Today is James Randi’s birthday, so happy birthday, O Amazing One!
It’s hard to believe that I’ve known that guy for over 8 years now. When I wrote my first book, my editor said we needed blurbs for the cover (the "This book cured my warts!" kind of thing), and we could use someone who was a big skeptic. Naturally I thought of Randi. I sent him a note, he agreed happily, and sent a great quote that immediately went on the back cover of the book. Shortly after that he invited me to talk at the very first Amaz!ng Meeting, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Randi is formidable, and as Carl Sagan said, "We may not always agree with Randi, but we ignore him at our peril." Sagan was a pretty smart guy.
Randi’s a pretty smart guy too, and does a lot of good for the world. Now, I’m not saying he’s 900 years old and wise, but the resemblance to Yoda can sometimes be uncanny…
Most of the time, so-called "alternative medicine" is treated very gently by television news. I don’t know if that’s because they don’t want to tick off their viewers, or the reporters don’t look into it properly, or if they believe in it themselves. But no matter the reason, it’s always refreshing to see a show really tear into something like homeopathy. That’s precisely what the Australian program "Today Tonight" did recently:
The report featured such noted skeptics as Simon Singh, Richard Saunders, and James Randi, and made it very clear that homeopathy is just very expensive nonsense. I’m glad they didn’t make the report "balanced" by giving a lot of time to promoters of homeopathy; that’s not balance any more than giving time to someone who believes in storks delivering babies in a segment about infant health care.
Every year, the James Randi Educational Foundation picks the people or organizations who have done the most to promote antireality nonsense and get the public to believe in provably untrue silliness. This dubious honor is called the Pigasus Award after Randi’s official mascot, the flying pig, as in "XXX will be true when pigs fly" — values of XXX include homeopathy, faith healing, dowsing, etc. The awards are appropriately given out every April 1.
This year’s crop has just been announced. I was not surprised to see Richard Hoover listed there for his extremely shaky announcement of life in a meteorite. Hoover published his claims in the Journal of Cosmology, and while I was pretty clear in my posts about the extremely shaky nature of this journal, the JREF simply calls them "crackpot". Heh.
I do have a quibble with the awards this year though. Our old friend Andrew Wakefield — the defrocked, debunked, and discredited founder of the modern antivax movement — was given the "Refusal to Face Reality Award" for his ongoing (and wrong) claims that vaccines cause all sorts of health problems from gastric distress to autism. But it’s not clear he’s refusing to face reality at all. In fact, the point could be made that he may be simply cashing in on parents’ fears, in which case he is facing reality quite squarely.
But that’s merely a quibble. The important thing is that Wakefield’s ignominy is highlighted. And he’s just one of the five, so head over to the JREF site and read about the others who topped this year’s list of this year’s bottom of the barrel.
Image of flying pig is actually of a necklace pendant created by Skepchick Surly Amy, who has tons of great sciencey and skeptical accessories for sale.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has just opened registration for its annual skeptical extravaganza, The Amaz!ng Meeting!
TAM is arguably the world’s premier critical thinking conference, and certainly one of the most fun. I’m always torn between listening to the speakers and gathering with the friends I’ve made over the years — and meeting new ones. It’s fair to say the audience is a major reason to attend TAM.
The theme this year is "TAM 9 from Outer Space", and it’s obvious why with speakers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay (one of my favorite people on this planet), Bill Nye (The Science Guy), and hey, me. And the list keeps going: Carol Tavris (who gave a very popular talk last year at TAM), Jennifer Michael Hecht, Penn & Teller, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers, Genie Scott, anime artist (and totally cool chick) Sara Mayhew, and, of course, the Amazing One himself, James Randi. The list goes on and on, so go check it out!
Did I mention the MC this year is the one and only George Hrab? Yeah. Awesome.
Also, as usual, there will be a ton of workshops, panels, and other extracurricular activities. I can’t stress enough how much of a blast this meeting is. It’ll be July 14 – 17, 2011 at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Registration is now open. I hope to see you there!
Homeopathy is very popular in America, Australia, and other countries. Thing is, it doesn’t work. There’s no medicine in it, there’s no science behind it, and tests have shown repeatedly and without question that there’s no medicinal effect in it beyond that of a placebo.
And yet, homeopathic sugar pills are being sold next to real medicine at pharmacies across the planet, including RiteAid, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens in the US. People take these non-drugs, spending billions — billions — of dollars on what is provably nonsense.
That’s why the 10:23 campaign started, to show that homeopathy doesn’t work. People all over the world are gathering this weekend to raise awareness of this. Homeopathy is not harmless. People are taking these pills instead of real medicine, in many cases making them sicker, and in far too many cases dying because of it.
James Randi made a short video to promote the campaign. If there is a local version in your area, go take a look and show them your support.
My friend Nicole Gugliucci (née Garvenflanargen) is a radio astronomer, and also a newly fledged skeptic. She wrote a post the other day on her One Astronomer’s Noise blog about her journey to becoming a skeptic, and it really struck home for me. Very few people, if any, are born skeptical. We’re hardwired to believe: to believe our parents, to believe our elders in general, to believe our peers. Turning all those thought processes around and starting to ask “Are you sure?” is really hard, and even harder to turn it inward. We’re all skeptical about something, but learning how to examine all your beliefs, all your thoughts, in a skeptical manner is a struggle.
Sometimes this conversion happens slowly, as it did for Nicole, or sometimes it happens in a flash of insight, but I’m guessing every skeptic has a tale to tell of turning from belief to evidence. And I’m just as sure any of us can write thousands of words about it.
So I got an idea. I want to hear these stories, but it would be impossible to read them all in their native narrative form. And skeptics are smart, right?
Yes, you guessed it: I want you to tweet your skeptical conversion story.
I’ll collect the ones I like best and post them in a followup article on Friday. To make it easier for everyone to find them, use the hashtag #SkepticTale. And just to get you started, here’s my own SkepticTale:
UFOs. Telepathy. Clairvoyance. I believed them all… until my life got a little Randi. #SkepticTale
This is in reference to James Randi being a big inspiration to me when I was a teenager, and his work really fostered my own skeptical attitude. I’ve written about this in the past, but there it is in tweet form.
Can you do the same? Make it clever, make it poignant, make it whatever you want. But get it online by 9:00 p.m. Eastern time Thursday (02:00 GMT Friday) December 30 so I have a chance to go through them and post them on Friday, December 31.
What better way to end the year than to hear the stories of others who have made it here as well?
[UPDATE: The SkepticTale tweets are now online.]
James Randi — conjourer, critical thinker, skeptic, and friend — did a series of great interviews on Big Think. Here’s one where he talks about spending his life attacking antiscience and its purveyors, specifically Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne.
The interviews are all short, just a few minutes long, and you can access all of them on the Big Think site. It’s well worth your time to hear from this giant of skepticism.
Bonus: the James Randi Educational Foundation just announced they have education grants available! If you’re an educator developing or disseminating critical thinking materials, take a look.
I am very sad to write that Martin Gardner, a skeptical giant and genius by any standard, died today in
Tulsa Norman, Oklahoma.
Wikipedia has a list of his remarkable achievements. He was a lifelong friend of James Randi, who has written a brief statement at the JREF page. I’ve heard Randi tell many a tale about him. His love for Martin was worn on his sleeve.
I never met Martin, but he influenced my life anyway. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I think I was in sixth grade when I found a copy of one of his many books filled with brain teasers and math puzzles. I’ve always loved puzzles, but Martin’s books showed me how to think around some problems, how to take that needed step to the side to see the solution lying beyond… and more importantly, trained me how to find the path to that solution.
Very few people wake up one day seeing the world rationally; it’s a series of steps that takes you there. Eventually you look around and realize it, and when you look behind you you see the footsteps that brought you to that place. Off in the distance, well behind me, but at a critical point in my life, I can see where Martin gave me a nudge. It was a small push, to be sure, just a gentle poke, but with time it acquired vast leverage.
The skeptic community mourns the loss of one of our giants, but we know we’re all better off for the time we had him here.
Picture credit: Wikipedia and Konrad Jacobs, used under a Creative Commons license.
In 2007, James Randi took the stage at TED and apparently had a pretty good time (I still hear stories about it). The folks at TED just put the video up, and it’s a hoot.
I’ll note that Randi was 79 when this was filmed. Could you do this well now? There’s a reason his middle name is "Amazing".