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Million-dollar baby

The first time I saw James Randi he was hauling a load of fresh chicken guts out of a guy's stomach.

Of course, in my eagerness to make it sound like a good story I've jazzed that up a bit. The chicken guts were real and the guy's stomach was real (he was an innocent audience member who'd been recruited for the purpose of demonstration), but the pull-outage was clever sleight-of-hand. The year was 1982 and the occasion was a lecture demonstration at Cornell University. The point was demonstrating how "psychic surgeons" achieve their effects.

The next time I'll see James Randi is on April 19, when he's giving a talk at Conway Hall, in London. I don't think chicken guts will be involved, though a number of other prominent skeptics will also be speaking and you just never know.

It was Randi's ability to demonstrate plausible explanations for the apparently inexplicable that blew me away on that particular day. A lot of people like to claim that skeptics are closed-minded, but in fact it seems to me that the key to skepticism is tolerance of uncertainty and patience. A skeptic sitting in an empty house and hearing inexplicable creaking thinks, "I wonder what that is." A believer thinks, "Must be a ghost." Randi never claimed to be able to explain everything, but he went a long way toward showing me that things that friends thought must be inexplicable might still have natural explanations if you had the patience to wait to find out what they were and the right kind of mind to. A lie goes round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on; it takes seconds to claim something's paranormal but years of research to find out the truth.

One of the sad things about science these days is that so many disciplines require so much expensive equipment and funding that it's hard for an amateur to make much of a contribution. There are, to be sure, exceptions: some friends on Crete were successful in finding the nests of griffin vultures and did a lot of work keeping count, and anyone can look for fossils and hope to fill in a gap in the record. But few can afford their own radio telescope, particle collider, or climate modelling supercomputer. Randi showed that amateurs with a particular bent - a knowledge of stage magic and deception - were more effective at assessing paranormal claims than many scientists.

None of this would qualify Randi as a subject for net.wars except that recently he's been the subject of Usenet spam. Most people who do not participate in Usenet are under the impression that all newsgroups drowned under email levels of spam long ago. But in fact until the last month, when the Chinese apparently discovered Usenet, spam levels have been negligible for quite a few years now. Once Web boards, blogs, and social networks got going Usenet became even more of a minority pastime than it was in its heyday. Spamming Usenet doesn't cost much, but why bother when the audience is relatively tiny?

But people who want to boast that they've bested James Randi apparently want to lump themselves in with ads for cheap knockoffs of Nike shoes, Breitling watches, and Prada handbags. And so a version of this message began popping up randomly. It is, of course, all over the Net by now, and there's not a lot anyone can do other than debunk it and hope someone notices.
To deal with the most trivial bit, the bit that asks if James Randi is "even a real name". Well, it's not the name Randi was born with, although it's a modification of his first and middle names. But he's been using it consistently for something over 50 years, and it is his legal name. So it's real enough for all intents and purposes.

The million-dollar challenge was a relative newcomer that had its origins in a similar $10,000 challenge that Randi had going for more than 30 years. The increased money made the challenge a much juicier story, of course. But as this rational game theoryish analysis of the challenge makes clear, the challenge was only ever likely to attract the deluded. As I understand it, the mailbag got ridiculous in both size and content. There's plenty of evidence for that; the apparent basis of the claim that Randi was beaten is impenetrable. It is true, though, that until the beginning of this year the challenge rules stated that the prize would continue to be offered until it was awarded, including after Randi's death. Now, it ends March 6, 2010. (Get your claim in now!)

The end of the challenge is the end of an era for skeptics. For years, if any paranormal claimant was particularly insistent that he could dowse for oil or read minds we could say, "If you're so psychic, why ain't you taking Randi's challenge?" Now, my god - we're going to have to think of new stuff to say.

Meantime, come watch Randi in person and find out about the kinds of tests he's been doing all these years.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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