Asking James Randi: What do so many people have against science?

Why do smart people believe stupid things? James Randi, one of our foremost scientific skeptics, sheds some light on the matter.

FLORIDA, December 11, 2012 — James Randi has a passion for poking holes in pseudoscience. We speak highly of science and reason, but when it comes to their own stupid beliefs, people are seldom reasonable. For most of us at some point, pseudoscience rules the mind.

For instance, how many people who consider themselves sensible and above superstition eagerly buy into claims of the paranormal? Parapsychology shows up on some university curricula, and the CIA/DIA funded programs for 15 years under the umbrella “Stargate” operation, so there must be something to it, mustn’t there? Atlantis, crystal healing, and extraterrestrials in Mesoamerica all have enduring appeal. College-educated adults believe their gut rather than the science that says vaccinations don’t cause autism.

When it comes to life’s most complex questions, why do so many otherwise intelligent individuals substitute feelings and belief for fact and cold, hard reason? 

Like the dark side of the Force, mysticism gives us quick and easy answers. Our brains are designed to pull patterns from chaos, to see order where none exists, and then to give preference to evidence that supports our biases. This isn’t just a problem of the religious believers so many “rationalists” mock; it stalks even the most hallowed halls of academia (and, apparently, the CIA).

And the public eats it up. 

James Randi has devoted much of his career to weeding out the jokers and pseudoscientists who claim to have all the answers. A highly respected illusionist, he went on to become a well-known public skeptic. When Uri Geller convinced physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff (who in addition to his work on polarizable vacuum and gravitational physics directed a CIA Stargate program to investigate paranormal “remote viewing”) that his paranormal abilities were genuine, Randi and others proved that they were no more than “parlor tricks.” No stranger to controversy, Randi happily shatters illusions, and does so convincingly.

Of course, one might expect such a thing from a master at the science of misdirection and illusion. 

Randi spoke with me about the importance of scientific skepticism in this day and age, as well as why ideologies attract so many willing adherents. We also discussed the concept of faith, whether or not modern science supports the idea of an all-powerful creator, and much more.

****

Joseph F. Cotto: Scientific skepticism is a well-known concept. Why, in your view, is it so important in this day and age?

James Randi: Because very little of this process – to test paranormal and pseudoscientific claims with the methods of science – is shown by the media, by educators, or by the public. It is easier and simpler to accept every crackpot notion and invoke “political correctness” as a crutch. This is a major reason for the existence of the James Randi Educational Foundation, to challenge the media when they are careless and irresponsible about pseudoscience and the paranormal. I call this the “Oprah Winfrey Syndrome,” accepting and promoting any woo-woo notion that sounds “nice” and “comforting” without considering its validity.

And, in my opinion, any testable religious claim is a variety of paranormal claim. This includes items such as the Shroud of Turin, weeping icons, and stigmata.

Cotto: Many people fear that science is answering too many questions too quickly. What is your opinion of this idea?

Randi: I’ve never heard this expressed. If there are too many questions, we obviously need more scientists…?

Cotto: Mythology often finds a greater degree of popularity than scientific conclusions do. In your view, is there a reason for this?

Randi: As with the religious myths, it’s more comforting and requires less thought – if any at all.

Cotto: Despite the fact that it offers reasonable explanations for complex questions, modern science is often the subject of derision. From your perspective, can this be explained?

Randi: The public wants easy answers, and those are supplied by a press largely educated in the humanities rather than in science. 

Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think that this does to any given society?

Randi: It supplies people with easy – though useless – answers, and provides distractions from the real problems they face daily. Superstitious beliefs keep the public from finding solutions.

Cotto: Across the world, billions rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. What are your opinions about the concept of faith in general?

Randi: Faith is only validated if and when it’s proven by evidence. Millions of Jews prayed earnestly to escape the ovens, but they were incinerated. Prayer is a useless procedure, a statement shown correct by countless such experiments. Blind faith is closing your eyes to reality.

Cotto: The existence of God is an immensely controversial subject. In your opinion, does modern science support the idea of an all-powerful creator?

Randi: No.

Cotto: What has been the greatest challenge of being a magician?

Randi: Staying with it through many years of missed meals until it began to pay enough that I could survive. That time came many decades ago, I’m happy to report, and it came about without resort to any sort of woo-woo, incantations, or burning of incense.

Cotto: What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a scientific skeptic?

Randi: Receiving so many unsolicited comments that my efforts have made individuals think a second time about nonsense that’s been offered them, and seeing the very tangible effect of my Educational Foundation, which can be seen online at www.randi.org.

Cotto: What put you on the path to become such a popular and successful magician and scientific skeptic?

Randi: I was born at a very early age in a log cabin I helped my father build. We were so poor that we couldn’t afford more children, so the next-door neighbors had my sister. I left home when my father said something that I didn’t like; he said, “Get out!” But seriously, folks, being a magician brought people to me who asked questions that I could answer from my position of expertise. I’ve found it very rewarding to be able to help those folks get a firmer grip on reality and a better sense of their own worth. I wouldn’t – probably couldn’t – have chosen a better calling.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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