Aug. 27, 2008 - Issue #671: The Bullshit Issue
Making a living of bullshit detecting
Meet the professional skeptics who call it when they smell it
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
Randi readily admits that he can’t relate very much to
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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)
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
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
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
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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