An Evening With James Randi and Friends

Saturday night’s ‘An Evening With James Randi and Friends’ is going to be like Woodstock – 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 ‘refulgent’. Wiseman’s style is agreeably curious, and his tongue-in-cheek, mock-egocentric Quirkology plug (only £6.99 from all good bookstores!) was a hilarious nod to Chris French’s anecdote about when a certain spoonbender, without a hint of irony, described Richard as “such a publicity-seeker”.

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 ‘Baby Mind-Reader’ Derek Ogilvie (Derek failed. Mommy!).

Simon Singh, Conway Hall, April 19th 08Where Chris’ talk had been quite PowerPoint-heavy, Simon Singh provided contrast with his Theatre-of-Science antics. I won’t reveal what he did to the gherkin, but I will tell you that a kosher dinner at my grandmother’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 world’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. Clichés like “naughty-schoolboy charm” keep trying to type themselves into this review, but I’m resisting.

One of the best things about talks like Ben’s is that you’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!

Sue Blackmore, Conway Hall, April 19th 08The final pre-interval speaker was the joyful and energetic Sue Blackmore. Sue used to be a parapsychologist, but quit when she “found no psychic phenomena – only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud.” I guess that’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. It’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 it’s unsurprising that we blur the lines between that and the physically possible. If you think about the origins of the word ‘fantastic’, you’ll see what I mean. OK, I’ll help you out: from the Latin phantasticus, meaning ‘imaginary’. But Sue has the rare ability to take an inherently depressing message – “wishing won’t make it so” – and present it in a positive and compelling way. I sincerely hope we see more of her at skeptic events.

James Randi, Conway Hall, April 19th 08And so the evening segued nicely into the main event. After Richard’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.

I’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 Randi’s exposés 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 “just don’t listen” (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, it’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, it’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.

Photo credit: Bunny

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  1. Sounds SO awesome. Wish I could have been there. These folks should get together and form a “Monsters of Skepticism!!” tour. I’d totally be a roadie for that tour, and maybe even…a groupie? :-P

  2. Aah, it was so amazing. The easily detectable feeling of deep, profound respect for Mr Randi, hovering around the room, seeped out of the craniums of every person in there, I mean. I even got to shake his hand at the end, but couldn’t think of anything to say other than ‘umm, I just wanted to say hello. And thankyou!’
    I liked your description of Ben Goldacre, too. ‘Amusingly disorganised’, yes. But also quite possibly charmingly tipsy. Unless he’s always like that? He was certainly very funny and had a good way of talking.
    It was, on the whole, a fantastic place to be.

  3. Hallo again, Chris!
    Yes, I was deperately trying to claim my pint all night, but no one seemed to know where you were. I met a few other Chris’ though, all of whom refused to buy me a pint. I had to buy my own in the end. Perhaps next time I venture down to London Town. So you couldn’t make it? That’s a nuisance, there’s always TAM though. I’m aiming to get there by at least TAM 9…

  4. OK, so forgive me a mild criticism, but as I recall, the “ph” thing is pretty much always Greek, and the root of this word should be “phantastikos.”

  5. Oh pooh. says you are right:

    Middle English fantastik, imagined, from Old French fantastique, from Late Latin phantasticus, imaginary, from Greek phantastikos, able to create mental images, from phantazesthai, to appear.

    Well, I ain’t changing it now :D

    Thirteen points and a bag of broken biscuits to Rystefn.

    *consults Big Book of Excuses*

    …I was writing for speed as much as accuracy.

  6. Woo-Hoo! I got cookie crumbs! Suck on that, Mrs. Del Toro*! That’ll show all those losers who’s the nerd for banging around, dabbling in a bunch of different langauges and never bothering to get fluent in even one. Who’s laughing now, bitches? Me, that’ who… all the way to the bank… umm… the bank for cookie crumbs… shut up.

    *My old Latin teacher, who siad I spent too much time worrying about the interrelations between languages and not enough about what “Iacta alea est” meant.

  7. “Wiseman’s style is agreeably curious, and his tongue-in-cheek, mock-egocentric Quirkology plug (only £6.99 from all good bookstores!)”

    Only £2.50 from my local branch of Cancer Research!

    Wasn’t that a great evening.

  8. Rystefn, nerds are geeks without social skills. That makes you a geek, cause you got as far as having friends to mock you in the first place. I would defend my geek status to the death, but woe betide anyone who calls me nerd.

    My Latin teacher was rather lovely.

    I am impressed that you quoted Iacta alea est correctly. Most people get it the other way around. But then…everything that’s gone before that sentence.

    And so we come to Mojo: cheapskate! Does that mean someone already donated a copy to their local charity shop? The only sensible conclusion is the owner died of excitement whilst reading it and the surviving spouse thought it was cursed.

    Although for cursed stuff, I reckon a good bonfire is the way forward.

    Totally and utterly off-topic (unless geekery counts), when my family became born-again-Christians, my mom made me burn my entire collection of Jackson & Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books. I even had to burn the board game :(

    On the plus side, I got my revenge in my teens by becoming an atheist and burning my bible. WIN!

  9. Was indeed a great night. My own particular highlight was Simon‘s proof that the teletubbies are evil :) something I have long suspected!!

  10. I too thought it was a special evening. As someone who doesn’t get to many skeptical events i had been buzzing with anticipation, and was not dissapointed.

    What i found most enjoyable was dragging my moderately skeptical girlfriend along who had a great time and even expressed more interest in skepticism, and she was also one of the women who payed close attention when Ben Goldacre took to the stage.

  11. As a lifelong gamer geek, history geek, and language geek, that’s the one quote in the history of the world I CAN’T get wrong. It’s like the universe looked deep into the core of my being and summed up all that I am in three words… then had someone else say them a few thousand years before I was born.

    It’s also a way to make me sound all wise and sagely to the ‘danes. Saying things like, “I can’t go this weekend, got a prior engagement. ‘Iacta alea est,’ you know…” Sounds like I’m crossing the Rubicon, not pretending to be a magic-user. LoL

  12. teletubbies are evil??
    Does that mean the next time I see one on the street its ok for me to whip out my Daisy BB gun and get busy? :o)

  13. Sam said (comment 3):The easily detectable feeling of deep, profound respect for Mr Randi, hovering around the room, seeped out of the craniums of every person in there…

    Sam, If you can detect and measure that feeling in a controlled environment, using agreed upon protocols, you could win A MILLION DOLLARS!

    Ha ha, couldn’t resist. I’m very jealous of y’all.

  14. ft77, the event was recorded by a camera crew, but I’m not sure if the footage will materialise. I’ll keep y’all posted if I find anything out.

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