Archive for March 22, 2010

Reflections on Randi

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 22, 2010 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I chanced upon a blog post by James Randi. I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he’s a really interesting character. His real name is Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He is a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) who is now 81 years old, and who has spent most of the last three decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there who remember the 1970s will remember the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

Here’s a fairly lengthy clip in which James Randi talks about the Geller case and other examples of quackery:

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people. This is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering what it was about James Randi’s blog post yesterday that caught my eye. Well, at the age of 81, James Randi has finally revealed to the public that he is gay. I feel a bit sad that it’s taken him so long to step out of the closet, but it is a very personal decision and no rebuke is intended. He’s lived long enough to remember times when being open was a much tougher option than it is now. Judging by the messages of support on his blog, I’m sure it’s a decision he won’t regret.

Good for you, James Randi!

PS. I noticed that the badastronomy blog has also covered this story, and generated over 100 comments in the process!