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07 September 2005 @ 03:47 pm
The Amazing Randi  
I sort of agreed with Maddox's view on the term podcast, in that as far as I could figure it was just streaming or downloadable audio. However, having downloaded a few podcasts to my actual iPod, I'm starting to see the magic; that I can listen to a talk radio program, about topics that interest me, when and where it suits me.

Mostly I have been listening to "popular science" podcasts like Slacker Astronomy and, in particular, Skepticality.

Anyway, one man in particular keeps cropping up in these shows, and that is James Randi aka "The Amazing Randi". He doesn't have that title because he is some kind of super-scientist, that is his stage name; he is a classically trained stage magician.

Which I guess is what lead him to his current vocation of debunker of paranormalists and pseudo-scientists. As a stage magician, Randi immediately recognised a fellow illusionist in Uri Geller, when the latter rose to fame in the 1970s. What incensed Randi, of course, was that Geller claimed that his simple parlour tricks, like the infamous spoon-bending, stemmed from some kind of psychic power.

Anyway, his efforts to debunk Geller lead to the founding of CSICOP and eventually the James Randi Educational Foundation, organisations who aim to to debunk these kinds of claims about paranormal powers and phenomena. The latter organisation offers a million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate, under proper scientific observing conditions, that they actually have some kind of supernatural power.

It's very interesting to hear Randi talk about the kind of people that come to try and claim the prize. Basically, it is only ever poor deluded souls who actually think they really do have psychic powers who come for the money, and many of them are actually suprised and dissappointed when, under proper conditions, their powers fail to manifest. Never has Randi had a professional paranormalist like Geller or John Edward come to try and claim the million bucks.

So, yesterday I spent two hours watching a lecture that Randi gave at Princeton University. It was a highly entertaining speech, in which you get to see both facets of the man; the magician and the skeptic. Go here if you want to watch it for yourself, or to see and hear more of The Amazing Randi.
Prisspr1ss on September 7th, 2005 06:43 am (UTC)
I love Randi's stuff. I posted about him last year. I was looking up stuff online after I'd seen a tv show about a charlatan faith healer who called himself John of God. Randi was supposed to be on the show too, but they didn't like his nay saying and cut him out of it. They had his face, but almost no words. Meanwhile they prompted a guy who not only didn't cure, but cut people's skin and stuck wires up their noses.
Naturally Randi posted a full report on his web site.
Jessjess2903 on September 7th, 2005 01:17 pm (UTC)
Totally unrelated, was just wondering if we are going to ever find out who won the tipping and how everyone went?
sjlsjl on September 7th, 2005 10:56 pm (UTC)
There was one case where a guy came forward to claim the million bucks. He claimed that he could identify LPs, just by feeling the grooves. He was proven right, but the million bucks wasn't dished out, because it wasn't considered a supernatural power per se.
Jacobyak_boy on September 8th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC)
It doesn't satisfy point 2 as I said it below.

The funny story that Randi tells is the guy who came to their office with a suitcase for the million (thinking they were going to pay it one-dollar bills?) and said that he glows in the dark because he was abducted by aliens.

They took him into a dark room, they couldn't see him, "case" closed.
Taluthabonesinger on September 7th, 2005 10:58 pm (UTC)
It's virtually impossible to test psychism under "scientific conditions".

Western science limits itself by believing that its testing paradigm is not only objective but adequate to circumstance. I disagree with the assumption when it comes to testing phenomena outside the realm of the physical sciences. Even physics gets dicey when it comes to the testing stages because the paradigms and equipment are not necessarily adequate for the theory.

Does this make sense? i have a fever so I can't judge.

Its like trying to appreciate how ultraviolet light works by taking apart a fluorescent tube.

Also, Randi seems like he is very eager to disapprove of psychism in any format. It's part of his audience (demographic) appeal.
Jacobyak_boy on September 8th, 2005 12:05 am (UTC)
I'll agree that it may be difficult to test for something like the claim that Christians make that they "have the Holy Spirit inside them". This is outside the range of any scientific equipment or whatever. But, unfortunately, if your claim is untestable it isn't going to win the million; tough titties.

However, there are huge numbers of people who claim things that are testable, and easily so. Take a self-proclaimed psychic, one of the more extreme cases who claims they can actually predict the future. All you do is lock them in a room and get them to predict things that they could not possibly know about in advance, then just wait for them to happen. If the events happen as the psychic predicted to within 1000 to 1 against it happaening that way by chance, they win the million.

There are plenty more examples like this.

All they really need to test for is:

1) A particular outcome occurs (the kind of psychic claims we are interested in have some kind of measurable outcome, hence not the Holy Spirit example)

2) The outcome was not caused by mundane means.

If both are satisfied, the million is yours.
And if you really have demonstrable psychic powers, it should be a cinch.

If your psychic powers are not demonstrable, then its nothing more than piss and wind. What's the point of having psychic powers if they don't have any real effect on the physical world?
Taluthabonesinger on September 8th, 2005 12:33 am (UTC)
This thought process treats psychism and superpowers in the same way.

This is Marvel comics science and its silly.

Lets pretend, for a moment, that science is self limited by belief in its own omnipotence.

As scientific people, we have every confidence that if I drop a pencil, it will land on the floor (pretend I'm standing in the middle of the room) because of that gravity thing.

Now lets say that one day someone invents a machine that lets us see... maybe a different dimension to our already existing reality? And someone in the lab drops a pencil and realises that "Crap! Gravity is really just little elves that pull everything to the floor! And now we have this new machine, we can see them!" Moreover, gravity elves have personalities just like everyone else, and sometimes they choose not to appear, and sometimes they do. So not all falling pencils can be attributed to gravity elves. But many of them can. And what the hell is a gravity elf anyway? What else exists that we have never been able to measure with our tests?

Previous to the invention of this machine, anyone who seriously thought that gravity elves were real would be laughed at long and heartily. In fact, the genius who invented it was dead for years before anyone took his work seriously. He died of a broken heart after being passed over for an award once again in favour of a grad student who, after years of rigorous and lab based testing, proved conclusively that rocks are hard because they are made of stone.

My point is this: Until someone invents a machine that lets us see them, who's to say that gravity elves aren't real? Just because our current standards don't allow us to observe them directly, is it fair to consign them to non-existance? Poor little gravity elves.

Maybe we should be questioning the kinds of testing that would more succesfully define the nature of psychism, rather than letting a stage magician, for whom all science is apparently Marvel Superhero Science, define it for us.

I doubt very much that that made sense. I hold up my thermometer and point to the muscle I just strained in a coughing fit as my defense.
Jacobyak_boy on September 8th, 2005 01:13 am (UTC)
My point is this: Until someone invents a machine that lets us see them, who's to say that gravity elves aren't real?

Occam says, that's who.

There is no reason to believe gravity elves exist because all the evidence seems to suggest they don't, but that doesn't mean saying that they definitely don't exist.

Randi himself says that he isn't trying to say that paranormal phenomena definitely don't exist, he's just waiting for someone to give a convincing demonstration that they do exist.

A lot of people challenge Randi to prove that paranormal phenomena doesn't exist. But that's not how science works.

You don't really try to prove or disprove anything; you take the balance of evidence, apply Occam's razor and make a working model of the universe. According to all available evidence at this time the universe works like this. However, we accept that we don't have all the available evidence, so we keep experimenting, gathering more data, and tomorrow our view of the unverse will evolve into something slightly different.

So, according to all current evidence, and applying Occam's razor, no-one has psychic powers, no-one has ever been abducted by aliens, no-one can speak to the dead, etcetera etcetera. If tomorrow real evidence for any of these things came to light, science would accept them as real. But, scientists aren't just going to take your word for it. That would be silly.

Maybe we should be questioning the kinds of testing that would more succesfully define the nature of psychism, rather than letting a stage magician, for whom all science is apparently Marvel Superhero Science, define it for us.

But that's not what this is about. The million dollar challenge is not about doing a whole bunch of tests. All you have to do to win the million is go into a room and demonstrate your claims of paranormal abilities and phenomena.

If you claim you can fly, you just have to walk in and fly. Obviously, they'll check carefully to make sure you're not cheating, but that's all.

Besides which, you are yet to actually give me an example of a paranormal phenomena and why it can't be tested by scientific means. It's these kinds of flimsy excuses that people give all the time why they don't try for the million dollars.
Jacobyak_boy on September 8th, 2005 12:10 am (UTC)
Oh, and the 1000 to 1 only applies to the final test for the million dollars, they first do a preliminary test giving a much better chance of 5 to 1.

No-one has ever made it past the preliminary.
Tombletomble on September 8th, 2005 12:48 am (UTC)
"Also, Randi seems like he is very eager to disapprove of psychism in any format. It's part of his audience (demographic) appeal."

No, I think he would be delighted if it was proven, and so would most skeptics. A win for parapsychology would be a win for science.

I don't think it is impossible to test psychic powers under scientific conditions.

It's just that in every test with proper controls (i.e. not discarding negative results and keeping only positive ones, double blind methods, chances for cheating removed etc.) there has *never* been a positive result.

Tombletomble on September 8th, 2005 02:16 am (UTC)
Kudos on a great post, by the way. I've been looking for some good podcasts and these are right up my alley.

If you haven't read them, The Faith Healers and Flim Flam! are very good books by Randi.