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Posts Tagged ‘james randi’

Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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I was at TAM London 2010 last weekend.

Then I visited family for a bit, then I came home and continued being lazy. And now I’m finally getting back to writing things again.

So. How was it?

Brief summary: pretty fucking great.

More detail? Well, Martin Robbins’s live blogging is still up on the Guardian site, which describes many more wonderful moments than I’ll be able to cover in my own highlights, which read as follows:

  1. The Amateur Transplants were brilliant, doing the occasional ten- or fifteen-minute set mostly while other people were warming up. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, they do stuff like this.
  2. Richard Wiseman did another excellent job as compère, keeping things flowing in between the speakers and sporadic technical mis-haps, and providing a series of magic tricks and odd illusions that tend to be just slightly more clever than you think they’re going to be.
  3. I’d not seen Sue Blackmore in person before, or read much of her work, but I might have to now. She talked about her experience of taking drugs as a hippy student and spending much of the next decade looking for evidence of the paranormal phenomena she was convinced that she’d witnessed. She did experiment after experiment for years, trying to find proof of psychics, or life after death, or something. And even when being rigorously honest with herself, it took a long time before she could accept it as mere empty wishful thinking, and the frustration still stings today.
  4. To be honest, I didn’t think Dawkins was quite at his most lively. I don’t think I disagreed with a thing he said – the theme of his speech being that the study of evolution has all the horizon-broadening educational benefits often attributed to a study of the classics – and perhaps it would be asking a bit much that someone a few months shy of turning 70 should be anything like as energetic as, say, Cory Doctorow (who spoke immediately after Dawkins and was exactly as engaging and persuasive as he always has been in his online columns).
  5. James Randi was there in person this time, having been held up by his ongoing chemotherapy last year. I actually shook his hand, too. With this very hand here, that I’m using to type this sentence. Can you feel the awesome vibrational energy transferring across to you as you read it? No, of course you can’t, because that’s all bollocks. Randi could’ve told you that.
  6. I described Tim Minchin as my personal highlight of last year’s event, and I wasn’t alone in that at the time. His evening show was pretty spectacular this time around, too. He performed several new songs, though nothing quite as heartbreaking as his last set, but the star of the show was the Storm movie, the animated video to accompany his nine-minute beat poem and skeptical anthem. It still needs some final tweaks, apparently, but it’ll be up on YouTube sometime in the new year. My only teaser: Epic.
  7. That said, the video interview with Stephen Fry was one of a very short list of things which would actually have benefited from a little less Tim Minchin. I know you want to have a chat with the guy, but when it comes to Stephen Fry, any action you take that isn’t “let him talk for as long he wants to talk, about whatever he wants to talk about” is probably a bad move.
  8. I set off from home a little late on Sunday morning, and so wasn’t there right from the start. In fact, at the exact moment I entered the lecture hall, Marcus Chown was just saying “…so, you see, it’s really easy to build a time machine”. So now I’m the one skeptic who’s falling behind the rest of the class on time travel. Dammit.
  9. PZ Myers was great value, and mercilessly ripped into his nemesis, Phil Plait, by… generally agreeing with him and expressing respect and admiration for the guy while differing in opinion on certain points. It was brutal. I didn’t know quite how seriously to take his claim that he’d heard Tim Minchin perform the Pope Song the night before, realised that this was basically a more succinct and catchy version of the speech he was planning to give, and had to put together a whole new presentation overnight – but, if true, I’m willing to forgive him the Powerpoint walls of text.

  10. I’m slowly becoming more competent at the whole social aspect of meetings like this, which for many people is a crucial part of the whole thing. My “hands shaken with people I recognised off of the internet” count for the weekend stands at 3: the aforementioned Randi; Carmen, who I recognised when she was sorting out my pass; and Hywel, who has the dubious honour of being the first person ever to approach me and ask if I was “the Cubik’s Rube guy”. (I was!)
  11. Having said that, the tally of “people I realised I’d just walked past but didn’t quite had the nerve to interrupt whatever they were doing just to say hello” grew even more this year. They included Rebecca Watson, Simon Singh, Jane Goldman, Mil Millington and Margret, and Rhys Morgan, who’d just been given the Grassroots Skepticism award for his work fighting the spread of dangerous fake medicine in the bleachgate kerfuffle.
  12. Alan Moore. Yeah. Alan Moore. If you’ve seen him, you’ll know what I mean.

Not everyone was thrilled with how it went down, though. But now that I think of it, I’ll save that for another post, as this one’s getting pretty lengthy.

In short: I enjoyed myself at TAM London 2010 last weekend, I think the skeptical movement is going places, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

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…but never TAM to-day. Or something.

Tomorrow is the first day of TAM London.

TAM stands for The Amaz!ng Meeting. It’s a massive annual skeptical gathering, which started in Las Vegas and now has branches cropping up around the world.

The first ever international Meeting happened in London around this time last year, and I was there. It was great. And now I’m going to the next one.

If you’re reading my blog, you probably know about all this already. If you need more background explanation, visit the website, look at the list of speakers, and know that I’m the kind of person who gets hugely excited by the prospect of seeing biology professors, psychologists, and lawyers giving hour-long talks and panel discussions.

Also, if you’re reading my blog, there’s a chance you’re going to be there too.

I went and pre-registered today, which basically meant turning up at the hotel where it’s going to happen, collecting my ID badge ahead of time, and avoiding some of the queueing tomorrow morning. While there, I managed to boost my “hands shaken with people I’d never met before but who I recognised off of the internet” count by two. Namely: Carmen, who’s helping orchestrate the thing and gave me my badge, and James Randi, who was being photographed just outside the hotel entrance by a man who may have wanted me to get the fuck out of his shot.

This is what we call an awesome start.

But this leads me onto my point; it’s actually a pretty big deal for me to approach people who don’t know me and just introduce myself as if they had any reason to be interested. I’m really not an assertive or socially confident person, and tend to start feeling awkward and self-critical at a much greater rate than is normal or desirable when interacting with other people.

It might not sound like a massive conference with huge crowds of people is the ideal place for me to hang out. And you’d kinda have a point.

But I love this stuff. And I love the people who love this stuff.

So, if you’re going to be at TAM London this weekend and want to say hi to me, please do. If you know of me in any way, or if I might know of you, and you have anything at all you’d like to say, even if it’s just a quick hello in passing, then I heartily endorse this event or product endeavour.

But, you will need to bear in mind that there are times when I really suck at conversation even at the most basic levels. I may not have the nerve at any particular moment to take much initiative, in starting a conversation or contributing much to a particular topic. I may seem uncomfortable or frazzled, or like I’m not fitting in there or I want to be left alone.

None of this should put you off an attempt to be friendly, should you feel so inclined. I’m just making excuses ahead of time for if I seem closed-off, unresponsive, or uninterested. I’m not. Well, I might be kinda the first two. But I’m just hugely shy. Give me a chance.

I don’t have an iPhone or anything similar, and I’m not staying in the hotel with a laptop on hand, so I’m mostly going to be falling off the grid for the next couple of days as far as things like blogging and Twitter are concerned. I’ll catch up eventually.

Oh, and I’ll be the one looking more or less like this:

Goofiness of face is only an estimate.

Have a good weekend.

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How easy is it to believe in nonsense, without being notably stupid?

Some years ago – I’d guess I was very approximately 13, so in the mid-to-late ’90s, but certainly long before I had any idea what scientific skepticism was, and even longer before I’d given up believing in God – I was watching some debate show on TV about the paranormal. There was a host/moderator at a desk, with a couple of people on either side of him, each arguing one side of the debate. And there was a fairly large studio audience.

The first person to speak was an alleged psychic, who was over from the US (this was an English show, I’m pretty sure) and had agreed to demonstrate his abilities. He started by doing some readings for people in the crowd, throwing out some fairly specific things straight off, and homing in on some individual people, seeming to know a good deal about each of them. I can’t remember what he said, or whether he claimed to be in direct contact with anybody’s dead relatives, but the audience members he spoke to were definitely very impressed, as were many of the onlookers.

Now, as I recall, I didn’t really have any opinion at the time on things like psychic powers. The subject was interesting enough to me that I was watching a debate that proposed to settle the matter, but I certainly don’t think I was convinced that there was anything to it, though nor was I especially against the idea. I just don’t think I’d given it much thought.

In fact, I’m sure I must have been open to it and yet unconvinced – because I distinctly remember being very impressed myself by the quality of the readings this guy was giving. I mean, we were assured that he hadn’t met any of these people before, there didn’t seem to be any obvious way he could be finding these things out about them, no way he’d have known who was going to be in the audience tonight so that he could research them beforehand. He was just standing up and somehow providing all this secret information, with startling accuracy.

So I figured maybe there was something to this psychic stuff after all. Maybe the guy was in touch with some sort of magic, or something. It seemed to make sense.

Of course, it didn’t last. It didn’t last more than about thirty seconds, in fact, because as soon as he was done making a very impressive case for the existence of psychic powers, and wowing the crowd, the host told us that this was not in fact Mr So-and-so, the practising psychic as whom he’d been introduced. It was in fact Mr James Randi, experienced skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. I remember a mild uproar from the crowd at this point, which if I had to pin it down to an emotion being expressed I would probably call dismay.

And suddenly my own view of things swung way back in the opposite direction. I hadn’t known it was possible for a psychic to come up with such amazing information – and, I now realised, I hadn’t known it was also possible for some regular guy who knows his shit to put on an equally impressive performance.

And it was really, really cool. It didn’t shake any particular worldviews of mine, and my role as an interested skeptic still didn’t really start for a number of years, but I really liked this. It sounded like some people in the audience objected to being tricked, but I thought it was great. Maybe it says something about the approach to learning that I’d come to adopt in the first few years of my life, or maybe I just hadn’t had time to grow attached to this particular paradigm before it was shattered. But I thought the way I’d been led down one path and then had the rug pulled from under me (if you’ll forgive another mixed metaphor involving carpeted pathways) was really cool.

And it made Randi’s point very well, of course. The fact that I could be tricked like that was quite revealing, and made the case very convincingly that the skeptics were right – or at least that the psychics were going to have to step up their game a great deal if they wanted to be taken seriously. But I didn’t feel upset that I’d been tricked, or like I’d been made to look stupid. And while there may be a lot that I know now, and which seems obvious to me now, which I wasn’t aware of at the time, I don’t think you have to start from a position of total idiocy to make a transition like that.

It’s not for my own ego that I keep reiterating that I wasn’t being stupid, by the way. I know it might seem like I’m just trying to disingenuously maintain my own integrity while continuing to mock anyone of a different opinion to me at present. (“Other people are stupid to believe this stuff. I was just having a momentary but understandable and perfectly human blip in my usually excellent rational and intelligent outlook.”) But I think there’s something important to remember here, and this story is one of my strongest personal reminders.

The most vocal, prominent, or infuriating proponents of woo out there are often infuriatingly stubborn, or committed to irrationality, or strongly mentally blocked to any disconfirming evidence, or otherwise not worth arguing with. But they’re by no means the majority. They’re not the one in three people who believe in telepathy or ghosts. Those people are me a little over a decade ago. They haven’t spent years reading skeptical blogs and listening to science podcasts, learning how to think critically about these things, and about the history and context of all these wacky beliefs, and how people can be fooled into getting things wrong. But they’re not fundamentalists or ideologues. They’ve probably just seen someone on stage, claiming to be a psychic, saying some pretty impressive things.

And if that someone turns out to be James Randi using cold reading (or hot reading, I forget exactly how it went on that particular show), they might find that as cool as I did.

Maybe this is how we should be approaching the skeptical battle, then. Don’t worry about the extremists; there’s no significant hope for some people to ever see any kind of light. But keep talking to the people who are just like you before you knew any of this stuff. Put the emphasis on how much fun it can be to learn you were wrong, to see how you were just fooled by something nifty. Keep some sarcasm in your arsenal, because it’s funny and the sort of thing that can be useful in rallying the troops, but don’t let it become your primary weapon against people who might be willing to learn a thing or two. Always keep it rational. Make sure we’re always the ones explaining why the facts are on our side.

I hope you’re listening to this, writerJames. Seriously, I sometimes think that guy could use this advice more than most.

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…and being skeptical just got a little more fabulous!

Sorry. I’m not at all happy with myself for that line. The point is that James Randi, legend and grand high archbigwig of the skeptical world, is gay. So yeah. He talks about it with D.J. Grothe on the latest For Good Reason podcast.

It’s not earth-shattering news. But at the same time, it’s not no news, either. Maybe something like this ought to be a complete non-event, in an ideal world – but for those of us who live in this world, coming out is rarely an entirely trivial thing. It may not be a moment fraught with drama, as Randi’s certainly wasn’t. But we still live in a profoundly heteronormative society. (There have probably been like five or six occasions when I’ve written that word in the years since I picked it up from my uni housemates, but it feels like I use it all the time these days.) The notion of being straight as the default setting is not one that’s been completely given up anywhere, so professing to be of some other configuration is unavoidably a noticeable action.

A few people are insisting that nobody ought to be displaying any interest or expressing any emotional response to Randi’s announcement at all, because someone being gay ought to be such a non-issue as described above. And I’m sure they think that their position is the most tolerant and accepting of all, but I rather think it misses the point. Simply claiming that someone’s sexuality makes no difference to you – even if it’s entirely true and your judgments of people are genuinely made without any prejudice – isn’t enough. While the prejudice and oppression still exist, it’s up to the rest of us to overcompensate.

Not everyone is as comfortable in themselves and as assured of a largely benign response as Randi is. For some people, being open about their sexuality is a big event, and one that may be followed by serious negative consequences. One very easy (and not totally insignificant) way we can help those people out is by adding a cheer to the chorus at times like this. It’s important for them to see that other people who come out publicly are being supported, not chastised for daring to bring it up.

The people not willing to do that because “it makes no difference” sometimes sound quite aggressive in making this point (plenty of examples in the comments thread below Randi’s announcement). But their aggression is for some reason directed at the gay guy who’s just come out, as if it’s offensive of him to expect anyone to be interested in this. Guys. Not helpful. The people you should be angry at are the homophobes and bigots whose hostility and prejudice make this an issue in the first place. In some parts of the world, people are still being murdered over this kind of thing, so don’t get grouchy that some people haven’t simply got over it yet and could still use a little positive feedback on occasion.

So, rock on, Randi. You’ve deserved a big parade of your own for a long time, anyway.

Also, Baba Brinkman is awesome, and excels more than any other in the field of “music that on paper I really shouldn’t like but which actually totally does it for me”. Go watch the video for his rationalist anthem, Off That.

Also also, Rebecca Watson is doing some APPLE SCIENCE, bitches. (I would add a “WITH HER FALLOPIAN TUBES, BITCHES” but I don’t want to cross the memes.) Watch her experiment, and learn how you can set up your own! All you need is an apple, a knife, some cheap containers, and a callous disregard for the fragile emotions of the helpless fruit in your care. Go team science!

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So I meant to comment on this sooner but, y’know, lazy. I did want to draw a little attention to it, though, and highlight a couple of things.

DJ Grothe has taken over as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, the daddy of skeptical activist organisations. A couple of weeks ago now, he posted about his recent visit to their headquarters at Ft. Lauderdale, and his ideas for how they’re going to move forward in coming months.

This provides the most detailed and best articulated explanation I’ve yet seen of just what the JREF does, beyond presenting the Million Dollar Challenge as a handy rhetorical tool, and it’s a pretty awesome set of goals. Things that were particularly happifying for me to see:

3. Resources for schools and such. Yes. We definitely need to see more of this. It will need to be done with a modicum of care, but these are smart people behind these ideas, and I trust the rest of the skeptical community to let them know if they’re ever in danger of pushing an unwelcome agenda too far. There will be god-freaks and woo-mongers who’ll overreact and oppose the idea anyway, of course, but don’t let’s worry about people who don’t understand the distinction between indoctrination of propaganda and education. Important difference, folks. Encouraging and enabling a deeper appreciation and understanding of the scientific method is a good thing.

4. More Amaz!ng Meetings all over the place. Yay! Australia could definitely do with more of this sort of thing, I think, given how bad they’ve had the anti-vax nonsense lately. A sequel to TAM London sounds like it’s definitely on the cards too.

8. Publicly exposing nonsense, and working with the media to help educate the public on scams and dangerous nonsense. Another yes, if this goes the way I’m hoping it will. I can really imagine the skeptical community’s take and blogosphere’s consensus becoming a significant part of regular news reporting. Ben Goldacre has already had some success at becoming a go-to guy many journalists turn to for a skeptical comment on medical stories. I love the idea of it becoming a widely understood thing by the public: there’s this bunch of people who are good at critical thinking and all that sciencey stuff, and who you should listen to what they have to say when you read some new science thing in the papers, because they know about all that stuff and can often tell you what’s really going on, about scams and paranormal stuff and all that kind of thing. And I love the idea of being a part of the blogging network that people think of like that.

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Well, there were other things I was hoping to get around to blogging about today. But I’m only one (lazy) man, and the Randi-centric climate change fiasco is still rendering my gears thoroughly ground.

The man himself posted some follow-up remarks today. Here are some of the things he said, to clarify his position on the question of anthropogenic global warming:

My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.

So the scientific consensus position is, in Randi’s eyes, “quite probable”. That’s not denial. That’s a long way from denial. It’s not quite the opposite extreme, and he’s inching nearer to equivocation than most actual scientists on this point, but he’s still broadly, tentatively, accepting the science.

Regarding the Petition Project, of which he said yesterday: “I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid”, based on his “admittedly rudimentary knowledge”, Randi now says:

I admit that I was unaware of the true nature of the Petition, and I thank Dr. Plait — and several others — who pointed me to this reference and a much better grasp of the situation.

Phil Plait had pointed out to Randi that the project had been examined and found wanting by e-skeptic, among other sources. Randi seems to have taken this on board, expanded his knowledge to a slightly less rudimentary state, and adjusted his views accordingly. That’s not really what denialists do.

Many have commented that this is the kind of thing Randi ought to have known about before publishing his article in the first place, and I think they’re right. I think he made a mistake in conducting insufficient research before espousing a position. But being neglectfully unaware of evidence is a very different mistake from wilfully disregarding important evidence when it’s presented to you. I was willing to give Randi the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t be guilty of the latter, and so far it doesn’t seem that he has.

When the awesomely named James Hrynyshyn corrected him on some technical data he’d referred to, Randi responded:

I’m still trying to find where I discovered this gem of text. I suspect that “cooled” should have been “warmed,” but my currently chemo-altered encephalon stumbled… Both my enecephalon and I stand corrected.

Again, he made a mistake, and accepts the correction. He’s aware that recent health problems may have left him in a less than optimal condition to fully analyse all the data and make a truly effective skeptical assessment of the situation, and admits that he slipped up.

Some are saying that, if he knows he’s not on top form right now, he shouldn’t be posting controversial articles that go against the scientific mainstream and haven’t been rigorously checked for factual soundness. This may well be so, but it’s still not this particular criticism that’s bothering me.

What bugs me is the degree to which people abandon nuance, or any attempt to be measured, and are still calling him a denialist.

In particular, I think PZ is way off.

This was a case where Randi ought to have either a) admitted simple error, or b) recused himself from the argument, citing a lack of information.

Well, I’m pretty sure I saw him do the former several times, in today’s follow-up article, the one we’re both talking about.

PZ also talks about the “pernicious tactics” of denialists, and the way they…

…falsely state that there is a respectable middle ground of “the scientists aren’t sure” when the science hammers home over and over again that they are pretty damned sure.

And while this is certainly an infuriating tactic often used by the intellectually dishonest, I cannot fathom what he thinks Randi’s doing that’s so pernicious. I have every confidence that Randi is doing his best to call it how he sees it, and assimilate new information honestly along the way. This isn’t to say that how he sees it and how he’s calling it right now don’t have some serious flaws, but he’s clearly not trying to surreptitiously argue a case against global warming and disguise it with insincere skepticism. Sometimes people who say “I don’t know” actually don’t know.

I quoted the Lay Scientist yesterday, who was kind enough to comment here:

I don’t think Randi is a denialist…the real problem here isn’t that Randi has expressed doubt on climate change, it’s that he’s done it in such a poor way.

That seems like a better position from which to respond. Working from there, someone who knows more about climate change science than I do can give Randi some credit for most likely being smart but suffering a critical research failure, and help explain the facts. That seems the reasonable approach. Phil Plait is one person reacting well to all this. Error should certainly be called out, but some of the reactionary rhetoric going on isn’t helping, and the word “denialist” is tasting more and more bitter to me the more it gets carelessly bandied around.

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Okay, this is bugging me.

Last night was the first of this year’s run of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a science-themed comedy and variety show orchestrated by Robin Ince. The second show is presumably in full swing as I type this, and I’ll be going myself on Friday. Reviews of last night’s show were already plentiful when I checked this morning, because we live in the future now, where the internets know everything and information moves at the speed of lol.

And while people’s opinions of the comedy and music and overall presentation differ somewhat, everyone is agreeing on one thing, which made for the most remarkable section of the evening.

Johnny Ball has lost his shit.

I’d have to be a little older than I am to be among those who consider this man a childhood hero, but he’s definitely someone I remember seeing on TV maybe 15 years ago, and he was definitely awesome. There’s also no doubt that he seemed on fine form at Boffoonery a few weeks back. (Apparently I never got around to reviewing my evening there. Summary: it was great.)

But apparently last night he really went off on one, launching into an extended rant about how we’ve got it wrong about all this “global warming” nonsense. By all accounts it was an uncomfortable spectacle. Botogol wasn’t impressed even before he got onto global warming; misswiz reckoned that only a minority of the audience actively heckled, though the rest could muster no more than polite applause when he finally left; the New Humanist found it a surreal moment in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable evening; and comedy website Chortle talked a surprising amount about science, and seemed among the least concerned of the commentators that he wasn’t actually being funny.

I think this latter was actually the main complaint for most people. Nobody was shouting or booing at him until he was already well over his allotted time, and it sounds like he was droning on without being very entertaining. I think a crowd in a good mood, like this lot probably were, could tolerate someone with some kooky bad science for ten minutes if it was at least sort of funny. But it sounds like it wasn’t funny, and after it had gone on for ages people started using the lack of funny as motivation to start heckling him for being wrong.

Of course, there’s also the assumption here that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify that I’m not seeking to cast significant doubt on this assumption. From the informed responses I’ve heard, it seems that all Johnny Ball had last night were over-simplified arguments that fail to make a significant scientific case, and have already been refuted by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

But I’m not one of those people. I still have to defer to the scientific consensus on this kind of thing. When looking at the facts of the climate change debate, I can’t distinguish at a glance the sound science from the ideology-driven nonsense. If Johnny Ball is deviating from the position generally held by most scientists, that probably means he’s done more research into this than I have. He’s probably also still wrong, but how many people in the audience would really have been able to explain why?

Having said that, I’m not in a position of complete ignorance. I do know some things relevant to the issue of climate change. I know that science is awesome, that rigorous application of the scientific method is our best hope for approaching any sort of truth, and that there is currently an overwhelming scientific consensus which tells us certain things: that there is something going on with our planet’s climate which we need to be aware of, which we need to start taking some kind of responsibility for, and which we need to start considering how to respond to if we want this ball of rock floating in space to remain in any way a comfortable place to live.

If Johnny Ball also knows those things, I’m very doubtful that he also knows enough other secret scientific information, which the majority of actual scientists don’t seem to have picked up on yet, to support his position.

But – and here we finally get to the part that’s really been bugging me – I don’t necessarily think Johnny Ball is a denialist. I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s an ideological nutjob who can’t be reasoned with.

The point is even stronger in the case of James Randi.

This whole thing really kicked off after Randi, the man for whom the term “arch-skeptic” may very well have been invented, published an article on this subject. Representative of the general reaction from the skeptical community is PZ Myers: James Randi joins the ranks of the climate change denialists. The Lay Scientist was even harsher.

Here’s an extract from a quick back-and-forth I followed on Twitter earlier, between Brian Thompson and PZ:

AmSci: Randi may be wrong, but anyone who says “I’m not sure” isn’t a denialist.
PZ: Wrong. That’s a standard pose by the denialists!
AmSci: That’s because they’re posing. Randi isn’t. There’s a difference between honest doubt and dishonest doubt.

I think that Brian’s (AmSci’s) initial statement is somewhat over-simplified in the other direction, but he’s only working with 140 characters. And his latter response is exactly right. It’s infuriating when 9/11 “truthers”, or Moon landing hoax conspiracy nuts, or Glenn Beck, take some insanely contrary position, make a stream of ludicrous arguments against a well established idea, and respond to all rational argument by insisting “Hey, I’m just asking questions“. But the reason it’s infuriating is that it’s being used as a ploy, and it’s transparently obvious that their feigned naïve innocence is a front for a position they’ve already committed themselves to.

I don’t see any reason to suppose that Randi is being so disingenuous, or that he deserves to be bundled into the “denialist” camp because of this article. I’m going to go through what he says paragraph by paragraph and see if I can find anything truly objectionable. Follow along here.

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us…

This is literally true. Randi’s not denying that the scientific process of peer review is the best way to approach the truth, but pointing out that the human element is always going to be fallible and subject to natural human biases, however much we strive to overcome them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…

This paragraph just reports some facts about who’s saying what – the IPCC “has issued several comprehensive reports” on their position, while The Petition Project also exists with a certain number of dissenting voices. No conclusions are drawn from this data yet.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus…

This whole paragraph seems to be a perfectly sensible description of the scientific method, and the “humility in the face of facts” approach to understanding the Universe. Can’t see any problems here.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Still uncontroversial. He’s not trying to undermine the value of science, like many anti-science loons who like to point out that science has been wrong about stuff before, and claim that therefore it can’t be trusted. Science’s ability to respond to its mistakes is its greatest strength. Randi gets this.

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts…

This, I suppose, is the bit that’s got everyone all a-fluster. And I’ve got to say, I was expecting worse. I mean, he’s a denialist, he’s joined the fringe cranks, he’s “barely coherent”? I’ve understood every word he’s said so far. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but come on. Disagreeing with you does not equate to being incapable of effective communication.

“I strongly suspect” is a carefully measured phrase, and he’s well aware of the rudimentary nature of his knowledge. He’s looked at the situation, borne in mind that he’s not an expert, and formed his own summary, while seemingly retaining the capacity to learn more about it as his understanding develops. At least, that’s what I take from phrases like “this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data”, anyway.

It appears that the Earth is warming…

The next few paragraphs are simply about the data we have, and not too much about what anyone thinks it means. The atmosphere is 0.04% carbon dioxide, and CO2 is a vital molecule for plant life. Nobody’s saying that this disproves anything. It’s just background info.

At the end he starts leaning toward an actual conclusion again:

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

Some people are reading this as if he’s trotting out the tedious old line so elegantly summarised at ifglobalwarmingisrealthenwhyisitcold.blogspot.com. I don’t think that’s his point at all, though. Okay, the thing about more people dying from cold than from heat doesn’t seem pertinent – I don’t think anybody’s saying that global warming’s bad because the sun’s going to boil people alive – but it’s a piece of data, not a philosophical opinion or practical conclusion. He clarifies it a little further down:

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is Randi’s value judgment on what seems most important, when all the problems facing the world are considered. That’s his personal judgment call. It’s not mine. (Mine is to mostly hold back and tentatively do what the clever people tell me.) But neither, as far as I can tell, is it one driven by an ideological opposition to climate change science, or by a political agenda, and neither is it held with any measure of arrogant certainty.

Randi’s a smart guy. He has an excellent track record of being honest, interested, and well versed in critical thinking. He knows about being wrong, and being fooled, and science, and questioning everything you think you know. Perhaps he’s been insufficiently diligent in following the good science through, on this occasion, and not performed a proper examination of how the scientific consensus came to be so strongly supported. But a lot of his biggest fans and fellow arch-skeptics seem fine with immediately deciding that he’s cast his lot in with the “deniers” and that there’s little more to be said about it, as if he were suddenly a tragically lost cause.

I don’t know much about Johnny Ball, but if there’s anyone I’d credit with the ability to change his mind based on the objective assessment of new information, it’s James Randi. But I’ve seen a lot less helpful and informative presentation of new information than I’ve seen shouting about denialism, and it’s starting to make me think that Jack of Kent was right all along.

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Yes, I’m still moaning about the lack of time I find to get anything done. Couple of quick links.

James Randi on Uri Geller, summing things up nicely. The guy’s made a decades-long career out of convincing people that he does real, genuine, no-foolin’ magic using psychic alien powers and no trickery whatever. If he’s now claiming to be an illusionist relying on natural means, he’s a disingenuous twat. Randi put it more eloquently.

And when I go home for Christmas, I’m going to have to remember to try out at least some of Richard Wiseman’s quirky science tricks.

And that’s everything that happened today.

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A little background first, for those unfamiliar with what exactly is going on here.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organisation based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the intent of promoting critical thinking among the public, and trying to disseminate reliable information on subjects where credulity and irrationality abound. In January 2003, they held the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting, where 150 people gathered in Fort Lauderdale to hear a selection of prominent scientists and skeptics give lectures, and mingle with like-minded folk over several days.

The next year, it moved to Las Vegas, where it’s been an ever-growing annual event ever since. It’s expanded to include several Amaz!ng Adventures also, and this past weekend I was one of 600 attendees at the first international meeting, in London. Various awesome people spoke, lectured, mingled, answered questions, sang, danced, and fumbled comically with a number of technological hurdles.

So, the people I experienced over the weekend were as follows:

  1. Richard Wiseman compèred the whole thing, introducing each new speaker, keeping the crowd entertained with some jokes and semi-serious magic tricks while the next bit was being got ready, and covering whenever a technical hitch threatened to derail things. He did a fabulous job of being charming and (giving the illusion of) being in control throughout.
  2. Brian Cox, physicist and Supreme Allied Commander of CERN. Well, okay, he just works there. He spoke about the CERN lab, the Large Hadron Collider, and why he really believes that this kind of science is important and worth investing in. There were some great collider pics, including some of the damage caused when they broke it last year, and a more comprehensive explanation of just what went wrong than I’d heard at the time. There was also a lot of background info about particle physics, to explain exactly what it is they’re trying to do there. I’m a physics geek already, I’ve read books about string theory and quarks and extra dimensions of space-time, but I still felt like I learnt something new about the Standard Model. He’s a terrific speaker, with a real knack for making these potentially mind-mangling topics accessible and fascinating.
  3. Jon Ronson is hilarious and wonderful. In many ways, he might seem at first glance like a somewhat unlikely orator; he looks like a classic nerd, tends to hold his arms against himself a little awkwardly, and has an occasional head-nodding tic. But in actual fact, he has great stage presence and tells a hell of a story. He really knows how to make his encounters with crazy people sound touching, human, and very funny, both in print and in person, and provided some of the biggest laughs of the weekend.
  4. Simon Singh spoke about his ongoing libel case, giving some more background than we’d heard before and some interesting updates. He was also given an award by the JREF, for Outstanding Contribution To The Services Of Being A Fucking Hero. Or something like that. Seriously, I think the importance and bravery of what he’s doing, fighting for the right to speak openly and critically about scientific matters and standing as a figurehead for the campaign to change this country’s insane libel laws, is going to be looked back on with awe and amazement in years to come. He also broke the news that he and his wife are expecting their first child next year.
  5. James Randi, the man himself, who couldn’t attend the conference himself due to health issues, but appeared via a live video link-up, looking in good spirits and on fine form. He fielded some questions, and the computer equipment seemed to require mercifully little wrangling to make it happen.
  6. Ariane Sherine was an absolute delight to see in person. She seemed a little nervous at first, but not to a degree you could fault her for, given how much less often she’s done this than everyone else on the bill, and how effortlessly she was chatting with her audience within a few minutes. She told the story of the Atheist Bus Campaign, with some brilliant visual aids and musical montages. Hopeless geek crush #43729 blooms still.
  7. Mil Millington happened to be attending, and was recognisable by his hair. I love the guy’s writing, but he actually looked a little… Walter Kovacs-y. Yeah.
  8. Ben Goldacre was his usual awesome self. The bizarre details of the media’s approach to the MRSA thing in particular continues to blow my mind. I should write about that properly someday.
  9. Robin Ince hosted a comedy evening on Saturday. He chatted about Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, as he ever does, but you could tell how thrilled he was at playing to a crowd who’ll respond with applause to names like that. The usual suspects were there: Josie Long, Christina Martin, Philip Jeays, and so forth. At times it felt pretty similar to the Night of 400 Billion Stars earlier in the year, but mostly they’re all such good company that this didn’t count against it at all.
  10. Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters, which was fun. I’ve never really seen the show properly, but the clips I’ve been pointed to on the internet I’ve always enjoyed, and he was great to watch and listen to here. (I’ve skipped over the two acts before him on Sunday morning, because I gave myself a lie-in and didn’t get there until the start of Adam’s set. I’ve never been a huge George Hrab fan, and Glenn Hill’s name didn’t mean anything to me. He’s actually the son of one of the girls who took the Cottingley Fairies pictures, and in retrospect I would’ve quite liked to hear from him.)
  11. Tim Minchin. Holy fucking shit, Tim Minchin. Unbelievable. Highlight of the whole weekend. I mean, I knew the guy was good, but wow. He wasn’t there for long, but it was an incredible set. The awesomeness of Storm is barely diminished by the fact that I know it by heart, and the brief preview of the animated version being made looks like it’ll be fantastic when it’s finished. He did a couple of numbers I’d never heard before, which were musically brilliant and genuinely hilarious in equal measure. And his song about Christmas is perfect. Goddamn, that man is something special.
  12. Phil Plait, President of the JREF, spoke about skepticism in general, and his particular field of astronomy in particular. Much of it was a sort of preview of his latest book, Death From The Skies!, of which I picked up a copy in the foyer (along with a couple by Jon Ronson, and Bruce Hood’s Supersense).
  13. Heather and Colm, the only two people with whom I really managed any socialising. (If either of you happen to find this, say hi. I’m sorry we got separated before I could find out where to stalk you on Twitter.) I decided not to aim too high, in terms of personal expectations for social interaction. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and talkative, and I’m sure the random interruptions I would’ve loved to make to introduce myself would have been welcomed, but I’m not going to berate myself for not having the nerve to go up to any famous people off of the internet. I did fine, for me.

I guess that’s as good a link as any to some more general rumination. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting as regards the format of the evening, but from what I understand of the Vegas meetings, they’re generally in a pretty open-plan space, often with different things going on in different areas at the same time, and with various bars and other areas where it’s easy to gather and congregate when nothing big’s happening. TAM London was somewhat smaller in scale, and felt rather more regimented. Superb though all the presentations were, we did all just file in and out of the one auditorium together, and there wasn’t much going on in between except a general milling about. There were a few stalls downstairs, but nothing really conducive to natural socialisation.

In fact, Jon Ronson’s just twittered a link to this review, which makes a number of good points. I didn’t feel that everyone was being quite as isolated and monastic as it apparently seemed to Luke; I thought it was mostly just me. And I’m not sure to what extent it’s up to the organisers to get the socially awkward nerd demographic talking to people they’ve never met before, or how much it’s something we’ll just have to figure out by ourselves. But a bit more infrastructure in between the talks might be something to aim for next time. And I agree that somewhere to sit for the bangers and mash dinner would definitely have been nice, and possibly more conducive to conversation.

Anyway, that’s what I did with my weekend. I may not have been as socially interactive as some, but it got me out of the house, and I hope I’ll be able to attend an even bigger and better show next year.

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