I debated about whether to write about the particular article I’m going to write about today, not so much because it’s something that makes me uneasy but rather because I wasn’t sure if I should give the writer who wrote it more attention. (Not that he likely needs it, give that, somehow, he got this drivel posted on Boing Boing, one of the most highly trafficked websites out there.) However, one week after the death of James “The Amazing” Randi, I suppose that I should have expected an attack like the one written by Mitch Horowitz and given the rather click-baity title of The man who destroyed skepticism. Obviously, given that the modern skeptic movement is inseparable from James Randi, who was one of the major figures who helped birth it decades ago, that title, plus the blurb, “Scourge of psychics James Randi was no skeptic; our culture is poorer as a result” was obviously intended as red meat. However, I ultimately decided that deconstructing the article is a useful exercise, because Horowitz uses a combination of Randi’s known shortcomings and missteps, numerous rhetorical devices that give away his bias, plus appeals to aggrieved pseudoexperts in the paranormal and “energy medicine” with whom Randi had tussled in his lifetime over their promotion of pseudoscience. I finally decided to bite the bullet and take one for the team.
Before I begin, I recognize that Randi was a complicated and, even within the skeptic movement, polarizing figure. I first met him in 2009 at The Amazing Meeting 7 (TAM7) in Las Vegas. TAM7 was the first TAM that I had ever attended. At the time, I had been blogging for my not-so-super-secret other blog under my real name for a year and a half, and our fearless leader had decided to launch a science-based medicine track at TAM. It was my first time speaking at any sort of skeptics conference or convention, too; so I was plenty nervous, particularly given that back then I was still very much terrified of public speaking. (Oddly enough, I’ve gotten much better at it since then and actually kind of enjoy it now—and miss that I haven’t had an opportunity to speak at a skeptics conference since NECSS 2019.) At the time, I was amazed (if you’ll excuse the term) by how open and happy he was to speak to anyone interested in meeting him, even someone like me, who, at the time had only been blogging for around four years and was definitely a fairly low-ranking member of the skeptics ecosystem. (Even today, I still consider myself a “microcelebrity” at best, more likely a “nanocelebrity.”) I was also struck by how tiny he was and how frail he appeared. At the time, he was not infrequently seen in a wheelchair, being pushed from event to event. My first photo with him and my wife showed us on one knee on either side of him as he sat in his wheelchair.
I was just as starstruck as anyone else. Later, in 2010, when I was a speaker at the Trottier Symposium in Montreal with Ben Goldacre (another of my early heros!), I got to spend time with him and Joe Schwarcz, the organizer of the event, and I was impressed by Randi’s quick wit, intelligence, and sense of humor. Yes, I admit it. I was starstruck back then and, although repeated meetings led to Randi becoming less of a star and more of a real human being to me, remained an admirer until his death. After all, Randi’s takedown of French scientist Jacques Benveniste’s studies on homeopathy is a master class on how easily scientists can be deceived by pseudoscientific claims, as were his deconstructions of faith healers like Peter Popoff, scammers like Uri Geller, and various “paranormal” investigators. (It is Randi’s exposure of these paranormal investigators that appears to have most stoked Horowitz’s anger and led to him portraying Randi as the “man who destroyed skepticism.” More on that in a moment.) In any event, over time my admiration was tempered with the knowledge of some of Randi’s problematic beliefs and takes, used by Horowitz to claim that Randi engaged in “pseudoskepticism.”
As the years rolled on, I started to appreciate that Randi was flawed, like any human being. Naturally, Horowitz is quick to harp on two examples. One reminded me of how, just few months after I’d met Randi for the first time, I came across him expressing “skepticism” of the climate science that concludes that human activity is the primary driver of global climate change in the form of warming using the same sort of dubious pseudoscientific and denialist talking points that climate science deniers like to use. His response to criticism of his remarks was…disappointing, although at least he did seem to realize that he had stumbled into an area that he didn’t know much about. As an aside, I also can’t help but note that susceptibility to climate science denialism under the masque of skepticism was not unique to Randi at the time. Other prominent skeptics engaged in it, too, including Penn Jillette and Michael Shermer, with Jillette ultimately retreating to the “I DON’T KNOW” dodge (at TAM7, no less!) and Shermer ultimately changing his mind and accepting climate science, although he did for years after that appear to continue to flirt with the “don’t worry, be happy” camp of people who accept that the climate is warming but didn’t think it would be that big a deal. He’s since come around to accept the science.
The second was a reminder that even smart people can say stupid thing and have weird beliefs, always a humbling reminder but not one that invalidates Randi’s work. Indeed, as time rolled on, I learned that Randi did have a tendency to say stupid things on occasion, such as his having said things that sounded very much as though he supported eugenics. What comes to mind is his remarks on his blog supporting drug legalization not because of the drug war’s horrific consequences and cost but because it would weed out the “unfit” and that if that opinion meant he did to some extent believe in “social Darwinism” when it came to drugs, in essence, so be it. He did later apologize for those remarks, saying that he was “aware that I sometimes “shoot from the hip” and speak on things about which I know very little,” adding that he had “published…personal opinions about drug addiction without knowing very much about the neuroscience behind addiction, or the addiction recovery field” and admitting that “only did I say some deeply regrettable and insensitive things, but as I’ve learned more about the questions and issues at hand, I accept that I have been wrongheaded on a number of topics related to these issues.” (Funny how all those who claim Randi was a eugenics enthusiast always forget to mention that he did later apologize for his remarks and did genuinely appear to educate himself after that unfortunate incident.)
Finally, as this NYT obituary notes, there were other incidents, as the documentary An Honest Liar and other sources have described. Particularly troublesome were sexism in the skeptics movement and tolerance for misogyny and sexual harassment at TAM and Randi’s response (or non-response) to it. The past (and, let’s face it, in some cases present) indifference of much of organized skepticism, including the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) to sexism and misogyny in its ranks, did not help to bring more women into organized skepticism, to put it mildly. In fact, its tolerance of sexism and misogyny drove good women away, a few of whom I know personally.
Randi’s known flaws, long discussed among many skeptics, do not make Horowitz’s take any better, though. Indeed, there are certain “tells” in a writer’s article that make his intent known, and Horowitz’s article is full of them, starting with:
I mourn Randi’s passing for those who loved him, and there were many. But his elevation to the Mount Rushmore of skepticism obfuscates a basic truth. 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. This has corroded our intellectual culture — in a Trumpian age when true skepticism is desperately needed.
Near the end of the article, Horowitz revisits this comparison:
Yes, Randi may have bagged some con artists along the way. Senator McCarthy may have caught a few authentic Soviet sympathizers or spies. But at what cost? Each man laid tracks for future demagogues who proved less interested in defending facts than in promulgating smears and half-truths for personal benefit.
Yes, a comparison to Joseph McCarthy is always a “tell.” In this case, the comparison means that Horowitz is arguing that Randi’s decades-long efforts to expose fraud was an ideological witch hunt. This particular comparison is, of course, a favorite rhetorical device of quacks, cranks, pseudoscience believers, and conspiracy theorists, that exposing their quackery, pseudoscience, and conspiracy nonsense is akin to “suppressing” it. A homeopath couldn’t have said it better.
Another “tell” comes later in the article, when Horowitz smears Susan Gerbic and her Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW), the group she founded to try to fix a known problem on Wikipedia, the way that those who believe in pseudoscience and quackery will edit articles on relevant topics to make them sympathetic to their pseudoscience and quackery. Here’s how Horowitz characterizes GSoW:
Beyond scholarly circles, Randi set the template for a zealous band of professional skeptics, many of whom are science journalists or bloggers who focus on niche takedown pieces of people who study any form of ESP, mediumship, or anomalies. Even more damaging over the last decade has been a group of self-described “Guerrilla Skeptics” — winners of the 2017 James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Award — who wage a kind of freewheeling digital jihad on Wikipedia, tendentiously revising or trolling pages about scientific parapsychology and the lives of its key players.
Can you see the “tell”? Yes, it’s Horowitz’s likening GSoW’s efforts to a “freewheeling digital jihad.” In other words, Horowotiz is likening efforts by Gerbic and her GSoW members to make Wikipedia articles more scientifically rigorous to a “jihad,” thus not-so-subtly comparing her to a religious fanatic waging holy war. Again, this is a favorite rhetorical device of antivaxxers, quacks, climate science deniers, creationists, and cranks and conspiracy theorists of all persuasions (including, yes, even Holocaust deniers). There’s a subtler “tell” in there too. Notice the term “professional skeptics”? That implies that, instead of our activities to promote skepticism and critical thinking being a hobby, we are “professional” (i.e., paid). It’s really nothing more than a subtler form of the “pharma shill gambit” so beloved of antivaxxers and quacks.
Worse, Mitchel cites Dean Radin, who happily continues the smear on GSoW, by comparing its members to “anonymous trolls” but even worse:
While there are lots of anonymous trolls that have worked hard to trash any Wikipedia pages related to psi, including bios of parapsychologists,” said Dean Radin, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in northern California, one of a few remaining scholarly parapsychology labs, “this group of extreme skeptics is proudly open that they are rewriting history … any attempt to edit those pages, even fixing individual words, is blocked or reverted almost instantly.”
Unsurprisingly, quacks, cranks, and pseudoscientists really, really, really don’t like GSoW. For example, über-quack Gary Null has long railed against GSoW as a pharma-inspired conspiracy to “suppress” and “defame” advocates of alternative medicine. So has Deepak Chopra, who’s been ranting about GSoW intermittently since 2013. Never mind that GSoW very strictly plays by the rules of Wikipedia and is very open and honest about its purpose. Moreover, they are not “rewriting history.” They are trying to correct the history rewritten by quacks, cranks, pseudoscientists, and conspiracy theorists, who have seemingly endless time to edit Wikipedia pages.
As for Dean Radin, Horowitz portrays him as though he’s a legitimate scientist, but he’s not. He’s an advocate of pure pseudoscience, such as distance healing, the form of reiki whose adherents claim to be able to send “healing energy” over distances to heal people. His journal, Explore, has long been a repository for every form of energy woo known to quacks, including a hilariously inept “study” of how Tibetan monks infused chocolate with “conscious intention and love.” (This is consistent with his methodologically dubious research purporting to replicate Masaru Emoto’s results showing that water structure can be changed by “intent.”) He’s also known for rather dubious methodology in his efforts to produce evidence to support distance healing and other forms of “energy healing.” He’s long been very unhappy with skeptics, again, unsurprisingly, and been known for cherry picking data to get his conclusions. Sadly, Radin has been able to get on TV not infrequently.
Radin has produced all sorts of allegedly positive research into psi, but is never quite able to produce results that are taken seriously by the rest of the scientific community, or that can be replicated by objective scientists.
This is but one “expert” whom Horowitz quotes. He even unironically refers to Radin as a “scientist.”
He also approvingly cites a precognition study by Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem:
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.)
Unfortunately, Bem has defended p-hacking and data massage, as leading Susan Blackmore, who used to think that there might be something to psi and ESP phenomena, pointed out:
Bem is a name well known to thousands of undergraduates as a co-author of the famous “Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology”. But he is clearly in trouble, and so he should be. These omitted paragraphs are bad enough, but he has form. In a 2017 Skeptical Inquirer article, psychologist Stuart Vyse highlighted the dangers of p-hacking – the highly dubious practice of hunting around in one’s data until you find something ‘significant’, i.e. statistically significant, preferably at the 0.05 level or better. That dubious practice, he says, was once common but is now largely acknowledged as unacceptable. Only Bem still seems to think it’s OK, saying of his past experiments “they were always rhetorical devices. I gathered data to show how my point would be made. I used data as a point of persuasion, and I never really worried about, ‘Will this replicate or will this not?’” (Engber 2017).
Blackmore also points out how Bem continued to use a studies with manipulated data in a meta-analysis he did that’s frequently cited as evidence for ganzfeld and psychic effects.
Then Horowitz cites Rupert Sheldrake:
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.
This has been a longstanding accusation against Randi, and, to be honest, I don’t know who’s in the right here. As Harriet Hall noted in her review of William Storr’s book The Unpersuadables, Storr only found “competing stories.” Even if Horowitz’s description of events is accurate, it doesn’t prove Sheldrake right or support a charge that Randi “destroyed skepticism” (neither do any of his other “examples”), nor does it change the conclusion that Sheldrake has promoted pseudoscience over his entire career dating back to the 1980s with his “pet theory of everything,” namely “morphic resonance.” Sheldrake posits that “memory is inherent in nature” and that “natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind”, and that this “morphic resonance” also explains “telepathy-type interconnections between organisms.”
One thing that stands out about Sheldrake’s ideas is how utterly unfalsifiable many of them are. Some have tried to test them though. For example, Richard Wiseman failed to replicate Sheldrake’s experiment that claimed to show that pets can somehow “sense” when their owners are returning home, concluding that Sheldrake’s results were not evidence of animal precognition but were more likely due to artefacts, bias resulting from experimental design, and post hoc analysis of unpublished data. More recently, Sheldrake has joined woomeisters everywhere in ranting against “materialist” science, having published a book entitled The Science Delusion (Science Set Free) that’s basically one long polemic against “materialist” science very much like those that Deepak Chopra likes to engage in.
As Jerry Coyne put it, Rupert Sheldrake is not being persecuted and is not like Galileo. Even more amusingly, Coyne cites evidence showing that GSoW had nothing to do with the “attack” on Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page that got rid of the promotion of his pseudoscience that had been in it. Indeed, a member of GSoW quipped that “we didn’t touch his page, even with our minds! We have a list of pages we want to edit and Sheldrake isn’t even on it! Maybe that’s the real reason for his tantrum.”
I wondered who Mitch Horowitz was, having never heard of him before; so I did a quick Google search and found his self-description on his website:
Mitch Horowitz is a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today’s most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult.
Mitch illuminates outsider history, explains its relevance to contemporary life, and reveals the longstanding quest to bring empowerment and agency to the human condition.
He is widely credited with returning the term “New Age” to respectable use and is among the few occult writers whose work touches the bases of academic scholarship, national journalism, and subculture cred.
Oh, dear. Horowitz brought “New Age” back to “respectable use”? And he says that as though it were a good thing? That doesn’t sound good at all. Nor does his credulous take on Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) and cryptozoology.
Several scientists, including Richard Feynman, have observed that you can’t get out of a problem by employing the same thinking that got you into it. I’ve found that is a universal principle. I have found it a good principle in writing, for example. If you write a sentence or paragraph and you’re wrestling with it and clarity keeps eluding you, there’s probably something wrong with the foundation. It’s best to toss out the line or paragraph and start fresh. If something proves chronically difficult – this is true in relationships, too – there’s probably a flaw in the foundation itself.
The same may hold true for the question of mysterious beasts and natural wonders. Maybe the reason we don’t find more physical or DNA evidence is that, while these persistently reported phenomena are real and are actually occurring, they do not necessarily conform to our five-sensory material lives.
This returns us to the observation that Jacques Vallée made about UFOs probably being some kind of inter-dimensional manifestation, which enter our awareness intermittently and then vanish. There may exist an infinitude, or superposition, of events occurring all the time and everywhere, which we are capable of measuring or experiencing only intermittently (such as in the cases of documentary imagery), fractionally, or at periods of extreme sensitivity, in the same way that ESP or telekinesis may manifest at highly receptive moments. This ties into the question of psychical energies being unleashed during instances of trauma or crisis or intensity.
Wait, what? No DNA evidence means that “mysterious beasts” could still be real, just outside of our “five sensory material lives”? What is this, Hogwarts? Or maybe Ghostbusters? No wonder Horowitz didn’t like Randi, but views pseudoscientists like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin as persecuted “scientists”! In reality, their “science” hasn’t been taken seriously because the claimed phenomenon they investigate has never been conclusively shown to exist, and their experimental methods are far more pseudoscientific than scientific.
To boil Horowitz’s take down to its essence, he is arguing that, because of Randi’s efforts, research into ESP, parapsychology, and “energy medicine” (among other topics) has been so discredited that no reputable scientist will touch these topics, thus “destroying” skepticism. (Never mind that these subjects were viewed as highly dubious going back to long before Randi, following in Harry Houdini’s footsteps, took his knowledge of magicians’ illusions and applied it to such phenomenon and that, even if Randi had never been born, these subjects would likely still be viewed as disreputable today by real scientists because they are such obvious bullshit.) To support his argument Horowitz invokes a a handful of examples where Randi might have behaved questionably or possibly even unethically (although it’s not clear in every case that Randi did, in fact, behave as badly as advertised) and then cites several aggrieved purveyors of psychic, ESP, “energy medicine,” precognition pseudoscience whom Randi targeted. His purpose in doing so is obviously to bolster his characterization of Randi’s decades of skepticism as being based on ideology, to paint the skeptics movement as akin to religion and to portray those inspired by Randi to become active combatting pseudoscience as dogmatic fanatics akin to jihadists. It’s a hit piece, pure and simple, and it uses the sorts of rhetorical devices that skeptics have seen many times before from believers in woo.
Was Randi a saint? Obviously not. He was flawed, possibly more so than the average person. He definitely had a few major blind spots. It is also true that JREF had problems, examples of which Horowitz cites in his article. Randi’s legacy will no doubt be complicated for many, particularly women in the skeptical movement. However, for better or for worse, The Amazing Randi was one of the primary creators of the modern skeptics movement, and I also would argue that in creating the modern skeptics’ movement he did far more good than harm, particularly through his showman’s talent for popularizing skeptical takes on psychic and faith healing grifters, as well as flim-flam artists like Uri Geller. More importantly, he did not “destroy” skepticism because he contributed to making pseudoscientific “disciplines” disreputable. Quite the contrary.