How to be a modern skeptic.

How to be a modern skeptic.

How to be a modern skeptic.

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 22 2005 7:36 AM

Remember Flim-Flam

How to be a modern skeptic.

Believing in the great unbeliever. Click image to expand.
Believing in the great unbeliever

In line to get my badge for this year's skeptics conference in Pasadena, Calif., I recognized the little man standing behind me. He was bald, with a full, white beard, and he looked older than I would have imagined. "Excuse me," he said, "is this the line for the skeptics meeting?" When I nodded, he looked me up and down and replied, "Oh, I doubt that."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the world's most famous skeptic, the Amazing Randi.

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I was in the seventh grade when I first came across Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions, Randi's 1980 classic of the early skeptics movement. When I got on board—as a fan, if not a true believer—the group was entrenched in a slugfest with the flourishing occult business. The skeptics were a feisty group of scientists, philosophers, magicians, and atheists, united by their dedication to rational thought and their intolerance of credulity. Randi, a professional magician and escape artist who once dangled upside down in a straitjacket over Niagara Falls, joined up with Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor in upstate New York, who had himself taken on newspaper astrologers. In 1976, Kurtz formed the Committee for the Scientific Inquiry Into Claims of the Paranormal to explain, expose, dispel, and debunk the supernatural and all its practitioners.

For decades, CSICOP's members did all of that with fierce passion. But in recent years the skeptics' enthusiasm for debunking has begun to subside. Kurtz now disowns the practice, instead favoring what he calls a "positive" defense of science and reason. Michael Shermer, the historian of science whose California-based Skeptics Society hosted the conference in Pasadena, also avoids the D-word. He'd rather talk about why people are fooled by supernatural hoaxes than spend his time debunking them. His group has doused the activism of CSICOP's early days with a program of research, lectures, and meetings.

Why have the skeptics grown so dreary? Their tactics have changed to reflect a new set of targets. What was once a movement to take down television psychics and fortunetellers now concentrates on mainstream foes like President George W. Bush, Intelligent Design theorists, and opponents of stem-cell research. A tedious battle against the modern bugaboos of religion and politics demands tedious tactics and more manpower. Today the skeptics comprise an alliance of interest groups, only a subset of whom even call themselves skeptics. A recent effort to choose a common name for the movement failed miserably—perhaps because the proposed appellation managed to sound both arrogant and New Age-y.

Many of these subgroups have their own societies and annual meetings, and the Skeptics Society conference I went to is one stop on the circuit. In keeping with Shermer's philosophy, the meeting in Pasadena had little to do with the supernatural. A parade of invited speakers provided popular-science lectures on the workings of the human brain, without reference to the paranormal or the occult. When the Amazing Randi finally took the stage as the keynote speaker on the last night of the conference, he seemed almost retro.

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Randi had for decades used his insider's knowledge of the flim-flam trade to humiliate a generation of occultists. Chief among his trophies was Uri Geller, an Israeli-born, disco-era mentalist who claimed, among other things, that he had the ability to soften metal and move a compass needle with his mind. Geller appeared on talk shows and magazine covers, and several academic researchers said they had validated his powers in the lab. Randi cleverly challenged Geller as a magician. He mimicked Geller's tricks using sleight of hand and then explained how they were done. In 1973, Randi went for the kill, conspiring with Johnny Carson (who was himself an amateur magician) to trap Geller on live TV. At Randi's instruction, producers on the Tonight Show provided all the props for Geller's act and didn't let him on the set before the cameras rolled. The plan worked, and a squirming Geller was unable to perform a single trick. The video clip of his on-air collapse remains a cherished keepsake of diehard skeptics. (Today Geller is best-known as a close personal friend to Michael Jackson.)

Since that glorious display of public humiliation, the Amazing Randi has taken on levitators, psychic surgeons, dowsers, and astrologers. In 1999, he debunked homeopathic remedies for insomnia by swallowing an entire bottle of "natural" sleeping pills in front of a congressional committee. His provocative and grandiose style has landed him in court more than once—Geller made several attempts to sue him, for example—and Randi says most of the $272,000 MacArthur "genius" grant he received two decades ago was spent on legal bills. 

Today, the closest thing Randi has to successors are the magician-debunkers Penn & Teller (whose  half-hour TV show, Bullshit, tries to avoid legal liability by calling con-men "assholes" instead of "fakes"). As the man who inspired so many people to join the skeptics early on, Randi remains a principal attraction at society meetings, even as the movement officially heads in a new direction. Before he took the stage on the last night of the conference, Shermer introduced him with the clip of Uri Geller's unmasking on The Tonight Show. Randi walked on to multiple standing ovations; a woman bounded up from the audience to give him a hug.

Shermer and Randi sat on chairs near the front of the stage, as if for a quiet chat.  But it wasn't long before Randi began to sway with emotion. He choked up while describing a little boy who had been deceived by a charlatan faith healer. And then, in a burst of bravado, his voice surged to the last row of the auditorium: "They're fakes, they're phonies, they're scoundrels … and they need to be behind bars!"

The skeptics in Pasadena went crazy. After days of restrained, informational talks, here was someone with a flair for theater—a rabble-rousing activist. But if Randi's words inspired us, it wasn't clear exactly what we were inspired to do or to whom we should do it. To us, Uri Geller seemed small-time: The enemies we had in mind were fundamentalist ideologues, like the ones on the Kansas school board who have tried to demote evolution in the science curriculum.

That's the conundrum of the modern skeptics movement: Intelligent Design theorists and deniers of global warming may very well be phonies and scoundrels, but no one is going to debunk them in the classic sense. You can't reveal their hidden microphones or mimic their tricks with sleight of hand. Intelligent Design, after all, is an attempt to recast (even to "rebunk") Creationism in scientific terms. The best weapon against it isn't dramatic exposé, but scientific argument. So a change in tactics makes sense for the movement.

Still, the fervent response to Randi's tirade suggests a deep-seated nostalgia for old-fashioned debunking. In the end, it's just more fun to see a fake like Geller squirm than it is to hear a science lecture. Supernatural scammers may not be the most dangerous opponents of reason, but why not knock a few off every now and again to rally the troops? After all, protests from academic scientists aren't exactly changing the world. Reports on climate change are still vetted by industry flunkies, and the federal government remains unwilling to fully support stem-cell research. With few victories to inspire us, let's keep on debunking. If only for old-times' sake.