Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Don't put magicians on pedestals

James Randi
Over the years, magicians like Harry Houdini and James Randi have shown time and again that they have ideal skills for spotting and debunking fraudulent claims of magical abilities and mental powers. In the Telegraph yesterday, though, Will Storr had a go at 'debunking the king of the debunkers', demonstrating that Randi himself, now 87 (according to his article, or 86 according to Wikipedia), was not all he seemed. For me, this was a wonderful example of entirely missing the point.

Storr makes three main accusations. That Randi has at some point been doubtful about the science behind climate change, that he was intolerant to drug users and that he had lied about replicating Rupert Sheldrake's dog experiments, in which Sheldrake claims to have shown that at dog was able to predict when its owner would return home.

The first two, frankly, are hardly worth considering as they are classic type failure errors. Being good at debunking fraudulent psychics does not make you a climate change expert. Why should it? And some perfectly respectable scientists have doubts about some aspects of climate change science. It's the nature of science - it's not a belief system where you have to sign up to everything it says in the big book. As for the attitude to drug users, again, so what? You don't have to be a nice person to be good at your job. So that leaves us with the strange incident of the dog.

It seems likely, if we take Storr's article at face value, that Randi did indeed claim to have replicated an experiment when he hadn't done so. This isn't good. But in a sense it is the inevitable reverse face of the reason that Randi has done his job so well in the first place. Randi has always argued that scientists are not very good at devising tests that prevent those with a stage magician's skills from cheating, or at detecting such cheating in action. What you need, he says, is a magician. And he has proved time and again that he is right. Scientists don't have the expertise of a magician. Well, guess what? Magicians don't have the expertise of a scientist either. Randi isn't a scientist. So why are we surprised when Randi fails to operate in a proper scientific fashion over the Sheldrake business?

I'm not defending Randi in any way for what he is accused of doing. If true, it was bad science, the kind of thing that gets a scientist kicked out of his job. But it doesn't in any way detract from the useful service Randi has provided over many years in devising tests and pointing out the flaws in scientific studies of ESP and the like. Has Storr shown that Randi is sometimes a liar? Quite possibly - and that's why he's good at his job. All magicians are liars by trade, even if they don't always use words to do it. Deception is their business. Perhaps the problem is the fuzzy nature of Randi's skeptical foundation JREF, which gives the veneer of science to what never really deserved that label.

When I read Storr's article, I got the impression of reading the words of a fan who discovers his idol has feet of clay. The same as those who discover their favourite singer has an unpleasant private life. Or that a Nobel Prize winning scientist had unacceptable views on other topics. Welcome to the real world, Mr Storr.

Image from Wikipedia

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