'Carlos Hoax'. Which may itself end up being a better example that any of us can be fooled, and for a long time...