Saturday, June 26, 2010

James Randi

Randi is old, he's lived 81 years already, but he is very sharp and has long applied his skeptical mind to the defense of the gullible by exposing people who would like nothing more than to mislead and take advantage of them.  There is no more honorable reason to kill sacred cows than that.  By dismantling contemporary claims of supernatural events, he does a great service to science and rationality.  And he's a cute old man!  He looks more huggable than Santa Claus.  Meanwhile, other notable skeptics like Dawkins, Hitchens, or Dennett look decisively less huggable (okay, Dennett has a fuzzy white beard too).  But then I also like Randi because he seems so down to earth, like the neighbor you bump into at the post office occasionally. 

But what I really love about Randi is that he highlights how easily it is for us to decieve ourselves.  Self-deception goes beyond allowing myself to be duped into following a religious cult, it goes to the heart of a lot of personal self management problems that have nothing to do with religion.  He's an expert at deception and entertaining with valuable first hand knowledge of how it happens.  I think this uniquely qualifies him in a different way than other experts in areas such as science, journalism, or philosophy (though these are not without their own value).  He's very personable, in fact inspirational as an exemplar of humanitarian values, and has been featured on the popular science blog Pharyngula several times recently.  I may add that for many of the same reasons I like Randi, I also like Martin Gardner, who at 95 died about a month ago. 

To long time readers of my blog, James Randi is already a familiar name.  When late last year he expressed skepticism over climate change, it was troubling news to many of his fans and supporters.  But I say lesson learned, defer to the appropriate experts when forming an opinion outside of your field of expertise.


aratina cage said...

And Randi is an out gay man! That shocked the heck out of me. No, you're right, his work has been very important to modern-day skepticism. I really wish I had known about Randi decades ago because he would have really helped me debunk some New Age/mystical things that other people in my family fell for like spoon bending, Filipino healers, and dowsing. There is a really good YouTube video, very short, of Randi doing the Filipino healing (psychic surgery):

He is also good friends with many libertarians (if not one himself), and they tend to disbelieve in global warming or think that it's no big deal and the Earth will correct itself. I can only imagine that their likely dismissal of it rubbed off on him.

I think Dennett, though, is perhaps my favorite of the crowd. I don't think I've ever read anything by Martin Gardner.

Keir said...

Yep, he just came out. I think he is writing an autobiography and thought that it would be better PR to disclose his orientation before he publishes the book.

The basic premise of an anthropogenic cause for global warming is that humans add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and degrade natural ecosystems on a large enough scale, and at a rate beyond that which would otherwise occur, to have a global effect. The opposing idea that we have no effect at all is the premise to be skeptical of! If Randi's libertarian friends rubbed off on him, then maybe he is just playing devil's advocate and adopting their contrary position for the sake of argument. Thankfully, as far as human nature goes, his positive qualities outweigh any errors in judgment he can be accused of.

If you watched the "big think" video on Pharyngula, Randi says he almost died doing tricks on two occasions. I don't know if that was good showmanship or bad judgement!

Dennett is involved in the philosophy of mind, and can make very nuanced arguments. I imagine this is what you find interesting in his work?

aratina cage said...

If you watched the "big think" video on Pharyngula, Randi says he almost died doing tricks on two occasions.

I don't recall that. I'll take a look. :)

Dennett is involved in the philosophy of mind, and can make very nuanced arguments. I imagine this is what you find interesting in his work?

Yes, and I see him as somewhat of a James Randi of philosophy, particularly the way he got me thinking about freewill and real magic. Randi does conjurer's tricks and he aptly shows how any purported supernatural power is in fact a magic trick. Dennett took the same concept, that claims of supernatural powers are not real but instead tricks, and applied it to freewill.

If you think about it, Randi is very nuanced, too. He shows how easy it is to trick our senses. Magic tricks always turn on simple gestures that you have to be very discriminating to see.

Other claims of supernatural power rely on fundamental misunderstandings of how reality operates on the part of the possessor and the audience. Dennett also matches Randi there by applying the same keenness to religious beliefs. Which is not to say that Randi hasn't. I believe it was Randi who busted the big tent revival preacher who was using radio transmissions to divine the illnesses of audience members, was it not?

aratina cage said...

OK, I don't know how I missed the Big Think video interview of Randi but it was excellent. I did not know he was an escape artist. I don't think I could remain calm enough in a steel coffin with an audience. And that card trick left me stunned. How did he do it??

Keir said...

The card trick was was good wasn't it? I hope when I am 82 years old I still have a few tricks left up my sleeve! (Maybe the nurses will take better care of me then, if I ever need their care). I saw a video of Martin Gardner do a cool trick of making a ball disappear from one hand and reappear in the other. It was even more perplexing to me. But The Amazing Randi is clearly the master.