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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.

  1. Skeptics and skepticism
    Well said.

    I have to admit it looks like a genuinely fascinating project, and I wish them well. When it comes to Randi’s brand of skepticism, though, I hope it will attempt to present a balanced, genuinely “skeptical” look at his methods, showing both the good and the bad of his approach (and there’s plenty of both to be had)–but frankly I won’t be holding my breath.

    It’s baffling how his supporters refuse to acknowledge even the smallest methodological problems in his quasi-scientific approach to things, instead choosing to circle the wagons around their sacred cow whenever the slightest criticisms towards him are raised. For example, even Arthur C. Clarke questioned Randi’s methods in assessing the results of dowsers using their skills to find underground targets, essentially (albeit subtly) accusing him of juggling statistics to make their success rates seem more insignificant than they really were. And that’s just one instance out of many. But try bringing any such instances or critiques up, and his supporters act as though you’re waging an assault on reason itself.

    A true skepticism would be one that turns its sights back on itself, too, but that’s an all-too-rare thing in the Randi camp, it appears.

    1. Quote:
      I hope it will attempt

      [quote]I hope it will attempt to present a balanced, genuinely “skeptical” look at his methods, showing both the good and the bad of his approach (and there’s plenty of both to be had)–but frankly I won’t be holding my breath.[/quote]

      I’m not holding my breath either, jupiter.enteract. One big clue for me is the quote Greg mentioned – “save the world from falling back into the Dark Ages!” In my experience, people who are so paranoid about the big bad psychics and mystics setting the world back five centuries, are rarely going to be objective about the paranormal, any evidence for it, or the behaviour of James Randi. I could be wrong, but I doubt there will be much (if any) that is critical when the film explores Randi’s methods.

  2. Ad hominem attacks and other quibbles…
    Objecting to ad hominem attacks on Randi is fair enough – although a lot of the criticisms of Randi that I’ve seen are, as you pointed out, mostly about the Challenge and not Randi himself. There are exceptions, though, which is unfortunate.

    However, if Steve Novella and Sharon Hill object to ad hominem attacks…then why do they (seemingly) not object also to the frequent ad hominem attacks that Randi himself makes against those who disagree with him? After spending time in paranormal/occult circles on the internet, it’s not so much Randi’s scepticism (some call it pseudoscepticism) that a lot of people object to, but rather his bad attitude. It’s understandable and reasonable for Steve Novella and Sharon Hill to call people out on making ad hominem attacks on Randi (that do nothing to contribute to the debate) – but why not also take Randi to task for his own behaviour? It seems a lot of people are happy to give him a free pass there.

    1. “why not…take Randi to task for his own behaviour?”
      Because when Randi and Philip Klass et all do it it’s light hearted witty banter stemming from an abundance of intellectual insightfulness and moral probity but when anyone else does it to them it’s the brayings of rottweilers and hyenas confronted by their own moral inadequacies and intellectual limitations.

      1. Exactly, Alan – they really
        Exactly, Alan – they really do give the impression that it’s one rule for them and another for everyone else. A little bit of sarcasm and ridicule is probably fine when it’s done occasionally – but it seems like rude, insulting behaviour is a hallmark of Randi. And so many of the professional sceptics have no issue with it at all. I sometimes think that they see people like us (i.e. people who believe in spirituality or are at least open-minded about it) as being inferior people in some way. Their behaviour crosses into outright bullying on occasion and they see nothing wrong with it – it’s like they see us as lesser people and so feel entitled to treat us with disrespect. It’s exactly that kind of bigoted attitude that I dislike (and have come to fear.)

  3. Honesty’d Demand the Same Standards Of Proof For ALL Science
    [An honest liar? Imagine the flack they’d receive if some psychic styled themselves that way or claimed putting someone through years of hell by stealing their identity details harmed no one]?

    My problem with the Punch & Judy show that’s Randi and the Woo Woos is this Greg.

    If the Large Hadron Collider’d been used to ‘prove’ telepathy Spritualism/religion/ufos/ghosts/God/Nessie or Bigfoot and the woo woo ‘scientists’ concerned’d produced their ‘proof’ by merging their own 3 sigma level results with much lower sigma level results belonging to another experiment Randi and the Woo Woos would’ve been the first to squawk “Data mining!” if not outright “Fiddle!”

    Then they’d’ve pointed to the Opera faster than light results and reminded us how it’d taken over a year to discover they were supposedly caused by the amazing coincidence while cosmic high-energy muons were bombarding the experiment [though if a psychic or Sasquatch hunter was to claim cosmic muons or for that matter dark energy’d interfered with their results they’d bray in their face] a cable got loose the remaining anomalous data being dismissable as within acceptable margins of error.

    In the light of which they’d immediately demand the Large Hardon Sasquatch/God/telepathy/etc detector be stripped apart and put back together under ‘independent’ scrutiny the whole experiment then being run from scratch along with a large number of quite separate Large Hardon detectors construction and testing to verify the technology even actually did what it claimed to [viz cold fusion and Professor Madeleine Ennis’ homeopathy results].

    But if you responded oh no not only won’t we be doing any of that mate but we’re also shutting down the whole show so no further investigations can be conducted you’d be deafened by the roar of “O ho! The fix is in!”

    Yet the great cosmic joke of all this to me’s even as Randi and the Woo Woos demand replicability as the hallmark of true science supposedly replicable science’s itself’s actually undergoing all kinds of crises related to replicability of its own.


    Edge Science #10 The Lunar Effect in the Lab by Arnold L Lieber

    Science Vol. 334 no. 6060

    Wall Street Journal Scientists’ Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results by Gautam Naik

    The Register Reference Kilo Shows Mysterious Weight Loss by Joe Fay

    Math 2.0 The Replicability Problem in Mathematics? by Mark C Wilson

    Replicability is Not Reproducibility: Nor is it Good Science by Chris Drummond

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