Sunday, November 29, 2020

James Randi, Magicians-Author-Skeptic, passed away at the age of 92

James The Amazing Randi died on October 20, 2020, at the age of 92. He is survived by

his husband Jose Alvarez.  His Wikipedia page is here

A few Randi Points:

0) Wikipedia lists his careers as Magician, Author, Skeptic. I didn't know that skeptic was a career.

1) Randi debunked many paranormal claims, though he did not like the term debunker. He preferred investigator.

2) Martin Gardner and James Randi founded the

Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

which publishes

The Skeptical Inquirer: see here

3) The internet is both a place where unchecked claims of paranormal activity (and more dangerous lies) can grow faster than in an earlier time, but also a place where magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer, and fact-checking websites, can help check the unchecked claims. What is winning? I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

4) I suspect most (all?) people reading this blog do not believe in astrology, UFO's, ESP, or other crank theories. Hence I was surprised to read that Alan Turing thought the evidence for  ESP was overwhelming. This was mentioned in passing in his paper on The Turing Test (called there The Imitation Game) as something the Turing Test will have to account for. I've tried to find out why he believed this, without success. Some websites mentioned that belief in the paranormal was more... normal in those days. One suggested that after the counter-intuitive theories of quantum mechanics and relatively were out there, other counter-intuitive theories took hold, like ESP.  Even so, what was the evidence he was referring to?

5) Claims that  I was abducted by a UFO or I saw a UFO have decreased since people now have cell phones so ALWAYS have a way to take pictures. Also rumors like (I had heard this one)

There is an alternative ending to the movie BLAH which made is way to a few DVDs by mistake.

are no longer made since IF true you could EASILY produce evidence of such (post to you tube or elsewhere).

6) The term skeptic just means someone who doubts something, and is not necc a positive things.

I am a skeptic when it comes go Global Warming

being one example.

Randi largely debunked things that were obviously false and not-political. (That the very existence of Global Warming is political is  appalling. At some future point the question of whether or not we ever got to the moon will be political: Something done by big government that worked is impossible, hence it did not happen. See Scott's Blog on disbelief that we ever went to the moon here. And people like Randi will need to debunk the notion that the moon landing was faked.)

7) Back to Turing- There is a large diff between believing in ESP and believing in astrology.

For ESP Turing mentioned overwhelming evidence.  While he was WRONG, he did see the need to HAVE evidence. And note that ESP CAN be tested and found to NOT be true. Also note that it is plausible (though I really doubt it) that some humans somehow have some level of ESP. Astrology has NO redeeming value or hope whatsoever. (I am reminded that in Martin Gardner's book Fads and Fallacies in the name of science he noted that most people would say things like YES, I liked your debunking of A, but you are wrong about B--- B is for real!')

UFO's: I do not believe that aliens have come here and abducted people or left crop circles or anything of the sort. The intelligent question of  is there intelligent life in the universe  is quite another matter.

7) When I saw magicians as a kid (1960's) I knew that it was all tricks- though very skillful tricks which were impressive. Sometimes they would indicate that it was real magic but I did not know what they meant. Since then I have learned that in an earlier time it was common that magicians claimed they used  real magic.  I still don't quite know what that means, which is just as well since it does not exist.

8) Randi has been sued by people whose tricks he has debunked. Randi seems to have always won.  I say seems to  since legal cases are not as clear cut as mathematics.  I also looked up Uri Geller. He has sued A LOT of people, and not just people who deny his claims. Thinks like using his likeness  without permission  (he may have a point there). Very hard to tell how he is doing on balance.

9) According to Wikipedia Randi dropped out of High School. I assume he learned A LOT on his own.

(Trivia-- who was the last president who did not have a college degree? I will answer at the end.)

10) This seems like a paradox... or something (quoted from Wikipedia):

BEGIN

Randi has been accused of actually using psychic powers to perform acts such as spoon bending. According to James Alcock, at a meeting where Randi was duplicating the performances of Uri Geller, a professor from the University at Buffalo shouted out that Randi was a fraud.  Randi said: "Yes, indeed, I'm a trickster, I'm a cheat, I'm a charlatan, that's what I do for a living. Everything I've done here was by trickery. The professor shouted back:

That's not what I mean. You're a fraud because you're pretending to do these things through trickery, but you're actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.

A similar event involved Senator Claiborne Pell, a confirmed believer in psychic phenomena.  When Randi personally demonstrated to Pell that he could reveal—by simple trickery—a concealed drawing that had been secretly made by the senator, Pell refused to believe that it was a trick, saying: "I think Randi may be a psychic and doesn't realize it." Randi consistently denied having any paranormal powers or abilities.

END

Reminds me of this blog entry where I speculate about someone who codes up a great new classical  factoring algorithm and claims he has a quantum computer, or someone who has a working quantum computer and claims its a great new classical factoring algorithm.

11) The last president who did not have a college degree: Harry Truman.

1. Turing's remark on ESP may have been mildly ironical. For more background see the chapter "Turing and the paranormal" by David Leavitt in "The Turing Guide" by Jack Copeland et al. (2017).

2. "Claims that I was abducted by a UFO or I saw a UFO have decreased since people now have cell phones so ALWAYS have a way to take pictures"

You should go tell the U.S. Navy that UFO are passé, because their cameras are radars still record UFO activity and they said so very publicly.

1. Have the cameras found anything interesting? If not evidence of intelligent life in the universe, perhaps something of interest to science?

2. It has been found that... more research is needed!

3. Also, besides the recently declassified videos, you may remember that Congress and president Trump were briefed on the subject of UFOs. The contents of the briefings unfortunately remain classified, but we did learn at that occasion that Trump does not particularly believe in UFOs: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/exclusive-trump-unidentified-flying-objects/story?id=63725191 That puts him firmly in the rationalist camp!

4. If you want to learn a little bit more about the (classified) research underway, see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/us/politics/pentagon-ufo-harry-reid-navy.html
There is apparently some commitment from the U.S. government to be less secretive than in the past, and reveal some of their findings to the public. So, let's wait and see!

3. While I am generally sympathetic with the scientific approach to the paranormal, there are some cases for which I did not see a full solution yet, which is somewhat disappointing. Pros and cons are changing like duck or rabbit when viewed through the scientific or paranormal lens. As an example consider the Austrian physical medium Rudi Schneider (1908-1957). The article on wikipedia is edited by sceptics who carefully leave out any positive evidence. Quite another picture emerges from Anita Gregory's "The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider," 1985, and many contemporary reports (again wikipedia is citing the outspoken critics only). Therefore I consider the status of the paranormal still an interesting open question, elusive to contemporary science like lower bounds in complexity theory :-)

4. Re: 6) The author of the post (and this commenter) are not skeptic to global warming. Yet we (I assume the author as well) have flown pre-covid 10+ times a year, drove cars around and took part in other high-carbon-output activities.

The commenter's uncle does not believe in man-made global warning, yet has never been in an airplane and lives a simple life in a village.

Who is the real skeptic? Why do beliefs matter? Aren't our true beliefs those revealed by our actions? The focus on what everyone believes seems to me like searle's chinese room argument taken to an extreme. As I grow older, I tend to care more for what people do.

1. We lead an imperfect life but collectively we hope and do understand many things and hope that we can do better. Science has shown the power of this over the last few hundred years. Sitting in a village without engaging in the world is ok but that doesn't mean there is no truth, only beliefs.

5. What sort of ESP do you consider that it is "plausible" that some humans might have?

Astrology was different in times past: https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2020/09/30/astrology-in-the-age-of-newton/. It wasn't just natal astrology. Now that we understand what the planets are and how gravity works, astrology does not make sense.

6. Fro p 416 of Hodges's book, "Readers might well have wondered whether he really believed the evidence to be overwhelming', or whether this was a rather arch joke. In fact he was certainly impressed at the time by J.B. Rhine's claims to have experimental proof of extra-sensory perception. It might have reflected his interest in dreams and prophecies and coincidences, but certainly was as case where for him, open-mindedness had to come before anything else; what *was so* had to come before what was convenient to think ..."