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The timeline as best I can guess at it: The summer issue of The Skeptic featured an interview with skeptical supremo James Randi. Rupert Sheldrake wrote a letter critiquing the interview (or perhaps more specifically, what Randi said), for inclusion in the next issue of The Skeptic. Chris French, editor of the magazine, sent Sheldrake’s letter to Randi for a ‘right of reply’. Randi shared the letter with his underlings, and in order to track down a reference document pertinent to his reply (or under that pretension), one of those underlings – Brandon Thorp – posted a message to the blog of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), titled “Bull**** Artist?:

A rawtha angry letter by Rupert Sheldrake will appear in the next issue of Skeptic, in response to Chris French’s (“reverential”) interview of James Randi in the summer issue.

The letter has its points — for example, when it accuses Randi of occasional grumpiness (It’s true! He can be grumpy!) — but the bulk of the thing is an attack upon Randi’s character and qualifications.

Mostly, Sheldrake seems discomfited by a document passed out by Randi, Andrew Mayne, and Michael Shermer at The Amaz!ng Meeting 3, entitled “Communicating Skepticism To The Public.” We have no copies of this document. Perhaps you can help us.

Does the document say, as Sheldrake claims, that it’s “easy” to become a media skeptic? And what about this: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

Did Randi really write that? If so, nobody at the JREF, and nobody we’ve been able contact, has any recollection of it. And if Randi did write these words, in what context did they appear? We’d really like to know. If you were at TAM3 and still have a copy of the document, please tell us.

Firstly, a minor point: I’m quite sure that it’s not the US-based Skeptic magazine, but The Skeptic that Thorp is referring to. The interesting parts though are (a) the title of the post, (b) the “rawtha angry” description, of a letter no readers have read, and (c) the skepticism that such a document exists.

Firstly, the document does exist, as a number of skeptics have since pointed out. Strange that Sheldrake had to inform the JREF about one of their own documents. Interestingly, since then, the tone of commenters has changed from “Sheldrake should be able to pull this document from the Akashic Records”, to “he’s quoted it out of context.” Certainly, the latter question is an important one – from the surrounding text it is clear there is some humour involved, but it does then seem to blend seamlessly into directions on how skeptics can bogusly claim to be experts. So I can see both sides to this one, at least on the page I’ve read.

As for the “rawtha angry” comment, this surprised me as Rupert Sheldrake is usually unflappable when it comes to debating points. I contacted Rupert about the content of the letter, and he confirmed to me that “it wasn’t angry in tone” (keep in mind that my article about the Million Dollar Challenge was labeled by Randi as a tirade). I did ask if I could share the letter with TDG readers, but Chris French has asked that it remain unpublished until the next issue of The Skeptic is released in a few weeks, at which time he will make “the letter and Randi’s response public as soon as possible given the interest that this has generated”.

The final point worth mentioning is the inflammatory title of the piece. When called on this aspect by other skeptics, Thorp responded:

The title has several possible meanings. The phrase “bull**** expert” could mean “an expert in bull****” or it could mean “a false expert,” depending on whether the expletive is meant as a noun or an adjective. I thought it was clever: depending on whether the document existed or not, either Rupert Sheldrake was a “bull*** (n) expert” or we had published a document about “bull**** (a) experts.”

A fine explanation. Except the title of the blog post was “Bull**** Artist?”, not “Bull**** Expert?”. Try as I might, I can’t shoehorn the former into Thorp’s explanation. So I’m wondering exactly who the “Bull**** Artist” is in this case…

Update 9/12/09: The letters by Sheldrake and Randi are now available on the website of The Skeptic.

Previously on TDG: