A Day With the Amazing Randi

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I spent Tuesday in the charming company of James Randi and his assistant, journalist Brandon Thorp. Myself and P.J. Råsmark had taken it upon ourselves to act as native guides and gophers for Randi during his days in Stockholm at the invitation of the Swedish Skeptics. So in the morning we went cane shopping together, though none of the canes we found were sufficiently antique-looking for our guest, and he seemed to manage effortlessly without one. And then we checked out the Vasa 17th century warship museum, since this is Stockholm’s one truly unique attraction as far as I’m aware. (You’ll recognise my M.O. from Massimo Polidoro’s and Manuel Paz-y-Mino’s visit a year ago.) Randi uses the Vasa, which sunk on its maiden voyage due to unrealistic royal demands incorporated into its design, as one of the test cases in his upcoming book Wrong!. In the afternoon there were interviews with Lars Björkvall of Vetenskap & Historia and Christer Sturmark of Humanisten, the latter periodical being a publication of the Swedish Humanist Association.

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In the evening Randi spoke to an audience of over 300 people, while tens of comers had to be turned away at the door. The talk, video clips and Q&A lasted for almost 2½ hours, and it was as usual excellent. I do wish, though, that Randi would stop making fun of PhDs in such a hostile manner. A considerable proportion of the audience last night either have a PhD or are working on one. You can’t both promote science and say that academic qualifications are worthless. Most science is after all produced by formally qualified academics and does not involve people in lab coats being conned by charlatans.

Afterwards I bowed out and went home to nurse a cold, while magicians Råsmark and Houdi took the Swedish Skeptics executive board and our guests to dinner at the Magic Bar, our capital’s magician’s club.

BTW, Randi’s hosts at the remaining stops of the North European tour have a challenge to live up to. After I said something lewd about “Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” over sushi, leather-hatted Mr. Thorp disgustedly proclaimed me the single most campy person they had run into so far on the tour.

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Comments

  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 16, 2010

    Before visiting Sweden he was in Finland. Local skeptics tried to murder him with an overdose of homeopathic medicines. Didn’t work…

  2. #2 Sigmund
    June 16, 2010

    I thought the PhD jokes were tailored for the academic setting. I didn’t think he was being serious. By the way, well done on your hosting and introduction duties – and for getting Randi a box of sleeping pills that didn’t kill him!

  3. #3 Martin R
    June 17, 2010

    No, the Amazing One definitely has a slightly fraught relationship to academe. He keeps getting back to the subject live and on podcasts. Of course, he’s seen a number of academics get fooled by charlatans through the years. But that’s selection bias: he never notices the ones who refuse to have any contact whatsoever with charlatans.

  4. #4 Dr M
    June 17, 2010

    I often find myself sharing Martin’s sentiments regarding Randi’s attitude towards academic qualifications. However, if I understand correctly what Randi actually wants to point out, he has a point: having a PhD does not make you sceptic, and neither does it make you a expert on detecting fraud and exposing charlatans. As PhD’s we are (or should be) trained to think critically, but we expect to do so in an honest setting. We expect that those whose work we are examining — that of other researchers — are not actively trying to deceive us. There is, in fact, a risk that this makes us more vulnerable to those charlatans who have learned to speak “academese”. Then, of course, there are a lot of people with PhD’s from various places who willingly lend themselves to uncritical thinking or outright charlatanry.

    The points are: 1) Having a PhD does not make you an expert at exposing charlatanry; those are separate skill sets. 2) Someone holding a PhD does not mean he/she has actually applied the necessary critical thinking on a given topic.

  5. #5 Martin R
    June 17, 2010

    If that were the only points Randi made on the subject, then I would not complain.

  6. #6 Sigmund
    June 17, 2010

    I suspect Randi has a habit of using a few anecdotes as a way of making a far stronger point than he is justified by the overall evidence. Considering the numbers of scientific papers published (by PhDs!) it would appear to me that it is incredibly rare that scientists are fooled in the way Randi discussed (such as the Jacques Benveniste case or the physicist who was temporarily fooled by the matchbox on the back of the hand trick). I guess the fact that there is a peer review system in place for scientists makes it more likely that the proper controls (for this is what we are actually talking about) are in place for every result published.

  7. #7 Mattias
    June 18, 2010

    If Randi means that Ph.D. holders are about as naive as people in general when it comes to new areas of data accumulation (climate research, parapsychology &c.), then I agree. I think, however, that there may also be two other factors involved: (i) so-called ‘chip on shoulder’ (he keeps repeating that he dropped out of university early) and (ii) a frustration over the fact that few Ph.D.:s are organised skeptics. I, for one, am not – in fact I would probably not even qualify for ‘proper’ VoF membership on a number of accounts. Another thing that always strikes me with americans is that they seem to have no grasp of what thorough training in humanities entails (the philosophical disciplines of epistemology and logic, classical and modern languages &c.). In Europe this normally means that humanities scholars tend to regard scientists (including engineers, technology students, natural sciences &c.) as epistemologically naive. What Randi extrapolated from the key-card anecote appears to be that journalists were trained in humanities. Maybe – but highly unlikely – this is the case in Mexico (whence his example was taken). I think, however, it is rather the case that journalists there (just as in Europe) are trained in social sciences and that Randi, along with most americans, has no real grasp of the nature and significance of basic training in the humanities. My experience is that most Scandinavian scholars (if that is how they style themselves: perhaps ‘scientists’) in natural sciences tend to regard their research as a job. When they finish work at about five, they could be everything from evangelical christians, secular humanists or new-age gurus without perceiving any conflict with what they do before five o’clock. In contrast, I have so far yet to meet a humanities scholar that is involved in the type of activities that Randi criticizes (alternative medicine, new-age &c.). But, as was said, this may be very different in the U.S.

    / Mattias

  8. #8 kai
    June 19, 2010

    Indeed. My own Ph.D. work required a large amount of user studies and interviews and one of the important lessons is that you can’t trust subjects’ explanations of what they do and why, there is a lot of (probably mostly unconscious and automatic) post-rationalisation, misunderstanding, and wanting to live up to expectations involved. So, careful study of what people actually do is paramount. Of course, if they go to great lengths to intentionally deceive one, it requires extensive knowledge to realise the deception. (And yeah, I’ve seen some deceptions, not fraud as such but, uh… presenting data in a particularly favourable light.)

    Another thing that Randi harps on is academics’ inability to admit they are wrong, which I think is just bizarre—certainly what I remember from my studies is always being wrong, my preconceptions and assumptions were constantly being shattered when I sat down and analysed the data, so, *shrug*, I had to admit the situation was not what I had expected and reformulate my ideas accordingly. Actually, isn’t that what research is all about: being wrong and gradually becoming less wrong?

    You know, I was just reminded of a particular category of literature on the theme of the insincerity of academic departments, where apparently everything is about infighting, empire-building, and bullying. The actual research apparently comes by mail order from Germany or something because nobody seems to spend any effort on that.

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