Liveblogging From Amazing Randi

Well, not really, but close enough.

An unbelievably packed house in the Leacock Building this evening as people stood in the back of the large hall and even sat in the aisles for a chance to hear perhaps the world’s leading skeptic and pseudoscience investigator, James Randi. While Randi never defined pseudoscience, per se, he certainly brought to bear a number of examples of outright charlatanism he’s encountered in what’s been a long and star-studded career. The talk began with a media highlight reel of Randi’s more well-documented encounters with fraud. Interesting.

Like an old gnomish Charles Darwin, Randi came up to the lectern and started to talk into a hand-held microphone. He began with some discussion of fame and celebrity, sharing an anecdote about comparing the sizes of the asteroids that were named for him and Arthur C. Clarke (his is bigger). But he quickly switched the focus to his stock and trade — illusions and conjuring. He reminded us all how easy it was to deceive people, and perhaps more importantly, how easy it was to allow people to deceive themselves. He pulled the “microphone” down from his face and there was still the sound of his amplified voice — a trick! The microphone was actually a beard trimmer (which he could certainly have used…). His glasses? Just plain rims without lenses…

This was a perfect preamble to his main point. Magicians may deceive using a wide array of methods, but they’re always telling you when they are deceiving. Not so with pseudoscience. Like a zealous consumer advocate of the most critical sort, he discussed a wide range of products and ideas whose popularity was undeniable that were, for lack of a better term, so many bottles of snake oil. Perhaps most disturbing was the “bomb-dowser”, the ADE 561, that is currently being used in Iraq, at significant cost to various governments. The BBC had a piece earlier this year on how useless these devices actually are…

He followed this with an involved discussion of faith healers and other evangelical miracle workers, showing great footage from the old Tonight Show of a debunking attempt involving Reverend Peter Popoff. Randi showed how Popoff used techniques, like plying the audience for information before the show, that have been used in shady tent revivals forever, noting, sadly, that despite a wide audience for his revelations about Popoff and his ministry, the business is a greater success than ever…

One of his pet peeves is homeopathy. In going over the whole process of distillation involved in Hahnemann’s practice, one can’t help but agree with him (with the caveat that’s it’s not the process of homeopathy itself that’s interesting, but the theories around it and the belief people have in it…). Again, in making his final point about homeopathic remedies, now widespread in drugstores everywhere, Randi returned to the position of democratic skeptic — buyer beware. Ask questions and don’t be too easily led to believe anything. Be critical! He finished with another old spot from the Tonight Show where he performed “psychic surgery”, debunking elements of this practice, still quite popular in the Philippines. Here’s a similar video…Warning, it’s a bit bloody.

And there you have it! The Amazing Randy, fascinating man with a fascinating worldview. For those who would like to challenge it, Randi’s foundation has long offered a 1,000,000 dollar boon to anyone who can demonstrate proof of psychic phenomena or the validity of any psudoscientific idea. Whatever that means…

2 Responses to “Liveblogging From Amazing Randi”

  1. nursemyra Says:

    I’ve got quite a soft spot for ol’ Randy.

  2. The Necromancer Says:

    Was pretty dynamic for a guy in his early 80s. Canadian born that one, from Toronto. Has a real sense of humor and wit, and is obviously deeply sensitive to elemental aspects of human nature.

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