Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope