The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

James Randi draws fuzzy lines.

I'm a pretty big fan of James "the Great" Randi. For those of you not familiar with Randi, he is a former magician and escape artist who has become one of the top experts on pseudoscience and makes his living by debunking pseudoscientific and paranormal claims. He is the head of the James Randi Educational Foundation, an organization that, among other things, offers a $1 million prize to anybody that can prove, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. This prize has never been won (obviously) and no person that has attempted has ever made it past the first round of observation. I think that this is a pretty great organization. Pseudoscience and belief are growing problems in the U.S. and the world and it is great to have somebody that makes it his mission to fight this.

However, I was somewhat disappointed in an article I read in his newsletter. The article responds to a letter written by a fan that draws attention to a letter that Randi wrote denying (rather rudely) an applicant for the $ 1 Million challenge the chance to prove his ability to, uh, not eat. The applicant claims to have not eaten anything since 1998. Randi tells him, "If this is what you are saying, did you think for one moment that we would believe it? If this is actually your claim, you're a liar and a fraud. We are not interested in pursuing this further, nor will we exchange correspondence with you on this matter."

The problem with this is that, the person probably new full well that Randi wouldn't believe him and he almost certainly is a fraud and a liar. But Randi's job is to prove it, or rather, to provide for this man a stage so that everyone can see that he can not prove it. Every person that comes forward has a claim that is bullshit. How can he say that he will only test the ones that are more believable bullshit? He has this to say:

If you were running a site that considers unusual claims that might be true, even though they're probably not true, would you accept to investigate a claim that a man can fly by flapping his arms? Do you test a man who claims he can sexually arouse a woman just by looking at a photograph of her? How about a claim that someone is God? If a writer told you that he is the Richard Nixon, would that merit your serious attention? And what would you do with a claim that someone could inhale Zyklon B for 15 minutes and survive? A man writes and claims that he and his brother make the Sun rise every morning; do you look into that? A chap says he doesn't eat, and hasn't taken nourishment for many years; is that worth your time to investigate? A letter states that no lion will bite the writer ; do you investigate?

On the other hand he states:

When we get dowsing claims, we recognize that these people can be honestly self-deluded, and the hundreds of tests we've done of them, when they'll actually submit to tests, have shown that to be true, in every single case. Dowsing is something that is not, on the face of it, an obviously frivolous notion. Nor is the ability to predict earthquakes, nor to sense the presence of a poisonous substance. Those, we can and will test.

I find it troubling that an expert on Pseudoscience is willing to say he'll test someone who claims that by using special powers they can find water underground because, on its face that's more believable than a man that says he can sexually arouse a woman by looking at her picture. Both are, on their face, total garbage. But Randi's whole foundation is centered around showing that none of these people can prove their claims. So how bullshit does it have to be to not get the chance?

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