Saturday nightâ€™s â€˜An Evening With James Randi and Friendsâ€™ is going to be like Woodstock â€“ in years to come everyone will claim to have been there but few will actually be able to tell you what Simon Singh did with a gherkin.
I should at this point declare an interest: I was one of the organising committee, and so my review is naturally going to be biased towards the fabulous, but it became clear that this was going to be special when even the woman who had turned up on the wrong night expecting to see a chamber music concert asked if there were any spare seats.
The evening was MCed by Richard Wiseman, for whom there is no adequate adjective other than â€˜refulgentâ€™. Wisemanâ€™s style is agreeably curious, and his tongue-in-cheek, mock-egocentric Quirkology plug (only Â£6.99 from all good bookstores!) was a hilarious nod to Chris Frenchâ€™s anecdote about when a certain spoonbender, without a hint of irony, described Richard as â€œsuch a publicity-seekerâ€.
Chris French is a regular face on UK television, and editor of The Skeptic. As the first speaker of the evening he set the tone with a brief overview of organised skepticism in the UK and elsewhere, and some fascinating anecdotes about his own experiences in testing paranormal claims, including the â€˜Baby Mind-Readerâ€™ Derek Ogilvie (Derek failed. Mommy!).
Where Chrisâ€™ talk had been quite PowerPoint-heavy, Simon Singh provided contrast with his Theatre-of-Science antics. I wonâ€™t reveal what he did to the gherkin, but I will tell you that a kosher dinner at my grandmotherâ€™s will never be the same again. Simon talked us through a potted history of big bang science – pigeons included – and his new book Trick or Treatment, a critical look at alternative medicine and a much-needed boost to the skeptical library.
And talking of PowerPoint, an amusingly disorganised Ben Goldacre appeared to improvise much of his talk as there was an issue with his slides. This being Skepchick, gathering place of the worldâ€™s geekiest women, it would be remiss of me to leave out the fact that when Ben walked on stage, most of the females in the audience sat up a little straighter. ClichÃ©s like â€œnaughty-schoolboy charmâ€ keep trying to type themselves into this review, but Iâ€™m resisting.
One of the best things about talks like Benâ€™s is that youâ€™ll always walk away with a couple of memorable facts for the skeptic watercooler (a hypothetical invention, given that we all know bottled water is a ripoff), and so today I can tell you with confidence that four sugar pills are more effective than two for treating gastric ulcers. Go, Captain Placebo!
The final pre-interval speaker was the joyful and energetic Sue Blackmore. Sue used to be a parapsychologist, but quit when she â€œfound no psychic phenomena – only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud.â€ I guess thatâ€™s the risk if you devote yourself to proving your personal beliefs, particularly if those beliefs are centred around emotionally-charged subjects like the paranormal.
There are limits to the physical world but no limits to our imaginations, and therein lies the problem. Itâ€™s not a positive message, and obviously one of the reasons skepticism is not mainstream. The limitless imagination, the philosophy, the Narnia, will always be more attractive, and so itâ€™s unsurprising that we blur the lines between that and the physically possible. If you think about the origins of the word â€˜fantasticâ€™, youâ€™ll see what I mean. OK, Iâ€™ll help you out: from the Latin phantasticus, meaning â€˜imaginaryâ€™. But Sue has the rare ability to take an inherently depressing message – â€œwishing wonâ€™t make it soâ€ â€“ and present it in a positive and compelling way. I sincerely hope we see more of her at skeptic events.
And so the evening segued nicely into the main event. After Richardâ€™s enthusiastic introduction, we were played a beautiful video retrospective of classic and rare Randi clips, before The Amazing himself appeared, not in a puff of smoke or straightjacket, but small and dignified in a black suit contrasting his famous beard.
Iâ€™m a slave to gender stereotypes, obviously, because I freely confess that at this point I started to feel a little emotional. It had been building up gradually throughout the previous talks, as every speaker was so passionate about their subject, and there was a general air of deference towards Randi that could only be felt in a room full of skeptics, but the video segment was proof conclusive that this guy kicks ass. And he not only kicks ass, he invented the damn shoe.
As well as video clips of Randiâ€™s exposÃ©s of Peter Popoff and the Psychic Surgeons (by coincidence also the name of my new band), he gave us some insight into his personal feelings towards charlatans, as well as those members of the public who deny the evidence against them. His personal feelings are surprisingly strong on both counts, and his lamentation that some people â€œjust donâ€™t listenâ€ (when explaining that Popoff is making more money than ever), was refreshing, because a lot of skeptics think it, and few are brave enough to say it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
He also touched on his bypass operation and subsequent recovery, and a philosophy borrowed from his surgeon: if the human body is the product of a designer, itâ€™s not a very intelligent one.
Randi announced that he is in talks with Channel 4 for a UK-based show about the Million Dollar Challenge. If this goes ahead, itâ€™ll be extremely timely as the new Consumer Protection Regulations are about to strike psychics where it hurts (in the aura, obviously). 2008 could well be the Year of the Skeptic, in the UK at least [insert competitive patriotism here].
Sadly, there was no time for a Q&A session, to the regret of everyone. But the emotionally-charged atmosphere could only end in one thing anyway: thunderous applause and a standing ovation for James Randi, a genuine living hero.