No, James Randi Didn’t “Destroy Skepticism” By Being Skeptical

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Last week, James “The Amazing” Randi died at the age of 92. If you’re not aware of him, first of all you should read the excellent New York Times obituary that covers his long and completely bonkers life, but the short story is that he was an accomplished escape artist from the late ‘40s through the ‘80s, at which point he transitioned to being a professional skeptic, investigating people who claimed to have paranormal abilities and offering a million dollars to anyone who could pass a scientific test of those abilities. He’s the reason why I do what I do today. I met Randi in the 2000s, was inspired to start Skepchick, and the rest is history.

I’ve been enjoying seeing so many of my friends sharing their memories of Randi, because legit like 90% of the people I know, I know through him, and it was impossible to know Randi and not have great memories of him. In fact, if you want to hear some of my friends discuss him, check out the most recent episode of the Skepchick podcast, where we talk about the good and the bad.

And there was some bad! Randi wasn’t perfect. As we discuss in that show, Randi didn’t really care about making the skeptic movement safe or welcoming for women, and he also didn’t really care about his foundation, the James Randi Educational Foundation, becoming an actual educational foundation or continuing on without him after his retirement. Which all sucks! Because the JREF was so great back in the 2000s, and there was a large and growing population of people who Randi inspired to get actively involved in helping the world think more critically.

So Randi’s legacy is complicated, despite all the great memories I will always have of him, and of my unending gratitude for Randi setting me on this path and introducing me to so many wonderful people.

But here’s something I will state quite firmly: Randi was not, in fact, “the man who destroyed skepticism,” as argued by Mitch Horowitz over on (the usually on-point) BoingBoing. Horowitz says that Randi was a “fraud,” that he was “to skepticism as Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism” (!!!) and that he “corroded our intellectual culture.” Yikes, that’s a lot to unpack.

First, let me acknowledge two things that Horowitz gets right: Randi absolutely exaggerated his accomplishments like Project Alpha. Randi would plan these elaborate hoaxes to catch frauds and sloppy scientists who claimed to have evidence of the paranormal, and he would then publicize the living hell out of them. He was a showman! That’s what he did. In the case of Project Alpha, he taught two teenage boys some basic magic tricks and sent them into a parapsychology lab, where scientists were blown away by their “psychic” powers. After the studies went on for years, Randi finally revealed what they had been doing. Decades later, the story Randi would tell was that these researchers were completely fooled, refused several of Randi’s offers to help them detect fakes, and published several papers about the “psychic” boys. In fact, the researchers were sort of fooled, eventually did ask for Randi’s help, and never published any peer-reviewed papers (though they did give one credulous talk at a conference).

Horowitz fails to mention it but a similar thing happened with the “Carlos” hoax. To hear Randi tell it, back in 1988 he fooled all of Australian media with a young man who claimed to channel a magical spirit to perform feats of psychic powers, when in fact “Carlos” was Randi’s partner, Jose Alvarez, wearing an earpiece and being fed information by Randi. In actuality, the Australian media was pretty skeptical of Carlos, and the theater that Randi claimed had been “packed” to see him was about half empty according to the Australian Skeptics organization.

I’m not saying that Randi was right to exaggerate his accomplishments, but I am saying that it’s not a huge shock. He wasn’t a scientist, he was a performer. Performers perform. Every story that came out of Randi’s mouth had details that were way more interesting than what had actually happened. It’s who he was.

Here’s the other thing Horowitz got right in his post: the James Randi Educational Foundation was not really an educational foundation. It was, essentially, James Randi being James Randi. There were occasional efforts to do things like provide classroom materials (more on that later), and several attempts to convert it into a real nonprofit that would live on past Randi, but soon after Randi retired in 2015 the JREF ceased to exist as a public charity.

Now let’s talk about the things Horowitz gets wrong. Buckle up. For an easy start, he says that Randi’s million dollar challenge was an annual even that occurred in Las Vegas. It was not. The JREF did have an annual conference in Vegas called The Amazing Meeting (or TAM), but the Million Dollar Challenge happened whenever and wherever it was necessary, with a few preliminary demonstrations timed to occur during TAM.

But to the crux of his argument let me start with the first actual allegation he makes: that Randi made his name by “smearing the work of serious researchers, such as JB Rhine.” The smear in question is in a PDF that the JREF provided as a classroom tool, in which JB Rhine is accurately described as the father of parapsychological research. He’s lauded for attempting to scientifically examine the paranormal, but criticized for sloppy methodology. Horowitz takes issue with the sentence “Rhine and his colleagues had been allowing themselves to ignore much of the data they had collected and reported only those with positive results. Negative data were set aside.” Horowitz writes that in fact by 1940 “Rhine’s lab took a leading role in reporting all results, positive and negative, ahead of the curve of other researchers.”

In science there’s a phenomenon known as the “file-drawer effect,” so named for the habit of a less-than-ethical scientist who gets results he doesn’t like quietly slipping them into a file drawer, never to be published or seen again. JB Rhine literally had a file drawer that he specifically used as a receptacle for results he didn’t like. He believed in ESP so strongly that when subjects didn’t do well on ESP tests, he assumed they were using ESP to purposely fuck with him. He buried the negative results and published the positive results.

Horowitz approvingly quotes Martin Gardner’s opinion of Rhine in his seminal book Fads & Fallacies. I just so happen to have a copy, so allow me to quote a bit more from Gardner’s description of Rhine’s experiments, on page 304: “Usually if low scores continue, the tests are discontinued. If the scores are extremely low, they are regarded as a negative form of ESP. This is called “avoidance of the target.” In our previous chapter on dowsing, we reported Henry Gross’ poor scoring when tested by Rhine. Recently, however (as of 1952), Rhine has disclosed that Henry didn’t fail after all! He was “unconsciously rebelling,” Rhine writes, and adds, “He could not have made so many misses by mere coincidence.” There’s much, much more on the subject and if you don’t own a copy of Fads and Fallacies I highly recommend it. I also recommend that Horowitz pick up and read his copy, past the sentence or two where Gardner very nicely suggests that Rhine isn’t a complete jackass. My favorite part is actually in the appendix where Gardner describes how Rhine was convinced that a horse was psychic (page 351): “The horse spelled out answers to questions by touching her nose to lettered and numbered blocks. Rhine was shrewd enough to perceive that the horse could read his mind only when her owner, Mrs. Claudia Fonda, was nearby. But instead of concluding that Mrs. Fonda was signalling the horse in the standard manner of all “talking horse” and “talking dog” acts, Rhine decided that Lady was getting her cues telepathically. His reason? Lady was successful on many tests in which Mrs. Fonda was kept “ignorant of the number.”” Gardner points out that years later Rhine revealed that he wrote the number down on a pad while Mrs. Fonda watched the pencil. Sure enough in 1956 Gardner’s friend Milbourne Christopher went to one of Fonda’s psychic horse shows, where she asked him to go across the room and write down a number on a large pad. He wrote a 3 but moved the pencil like he had written an 8. Sure enough, the psychic horse said “8.”

When confronted with this fact, Rhine had an explanation. Gardner writes, “Rhine’s belief today is that Lady Wonder (the horse) used to have genuine telepathic powers, but that…she lost these powers and Mrs. Fonda had taken up the practice of signaling.”

Anyway yes, what a very serious researcher. By the way, Rhine’s incredible findings of ESP have never, ever been replicated by anyone. Ever. Despite dozens, if not hundreds of different scientists attempting to do so. He may have been a “serious researcher” in some sense, but he was not a careful, unbiased researcher.

That’s a bit of a theme in Horowitz’s post — he seems to think a lot of absolute kooks are serious researchers. He is very angry that Randi accused Gary Schwartz of believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and links to a very long post from serious researcher Gary Schwartz replying to one of Randi’s posts on the JREF site. Gary Schwartz is a psychologist who thinks that Allison Dubois can speak to dead people and that “energy healers” can medicate patients by waving their hands over them. Randi read Schwartz’s book on “info-energy fields” and wrote, “In his book he mentions how in thinking about stories, we create info-energy systems that can take on a life of their own. In my review of the book, I mentioned how that would mean that Santa, Ronald McDonald, Freddy Kruger, and Romeo, would then all exist as these info-energy system “spirits.” In private correspondence with Schwartz, he agreed with that statement, that his theory predicts the existence of such beings.

“Now, the Tooth Fairy has been in many cartoons, jokes, stories, and commercials over the years. Therefore Schwartz’s theory actually predicts the existence of the Tooth Fairy. As it is fairly certain that Schwartz believes in his theory, and his theory predicts the existence of the Tooth Fairy, therefore Schwartz must believe in the Tooth Fairy.”

So, yes, Randi did say that Gary Schwartz believes in the Tooth Fairy, but it sounds like he had a pretty solid reason for doing so. Honestly I had assumed that he had just said it as an aside, like “You believe John Edward is talking to your dead grandmother so you may as well believe in the tooth fairy” but NO, Randi had FACTS. For his part, Schwartz replied, “The theory of systemic memory predicts that informed energy can take on a “life of its own.” Hence, imaginary beliefs such as the toothfairy, even Santa Claus, can potentially exist as dynamical info-energy systems.

However, this does NOT mean that I believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Once again, skeptics make the mistake of confusing theory and predictions with personal belief.”

So…oh. Okay!

Next Horowitz complains that Randi was mean to Rupert Sheldrake, who thinks that dogs can be psychics. Horowitz doesn’t come out and say this because he wants the reader to think that Sheldrake is, like Shwartz and Rhine, a very serious researcher, so instead he writes that Sheldrake has a “theory” that “morphic fields of social groups connect together members of the group even when they are many miles apart, and provide channels of communication through which organisms can stay in touch at a distance. They help provide an explanation for telepathy.” Translation? Dogs are psychic. Sheldrake claimed to have found a dog that could psychically tell when his owner was going to return from a trip outside.

Randi said he tested Sheldrake’s claim and found no evidence of psychic dogs. When a journalist from the Tory-graph demanded to see the data, Randi said that it was lost when the Florida-based JREF flooded during a hurricane. Did that happen? I’ll be honest: I don’t care. Rupert Sheldrake didn’t find a psychic dog, and plenty of people have tried and failed to replicate his findings, including Professor Richard Wiseman, whose findings were not lost in a flood and can be found in full on his website

But like…put yourself in Randi’s shoes here. I know he chose this path in life, but imagine that you have to spend a solid decade being challenged by a man who fervently believes that dogs can psychically detect when their owners are coming home from the grocery store, and when you’re like “no they don’t” the man demands you scientifically prove it, and when you say that’s been done he doesn’t believe you and then years later some guy from the Telegraph shows up demanding answers about the psychic dogs and it’s like “enough already with the psychic dogs!” And then you DIE and some dipshit writes an entire article about how you “destroyed skepticism” because you didn’t give enough respect to the psychic dog guy. Jesus fuck.

That’s it for Horowitz’s criticisms of Randi, except to say that he moved the goalposts (with no specific evidence) and that in general Randi contributed to the world not taking paranormal researchers seriously. And honestly? Good! I’m glad that there are skeptics out there like, say, Chris French, who are polite with people who believe in psychic dogs. I do think we need those sort of skeptics to gently persuade the people who can be persuaded that science is not on their side. But by and large, the people who are invested in the paranormal are either frauds or True Believers who will, like Rhine, reach for any reason to continue believing in a talking horse before they will believe that they got scammed by one of the frauds. And they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Horowitz’s own post is proof that when scientists and skeptics give any amount of respect to quacks, like Martin Gardner writing that Rhine was a “sincere” man who wasn’t as bad as the other pseudoscientists covered in his book, True Believers will grab hold of it as proof that these quacks are in fact real scientists. They aren’t! There are no psychic dogs. Or if there are, they’re keeping their psychic powers secret from our puny human minds. Isn’t that right, Indy?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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