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Week of August 28, 2008, Issue #671

Making a living of bullshit detecting

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Making a living of bullshit detecting

Meet the professional skeptics who call it when they smell it

OMAR MOUALLEM / omar@vueweekly.com

In 1987, a distinctive man looking like a suited Charles Darwin—or Santa—sat in The Tonight Show chair next to Johnny Carson to premiere a video clip. Usually such a setup is reserved for an actor on press tour, but paranormal investigator and world-famous magician James Randi, “The Amazing Randi,” was a guest promoting only truth. That is, the truth about TV faith healer Peter Popoff.
 
The clip shown was of a typical Popoff stunt: God divinely tells him the name of an audience member, their ailment and their address, and Popoff palms their foreheads and they’re healed. But after the segment finished, Carson and Randi played it again with one small addition: an audio recording picked up in the church with a radio receiver by Randi’s informant. The evidence clearly showed that through Popoff’s unassuming earpiece, he was being read the information of sick people sitting before him.
 
“It turns out that ... God is a woman,” said Randi to Carson, “and sounds exactly like Popoff’s wife.”
 
“We exposed him very definitively. We showed exactly how he worked, what he was doing, how he was doing it, and how callous and cruel the whole operation was,” recalls Randi, 21 years after he exposed Popoff on The Tonight Show. “Well the evidence is in even further—and I’m glad Johnny didn’t live to see this—the latest reports are that Peter Popoff made $10 million dollars more last year than he did in the year we exposed him.”
 
Earlier this month, shortly after his 80th birthday, the Canadian expat announced that he was stepping down as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, “an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural,” and passing the crown onto Phil Plait, author of the book and blog Bad Astronomy. 
 
In Randi’s 30-plus years of paranormal investigations, debunking fraudulent claims has been an uphill battle brimming with countless lawsuits and struggles to get backing for his books amongst a paranormal-loving market. He has, though, also enjoyed numerous triumphs by exposing faith healers, mentalists, psychic surgeons and other contemporary snake oil salespeople.
 
There are few people like Randi, who choose to make a career out of challenging charlatans, but to show just how serious he was about it, Randi famously started walking around with a $10 000 cheque in his pocket, ready for the first person able to prove a paranormal claim “to an independent panel.” Over time, the $10 000 ballooned into The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.
 
Everyone from mentalist Uri Geller to spiritualist-cum-psychic Sylvia Browne have been challenged to take his million dollars, but nobody serious seemed to want his money, and over the years he only attracted the attention of inexperienced loons. 
 
“Sylvia Browne did agree to take the challenge eight years ago ... on the Larry King show, but she then said that she couldn’t. She said she didn’t know how to contact me. She talked to the dead but she can’t contact me—and I’m in the phonebook.”
 
The money has stayed safe in an account, where it will until March of 2010, when the challenge will be discontinued to free up the money for better causes such as college scholarships.
 
But why dedicate a legacy to suffocating the fancies of so many people desperate looking for an alternative reality? What’s the harm in believing someone can mentally bend spoons or we can contact our dead loved ones through a medium, anyway? 
 
“Well, what’s the harm of putting someone on heroin and supplying them for the rest of their lives?” Randi counters. 
 
Randi readily admits that he can’t relate very much to believers. 
 
“Since I was a very tiny child in Sunday school, I started to ask questions about what they were claiming to be true,” he recalls. “And I was told not to ask questions ... They threw me out of Sunday school.” 
 
Randi wishes that he did have the personal experience of having to shed some sort of paranormal belief, because he says it would provide him a useful insight. 
 
“I consider it an advantage because then you can understand why people believe in strange things.”
 
Dr Michael Shermer knows why people believe in strange things. In fact, he wrote a book on it, entitled Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, which de-mythed everything from alien abductions to creationism to Jewish holocaust denialism. 
 
Unlike Randi, Shermer does have the advantage of once having been a true believer. In his youth, he was an evangelical Christian, and, in his adult years as a marathon bicyclist, he experienced an alien abduction “because of sleep depravation.” 
 
Shermer would later go on to publish Skeptic magazine and found the Skeptics Society, of which there are now approximately 55 000 members, including subscribing newsstands and bookstores. Shermer can be found more recently as one of several scientists coaxed into interviews for the anti-evolution documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, only to be portrayed as an uninformed, arrogant know-it-alls.
 
Shermer has been a long-time enemy of creationists. His book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, a point-by-point breakdown of the logical fallacies in intelligent design, is one of his greatest triumphs, along with his work debunking “the holocaust deniers.” 
 
More recently, his enemies have risen from the ashes of the World Trade Center in the form of 9/11 “Truthers.” After a 9/11 conspiracy-themed issue of Skeptic irked Truthers, he found them popping up everywhere, heckling him along his latest national book tour.
 
Shermer says heaps of evidence against the Truthers’ claims is unnecessary. 
 
“You know how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11? Because it worked.”
 
The Skeptics Society is now 16 years old and members include Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” Saturday Night Live alumnus Julia Sweeney, biologist Richard Dawkins and popular astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. 
 
Dr Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University, is not a member. Instead, he co-founded the his own organization, the New England Skeptical Society. After the Society plateaued in terms of membership and the maintenance of newsletter writing and distributing became too heavy, he started the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast.
 
Perhaps no program has been more successful in popularizing scientific skepticism the way SGU has. Novella hosts SGU with his panel of comical skeptic “rogues,” which include his brothers Jay and Bob, Even Bernstein and Rebecca Watson—who also operates skepchick.org and has become the Lucy Lawless of science geek circles. SGU consistently sits in iTunes’ top 10 science podcasts and enjoys a weekly listenership of about 40 000. 
 
If Randi and Shermer have turned detecting bullshit into professions, Novella has turned it into an all-out obsession. Not only does he run NESS, host and produce SGU as well as a second skeptical podcast, but he also contributes to three thorough critical thinking blogs and stars in The Skeptologists, a television pilot currently being shopped around.
 
“Skepticism is empowering,” he says, “because it enables you to see through the BS and arrive at a conclusion that is more likely to be true.”
 
As a neurologist, he often sees ailing patients who’ve been duped by pseudoscientific medicine, and because they delayed mainstream medical treatment, found their ailments had spread beyond repair.
 
He’s been an strong opponent of pseudoscientific medicine and purveyors of anti-vaccination propaganda, especially the autism and vaccine linkage conspiracy theory. On occasion, he says, patients who believe in the connection between vaccines and autism confront him. 
 
“[They] seem to be driven by the negative, visceral reaction to injecting children with drugs ... But I just relay the evidence.” The evidence, argues he and Michael Shermer, is in the removal of thimerosal mercury (the alleged autism-causing agent) from vaccines in 1999, and a rise in the number of autism diagnoses over the same period. The problem is obviously not the mercury additive, he argues, but more likely a broadening of the definition of autism—knowledge resulting from medical science and scientific inquiries.
 
But Novella says he can’t stop everyone because most proponents of pseudoscientific alternative medicines and such “have already bought into the belief system ... they’ve already drank the Kool-Aid.”
 
An admitted nerd with “full sci-fi geek cred,” Novella sees parallels between the psyche of the believers and role playing.
 
“I’ve been involved in the past in live action role playing, and it’s lots of fun,” he says like a proud sinner in confession. “But you know that it’s 100 per cent fantasy. [For believers] this is their fantasy—like ghost hunting is what they do on the weekends to entertain themselves, when they should just play D&D and get it out of their systems.”
 
Richard Wiseman, fellow skeptic and author of Quirkology, recently remarked at The Amazing Meeting—a skeptics convention hosted by Randi’s foundation—that “skeptics are punching way above their weight.” That’s something Novella not only acknowledges, but embraces. 
“For the number of people that we are, we are having a disproportionately large effect on the public conversation that’s taking place.” 
 
He points to hit TV shows like Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and MythBusters as a testament to the impact of skeptics, but says the most important factor is the advent of Web 2.0, which through blogs, videos and podcasts has allowed their often-smothered voices to vociferate across the universe, and scream “Bullshit!” when they see or smell it.
 
“Ten years ago, if I cashed a cheque at the bank from the ‘New England Skeptical Society,’ that would almost universally provoke a giggle. Now they get it: ‘You’re the guys that don’t believe in ghosts!’” V



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