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James Randi's Personal Troubles

I don't pay much attention to James Randi, despite what one might think (having written a book with his name in the title). His views are predictable and outdated, and other public sceptics are generally more interesting - Hyman, Wiseman, Shermer even.

But there's no question that he's a cultural phenomenon. In his advancing age he's morphed from entertainer and intellectual street fighter into Grand Old Man. To the young especially, he's a sage, an object of hero worship, munching his homeopathy pills and dispensing wisdom with that avuncular twinkle. I monitored Twitter traffic about him a while back and was struck by the enormous number of 'James Randi is awesome' tweets (a lot of them in Spanish, for some reason). They significantly outnumbered the 'Randi is a pompous twit' type, although there were quite a few of those as well.

It seems that Randi's brand of 'rationality' appeals to young people who are searching for a firm foundation of belief, and are attracted by his simple, confrontational worldview. They gravitate to him as a source of truth. When he remarks in public performances that 'There's a difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out', it gets retweeted a zillion times, as if it was an original quote.

To those of us who understand the smoke and mirrors in what he does, it's frustrating. So it's not surprising that we look for flaws in his personality. There was a lot of schadenfreudig comment ten years ago when some salacious tapes surfaced of him apparently propositioning young boys. According to Randi himself he was taking part in a police sting, and the tapes were taken out of context, which seems to be generally accepted.

Then two years ago he finally outed himself as gay. Typically, he treated this as another opportunity to bash the opposition. If the likes of John Edward and Sylvia Browne had psychically divined that their arch-enemy was a closet gay, he argued, they would long ago have taken the opportunity to embarrass him in public. (Or as TV mentalist Derren Brown delicately put it, if psychics claim to know where bodies are buried they must surely know where Randi 'buries his salami'.) But this never happened, so hey - more proof that 'psychics' aren't psychic.

A more serious scandal has been getting attention of late. Randi's live-in lover is a gentleman by the name of Jose Luis Alvarez, a highly-regarded artist. It's emerged that Alvarez's identity is actually owned by a New Yorker, from whom he stole name and social security number after arriving from Venezuela some 28 years ago. As a victim of identity fraud the real Alvarez has been having the devil's own time getting official documents and credit, and when he applied for a passport the truth finally came out. 'Alvarez' pleaded guilty in a court appearance last week. He's thought unlikely to be jailed, but risks being deported.

This is all highly reprehensible, of course. But I'm not convinced that it's a good stick to beat Randi with. One supposes, naturally, that he was perfectly aware that his life partner was living under a stolen identity (not knowing about it would surely be more damaging to his reputation than to have covered it up). However it's being suggested that the scandal is a headache for the sceptic community, since it presents clear evidence of their hero's hypocrisy.

Steve Volk, for one, criticises the way sceptics either ignore the wrongdoing altogether, or else jump to his defence.

The identity Randi puts forward for public consumption is truth seeker. His professional role, at least on the surface, is to unmask hoaxers and charlatans-not live with them, or abet them.

Indeed. But should we expect anything else? We think of the psi controversy in terms of science, as a struggle to arrive at the objective truth. But it's also shaped by the same things - temperament, background, influences - that determine our political inclinations. When sceptics attack psychics, they're campaigning for the kind of world they think this ought to be, the reality that they can accept (and of course they think the same about psi-advocates). We take it for granted that politicians will get caught out in personal wrongdoing from time to time. They deserve to be embarrassed about it, but it doesn't necessarily have any wider implications for their arguments.

It seems clear that sceptics feel unsettled by their hero's travails. Should they be blamed for rallying to his defence? One would hardly expect them to renounce him. The best of us will stand by friends and family members who have done wrong.

So although Volk is clearly right, somehow I find it hard to get worked up by any of this. Being preoccupied with making the intellectual case for psi, I'm deeply aware of just how successful the whole concept of the Million Dollar Challenge has been. My priority is to come up with better arguments and get people's attention. This personal scandal is not going to make any of Randi's many supporters think again. Far from it: if Alvarez is deported, the outpouring of sympathy for a lonely old man will be at least as great as any damage to his reputation - a sign of natural human frailty.

In the end it's our intellectual strength that will make the case, not our opponents' personal weaknesses.

Comments

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Spot on, Robert. I liked his Fringeology very much, but Steve Volk's recent post on this left me feeling a little uneasy. It seems to me that James Randi is essentially a showman whose reputation has gained the traction it has because his message and sneering tone strikes such a chord with those who fear Psi or are looking for literal minded certainties.

It is ironic that appreciation of his plight requires the very kind of nuanced insighted imagination and empathy his own thinking so clearly lacks (given, after all, a crime has been committed, and there is a readily identifiable victim). But that shouldn't be used by his opponents as a stick to beat him with.

As you say, it's the patient promulgation of the intellectual strengths of the case for Psi that will ensure it gains the place it deserves in our cultural and scientific life, as and when the time is right.

Sheesh, our Robert, I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of you! Talk about a stiletto in the side.

Ps. Good show. ;)

A realistic (and kind) post. You say, "When sceptics attack psychics, they're campaigning for the kind of world they think this ought to be..." Which of course is what happens when psi proponents attack skeptics. And just as Randi, frustrated by his inability to demolish psi or its workers intellectually, goes after any personal weakness in psychics, we're seeing the same going for the soft underbelly in attacks on his situation now. Same with politics and Goldman Sachs. We're not that old a species, to have unlearned the habits of a rougher past.

The world needs more people like you Robert. I'm afraid I may not be one of them. :-)

There's a moral and ethical component to this story, and most successful relationships take a certain amount of overlooking our loved one's faults and past-life baggage. I would like to think that, in a similar situation, I eventually would have had an internal struggle over whether or not my loved one even cared if they might seriously harm another person's life. Relationships are complex, and no two cases are the same.
Still, I can't help but wondering if James Randi had an internal struggle at all. Maybe he did, but his acidic disregard for folks whom he perceives as too stupid to fall in line with his scientistic doctrine leaves me with a reasonable doubt.

While I'm digging away at the personal peccadillo's of our favorite militant-style Atheists, and since Robert has a sense of decency and I don't, let me take it upon myself to sink down a step and ask - Has anyone paid attention to Susan Blackmore's taste in fashion? Is she a hottie or... what?
http://machineslikeus.com/biographies/susan-blackmore
http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/
I guess we all deal with our impending geezer-ship (Susan is sixty) in different ways. Some folks find inspiration in the compelling evidence for the continuation of consciousness, and other folks live in fantasy world of punky pink-streaked denial.

Sorry 'bout this Robert, sometimes I just can't control myself. :-)

"Sorry 'bout this Robert, sometimes I just can't control myself."

LOL! And that's precisely why Robert's article is so brilliant. It has style (which is something our Randi's not got) and it leaves the reader to conclude that Robert is being so kind that we feel almost obliged to put the boot in for him. Love you, our Robert!!

Oh you bad dawg. I think the punk look suits her :)

The ironic thing about these young rational idealist is that father time will creep up on them too and one day they will really sit down and think about their mortality and the prestige and honor of calling oneself a rationalist will slowly erode as the years go bye. I was like that myself, especially in college. I adopted this snarky and closed minded materialist view of the world I thought I knew so well. Then after a serious of deaths of some close relatives I started thinking about my own mortality and discovered an entire world of evidence out there I did not even know existed. My point is, it is very easy to dismiss psi and afterlife claims when you are young and want to impress your friends and collegues on how much of a critical thinker you are but I found that it takes even more critical thinking to actually sit down and read the research psi phenomenon. Appealing to an authority like Randi and waving your hand calling on psi "impossible" or "rubbish" without doing any primary research yourself is intellectually lazy and irresponsible and IMO shows a lack of critical thinking.

James Randi has made his reputation by personally attacking his targets, often speculating on their inner psychology and personal motivations. He is the Rush Limbaugh of the skeptical community. No one should be surprised, much less cry foul, when his own tactics are used against him. The "truth" about James Randi is simple: he's an angry, bitter self-deluded man. His story is tragic. The end.

We shouldn't kick someone when they're down, even if they would have kicked us. Bravo, Robert.

A simple point: he is a man who has spent a lifetime claiming that such and such is the truth, and that most, if not all psychics are liars and frauds. It is then discovered that for years now, he has been living as a fraud who at the very least, knew about the theft of someone's identity -a very serious charge, for a serious crime. And one that directly affects one's quality of life. No sympathy, in the least. Not a shred.

Probably all of us contemplate a line past which we will not suspend our disbelief. For some it runs straight across the toes, and for others it is somewhat more distant.

I recently exchanged emails with someone in the medical profession who is also making a study of synchronous events.

Not only do they happen, but they tell us something very meaningful about the world we live in. But one must be open to allusion, complex metaphor, even a sort of poetry and the mind set that accompanies these.

There's a great deal to be missed in experience without that sort of awareness.

That should have been "Pavel." Apologies

The remarks about Randi look like simply another ad hominem attack to me. Correct but not relevant to the facts of the debate. I guess it might make his disciples pause for thought but anyone prepared to spend just a few hours can find enough evidence to form their own view. If they want an informed view of course.

Hi Robert,

You know I feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing myself. I hate how personal the exchanges are, particularly when the JREF swoops in to defend reason with a hot dose of irrationality. Yet I published an article on the subject because I think this unfortunate episode in Randi's life is very valuable information to have in the public record.

He has cultivated a particular image in the media and among his followers and this episode would appear to undermine that identity. For many people, Randi has been a kind of untouchable authority. And it is my belief that if this event pokes a hole in that image, they might be a little more likely to look at the evidence Randi has been trying so hard to bury.

Finally, as a longtime features writer, I can't resist this material: In researching Randi for Fringe-ology, I felt I had run across a true zealot--willing to go to any lengths if it meant undermining mysticism. It seems to me that if he knew his lover was a fraud, even as he took him out to pose as "Carlos" the psychic to unmask frauds, it would be the ultimate sort of deception--and ultimate proof that Randi is out to win by any means necessary. We may never know just what Randi knew and when he knew it, and I, too, think the evidence and data should be enough to encourage a meaningful dialogue about psi. But in my continuing effort to cover this story, it seems inescapable that Randi remain a part of it.

Thanks for taking such a respectful tone, even in disagreement, and I trust I've done the same. It will take a lot of different approaches, I think, by a lot of different people, to get the wider public to take a fresh look at this old debate.

--Best, Steve

This whole post and comment thread makes me think of a lively discussion around the family dinner table - a healthy, happy family engaged in a bit of intellectual tickling. I like it!

Somebody pass the 'taters, please :-)

Not sure why you link to a discussion of these tapes, Robert. If there's nothing to them then of course there's nothing wrong with defending the guy. If there was that'd be another matter, of course, but there doesn't seem to be a reason to believe there is. Unless I'm missing something?

Since the Million Dollar Challenge 'success' was mentioned, it may be a good time to offer this tidbit.

Last year a blogger appeared under the apparent pseudonum "James Random". This blogger stated that the Million Dollar Challenge is likely a hoax. Random says that the challenge is in reality nothing more than a series of simple magic tricks designed to deceive the public into believing that no one can pass a "true" test of psychic abilities.

If you think about it this suggestion might have merit. Randi has always said he is no mathematician nor scientist. Yet in the 1960s he offered the $10,000 Challenge. How did he know back then that no one would win? He was a gambler, he realized people do win against the odds. Perhaps it occurred to him back then that the best way to assure an outcome was to rig the test. There are no controls in the JREF tests to prevent skeptical fraud. So this claim on the part of this blogger may not be as outlandish as it might first appear.

If this were true, it would be a devastating blow to the skeptical community. And it would illustrate that, far from being supported by the likes of Randi, in fact all these years he would have been engaging in a deception against the very people who have financially and now morally supported him.

You can read the full blog entry at http://mdcjames.blogspot.com

Naturally, one has a great stake in defending one's world view. The normal reaction to a definitive challenge to it would be panic. Panic makes people capable of almost anything.

Hi Steve – absolutely, it’s our job as journalists to write about these things, and I was interested to get the background from your post. I didn’t know that “Carlos” was Alvarez – that was a grubby episode.

A lot of people will share your view. It’s hard not to feel that Randi asks for any hostility that comes his way. I just wouldn’t like things to get much more personal than they already are.

Best, Robert

'Not sure why you link to a discussion of these tapes'

Didn't mean anything particular, Ben. Just provided the link as a matter of course, so that readers can see what's being said.

Personally I don't think it leads anywhere, so there's nothing much to discuss.

Fair enough!

As a random aside, is it pure coincidence that Steve Volk is a writer on the paranormal and Stephen Volk wrote the magnificent film Ghostwatch? Either way, I recommend the latter.

It's really a matter of perspective. Robert (McLuhan), and most - not all - of the readers and commenters on this blog, are "believers" to one degree of another. Not all of us believe the same things to the same degree, and I really believe that Robert and most of us try to be objective.

Steve Volk is a professional journalist, and so is Robert. Steve, in addition to his independent writings, writes for a mainstream publication called Philadelphia Magazine, "one of the last city magazines in America focused on doing real journalism" (from Steve's blog). He has his fans, and I'm one of them.
Robert McLuhan, after writing and continuing to write for several mainstream publications, is "a journalist and author based in London" (from his blog). He also has his fans, and I'm one of them.

Robert's style is to cut through the pseudo-sceptic horse-squeeze with an objective approach, and Steve's style is to report the news with an objective approach. Both of them seem to embrace their job with a passion that leads me to believe that they don't view their craft as a job, so much as a "calling". They're not just slinging words to read, they're putting their heart and soul on the line.

But there's a subtle difference. I'm sure the Oxford Dictionary would disagree with me, but for lack of any other way of expressing it, I'd like to make a distinction between reporters and journalists.
Both writers are reporter's, and both writers are journalist's, but in my opinion, Steve is more of a news reporter, and Robert is more like a journalist. The difference here? Good news reporting tends to be more of a "just the facts, Ma'am" data-gathering craft, and good journalism usually has more of a personal feel. This is more than semantic hair-splitting, as both journalists and news reporters tell it like they see it, but good news reporters try to be dispassionate, and good journalists are usually more opinionated.

I don't see what Steve writes as opinion, so much as investigative news, and he gets lots of flack for for it.
Although Robert's writings have an investigative side, he tends to have more of a (justified, IMO) bias, and he can afford to be more diplomatic as a consequence. Of course, he gets his flack for that. They both are looking at the same thing through different lenses. I find both perspectives to be interesting and refreshing.

I think Randi's sexuality's been an open secret for many years -- but who really cares? It's totally irrelevent to anything. Darren Brown's comments are just bizzare (or cheap point-scoring.) Maybe the psychics had noticed and were too polite to say anything!

Or maybe the psychics weren't really that interested?

Without all the Press attention given to his endless playground taunts where would Randi be? Who would give any credence to what this non-scientist and professional showman has to say about a subject that, frankly, he knows almost nothing about?

Randi isn't a truth-seeker; why should he be, when his entire career has been built upon pulling the wool over people's eyes one way or another? And good luck to him in the future. Let's just hope he can find the grace and dignity to move quietly onto the more peaceful pastures that he knows and actually understands: stage entertainment.

Excuse me, but did you really say "munching his homeopathy pills"? Randi, the Great Debunker, munches on homeopathy pills?

Yes, he does it as a stunt in his performances (which you can find on YouTube). The point is to show that homeopathy pills don't do anything.

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