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The Telegraph’s Weak Exposé of James Randi

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Will Storr has a pretty vicious article over at the Telegraph claiming that James Randi is lying when he refers to himself (as a magician) as an “honest liar” in his new documentary of the same name.

I actually was quite interested in the article, considering the amount of rather unskeptical hero worship in the skeptical community. Unfortunately, I found it to be a pretty weak exposé.

Storr’s accusations against Randi seem to be, in the order they are listed in the article, the following:

1. He was once critical of the science of climate change
2. He believes drug users deserve to die from their addictions
3. People who claim to have paranormal abilities have accused him of dishonesty when they inevitably fail to demonstrate those abilities
4. He may have lied about actually testing the psychic abilities of a dog
5. The Australian media wasn’t as fooled by the Carlos hoax as Randi claims

Obviously, 1 and 2 have nothing to do with lies. His climate change screw-up was immediately called out by many, many other skeptics, and he soon apologized and retracted his statement. His views on social Darwinism are archaic at best and absolutely disgusting at worst, but he owns up to them.

The third accusation isn’t supported in the least (besides the one example of Sheldrake, to follow) – presumably, we’re meant to be alarmed at the accusations themselves, some of which come from (gasp) university professors.

So all of that leads to Storr’s two actual points in support of his premise that Randi is a liar.

There are a lot of confusing and contradictory details in the story of Randi’s alleged testing of the psychic dog, not the least of which is the idea that a dog can be psychic and that anyone would possibly care outside of a very small subculture of Skeptics and Believers. Randi claims to have tested some dogs, but the data from those tests went missing in a flood due to Hurricane Wilma. Storr points out that Hurricane Wilma occurred four years before Randi claimed to have the psychic dog data available.

Did Randi lie about testing the dogs? Did he lie about the data being destroyed, possibly because the dogs turned out to be psychic after all? Did he misremember the name of the hurricane? Did the psychic dogs travel through time to destroy the data themselves, in essence eating their own homework??

It’s a lot of worry and confusion over a situation that was so utterly ridiculous to begin with that we may as well be investigating the color of the eyes of the people who allegedly forged Obama’s birth certificate.

Storr’s fifth concern is more interesting: the Carlos hoax is famous in skeptic circles, for having all the details we love: our hero magician pulling one over on the masses, the media and general public being exposed for naive idiots, and glasses of water being thrown on live television.

Storr points out that many Australians claim the media was much more skeptical of Carlos than Randi claims. Storr doesn’t link to his source, so allow me: Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail does a fine job of detailing the sources that contradict the skeptic community’s current-day belief that the Australian media fell for Carlos hook, line, and sinker.

It’s certainly amusing and a bit ironic how this skeptical story has become a bit embellished in the years since it occurred. It’s also a little troubling that Randi, by his own admission, mislead a reporter who came to him for the express purpose of adding skepticism to the Carlos narrative.

Still, I don’t come away from this tale thinking of Randi as a horrible liar. He points out that the entire Carlos hoax was inspired by Channel 9 specifically asking for his help in showing channelers to be fakers, so it’s obvious he has never seen all of Australian media as hopelessly inept.

Instead, I come away from this story thinking of Randi as a human, making human mistakes, and also as an entertainer, making entertainer proclamations.

The truly baffling thing about the Telegraph article is that Storr spends so many column inches on these scant details trying to prove Randi’s dishonesty, and he completely ignores one of the biggest stories to come out of the skeptical community in a decade: the identity of Carlos himself, who Storr refers to as being called Deyvi Pena but who Randi calls “Jose Oliver” in the ABC interview and “Jose Alvarez” elsewhere.

This is because Pena stole the identity of a man called Jose Alvarez prior to traveling to Australia with Randi, in order to stay in the United States and not be deported back to his native Venezuela.

If Randi knew about this situation (and his relationship with Pena as well as his changing references to Pena’s name suggest he did), then he lied about it for two decades. That’s a big, long-lasting lie.

I can only assume Storr didn’t mention this detail either because he didn’t know about it (which is tough because I believe it’s addressed in An Honest Liar) or else because he realizes that this is a more complicated lie then whether or not Randi tested a psychic dog. Pena claims he was persecuted in Venezuela as a gay man, and the US didn’t allow same-sex marriage at that time, so Randi could not have helped Pena get a green card in that way. As Randi said when pleading before the judge for leniency, it was a “crime of desperation.”

Even though the details are a matter of public record, it’s not as easy to use this as a way to score easy points and label Randi a liar.

One other potentially unsavory (to put it lightly) aspect of Randi’s life was ignored or just missed by Storr, which is the recording of his supposed propositioning of an allegedly underage boy (audio here). This tape has been around for years, mostly circulated by Randi’s deranged haters (and even played in court by an admitted pedophile who was attempting to discredit Randi). Randi’s response has been to say that he made the recording himself on instructions from the police, who enlisted his help in catching “bad guys.”

Does this explanation hold water? It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the police would approach a random magician and ask him to pretend to solicit sex from a teenager in the hopes of catching someone, particularly going so far as having him ask for the young man’s penis size. As far as I know, Randi has never offered any more information about the recording EDIT: thanks to @orlikeawhale for pointing me to this more detailed account, in which Randi says the “bad guy” was in fact the minor in question. Fuller explanation below.

I just don’t know, and to be honest this is something that has bothered me for a very long time, even while I recognize that Randi is truly an amazing person who has inspired me and many others to think critically about people making ridiculous claims and act compassionately toward those who are being conned. Maybe it’s another layer of irony that the skepticism that Randi helped instill in me is the thing that keeps me wondering if he’s covering up an abusive past.

(EDIT: For the record, here is the longer explanation Randi posted in 1999 to explain this tape. Thanks again to @orlikeawhale for sending it to me.)

The tape cassette which formed part of the blackmail package, rather than being the product of a “tap” on my phone, as the blackmail package claimed, was a copy of a tape that I was specifically asked to make back in 1968, by the police chief — Zerr — of Rumson, New Jersey, where I lived at that time. That request was because of obscene phone calls I’d been receiving at home, at all hours of the day and night. The object of my conversations on that tape had been to keep the callers on the line and thereby trace and identify the persons responsible. Zerr informed me that though a recording could probably not be admitted into evidence, it would be a powerful tool to possess. (At that time, to establish a trace, it was necessary to keep a caller on the line a minimum of four minutes.) That investigation resulted in a minor in a neighboring town being identified and charged with the crime. At that time, the minor’s lawyer was informed
by the local police that I possessed a recording of the phone calls. The
very next night, my home was broken into, and only my small reel-to-reel
tape recorder that had been connected to the telephone, was taken; no other valuables were touched.

Police subsequently found the minor in possession of the recorder and its
tape reel, and he was then also charged with the break-in.

The fact that all the calls on that tape are calls made to me and not by me, shows the true nature of the tape. The tape was made by me, at the instruction of the Chief of Police of Rumson, New Jersey, for the purpose of obtaining evidence on the night callers. A careful listening to the tape establishes this beyond doubt. The distributors cite references that are simply not on the tape, and they fail to mention its provenance.

Shortly thereafter, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in a hall in Newark,
New Jersey. I relate this event to show that my whole record was and is
known to the U.S. government, yet I was granted citizenship. Had there been any truth to the horrendous canards that are presently being circulated,
that would not have happened. Furthermore, when the would-be parapsychologist Eldon Byrd sued me in Baltimore a few years ago, his lawyer brought up the famous tape recording as evidence against my character. My own lawyer, at my insistence, asked that the entire tape be played for the courtroom and jury, so that the true nature of the record would be understood, instead of being misrepresented as it usually was. It was played, and Postal Inspector Ray Mack, who followed this matter from its inception, was a witness we brought in to validate the true nature of the recording. His evidence was accepted by the jury, who then gave Eldon Byrd zero of the four penalties he was demanding of me, totaling thirteen million dollars. My detractors claim that at that trial, I was established to be “a malicious liar,” and that I was found guilty. … I was notconvicted of having made that statement; it was already part of the record. I had said that Byrd was “a convicted child molester,” while I should have said that he was “an admitted child molester,” … In any case, I certainly won that case, since I was represented pro bono most efficiently, and paid Byrd not a nickel.

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10 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article.

    I appreciate the acknowledgment of the dangers of hero worship I myself am prone to, and the acknowledgment of your own ignorance on some of these points. This is what skepticism is about. Pick apart the broken arguments, and rise above them by not making the same mistakes.

    The final few paragraphs fantastically deal with a lack of information on very serious issues.

  2. Typical skeptic derailing. It is not the color of the eyes of the dogs that forged Obama’s birth certificate that matters, but the shape. They are reptilian slit eyes, disguised by invisible contact lenses. Skepchick is owned lock stock and barrel by Big Reptile (aka Diplodocus ‘R Us).

    P.S. I’ve been reading the comments on the Telegraph article and my brain has melted. Please ignore the 1st paragraph.

  3. In the case of Randi’s statement about climate change, I think it should be pointed out that he’s a magician, not a scientist, as he himself has pointed out.

    I used to buy into some of the denialist arguments myself.

  4. I agree that we should beware of hero worship, but still, it’s ok to show respect to someone, as I think Watson does in this piece.

    As to the Australian story – Randi is an entertainer. Anyone who has seen him live or heard him speak will know this. Exaggerating a story to make it exciting goes with the trade, in fact Randi might not be exaggerating, he might truly remember the story as he tells it now. IF one has a problem with the story, then start by calling it inaccurate or exaggerated, in stead of calling him a liar.

  5. Re – (He believes drug users deserve to die from their addictions) Ok that should read “he once believed….” (presumption statement is true).

    But as a general point, is there some ‘Social Statute of Limitations’ whereby our previous ideologies are no longer held against us? Seriously, I would bet everyone has some skeleton in the closet.

  6. This article is almost pathetic. “I spoke to people who Randi has exposed to be frauds, and they said mean things about him.” Well done, journalist.

    I am worried about how he found out about my truth fetish, though. I totally get off on truth.

  7. Climate change and addiction/alcoholism seem like stock denials for the ‘libertarian’ crowd. I have no idea whether Randi himself has any particular enthusiasm for the Randroid subculture, but many of his close supporters (Penn Jillette etc.) DO.

    Randi has made the point that he is a lifelong teetotaler himself.

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