Review: An Evening with James Randi and Friends – by Don Alhambra

It’s not often that I get really excited. But when I saw a link to this event (organised by Skeptics in the Pub) on the Bad Science blog, and saw who was going to be speaking, I was instantly hooked. The effect that some of these people have had on my life is really immense. And I got to go and see them all talk at a major skeptical event in London on April 19th! Unfortunately, despite posting the news on various web forums as soon as I could, tickets sold out before many people were aware of the event. I ended up going with my girlfriend and two good friends, and this review takes their opinions into account as well.

One of the first things I noticed when we arrived was that it was a pretty young crowd – which does give me some hope for the future of skepticism in the UK, though it could equally be argued that rebellion against the establishment (in the form of superstition in this case) is not atypical of young people. Either way, the age range of the room was decidedly slanted towards the under-30s. And the room itself was in the beautiful Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society since 1929.

The event opened at 6:30 sharp with our genial host Richard Wiseman. I’ve seen Wiseman before, at a skeptical event in Dublin in 2005. He used to be a magician, and is now a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Along the way held such luminary positions as chief scientific advisor on the huge outdoor experiments on Tomorrow’s World, a sadly discontinued TV programme I’m sure UK readers will be all too familiar with. Tonight Wiseman was on top form, and acting as comp√®re he took us through some interesting psychology and magic. One of the things I’d seen him talk about before but that I still find fascinating is how a combination of eye gaze and movement of the body can be so effective at making people look where he wants you to look. Being a magician truly requires being a bit of a psychologist.

Chris French, professor of anomalistic psychology at Goldsmith’s University in London, was the first main speaker. As part of his work, French investigates psychic claims in a rigorous scientific fashion. His presentation mainly focused on how skepticism in the UK is becoming more and more popular; he listed many skeptical groups whose membership has grown hugely even in the past few years, which made me not entirely give up hope that the young crowd present at the event was not a transient thing.

Following French, Simon Singh got up to talk next. I’d seen him before too, at the same event where I saw Wiseman. Singh has written several popular science books, the most recent being The Big Bang which explored not just the science but the history of how the science was done and how the concept of the Big Bang was actually created. In his presentation, Singh explained the science behind much of this, including the story of how the evidence for the background microwave radiation necessary to support the theory was found completely by accident by some researchers at Jodrell Bank, not at all connected to the theoreticians who came up with the idea. Scientific serendipity is a wonderful thing.

I was very excited about the next speaker. Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor and journalist whose Bad Science website and blog is one of my daily staples, and is also where, as astute readers will note, I found out about the event in the first place. Goldacre did not disappoint, as he launched into a massively interesting talk covering, among other things, the placebo effect. The placebo effect is deeply mysterious, and we know so little about how it works. We do know that even when someone is explicitly told they are getting a placebo, it still works! We know that red pills work better as stimulants than blue pills, and we know that the environment in which the pills are given, as in how much attention is paid to the patient, itself has an effect on how well the pills work. Fascinating stuff, I thought.

One thing Goldacre said made me pause, and I’ll come back to this later. He pointed out that the people we often oppose as skeptics, those entrepreneurs who prey upon the gullible and less skeptical members of society (like vitamin pill manufacturers, antivaccinationists, etc.), have a lot of money and are not afraid at all to wave lawyers around to make the point that skepticism cuts into their livelihood. “We can never win,” he opined, “but we can have a damn good time trying.”

The final speaker in the first half was someone I have deep and intense respect for, and whose work has changed the course of my life. Susan Blackmore is a former parapsychologist who has written several books exploring meme theory and the nature of consciousness, and it was one of these books (The Meme Machine) that I read during the course of my physics degree and that was one of the triggers that made me want to study psychology instead. Many of the ideas in that book have shaped my thoughts about free will, the sense of self and how the brain might work. I owe her a great debt, because now I am working in an exciting research field where I get to explore some of these very questions.

In her talk, Blackmore spoke of how she became interested in the paranormal and her own journey to skepticism. As an Oxford undergraduate she had an intense out-of-body experience that she was utterly unable to explain. This convinced her of the reality of the paranormal and she set about getting into psychical research in order to, as she puts it, “prove all those close-minded scientists wrong.” But the more research she did, the more she came to realise that there was no evidence whatsoever for any paranormal claims, and as a scientist she had to follow the evidence. I have huge admiration for someone who can change their entire worldview based on the evidence – I don’t know if I could do it myself, but it’s one of the reasons I respect Blackmore very much.

Thus concluded the first half. In the interval I was privileged to talk to Blackmore for a minute or so and thank her for inspiring me. I think she looked gratified! I also got to chat to Goldacre and watch his face when I turned up next to him wearing a Bad Science t-shirt. He was so impressed he took several pictures. I only live to bring joy into people’s lives, really…

The second half of the evening was dedicated to James Randi. Now I didn’t actually know much about Randi’s work, other than that he was a famous skeptic and magician who offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove, in a fair test, that they had some sort of paranormal ability. Randi is getting on a bit now, but he appears to be as sharp as ever, and incidentally has a wonderful beard worthy of Darwin! He spoke to us to begin with about what it means to be a conjurer – the most honest profession in the world, as he says, because it’s the only one where you know up front that you are being fooled. The conjurer comes on stage and says “I am going to trick you”, and you enjoy that very much.

In fact he tricked us quite impressively himself, as he moved away from the microphone half way through to demonstrate that it wasn’t even switched on, as he was using a radio mike. But of course everyone in the room just assumed that he was using the mike. And he also took off his glasses, and remarked that they actually didn’t have any frames in them, before pulling the real glasses out of his coat. Nobody had noticed, of course. And the point that Randi was making is that: no matter how skeptical you are, no matter how distrustful of information from various sources, your entire worldview is still based on assumptions, and they can easily be manipulated by a practiced hand.

Randi finished with a couple of videos from the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, one showing the classic moment where he exposed evangelical preacher Peter Popoff by demonstrating that he was having instructions whispered into his ear by his wife the whole time; and one showing Randi performing ‘surgery’ on a willing volunteer to expose the fraudulent practice of fake surgeons in the Philippines who exploit desperate people by pretending to heal them. And he echoed the refrain that Goldacre had spoken earlier, which was that we can never win, and cited as examples that fact that Popoff made huge amounts of money last year, 20 years after being exposed on the Tonight show, and that all the phone calls to the show about the surgery clip had been the same question: where can I get one of those surgeons?

I thought the evening had been fantastic, but discussing it with my friends afterwards raised a few questions. It was a shame that there was no time for a Q&A session, for example. And all of the speakers spoke very well and were very interesting, but the amount of actual content in the talks was not particularly high. As one of my friends remarked, it almost came across as a back-slapping “aren’t we smarter than those credulous believers” type of gathering. I’m not sure I agree, but I do think that this is an important point that cannot be overstated. As Randi himself stated, we are not immune to being fooled ourselves! Although the need for community in skepticism is no different to the need for community in any group of people who believe similar things, I don’t think it should overshadow the great benefits that skepticism can bring – and if we are seen as being too cliquish and dismissive, then it very well might drive away the very people we want to attract.

Useful links

Skeptics in the Pub: http://www.skeptic.org.uk/pub/
Conway Hall: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/
Chris French: http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/psychology/staff/french.php
Richard Wiseman: http://www.richardwiseman.com/
Simon Singh: http://www.simonsingh.net/
Susan Blackmore: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/
Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website: http://www.badscience.net
James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF): http://www.randi.org/

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