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Randi Gives Way to the Bad Astronomer

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has announced that James ‘The Amazing’ Randi is stepping down (or up?) as President of the organisation, and that he will be succeeded by skeptic du jour, Phil ‘Bad Astronomy’ Plait. Randi will continue in an official capacity with the JREF though, as Chairman of the Board of Directors. I’d imagine this move is meant to resolve two issues – Randi’s extremely high workload, given his advanced age, and also the question of ‘succession’ once Randi is no longer around (a question that has bandied around the JREF forums more than once).

With Dr. Plait at the helm, the JREF will be expanding its efforts, including educating children. “I want to teach kids about the wonders of the real Universe. We can do this by partnering with the educational community and developing fun, hands-on materials that schoolchildren can use in the classroom to teach them about critical thinking and the scientific method. Science is sometimes taught as being cold and dull, but nothing could be more wrong! It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s cool. Kids are natural scientists, and we need to encourage that, foster it, and let it grow.”

This is an excellent move for the JREF I think – Phil Plait brings a lot of good fun and intelligence to the table. I’d still like him to take a more intelligent look at a few areas – he dismisses both psychic occurrences and UFO research out of hand, though he seems to have not researched the topic in any depth at all – and he does descend into fanboi mode a little too often. And I think, ironically, that his concern over the “cold and dull” opinion on science is precisely because of the outright dismissal of many fringe areas, with a lack of openness and humour about it all. But looking forward to seeing how he approaches the role.

On a related note, last week I had an offhand jab at the Bad Astronomer about the different standards he applied to an astrologer and a rocket launch. Interestingly, the third launch of the rocket also failed on the weekend – and one of our longtime members an unrelated namesake to our own X_O, Xavier Onassis, stirred plenty of people up in the comments thread (including Phil Plait) by firstly predicting the failure, and then subsequently suggesting that SpaceX (the team behind the launches) were incompetent. It’s quite interesting to look at the reaction that his (correct, so far) comments provoked. Here’s what the Bad Astronomer replied with:

You come here, knowing that most of the people reading and commenting here — including me, the blogger — want Space X to succeed, yet you rain all over the place here. Tell you what: when you have hard evidence, come on back and show it. Until then, you can express your opinion politely, but drop the attitude.

Now, I’m sure X_O wanted the launch to succeed as well, but that wasn’t his point. Phil Plait is happy to rain down skeptical sarcasm upon an astrologer caught in an earthquake, but multiple failures of a rocket launch doesn’t seem to engender even a whiff of sarcasm about the skills of the people involved in that. Though I realise it’s difficult to compare these topics, it does provide a decent little capsule example of how our biases affect our views.

(Note: I am *not* gloating that SpaceX failed – I’m a mega-fan of space science and exploration, so I’m hoping they succeed next time around. I just found the comparison between the two scenarios interesting.)

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