James Randi: Amazing pseudoscience debunker

Posted on Wednesday, October 6, 2010

James Randi: “When we say ‘pseudoscience,’ what we’re really talking about is bad logic and faulty reasoning.”

James Randi is one of the world’s best-known debunkers of paranormalists and pseudoscientists, and the fact that he has offered major cash prizes to anyone capable of proving psychic abilities under test conditions is just one of the reasons. A magician and an escape artist, Randi has been ruthlessly pursuing fraudsters and tricksters for decades. His work remains however as relevant and important as ever – as of October 4, according to the James Randi Educational Foundation blog, his latest target was no less of an institution than Walmart! On Oct. 19, Randi will be speaking about “investigating pseudoscientific and paranormal claims” as part of this year’s Trottier Symposium: “Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action”.

How, in your opinion, does pseudoscience threaten society?

Pseudoscience is a thousand-headed beast. Even primitive superstitions are pseudoscience, of a kind. The assumption of a cause-and-effect relationship between a rain dance and an unseasonable shower, for example, is based upon the exact same wrong-headed thinking that leads frightened parents to finger vaccines as the cause of autism. So when we say “pseudoscience,” what we’re really talking about is bad logic and faulty reasoning. These things are damaging to society precisely because societies take actions, and when you take actions based upon dumb ideas, you are likely to take dumb actions. This is as true on an individual level — the housewife losing her life’s savings to a faith healer — as it is on the macro level, where civilizations go to war because imaginary gods told them to.

Are there any means by which a member of the general public can recognize pseudoscience?

There is no one way to recognize pseudoscience. But generally speaking, you can tell someone’s selling you a line if they talk too fast, smile too often, promise too much, or use the words “quantum” or “vibration” more than once in a given conversation.

How did you become involved in this area?

I’m a conjurer by trade — a conjurer being someone who stands on a stage and pretends to exert supernatural control over his environment through the harnessing of his will or the use of incantation and ritual. This, of course, is exactly what the faith healer and the psychic does. My training as a conjurer enables me to see their tricks very clearly. I became enraged at their predations upon a gullible public as early as 1941 or ’42, when I witnessed a charismatic preacher in Canada doing what’s called the “one-ahead,” thereby making his flock believe God was speaking directly to him. (I’m not going to tell you how the “one-ahead” works. If your readers are curious, they may consult Google, which knows everything.)

What are the best ways for scientists and researchers contribute to the promotion of actual science in society?

They should continue to do their work, for one. Second, they should treasure those among their ranks, like Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson, who understand how to address the public, and make science accessible. That said, I’m not of the opinion that scientists need to change their behavior all that much. What needs changing is the way the media deals with the conflicting claims of science and pseudoscience. You can’t be “fair and balanced.” You can only be fair or balanced. To be fair is to tell the truth; to be balanced is to tell a truth, tell a lie, and then let the public determine which is which — and this, of course, isn’t fair to anyone. People are busy! They have jobs to attend, children to raise, hobbies to pursue. They can’t go out and investigate every last crazy claim. They deserve a media unashamed of telling the best truths it can.

Taking place on October 18 and 19, the theme of this year’s Trottier Symposium is “Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action.” The Trottier Symposiums were launched six years ago in order to offer “a public forum to inform, inspire debate and raise public awareness on contemporary issues confronting society today.”

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