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 His views are predictable and outdated, and other public sceptics are generally more interesting - Hyman, Wiseman, Shermer even.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.