JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing

By Ted Dace

The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, were repeatedly reminded that it’s all about science. At the media workshop that kicked it off, magician Andrew Mayne defined the goal of skepticism as the use of the scientific process to understand the world. He added that this is the opposite of dogmatism. In his “points to remember,” he noted that skepticism is not cynicism and that skeptics must be open-minded. “If you have evidence,” he said, “bring it on.”

So it’s ironic that actual science was hardly touched on. Instead it was one speaker after another reinforcing the conceit, almost universal among conference participants, that they are the enlightened ones, that they are charged with the burden of defending sense against nonsense, that they alone can be counted on to stand their ground against the tide of irrationalism that threatens to engulf our civilization and undo all the gains that have been wrought in the name of Science. Even scientists themselves, it turns out, are no match for the diabolical paranormalists. Only skeptics, educated by James “Amazing” Randi and other magicians, are capable of spotting the tricks of the trade. “Scientists are easily fooled,” explained Randi, “because they think they know.” But only skeptics really know.

Communicating Skepticism to the Public, the manual handed out at the media workshop, contains a brief passage that illustrates the gulf between science and the skeptics. In part three, “The Media Skeptic: Encouraging a skeptical media attitude,” we learn how to become a media authority: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

As we know, it works a little differently in science. You can’t just say you’re an expert in, say, paleoanthropology unless you’ve actually done the work, either at an accredited university or on your own. By contrast, a skeptic need only form a club with like-minded people. “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

On the whole, the media manual is a well-intentioned and useful guide to dealing with a mass media that doesn’t always care about truth and accuracy. And if the skeptics are willing to bend the rules here and there, at least it’s in the service of a worthy cause. It’s not easy getting across to non-US citizens just how profoundly and dangerously uncorked the citizens of this great country can be. Fully one-half of our population now favors creationism, while under 30% believe in evolution. As Randi pointed out, our government issues patents for “perpetual motion machines,” and TV producers promote whatever junk they think will sell, such as talk shows with the dead and “documentaries” claiming that the moon shots were a hoax or that the corpses of space aliens are under lock and key in government laboratories. At my workplace recently, a colleague “informed” me that Bin Laden is holed up at Area 51 where he denounces America on a soundstage made to look like a cave! Surely there’s a connection between popular irrationalism and the fact that the White House can pursue deranged policies at home and abroad with impunity. I agree with the skeptics that those of us trying to slap our fellow citizens back to their senses can be forgiven for cutting a few corners now and then.

Unfortunately, with its sense of being assaulted by legions of loonies on the one hand and a cynical media on the other, the skeptic movement tends to be both defensive and hostile. After noting that Sylvia Browne – a huckster psychic who appears often on CNN’s Larry King Live – is known as “claws” among JREF staff because of her long fingernails, Randi expressed the hope that while scratching herself, she would tear an artery and die, a prospect which evoked hearty laughter from the audience. Later, as I looked over the books for sale by notable skeptics, I overheard a JREF staff member explain to a potential customer that The Ancestor’s Tale, the weighty new hardback by Richard Dawkins, was “excellent for bludgeoning a creationist.” Needless to say, the siege mentality and the spirit of scientific inquiry have never exactly been bedfellows.

The tone of the conference was geared more toward ridiculing the enemy than engaging in thoughtful scientific discussion. Bad jokes about crackpot chiropractors got big laughs. In this environment a discussion of possible evidence in favor of chiropractic would have been inconceivable. Alternative medicine is a favored target of skeptics, despite the fact that no scientific discipline is ever perfect or complete and that we can expect at least some trends from the periphery of medical practice to be taken up eventually within the scientific mainstream. Granted, certain aspects of alternative medicine are obviously fraudulent, such as ear candling and magnetic bracelets, but to denounce anything at all that’s outside accepted, traditional medicine is to promote a view of science more akin to religion – with its unreflective, ossified dogmas – than science as it actually exists.

When the topic did turn to science, the discussion most likely focused on optimum tactics in the battle against irrationalism. For instance, when a husky, white-haired gentleman raised the topic of evolution during a small-group discussion with Dr. Shermer, his point was simply that skeptics should refer to it as the “law of evolution” rather than the “theory of evolution.” This way, creationists would have to stop saying, “it’s only a theory, not a fact.” Shermer, who was having none of it, allowed a JREF staff member to respond that no scientist would take this suggestion seriously. Another skeptic vociferously disagreed and stated that we must begin referring to evolution as a law. After this the discussion meandered along pointlessly, with no one stating the obvious: that evolution can’t be referred to as a law because it’s not a law. In contrast to atoms that have no choice but to obey the law of gravity, species don’t have to evolve. Often the species knocked out by natural selection are precisely those that have evolved too far and become overspecialized. So it’s not as if you become extinct if you disobey the “law of evolution.” Beyond that, the very idea reeks of vitalism, as if biology has its own laws separate from physics. To top it off, the whole point of evolution is that you don’t need transcendent laws of nature (or a creative deity, for that matter) to explain the emergence of novel life forms.

But all this seemed beyond the understanding of the assembled skeptics. The man who originally made the suggestion had no idea he was advocating a shift to a vitalistic conception of life. As Shermer looked on impassively, I got the feeling he wished some of his acolytes were a little more scientifically astute. Yet he himself may be partly to blame. In his bestselling handbook on logical and not-so-logical thinking, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer describes a great many “weird” ideas harbored by ordinary people. What he fails to mention is that the chief source for weird ideas in the modern world is none other than science itself, starting with Copernicus’ assertion that the earth is in motion around the sun, an observation that flies in the face of common sense. After all, as anyone can plainly see, the sun rises in the east and crosses the sky to set in the west. But Copernicus’ weird idea prevailed, and it’s been like that for 400 years now, with gravitational and electromagnetic fields, the divisibility and vacuity of the atom, the convertibility of energy and mass, warped space-time, wave-particle duality, quantum complementarity and uncertainty, nonlocality, a ten dimensional universe, and on and on. The history of science can be summarized as the story of weird ideas displacing “common sense.” As long as skeptics view the world in terms of science versus weirdness, they are guaranteed to remain parochial in their outlook.

Telepathy is a pretty strange idea. According to Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe, scientific evidence for its existence has been accruing for decades. So do we follow the evidence and, at the very least, provisionally grant the possibility that telepathy is real, or do we simply banish it as being too weird? While the former is the scientific approach, the latter appears to be the favored response of skeptics.

As any ESP or “7th sense” researcher knows, the only way to scientifically demonstrate telepathy is through statistics. When I asked Randi if it’s true that he refuses to accept statistical evidence in his famous million dollar contest, not only did he deny this charge, but after a skeptic protested that statistics can be bent any old way to prove whatever you want, Randi informed him that statistics is a branch of mathematics. While he would insist on checking the findings with his own statistician, this would only be to ensure that the math was done correctly.

Two days later, Richard Dawkins said he was worried that Randi would eventually have to pay up. Dr. Dawkins had just delivered a truly fine lecture – the high point of the conference, in fact – and Randi had joined the famed author onstage for a public chat. “About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.” Dawkins had just introduced this neologism during his talk. An alleged phenomenon is perinormal (from the Greek “peri,” in the vicinity of) if it seems impossible but which, in contrast to the “paranormal,” turns out to be a 100% natural, skeptic-approved phenomenon. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, were once perinormal but eventually came to be recognized as real. The question, then, is which phenomena currently dismissed by skeptics as paranormal are actually perinormal. “I mean, what if somebody-what if there really is a perinormal phenomenon which is then embraced within science and will become normal, but at present is classified conventionally as paranormal?”

Randi agreed he might have to pay up someday. But Dawkins had a trick up his sleeve. If a “psychic” phenomenon turns out to be real, then by definition it is physical and therefore not really psychic after all, and thus Randi still shouldn’t have to pay.

Dawkins’ sleight-of-hand notwithstanding, according to the rules of Randi’s competition, if a psychic ability is proven, he must pay up. Randi stated to me that a preliminary test would have to yield a probability of one in a thousand that the results were due to chance. After passing the preliminary, the investigator could commence with the formal test, which would have to yield a probability against chance of one in a million. As Dr. Radin notes, a meta-analysis of all ganzfeld telepathy experiments up to 1997 revealed a probability of a million billion to one. So if Randi is true to his word, it ought to be possible to perform an experiment that would garner the prize. Of course, it would take a huge number of sessions to demonstrate such a high level of improbability. In the end, the million dollars might do nothing more than pay for the experiment. But it would be worth it for no other reason than to put an end to allegations that the unclaimed prize is itself evidence against psychic phenomena.

If Dawkins’ reductionistic school of biology is correct – and organisms are DNA-programmed and operated machines – then psychic talents are not the only phenomena to be dismissed as paranormal. The property of being “alive” would itself be paranormal, a mere construct of the mind-brain. You’re not likely to encounter discussion on this or any other topic that challenges the beliefs of skeptics at an Amazing conference. Though Dawkins proclaimed that skepticism, in contrast to religion, welcomes dissent and debate, alas, there was little evidence of this during the conference. Indeed, the star-struck crowd showed a religious-like enthusiasm for having their preconceived beliefs reinforced by one celebrity speaker after another.

Oddly enough, of all the luminaries who showed up at this tacky Vegas hotel, the most truly amazing of them all was a nondescript JREF staff member who goes by the name of Kramer. 15 years ago, Kramer was among the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters in American rock. If you’ve ever seen Wayne’s World, in particular the scene where Wayne and Garth are prostrating before Aerosmith wailing, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” then you have an idea of how Kramer is perceived by fans the world over. So it was a bit stunning to see him humbly carrying out his duties in the background while the celebrities got all the attention. Why is an ex-rock star working as a JREF staffer? Because he felt there are more important things in life than rock ‘n roll and that JREF offers some hope of restoring sanity to a deranged world.

Despite its flaws, the skeptic movement is attracting dedicated idealists, like Kramer, who believe in the potential of science and rational thought to cast out our many demons. Given what they’re up against-from resurgent creationism to widespread new age nuttery-the people manning this movement deserve praise. But if they’re to be true to their ideals, they must open the floor to scientifically-minded people who are skeptical of the skeptics.

How about Randi vs. Radin at next year’s conference? Now, that would be amazing.