Not everyone loved Randi

November 9, 2020

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Community, Randi

If the US election hasn’t caused you enough stress, you could read a recent “take down” of James Randi titled The man who destroyed skepticism (opens new window), published soon after his death on the popular Boing Boing blog, that is sure to make your blood boil. I for one was very surprised and disappointed to see the Boing Boing website, which normally has a reputation for good quality reporting, hosting this hit piece written by Mitch Horowitz. Mitch is a believer in the spiritual realm, and his own website (opens new window) describes him as “a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today's most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult”. The article includes such gems as:

“In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud.”

“Randi's legacy should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to restore sound practices when discussing or writing about contentious topics in science or any field”

The thrust of Horowitz’s argument seems to be that Randi wasn’t polite enough when debunking fraudsters, and that sometimes he preferred using witty soundbites when talking with the media rather than using more nuanced, and technically correct, wording.

From my perspective, it looks like Randi treated these people, who were attempting to con others out of their money and trick them into believing in nonsense, with all the respect they deserved - not much. Anyone trying to make a claim that purports to invalidate swathes of known science is lucky that people like Randi even give them the time to critique their outlandish claims. It’s certainly often the case that scientists don’t have the time or patience to carry out the kinds of investigations that Randi was famous for.

Thankfully the comments from regular Boing Boing readers (opens new window) attached to the article restored my faith in humanity. The vast majority of commenters took exception to the extremely biased nature of the article, and just how much it misrepresented James Randi’s legacy.

The NZ Skeptics, many years ago, used to run a VHS lending library of tapes with topics of skeptical interest on them. Unfortunately, when someone checked the box of dusty old tapes the other day, it was found that the tape of James Randi’s talk given in Christchurch in the ‘90s was not among them. This is a bit of a long shot, but if anyone still has that tape (or their own copy of the talk on video) we’d love to get our hands on it so that we can digitise it and post it to YouTube.