Friday, October 30, 2020

Assessing James Randi

James Randi, founder of the capital-S Skeptic movement, passed away this last week at the age of 92. Over the years I have posted various articles about the Skeptics, and while I consider they methods useful for debunking fraudulent "celebrity psychics," I also think that the movement - and especially Randi himself - took an unnecessarily adversarial position with respect to actual scientific research of the paranormal.

I have been asked on a couple of occasions about this, and why I had a problem with his attitude. I do try to test my magical techniques in as scientific a manner as I can and don't have a problem with the findings of mainstream science. But skepticism - real skepticism, not the movement variety - should be based on an honest consideration of the evidence. Randi's approach never seemed honest to me, especially his constant accusation of fraud when presented with evidence he found hard to dismiss out of hand.

On the occasion of Randi's death, I considered writing up a piece expressing my assessment of the man, his legacy, and my issues with his approach to the paranormal. But before I could do that, I came across this article from Boing Boing which expresses my thoughts at least as well as I would have. It even includes some material of which I was previously unaware.

Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto in 1928, Randi became a celebrated stage magician and escape artist who appeared in prestigious venues and on television shows, including Happy Days. His stage aesthetics and devices were often brilliant and original. Randi toured with rock icon Alice Cooper in 1973, designing a mock beheading-by-guillotine for the proto-metal star. When claiming the garland of skepticism in the early 1970s, the MacArthur-winning Randi announced his intention of exposing phony faith healers and grifter psychics.

Today, many people know Randi from the award-winning 2014 documentary An Honest Liar. But the laudatory and engaging profile tells its story in a fashion that skeptics traditionally decry: including only the magician's successful exposes (some of which were more questionable than the film allows) and obfuscating his darker and more lasting impact: making it more difficult for serious university-based and academically trained researchers to study ESP and mental anomalies, and to receive a fair hearing in the news media. Indeed, Randi ultimately cheapened an important debate over how or whether extra-physical mentality can be studied under scientifically rigorous conditions and evaluated by serious people.

In a typical example, The New York Times ran a 2015 piece about a wave of fraudulent and flawed psychology studies; its lead paragraph cited a precognition study by Cornell University psychologist Daryl J. Bem — without justifying why it was grouped with polluted research or even further referencing Bem's study in the article. (I wrote to the Times to object. The paper has used several of my letters and op-eds, often on controversial subjects — this time, crickets.)

The Bem study is interesting for two reasons. First, while critics have argued that Bem's "presentiment" findings must be the result of experimental error, they can never pinpoint what the problem with the methodology might be. To be fair, that doesn't mean there's couldn't be a problem with the methodology, only that it hasn't been identified. The second reason it's interesting is that a very similar methodology was used in studies constantly pointed to by researchers opposed to the idea of "free will."

Both the Bem study and the studies that allegedly disproved "free will" look at changes in the brain. The Bem study seemed to show that brain changes could predict the appearance of an emotionally charged image among a collection of neutral images before the image was presented to the subject. The "free will" study seemed to show that brain changes could predict a choice that subjects would make before the subjects reported having made up their minds. But the Bem study presents a problem there.

If you're a Skeptic convinced there's a design problem in Bem's experiment, there's no reason to think the same problem isn't present in the "free will" studies. That means those studies don't predict the absence of free will because design problems in the experiment can't be ruled out. If Bem's study is accurate and "presentiment" is a real effect, that also creates a problem because the brain changes detected by the "free will" experiments could actually be tracking Bem's presentiment - the brain changes could be unconscious shifts based on the subject's awareness of the choice they are about to make. Again, if that's a real thing, the "free will" experiments don't necessarily show what the researchers claim they do.

In the pioneering days of scholarly psychical research in the United States, roughly between the 1930s and 1960s, Duke University housed a highly regarded center for the study of ESP, founded by researchers J.B. and Louisa Rhine. Yet today the Rhine Research Center functions off-campus as a nonprofit organization and, while individual researchers and a handful of university labs soldier on, many college textbooks brand ESP research a pseudoscience, often citing Randi's work as the source of that opinion, so the topic is shunned by most academics and journalists who cover them.

As a historian and writer on metaphysical topics, I have spent time among fraudulent mediums, and I share Randi's outrage at their manipulations. I have no issue with his or others' targeting of stage psychics and woo-woo con artists — I join in it. But Randi made his name, and influenced today's professional skeptics, by smearing the work of serious researchers, such as Rhine, who, in founding the original parapsychological lab at Duke with his wife and co-researcher Louisa, labored intensively — and in a scientifically conservative manner that reverse-mirrored Randi's work—to devise research protocols for testing psychical phenomena.

In one of Randi's freely distributed classroom guides, he misleadingly stated that Rhine had reported only positive results in his ESP trials. In fact, in the early 1930s, when Rhine's lab opened, it was standard practice in the behavioral and life sciences to discount experiments with null or negative results. But Rhine was one of the first academic researchers to recognize this common practice as a problem, and then to explicitly reject it. By 1940, with the publication of Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, Rhine's lab took a leading role in reporting all results, positive and negative, ahead of the curve of other researchers.

Dishonesty is a bad look for Randi, given his claims that skepticism had to be based on a true assessment of the facts. Rhine's work is actually quite interesting, and some of his findings foreshadow modern parapsychology research such as the PEAR studies done at Princeton by Jahn and Radin. Rhine's findings that psychic ability seems to be able to transcend time and space, at least to a degree, is one of the first pieces of research that suggested to me the idea of nonlocality and magical influence of quantum information in superposition.

Randi's contemporaneous parapsychology skeptics, including science writer Martin Gardner and University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman, differed from Randi's uncritical dismissals by offering qualified respect to Rhine and his protégé Charles Honorton, with whom Hyman co-authored a paper validating Honorton's research methods. In a moment of intellectual probity, the skeptic Gardner wrote of Rhine in his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: "It should be stated immediately that Rhine is clearly not a pseudoscientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book. He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily, and which deserves a far more serious treatment." (Another notable contemporary was sociologist Marcello Truzzi — a self-described "constructive skeptic" — who criticized Randi's methods in the paper linked earlier. Truzzi coined the maxim popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.")

To Randi, such moderate tones were alien. When criticizing the parapsychological research of University of Arizona psychology professor Gary E. Schwartz, for example, Randi repeatedly accused the researcher of believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and taunted him with the Trump-worthy sobriquet "Gullible Gary." Randi showed no compunction about brutalizing reputations and ignoring complexities.

One of the discussions I remember was from the early days of the Internet in the mid-1990s. Randi was going on about how anyone advocating medidtation was a "navel-gazer" and a gullible believer in the paranormal. Regular non-paranormal science has now shown that meditation has clear health benefits, backing up studies from the late 1980's and early 1990's that Randi should have been more familiar with if he was going to argue that people shouldn't meditate because it was a waste of time - or whatever reason it was that he decided to attack the practice.

Indeed, Randi showed willingness to mislead the public about testing certain paranormal claims — while simultaneously touting his "results" and trashing reputations. Such was the case with his public rebuttal to Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" proposes that "memory is inherent in nature." The biologist has written 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." To this Randi retorted: "We at JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail."

Yet Sheldrake complained that Randi ignored his requests to see the test data. Reporter Will Storr of Britain's The Telegraph followed up with Randi and received a series of dog-ate-my-homework excuses — until the reporter realized that the Amazing Randi was either misleading him about the existence of tests, or was proffering an incredibly byzantine (and inconsistent) backstory that the results "got washed away in a flood." Unbelievable as Randi's responses were, he continued running down the biologist in public. This is what sociologist Truzzi dubbed "pseudoskepticism": rejection absent investigation.

For what it's worth, I do see value in exposing frauds and confidence artists, which the Skeptic movement is good at getting done. But psychic research is a real thing and trials conducted under controlled scientific conditions have shown some positive results. The problem, beyond our inability to measure consciousness, is that psychic forces are relatively weak compared to physical forces when it comes to influencing the material world. As far as I can tell from my own probability testing, a good magician can hit around 100-to-1 or so against purely random probabilities. But Randi's "preliminary tests" required a probability shift around 1000-to-1 to pass. I don't know if it's a coincidence or deliberate that the tests were exactly an order of magnitude higher than what a paranormal effect was likely to do.

Scientists should be generally skeptical, but not adversarial in their approach. Russian psychic researchers - at least back in the day - took a very different approach than what was being done at the time in the United States. American scientists focused on studies to prove that psychic abilities were real. Russians assumed that accounts of psychic abilities were real and went ahead investigating what those accounts corresponded to - and sometimes they would in fact identify normal causes that were being misinterpreted rather than paranormal ones. That perspective allowed them to get further with their research, since they weren't hung up on the idea of "proving" the existence of psychic abilities before they tried to do anything with them.

It should also be pointed out that the CIA basically went ahead with a functional approach rather than relying on mainstream parapsychology. The various remote viewing programs that officially ran until 1995 is the epitome of such an approach. The organization developed protocols that they could run people through to determine how well they could do it and kept working with the best performers for years. The data they compiled over that period is one of the most exhaustive data sets demonstrating that at the very least, psychic remote viewing could be used to obtain reliable and actionable intelligence from enemy targets. And if remote viewing works, that suggests other psychic abilities likely do as well.

I'll wrap this up by sharing this article from Charles "Uncle Chuckie" Cosimano. Cosimano is a researcher and practicioner in the fields of psionics and radionics, and has written several books on the subject that I have enjoyed and gotten a lot out of. He's also a bit of a trickster, so I can't vouch for the veracity of this account. What I will say is that if it did happen the way it's described, I would have loved to have seen it. And I will add that being successfully attacked with a radionics machine is one thing I hadn't even considered that might explain his obsession with debunking over investigating evidence.

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Alex Scaraoschi said...

Maybe the man was so sad and emraged he was merely a stage magician and not a real magician he set out to call everyone who were able to do things he couldn't a fraud :)

Scott Stenwick said...

It really is hard to say. Another story that I have heard - again, no way to know the veracity of it - is that early in his career he was really interested in the paranormal, especially astral projection. According to the story, he worked really hard at it but never could get it to work. So he decided the paranormal in general was all nonsense.

I do think some of his animosity came from watching Uri Gellar do simple stage magic tricks that he claimed proved his psychic ability, when Randi recognized the tricks. Gellar got really famous as a supposed psychic and I can see looking at that, realizing it was illegitimate, and being pissed off about it.

Note - that's not to say Gellar has no psychic ability. He still works as a professional psychic out of the spotlight and apparently has clients who swear by him. But the spoon-bending thing is likely flat-out impossible using psychic powers.

I can do the spoon-bending magic trick too, but it's not proof of anything but sleight-of-hand.

Alex Scaraoschi said...

Yes, perhaps. And there's no comparison between slight of hand and real paranormal phenomenon. Whichever the case, I think his "prize" was probably thought of as a mockery to people who have real paranormal abilities and who are able to work with the paranormal to a degree, given the testers tried everything in their power to prove each person who showed up for the "prize" is a fraud.

I think I told you before about a little Russian girl who almost lost her clairvoyant abilities after the trauma she had suffered while being subjected to all sorts of outrageous tests because Randi and his lackeys kept stressing her out more and more the more she was able to pass their testing. And there's probably others out there who were subjected to similar treatment during those tests. Come to think of it, I don't even think he had the money.

HalcAre said...

Ha, I read those uncle chuckie books years ago. It's kinda hilarious that you can build a fully functional radionics machine with nothing more than paper, scissors, a pen, and a few fasteners.

I've come across the idea before, that a magician can produce probability shifts of 100 to 1, but how does that look in practice? And what's the deal with Randi needing a thousand to one shift? A single coin flip is 2 to 1, so that should be easy to test.

Scott Stenwick said...

In fact he did not have the money, exactly. He had pledges from a bunch of different companies and organizations that they would pay if somebody won, but how that all would work is anyone's guess. It was definitely in his interest to never pay out.

The radionics machine you can create with pen, paper, and scissors is exactly the same thing and is no more hilarious than a sigil. There are all sorts of things like that you can theoretically do by combining sigils and other images into complex structures. I'm of the opinion, though, that a powered device will work better.

He didn't just need a 1000-to-1 shift to win the prize, he needed that before you could even be considered for the prize. To actually win it, you had to do something more like a million-to-one shift because "it's a million dollars." Yes, the whole point was for no one to ever win.

If you can do a million-to-one shift you can win way more money playing the lottery than you could winning Randi's prize. If you only play when the jackpot is over, say, 200 million dollars, a ticket is 2 dollars and the odds are 100 million to one against. So it would take on average 100 plays to win.

Money out: 2 x 100 = $200.00
Jackpot: $200 million

It might take you a year or more to get enough big jackpots. But that right there is almost 200 times what you would get from Randi - if you can do a million-to-one shift.