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On this episode of skeptiko, skeptic James Randi repeats his assertion that all claims of paranormal phenomena that don’t pass his million dollar test are suspect:
Why isn’t someone like Sheldrake coming after it? No, he stays away from it because, in my estimation, he knows full well that this business of being stared at and/or the dog that knows its owners are coming home, etc. will not pass any test. Now, if it will pass the test, I will give him the million dollars. I will give it to him in the middle of Piccadilly Circus naked.
Stay with us for skeptiko.
Alex: Welcome to skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and before we get started with what turned out to be a very lively discussion with skeptic James Randi, I want to take a couple minutes and bring you up-to-date on some things that are happening here at skeptiko.
First, I want to talk to you about the experiment that we’re replicating over at Open Source Science, the replication of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s work of dogs that know when their owners are coming home. You will hear mention of that experiment on the part of James Randi. I’m not sure that he’s totally up-to-date on really where that data, or research, is, but you’ll nevertheless hear his take on it.
What I want to let you know is there was a little bit of a lull this summer where I really wasn’t working on it too much, but I’m back, back on the trail, looking for those dogs and have been on a couple of radio interviews, trying to reach out to dog owners. I want to reach out to you skeptical listeners, and see if there’s anyone out there who is a dog owner and has seen this behavior in their dogs, or more importantly, if there’s anyone out there who’s interested in helping me in this effort to find some dogs that know when their owners are coming home. I’d love to get a small group together and try and further that effort.
We’ve had some pretty interesting preliminary results. We’ve had some great stories of people who’ve said, “Yes, this definitely has happened with our animal,” or an animal they’ve had in the past. They’ve accounted for schedule and things like that. We’ve even had a couple of people who have gone through and done trials and been pretty careful about it and have come up with some pretty interesting results. It seems to support the idea that one, this phenomena is probably really happening, and that two, it’s pretty common as Sheldrake found out when he did a survey of dog and cat owners.
So, if you’re out there and you’re interested in getting involved in this way, I’d certainly welcome your help. Email me. You can go to the skeptiko website and you’ll see my email address. You can drop me a note there. I think as you listen to this interview, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion that I do, and that’s that research – like the kind that I’ve just been talking about – is really the only way we’re ever going to know, the only way we’re ever going to bridge this gap between skeptics and researchers. So, please join me; get involved.Let’s go after these questions and see where the data leads.
Okay, enough about that. Let’s go on to my interview with James Randi.
We’re joined today by someone who’s been, without question, the single most influential figure within the modern skepticism movement, and someone who – no matter how you might feel about him – you have to admire his many accomplishments in unmasking fraud, deception, and in promoting science and reason.
James Randi, thank you very much for joining us on skeptiko.
Randi: It’s a great pleasure.
Alex: You know, before we begin today, I know many of your fans are probably interested in your health. In preparing for this interview, I saw a video that you recently did for the folks at Google, and after the initial shock of seeing how much weight you had lost as a result of your surgery, I realized within a couple minutes that you still have that wit and you still seem on top of your game. I assume you’re doing well, health-wise?
Randi: Oh yes. I’m just fine. As soon as I finish this interview, I’m on my way over to the gym at the local hospital where I work out three days a week and find it very satisfying. It’s bringing me back.
Alex: Good to hear it. Well, let’s start in and talk a little bit about your work, your life’s work. Many, many people know that you started out as a magician. I think many folks maybe don’t realize what an accomplished magician you were in your time – very, very famous. I’ve also heard you tell the story that your interest in skepticism really stemmed from what you saw as charlatans and frauds who were doing the same thing that you were doing, and they were calling it something else. Is that basically how your interest in skepticism was first spawned?
Randi: Basically yes. Even as a little kid, I was always very doubtful of paranormal, religious, and supernatural claims of all kinds. I soon rather firmed up my belief that these things were probably spurious, but I was always – and I still am always – willing to be shown.
As a magician, I was able to see two things very clearly: a) how people can be fooled, and b) how they fooled themselves, and the second is far more important than the first.
People have a way of deceiving themselves when they don’t see answers that they would like, and they prefer those answers. They skew the information they’re given, willingly, in order to arrive at the conclusion they would prefer, whether it’s correct or not.
I saw that magicians – all of the magicians, of course – are, or they should be, entertainers, and I certainly was. I always made it very clear that nothing I was doing, even if I did some mentalism, had any ghost of a chance of being ghostly, so to speak. It was done by perfectly ordinary means that were simply not understood at the time by the observers. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t have explanations. The explanations were actually quite simple when revealed, or if revealed.
So, I knew those two things: how people are fooled and how they fooled themselves, and I made sure that I was always very careful to inform my audience that nothing I did had any trace of being anything supernatural or paranormal. In many cases, I got arguments from people who would say, “Oh no. You couldn’t have done what you just did there on stage without some sort of supernatural help, because that’s impossible.” No, it only appears to be impossible.
When you go to see Star Wars, the movie, you suspend your disbelief, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re being entertained. You suspend your disbelief to the point where you can accept what they’re doing, but realize at the same time that, when the lights go up in the theater and you leave, you have to step out onto a street that’s real. There’s traffic there, and you better get that low tire fixed or it’s going to go flat on you, and the mortgage payment, oh better get that in the mail, fast kind of thing. There is a real world out there, and most people aren’t aware of it. As a magician, though, I’m very well aware that I step from one world to the other very easily, but I know the line that I’m crossing.
Alex: Right, and of course that’s spawned, or at least maybe reinvigorated a tremendous skepticism movement that you’ve been at the center of. I can’t imagine that you would have ever anticipated just what a movement that would become.
One thing that I wanted to touch on that I haven’t heard you talk about, but I have heard many of your followers talk about, is just how that realization, or that understanding, or really a belief system in skepticism, has been transformative for a lot of people and has changed a lot of people’s lives – maybe because they had a religious, or even a cult-ish, kind of background, and they’ve come through that. Would you like to speak to that at all?
Randi: Yeah – the letters that really make it worthwhile to be in existence as I happen to be at the moment as you may have noticed. I find that letters where writers say, “Mr. Randi, at one time I thought you were a terrible person. I read your book at some time, and I looked through it, and then I went to your web page, and by golly, I decided that maybe you are right. I’m going to look into this further.” That’s all I can ask from anybody, that they take a second look at what their belief system might have been. They may or may not decide that I have a better grasp on reality than the people who are writing the books that say the woo-woo stuff is all correct. That is very rewarding, and I look forward to those letters and notes.
Alex: Very good, and those would be probably through your organization, JREF, jref.org for those of you who want to visit the website. Through jref.org, James Randi Educational Foundation, many, many folks know you through the million dollar challenge, or course, which has become somewhat of your signature venture, if you will.
Let’s talk about that for a minute, because I had some questions and maybe some problems with that. To me, the million dollar challenge is great for what it is, and that’s a way to expose charlatans and fakers. As I’ve heard you put it, “So you think you can fly? Great.There’s a window.” I think that’s the perfect way to apply that challenge. What I have a problem with sometimes is that many skeptics I hear apply this million dollar challenge as some kind of scientific litmus test that science isn’t legitimate unless someone has passed the million dollar challenge. What do you think about that?
Randi: Well, claims that people can do, claims by people who say they can do paranormal things or have control of this, that, or the other thing, or know of paranormal powers, can very easily be tested by means of the million dollar prize. Now, that arose many years ago on a radio program out of New York when I was being interviewed. It was a parapsychologist who will remain nameless – a good friend of mine, actually, but he’s totally out of reality in every respect. He is an honest man, and he admits that he has never had a positive experiment in parapsychology, which I find very healthy. It means he’s doing unbiased research; it means he’s doing his research correctly.
However, he challenged me, and he said, “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is.” Well, I very rationally at that point in my career – I believe that was 1968 – said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll give a thousand dollars to any psychic that can do what they say they can do.” In 1968, a thousand dollars was a lot more money than it is now, of course. Nonetheless, I didn’t have any people take me up on it. They all just retreated, and they said, “Oh no. It’s not a real offer,” but I maintained that thousand dollars in a special account all the time that I had that offer on hand.
Now, it’s gotten to a point where it’s a million dollars. It’s not my million dollars. It belongs to the James Randi Educational Foundation, the JREF that you referred to, and it is in a special account with Goldman Sachs. It’s invested, so it makes us about fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year in income that we can help to run the Foundation with, though that’s only a very small part of our total budget. Nonetheless, it is there, and it never drops down below a million dollars.
Its only purpose is to sit there as a huge carrot to tempt these people who say they have the proof. I just got two calls from people this morning who said that they could do this or that thing. I said “Apply,” and they said, “Well, I don’t want to apply.” “Well, you don’t want the million dollars. Goodbye.” We simply ask that they apply.
Alex: I understand that, and again, I think the way the challenge is set up can be a real service to science in that it filters out the frauds and the charlatans, or the people who are self-deluded. The nature of the challenge being that the proof has to be self-evident, to me, makes a lot of sense. You have to be able to do something, and it has to be self-evident.
Randi: Now determining what is self-evident – that’s the most important point of this whole thing, Alex. The point is that we don’t design the test. We design the test only in conjunction with the person who is making the claim, and if we agree – we both agree on both sides – that the test is fair and definitive, that it will prove the case one way or the other, at least under these circumstances for this particular purpose…because it can’t disprove a whole claim of telepathy or whatever all over the world, but for this particular instance it may or may not be successful…it will demonstrate whether on this occasion, at this time, under these circumstances, this person was able to perform as promised.
The fact that they design the test and that we have a mutual agreement in advance that the test is fair doesn’t seem to work out in practice, because the minute that they fail – whether it’s a dowsing test, a telepathy test, or a precognition test, a healing test, whatever it might be – though they say in advance that everything is copasetic, it’s all correct, it should prove my point, they then say, “Oh well it was Thursday. I shouldn’t have worked on a Thursday.Thursday’s a very bad day for me,” or “The moon is in Sagittarius,” or whatever. They immediately come up with some kind of excuse immediately following their failure, and they never fail to do this.
For that reason, I have an envelope with me at all times listing the person’s name and giving it to the person who’s in charge of the operation, because we don’t conduct it. We ask it to be done independently, so that we can’t have any influence on it, on the result that is. I simply give that, in advance, to the person that is in charge. After we’ve finished and they’ve given their excuses, I ask them to open the envelope, and it says right there, “This person has agreed in advance not offer any alibis or excuses and has just done so.” So, we’re prepared in advance for the possibility that people will offer excuses, and of course, they always do, unfailingly, sometimes…
Alex: I don’t doubt that for a minute, and one only has to delve into this topic and the controversy surrounding parapsychology and other areas of fringe science, but it goes on on both sides, of course. Skeptics are also quick to, sometimes, interject pretty unbelievable explanations for research that can’t be explained by any other means, too. So, there are these gaps sometimes, and we should all hesitate in rushing to fill those gaps and just step back and say, “Hey, maybe there’s more research that needs to be done.”
I guess that was my one argument – not with the Randi Challenge, because the million dollar challenge serves its purpose very well. I don’t like to see it when skeptics apply it as this litmus test where we can say, “Oh gee, there is near-death experience research that is going on in some hospital. Well, I’d like to see them pass the million dollar challenge.” It’s not a litmus test of whether a topic of investigation is legitimate for science or not.
Randi: In most cases, scientists won’t come anywhere near me or the offer anyway, because they say, “Oh, James Randi is not a scientist.” Yeah, but I can tie my own shoes, and I know how to vote if I can figure out how to operate the machine. I think maybe I should qualify for some sort of consideration. I’m not stupid. I’m not totally bereft of reason. All I do is I say, “Hey, I know as much as I know under the circumstances that I will describe.” I don’t claim any more than that, and I don’t claim to be infallible.
You are the people who will judge this thing. The answer must, as you mentioned earlier, be self-evident so we don’t have to make any decisions on the thing. You know, if you can fly, you can fly. Step over to the window. Boom. Now I know whether or not you can fly, under these circumstances on this particular occasion, etc.
So, we’re very upfront with this thing, and of course, the biggest excuse that is always offered to us is, “Oh, there’s no million dollars. There never was a million dollars.” Well, it’s at Goldman Sachs. All they have to do is communicate with us – by telephone, by fax, telepathy, taro cards, whatever means they want – and we will send them the documentation.
Now, it’s been sent out many…well not many, but a good half dozen times in the past couple of years. People say, “No, that’s a forged document.” Well, call Goldman Sachs and find out.They will happily answer you that that account number is genuine and that there is at least a million dollars in the account at all times. But, these are the excuses these people give, because they have to have an out. When people say – and the media say, particularly – why won’t you take the challenge, they don’t have an answer.
Look at Sylvia Brown. Her excuse was very upfront. She said, “I don’t know how to reach James Randi.” Duh! She talks to dead people, and I’m very much alive you may have noticed. I’m in the phonebook, Sylvia. She said she didn’t know how to reach me. Now, she says she doesn’t want to reach me because I’m not a Godly person. Well, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to take the million dollar prize?
Alex: I think one of the strengths of your message all along has been this common sense approach that you take, and I think it does a great service to science and people who want to turn science into this very complicated, “Oh if you could only understand” kind of message. I think your common sense approach has worked throughout your long career in terms of exposing that we can understand this, and we can get a grasp on these topics.
I do think that comes around the other side of that, too. Sometimes skeptics can take and make things more complicated than they need to be. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a very nice gentleman named Tom Clark, who just wrote a book on naturalism and runs a website on naturalism. He’s a skeptical guy, obviously. We went into this whole thing on free will, and I’ve talked to, now, several folks on this. It seems like, again, from a common sense approach, it’s such a silly notion. Of course we have free will. Of course I’m deciding the next word that comes out of my mouth.
But, in the same way that parapsychology researchers can turn things into some kind of complicated mess that doesn’t make any sense, I think sometimes skeptics can do that, too, when they have a belief. For example, free will just isn’t consistent with this notion that everything going on in our mind is purely a function of our brain, so we have to invent this complicated idea of there being no contra-causal free will. Do you have any feedback?
Randi: Well, I have to disagree with that to a considerable extent. After all, we are the product of our training, of our background, of our DNA patterns and whatnot, so a lot of what we decide and what we do is not necessarily free.
Alex: Oh absolutely.
Randi: It’s not the kind of thing that we can make a decision on without influences coming into it, after all. We have all kinds of things driving us, all kinds of background driving us.Could you imagine a Republican saying anything sensible, for example?
Alex: But, you just withdrew that. Was that your free will to withdraw that or were you programmed to withdraw that by all your prior experiences and your mother’s weaning you?The question is when we get into absolutes. The position Tom Clark takes, and many scientists take, in this area is that there is absolutely no free will at all, that none of the decisions you make are really your own.
Randi: Well they are to a certain extent within a small spectrum of immediate experience and whether you’re going to put one foot in front of the other – that is a decision that you make freely. Mind you, if a car is coming, you can continue to make that decision freely and get run down, which would not be wise, and something is going to interfere – one would hope – to spare you the indignity on the fatal accident. So, it’s within a certain spectrum:yes, we have free will within limited circumstances, and beyond that, we don’t.
Alex: I would agree, and I think that’s how we experience life. I think, for the most part – again, back to your comments and approach – I think most of the things we experience and we see other people experience widely across cultures, across time, I think is a good indication that those are, for the most part, real phenomena that we can look at. That would lead me to another point where the common sense kind of approach breaks down, and that’s that I see some of the research that’s been done in near-death experience.
Now, I have no idea what goes on with the near-death experience as it’s researched in real places, in hospitals, when someone has a cardiac arrest, which is a procedure I am sure you were very close to, I’m sure, if you didn’t at the time of your surgery. You were in the ward where other people were having that. As you know, when the heart stops, within eleven seconds, the brain is dead. Now, we have these people that have these experiences no matter what we make of them, how we decide. Yet, when we hear skeptics talks, they want to interject all these kinds of wild ideas about what could be going on, because they’re uncomfortable with that gap that we have, that we really can’t explain how someone could have that experience in that eleven seconds.
Randi: Really, I wouldn’t say we can’t explain it.
Alex: Good point. I would agree.
Randi: It can be explained. We know how the brain relaxes, how the neurons begin to lose their charge. I underwent a lot of anesthesia when I had my bypass, and it was a very serious operation. I came very close to cashing in. I hallucinated a lot, and I remember those hallucinations very well, but they were hallucinations. I was not asleep in King Tut’s tomb while I was under anesthesia, but I believed that I was. I thoroughly believed it. I hallucinated very strongly that I was. Now, I don’t believe I had anything to do with King Tut. I never knew the man, I swear. I’m old, but I’m not quite that old. The point is that I believed it for the moment because I was hallucinating. That doesn’t mean that it’s real and that it actually happened.
People don’t seem to have much of good common sense when they start to estimate whether or not something really happens. You go to see a David Copperfield or a Penn and Teller or Lance Burton or any of the great magician, and you’ll see them do things on that stage which are impossible to do if the representation of everything you see there is correct. You look at it and you say, “Well, I saw it with my own eyes” – another statement which is nonsensical. Who else’s eyes would you have seen it with?
The fact that you see it, yourself, with your own sensory apparatus doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily real, because that apparatus can deceive you, and we magicians know that. We use the fact that you can be deceived and you can deceive yourself.
Alex: Of course, and I think my real point there was that when we have these gaps, that we both acknowledge in this case – I don’t know; I don’t want to say you acknowledged it – but we really have no way of explaining in modern neurological terms how this complex brain functioning that goes on during a near death experience could possibly be happening with a brain that’s shutting down, as we said, in that very brief period that we have. So, without interjecting anything in there in terms of what’s happening, we just have a very big question that doesn’t fit into our existing model of how those things work.
Randi: Okay. Next week, we may have a different explanation for it, and I look forward to that. At one time, we experienced the fact that radioactivity existed. Wow – films sealed up in light tight envelopes that actually fogged when it was left beside this piece of pitchblende.That’s impossible! But no, it was discovered that the pitchblende does give out the emanations that do pass through this black paper and such, and they fog the film Wow!That’s a discovery, and that doesn’t mean that it’s supernatural. It just means, for the moment, it may look to be supernatural, but as soon as we have an explanation for it, we’re able to codify it and formulate it. It’s the same way with parapsychology, parapsychological events, if they ever took place. I’ve never seen any evidence of them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take place. I merely said I’ve never seen any evidence, and I’ve looked assiduously over all these years. The minute that they would be recognized, they would not be parapsychological anymore. They would be part of the real world and we would understand them.
Alex: I agree, and that brings up two points that I wanted to talk about in the time that we have, and I realize your time is very limited today. First of all, it brings up the issue of debunking, and I think I wrote you this in the email. What the heck is wrong with debunking? I hear so many skeptics, yourself included, saying, “We’re not debunkers. We’re not debunkers.” Since when did debunking become a curse word? I think it’s a wonderful contribution to say here is something that’s bunk, and I’ve exposed it.
Randi: Well, let me explain what that’s all about. If I say I’m a debunker or admit that I’m a debunker, it means that I already have an attitude that says, “This is not so, and I’m going to prove it to be not so.” I can’t afford that. All I can say about anything, whether it’s a claim to be able to fly or read minds or whatever, is “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” So, that’s investigation. That’s not debunking. Debunking means I’ve preconceived an attitude from the start to say this is not so.
Alex: Yes, but really, you know one of the things I’ve discovered on this show – and I learned it through an encounter I had with a gentleman I think you know and respect, Dr. Richard Wiseman, and his work with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake – is that there’s this collaborative research that folks can do and there’s debunking, but there isn’t a lot in between. This idea of an investigation that isn’t truly a collaborative project I don’t think works. When I talked to Richard Wiseman, and he was nice enough to do this interview, as was Sheldrake, two things come up.
First, he reveals that even though he’s battled with Sheldrake for ten years in this raging debate, he now has to admit that yeah, the data that he collected in this experiment does match Sheldrake’s. Secondly, he says, “Probably the reason that we battled with this so much is that I came in basically as a debunker, and he was doing this long-term research.”
I don’t think he said that, and I didn’t take it that it was a slight. It was just the reality of the situation. A media outlet had come in and said, “Hey. Here’s this guy who says these dogs know when their owners can come in. Go look at it.” He came in and was looking to kind of debunk that claim. Here’s a guy, Richard Wiseman, again, who’s done collaborative research with paranormal researchers, so he knows what that’s like. Isn’t that where we really have to get, truly collaborative research?
Randi: The point is that you can’t – at least, I can’t – afford to approach something with the attitude of the debunker. What I do ends up being debunking, but not until it has been shown not to exist, and in many cases that the power that the person claims, the ability they claim, does not exist. We’re willing to have them come back any number of times to prove that, or establish it, or test it, or whatever they want to designate it as. I don’t approach the thing as a debunker. I approach it as an investigator. I think it’s the attitude with which you approach it that is important.
Alex: Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. Since I just brought up Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, I was really quite surprised when I did this research to see that you named him, awarded him, dubiously, with your Pegasus Award last year, and the reason being that you gave his research, his sample size was too small, and that he had not published that particular research that was in question, both of which I don’t think are exactly accurate. But, the question I had is, why? Why someone like Sheldrake? With all the con artists and mail order PhDs out there, why pick on a guy that has all the right credentials, has an excellent reputation, has never been called…
Randi: Excellent credentials? He doesn’t have the ability, Alex. That’s the point. He fails grandly when he actually gets around to doing these things. Now, I offered to test the dog, for example, that could tell when people were coming home. I was turned down. I was told, “No, you can’t come anywhere near the dog.” I was…
Randi: Wait a minute.
Alex: Wiseman tested the dog.
Alex: So, did Wiseman do a poor job of testing the dog? Is that what you’re saying?
Randi: No! Wiseman didn’t have the million dollars if he’s allow me to test the dog, and he said no.
Alex: Hold on. That’s back to what we were talking about. I don’t think the million dollars can be used as some litmus test – if somebody takes it or doesn’t take it. Here you have a very competent guy, we both agree, Richard Wiseman. He’s a researcher, trained in that.Isn’t that the situation we really want, where there’s two people who really know what they’re doing, who are collaborating, trying to find out the scientific truth? Why would that not be superior to an experiment…
Randi: Oh, it is. I never denied that. The point is that Sheldrake has now shut me off entirely. He won’t respond to anything that I send to him, any inquiries. He won’t react to any of it. He has the opportunity to make a million dollars if he shows that people being stared at or dogs that know their owners are coming home actually work. That’s an open offer.
Alex: I understand.
Randi: It’s right there. The money is on the table. And he has refused to have anything to do with it. Now, there’s got to be a good reason for that. He’s not required to take the challenge. No one is required to take it.
Alex: No, there can be a number of reasons for that. I just don’t know why…
Randi: Give me one!
Alex: I just can’t see how any psychological discovery that we’ve had in the last one hundred years could withstand the Randi million dollar challenge, because…
Randi: Of course it could!
Alex: Tell me something that’s self-evident that’s been discovered in psychology in the last hundred years.
Randi: Okay. You poke a pin into somebody, and they jump. It hurts. I can test that.
Alex: That’s not psychology.
Randi: That’s physiology…okay.
Alex: So I’m saying. In preparation for this, I thought of that, and I wondered, “Is that really true?” And I looked up a list of what some people call the greatest accomplishments in psychology in the last hundred years. You have B.F. Skinner, and you have some of the personality stuff, and you have the memory stuff, and I realized that none of this stuff is self-evident. Again, I think maybe now I’m seeing that you really do think the million dollars is a litmus test. I think it’s great for someone who thinks they can fly, like you said, but I can see…
Randi: I’ve got two choices. I can offer the million dollars or I can not offer the million dollars. I was challenged to offer a prize. I’ve offered the prize. Why isn’t someone like Sheldrake coming after it? No! He stays away from it because, in my estimation, he knows full well that this business of being stared at and/or the dog that knows its owners are coming home, etc. will not pass any test. Now, if it will pass the test, I will give him the million dollars. I will give it to him in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, naked. That’s a public offer. I will do that if Sheldrake succeeds.
Alex: I don’t know if that will increase the chances or decrease the chances.
Randi: Well what can I do then?
Alex: Hold it…
Randi: I’m offering a million bucks. It’s not my million bucks. It belongs to the foundation, but I’m offering a million dollars and to give it away stark naked. I mean, what else do you want me to do? Do you want me to kill my firstborn for it?
Alex: <laughter> No, no I don’t. You’re a very, very accomplished guy and have that stage presence, and are able to make your points, but I think we are dancing around the real issue that I think you agreed with: if there’s a guy out there like Rupert Sheldrake, who does have the credentials and reputation – no matter what you might think about it. In a generally common sense, accepted way, he meets the requirements. If he chooses to do his research with Richard Wiseman or with Chris French, another skeptical researcher in the UK, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t be cheering that on. Why isn’t that the ultimate goal? Why would we pick this guy out as someone we have to deride? What I really want is the answer.I want to know the truth, and it seems to me the truth is done by really getting down and doing the research, not by saying, “Oh, we already know it’s not true.”
Randi: Agreed. Agreed. That’s true, and I’m the clown with the red nose, running into the middle of it saying, “Hey! If you can do that for me, I’ll give you a million dollars.” Toot, toot! Where is Sheldrake? Doesn’t there have to be a reason for Sheldrake’s not taking us up on this offer? Think about that now. There’s got to be a reason that he won’t take us up on the offer.
Alex: I think we’re going over the same ground. I think he can have any number of reasons for not doing that, and as we talked about…
Randi: I’d like to know one. Just one! Uno. Ein. Un.
Alex: As I explained, I don’t think the rule of self-evidence really might fit for explaining any kind of phenomena, be them psychological or parapsychology.
Randi: Well, I disagree with that.
Alex: I know. That’s okay that you disagree with that. I think it’s unfortunate. You know, when you said “the clown running around with the red nose,” I think it’s clear to anyone who’s looked at your work that you have sought to draw attention to this in a way that, for the most part, is positive, because it brings science…it brings reason…it brings common sense to the forefront, and it makes people think about it. We need people who – I don’t know if I’d say it the same way, in terms of a clown running around with a nose – but we need a little bit of that provocateur.
I have a problem when it has a counterproductive end, and that’s that it stifles research. You know, if we really look at these topics, and we look at who’s going to decide what research gets done, if we ask the public, they want this research done. I think we need to be more embracing, more encouraging, and more cultivating this kind of research so we can get these real answers. We’re never going to get it if we’re just polarized on either side of these controversial subjects.
Randi: Well, I think that a million dollars is really encouraging. That would encourage me to do wonders. I’d turn hand springs – again, naked in a public place if you want – if I could earn a million dollars. That’s a big carrot, and it’s very encouraging. Now, Wiseman, himself, could do the research, or Chris French could do the research with Sheldrake, with the million dollar prize being held. It’s right there. As soon as you succeed in this experiment, bang – there’s the million dollars.
So, it wouldn’t be me doing the test. It would be someone like Chris French or Wiseman, or some other scientist with the proper credentials. Plenty of places could do this sort of thing, and we always, always have it out of house. We don’t do the tests ourselves. We always turn it over to a lab or to an association, organization, college, whatever, who will do the experimentation, the whole run on the thing, and announce the results at the end of it.That’s the way we have staged the million dollar challenge, and it will always be that way.We will not interfere with it, ourselves, personally, and if they don’t want me to be there, I won’t be there.
When they did the homeopathy test for the BBC some years ago, they said, “We’ll keep you informed.” I said, “No, don’t keep me informed because the homeopath said that I put out negative vibrations that will interfere with the success of the test. So, just don’t tell me when the test is taking place. Only call me after the test has taken place.” They did exactly that, and the homeopath failed, miserably, dramatically.
Alex: Right. Right. Well, I tell you what. We are in the process now of looking for dog candidates to repeat that experiment, and we definitely plan on engaging skeptics as well as believers in that. I will keep you informed, if and when we are ever ready to take the challenge with the one caveat that we require that the clothes be on when the check is presented.
Randi: Well, I’ve been a year and a half in negotiation with the homeopaths to do a test in Greece now, and they still haven’t come to a conclusion as to where they’re going to do it and how they’re going to do it. A year and a half! A year and a half of emails and letters being fired back and forth between here and Greece to try to get the homeopaths to get off the button, the stop button that they’re sitting on right there – let’s do the tests, and let’s see what happens with the million dollars. These people are just so slow. They drag and they drag, and I think I know the reason – that they know the experiment will not succeed. They want to avoid it, and they want to carry on in the way that they always have, scamming people that what they do is the real thing.
Alex: There we have it. There is the voice of James Randi, loud and clear, that we’ve heard for so many years. Thank you for your time, I know that we said we’d try and keep this to thirty minutes. We’ve run a little bit over, but I appreciate very much your work, and I appreciate you joining us today. Any last thoughts on things that might be coming up on JREF that you want folks to know about?
Randi: Look at our web page. It’s www.randi.org. It’s all there, and we keep everybody fully informed. I’m off to Alaska at the end of the week, and not much for the rest of the year – some lectures and a few things like that, but it’s all on our web page.
Alex: Very good. Thanks for joining us today. I’d like to thank James Randi, again, for joining me today. He’s a very busy guy, as you can imagine, gets a lot of requests for interviews like this. It was great for him to come on the show and great for him to participate in a dialogue like the kind we have here on skeptiko.com.
So, thanks for joining us. We have some interesting interviews coming up, so stay with us for that. In the meantime, be sure to check out the skeptiko website for archives of our old shows and to participate in our forums. You’ll also find there a way to contact me, either by email or leaving me a voicemail, so please take advantage of that. Thanks for listening, and bye for now.