Posts Tagged ‘Martin Gardner’

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

The Tory, Privatise Enterprise Cure for Stressed Teachers: Electrostimulate their Brains!

July 3, 2017

Everything about this says Bad Science, as in the book by Ben Goldacre. And ‘bad’ in every definition of the word. Not only wrong scientifically, but also morally. But it’s what you get all too often with the Tories in charge.

Mike over at Vox Political has today posted up a piece commenting on a story in today’s Torygraph, hyping the use of an electronic device, the Alpha-Stim, which Leigh Academies Trust are offering to their staff at seven secondary schools, seven primary schools and a special educational needs school in Kent to treat the symptoms of stress amongst their staff. The Torygraph says that the device is the size of a mobile phone, and works by sending micro-pulses of electricity to the brain to stimulate the production of alpha waves. This supposedly helps relieve anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. The Trust is offering it along with other therapies. The extract Mike includes in his piece quotes one Peter Caunt of Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust, who says ‘We know this type of therapy works’ before going on to say that the question is whether it is cost-effective.

Mike compares it to the shock treatment used on very disturbed people, which works by burning out part of their frontal lobes. He states that he personally knows people, who’ve had it done, and they have not been the same afterwards.
He asks why the schools management company isn’t trying to solve the problem by making teachers’ lives less stressful.

He wonders if the real reason is that the company’s bosses want to turn their staff into compliant little teaching zombies, who won’t complain, because they’ve had their conscience burned out of them along with the stress.

He also makes the point that the Trust used to be headed by Frank Green, who was appointed to a two-year stint as schools commissioner by Michael Gove. This shows the strong connection between the company and the Tory party.

The device should, apparently, be used for 20 minutes each, but some teaching staff are using it twice or three times. So Mike asks the obvious question of what kind of teachers they’re like afterwards.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/03/the-tory-cure-for-stressed-teachers-is-electrocute-their-brains/

Everything about this is highly dubious. It looks very much like something straight out of the accounts of bad, if not pathological science, from the pages of Ben Goldacre, Martin Gardner and others. Ben Goldacre, you may remember, wrote a book, Bad Science, about this kind of nonsense a few years ago. the Sceptic, Martin Gardner also attacked bad and pernicious science a few decades ago in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. This looks like a prime example of it, to go with other, earlier pseudo-sciences like eugenics, lobotomies, Lysenkoism, Nazi ‘race science’ and monkey glands.

As for electro-convulsive therapy, it was devised by a German Jewish doctor, who fled Nazi Germany to Fascist Italy. Deciding that it could be an effective method of treating the mentally ill, he started by testing it on tramps he and the authorities rounded up off the street. Adam Parfrey published an essay on it, ‘Gimme Shock Treatment’, in one of his books on the extremes of belief in 1990s America, Apocalypse Culture or Cult Rapture. That essay made it very clear just how nasty it was.

It’s still used, but proper medical professionals only resort to it in the case of severely disturbed people, where there really isn’t much choice.

And everything known about the brain should say that tinkering with it, unless you know exactly what you’re doing, is an appallingly bad idea. The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. Modern neuroscience has succeeded in identifying which parts of the brain produces which mental function, but even so, there is a vast amount we don’t know. Raymond Tallis, who is a Humanist and former neurologist and neurosurgeon, wrote a book, Aping Mankind, with the aim to show that much human thought and mind couldn’t be reduced to neurological functions. He stated clearly that he wanted to show that thinking was ‘as mysterious as walking on water’. Given the vast complexity of the brain, and its vulnerability, it really is stupid and dangerous to mess around with it in this manner.

Remember a few years ago, when many doctors started to worry about possible brain damage caused by putting mobile phones next to your ear? They were afraid of the health risks posed by putting what is a microwave source next to your brain when talking on the phone.

It also reminds me of the ‘feedback cult’ of the ’70s. This also noted the connection between alpha waves and mood. It therefore encouraged people to hook themselves up to special monitors, which registered their alpha waves, and then learn how to control them and so altered their mood, all for supposedly beneficial purposes. That was also debunked some time ago.

The alpha-stim also sounds to be me like something that escaped from the Human Potential labs in the ’60s and ’70s. The Human Potential movement was one of those weird movements based on psychology that emerged in the 1960s, promising to bring people fulfilment and happiness through their programme of therapies. It still survives in various forms, and developed strong links with corporate capitalism, to the point where its detractors have called it a corporate mind control cult.

Adam Curtis devoted a programme to it in his documentary about the legacy of Freudianism, The Century of the Self, over a decade ago now. And what the programme revealed about it was truly chilling. The movement and its doctors managed to convince the medical profession to let them try to treat a selection of patients suffering from schizophrenia. The treatment consisted of dosing these poor souls up to the gills with LSD, and then attaching electrodes to electrify their brains. And all the while they were taught to repeat to themselves, ‘I am comfortable in myself’.

They interviewed one poor young woman, who’d been a victim of this nonsense. The treatment was a horrible, ghastly failure. It was perhaps a mercy that the woman said that she couldn’t remember much about it now, except that sometimes she had it done several times a day. It was this kind of appalling medical experimentation that the producers of Classic Star Trek took solid aim at in the episode ‘Dagger of the Mind’.

As for this latest rubbish, it also reminds me of an episode in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, when Doctor Bashir is called on treat Garak, the station’s Kardassian tailor and spy. Garak, like many other Kardassian secret agents, had a device implanted in his brain to stimulate his pleasure centres, so he could get through being tortured. Garak, however, has become so miserable that he started using it recreationally, and so has become addicted. Bashir has no choice but to find out what he can about the device, and try to remove it from his friend.

Which all sounds dangerously close to what’s going on here, with the exception that it’s teachers being treated with it, not alien spies.

I am really not at all surprised that it’s the Tories, or a company that’s associated with them, that’s peddling this nonsense. The Tories just love pseudoscience. I’ve reblogged stuff from Kitty S. Jones and other disability bloggers about the model of sickness devised by Unum and their pet psychiatrists at Cardiff University to have people thrown off benefit and declared fit for work, has been roundly debunked by other medical professionals.

And a little while ago, Private Eye in its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column took a pot shot at a Tory-controlled council in Kent or that part of the world, where the local authority had cut council services, but was funnelling tens of thousands of pounds to a company headed by one of its female members, which specialised in using Neuro-Linguistic Programming or some other kind of dodgy therapy to offer spurious treatment to council staff.

Which, again, sounds very much like what’s going on here.

And then there was the case of the Leaderene herself, Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher was into Ayur Veda, a system of alternative therapies brought to the world by one of the dodgy Indian gurus, who rocked up here in the 1960s. Thatcher treated herself to baths, where along with the water there was a weak electric current. Obviously, she thought it would do her some good. I’m quite sure there were many others, who wish the voltage had been somewhat stronger.

This looks to me very much like a potentially harmful pseudoscience. As for Caunt’s statement that ‘we know it works’, that’s what Tory spokespeople have said about work improving people’s mental health, and other mental professionals, not to mention normal, ordinary people without a financial or ideological stake in it, pointing out that it’s rubbish. And I’ve no doubt it’s the same here.

This is just bad science, which is being hyped by company that obviously finds it cheaper to have their staff trying to make themselves less miserable by running electricity through their brains, than actually trying to do something more positive and concrete to improve conditions for them.

Pretty much like British society as a whole, where instead of offering real guidance and support to the unemployed, their harangued and demeaned by Jobcentre Staff through stupid, nonsensical models of unemployment and disability supported as government policy.