Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Remembering the Amazing One (1928-2020)

Probably most readers have already heard about the death of magician and skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi on October 20, at the age of 92. He was probably the best-known, and the most influential of all skeptics. Probably also the most universally loved and admired by skeptics, like a cuddly little gnome. (He wasn't always that short - he got shorter as he aged.) Of course, many believers in psychics and such hold Randi in total contempt - quite unfairly, in my view.

Randi with Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society, and yours truly, at one of the Amazing Meetings.
(Photo by Susan Gerbic.)

I won't try to give you a biography of Randi - there are many places to find that. You can also find out a lot about Randi from the 2014 documentary film about him, An Honest Liar.

Having been involved in organized skepticism since almost the very beginning, I will talk a little about the man I knew, who I first met in 1977. He was already quite famous at this time, owing to his confrontations with Uri Geller. Yet he was sincerely glad to meet me and spend time talking about UFOs, psychic claims, and other stuff.  He was endlessly entertaining. One thing that I don't think has been emphasised enough was just how entertaining Randi was. In private, Randi was nearly always telling jokes, usually at the expense of some  paranormal claim or promoter. Hanging out with Randi meant nonstop entertainment.

It may surprise many people to learn that Randi was a longtime friend of UFOlogist James Moseley, who was  pretty entertaining in his own right, and didn't take things too seriously. In fact, Randi accompanied Moseley on one of his grave-robbing trips to South America. Moseley wrote about such trips in his very interesting book, Shockingly Close to the Truth - Confessions of a Grave-Robbing UFOlogist. Years on, they both remembered this trip fondly, although they apparently were no longer on speaking terms. Randi was also an old friend of John Keel, promoter of Mothman and other weird tales, howevermuch that might blow some peoples' minds. When I was in Manhattan to speak at the 1980 National UFO Conference, Randi (who was still living in New Jersey at that time) dropped by to say hello. (He didn't register for the conference.) I had been talking with John Keel in the bar, where he seemed most at home. Randi and Keel had a nice moment, a reunion of old friends.

Later in 1980, I moved from the D.C. area to San Jose, California, and soon met Bob Steiner, also a CSICOP Fellow, and a professional magician. Together we founded the Bay Area Skeptics in 1982, and held some very fine organizational parties in Steiner's apartment near Berkeley. Steiner was a CPA as well, and always did Randi's taxes (preparing tax returns for performers like Randi is quite different from doing ordinary folks' taxes). Steiner and Randi got together a lot, even though they lived on opposite coasts. Sometimes I joined them, and it was always great fun.

Bob Steiner with J. Allen Hynek and Philip J. Klass 
(CSICOP Conference, Stanford, 1984. Photo by Gary Posner).

In 1982, Randi wrote Flim-Flam, a book about "Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions." It has since become something of a skeptics' cult classic. In it, Randi writes about some of his investigations of psychics, of UFO claims, and many other things. My name appears in the index eight times, discussing: the Cottingley Fairies, the Betty-Barney Hill "UFO abduction," claims by Vallee and Hynek, and the testing of "psychic" Rosemary DeWitt.

One rather sad chapter in skepticism that people now seem to have forgotten was how Randi was, in essence, booted from CSICOP about 1990, because he had sort of become radioactive. Randi had been doggedly pursuing Uri Geller and his extraordinary claims since the early 1970s. At first Geller seemed to shrug it all off, as it sometimes frankly gave Geller free publicity. But sometime in the 1980s, Geller's strategy changed, and he began to sue Randi for defamation in practically every court where such a filing could be made. Since truth is a defense against libel, and since statements of opinion are not actionable, and since Geller was clearly a public figure who thus had a very high bar to prove actual malice, Geller never won any payments from Randi. But the court costs of defending against such legal harassment were very high, and it was a very messy affair. Because Randi was a CSICOP Fellow, many of the suits named CSICOP as co-defendant (as many law professors teach their students, "sue everybody" when you file). So Randi was pushed out of CSICOP as a form of self-defense. 

My name appears eight times in the pages of Flim-Flam.  

Now on his own, Randi founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which soon became popular in skeptics' circles. Randi wanted me to write a column for JREF about UFO investigations, but I told him I could not do it at the time. I was working full-time as a software engineer in the Silicon Valley, and with family obligations I just couldn't take on anything more. I felt bad about this. Randi did help me get a book review published in Scientific American, my only publication in that journal. They contacted Randi, asking him to write a review of a book about the "Abduction Study Conference at MIT," held in 1992. He replied that he didn't know much about this meeting since he wasn't there, but he told them that I was, and recommended that I be invited to submit a review. I did, and the result was my book review "Truth Abducted," Scientific American, November 1995, Vol. 273, No. 5., p. 84.

JREF soon began holding "The Amazing Meetings" (TAMs), mostly in Las Vegas. I attended several of these, and they were great fun. This was before the Social Justice types began attacking skeptics' organizations for being too male and too white (and apparently for being too successful). As I said, I have been in skeptics' organizations almost from the very beginning, and never even once did I hear anybody say anything to disparage or exclude anyone based on race, gender, etc.

From a "Skepchick" party at TAM8 in Las Vegas in 2010, back when meetings were still fun.
Rebecca Watson, who founded Skepchicks but later denounced TAM as sexist or something, is at center.

These are the things I remember most about Randi. Perhaps I will have more to write later.