What magicians can teach scientists about skepticism
Since I'm a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement – essential for those of us who work in media outlets that cater to educated consumers. NewsWorks readers would be outraged if I suddenly started writing credulously about psychics, palm readers or homeopaths.
But for some people, skepticism is a movement, and last week I had a chance to learn a lot more about it at an annual gathering called The Amazing Meeting. It's a fundraiser for the James Randi Educational Foundation, James Randi being a magician and investigator of paranormal or supernatural claims.
This year TAM drew 1100 people – mostly non-gamblers - to Las Vegas in July.
I was asked to give a talk, and since the theme was "Fighting the Fakers", I chose to discuss some of the cranks and quacks I'd exposed though my columns and stories. I gave examples of the kinds of claims we journalists investigate, what we get right and why we sometimes go wrong. But I was, as always, gathering material for new stories.
Writing about the meeting, I believe, abides by journalistic ethics because there was no honorarium for speakers and while the foundation offered to pay some of my travel expenses, we are talking about Vegas in July, a setting that had the unintended consequence of leaving me with one more religious-type belief than I'd come in with – hell.
What intrigued me about the skeptics' movement was the central role of magicians, especially James Randi, 85.
His name became a household word in the scientific community after 1988, when he helped investigate the claims of Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist who managed to get a strikingly improbable result published in the prestigious journal Nature.
The experiments described in Benveniste's Nature paper purported to show that water could remember the presence of an antibody that was no longer there – it had been diluted to zero concentration. That's a claim quite similar to the discredited mechanism behind the discredited practice of homeopathy.
The editors at Nature could find nothing wrong with the methodology. Benvensite seemed to be following the scientific method.
Randi and the other investigators devised a clever follow-up test. Benveniste said he could distinguish water that had once held the antibody from water that had not. So the investigators asked him to try it again with samples labeled only by a secret code, thereby making Benveniste blind to whether he was testing a "real" sample or a control. According to Wikipedia, Randi taped the key to the samples' identity on the ceiling.
Lo and behold, Benveniste couldn't tell the difference when he didn't know ahead of time. A follow up paper was published in Nature, with Randi as an author.
The episode shows how human fallibility can lead scientists astray, even when they appear to be conducting valid experiments. And why not look to magicians for insights into the blind spot in our perceptions? Many of them are experts on ways people can be fooled. As Benvensite showed the world, an advanced degree in something like immunology does not make one immune to self-delusion.
As the famous Richard Feynman quote about science goes: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."
One of the highlights of the meeting for me was a glimpse of an in-progress documentary about Randi's career, showing clips of his escape artistry and an image of the magician in a straitjacket suspended upside down over Niagra Falls. We also saw clips of Randi's investigation into faith healer Peter Popoff, who impressed adoring followers with what appeared to be psychic powers. In fact, Popoff had a hidden earpiece, through which his wife could feed him information gleaned from working the crowd.
Another meeting highlight was a heated panel discussion called "Magicians vs Psychics". I gathered from what was said that Randi and most of the other magicians at the meeting abide by a code of conduct – they may do things that look magical but they don't claim to have supernatural powers. Some question had arisen over whether one of the panel members had violated that code.
Unfortunately, Randi still uses the term flim-flam to describe psychic phenomena, faith healing, and the like.
Nearly everyone who's ever disagreed with one of my columns has thrown that fusty, musty old expression at me, thinking, perhaps that no one had thought of making fun of the fact that my last name is Flam. I'd prefer skeptics define their enemy with the more current "woo", though I suppose that transfers the problem to people named Wu. (Either way, it takes special courage for anyone named either Flam or Wu to address a conference on skepticism).
But beyond causing me the inconvenience of having to explain my name to befuddled skeptics, flim-flam implies deliberate deception, and as I learned, most of the people the skeptics investigate seem to believe in their own nonsense. In many of the cases described by speakers at the meeting, those who claimed paranormal gifts were sincerely baffled when they failed tests designed by Randi and other investigators.
The sincere belief of woo peddlers came up in a Lightning Rod story that dealt with historian Michael Gordin's research into the unlikely relationship between Albert Einstein and his Princeton neighbor Immanuel Velikovsky.
Veliksovsky was a superstar of pseudoscientific claims – which centered on a bizarre history of the solar system in which a comet gets spit out of Jupiter, disturbs the Earth's orbit, causes Biblical catastrophes, and then settles down to become the planet Venus. Velikovsky and Einstein would apparently take walks together, Einstein reportedly agreeing to remain friends because Velikovsky sincerely believed his strange tales were true.
The Amazing Meeting culminates in a tradition known as the million dollar challenge – the challenge being to demonstrate any magical or paranormal powers. If you win, you get a million dollars and if you lose, you forfeit nothing but perhaps your pride and reputation.
This year the challenge was taken up by someone in Algeria who claimed to be able to perform remote viewing. For several days before the challenge, a small room was locked, the door taped and a sign warned us to keep out because something related to the challenge was in there. It turned out to be a group of objects the alleged remote-seer said he could identify - from Algeria. He failed, to no one's surprise. So the James Randi Educational Foundation will keep the million dollars again.
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