SocraticGadfly: James Randi is dead — and won't be totally missed here

October 25, 2020

James Randi is dead — and won't be totally missed here

So-called "movement skepticism" isn't in general missed in these corners, but, for the less informed, let me explain why the (Not so) Amazing Randi, aka, The Amazing (Deceiver) Randi, won't be missed here after his death at 92 last week. (Hat tip Kuff in his weekly roundup for noting this.) A better, but not perfect, NYT obit is here.

From lesser to greater?

There's his libertarianism that enabled the likes of Penn and Teller to be denialist about secondhand smoke as a carcinogen, and to still be denialist about things like climate change. That's too common in movement skepticism; Michael Shermer is yet another prominent member, at least partially influenced by Randi, who has conflated some version of modern movement (it's NOT "scientific," per the above, so I don't call it that) skepticism with philosophical and political libertarianism.

Next, there's his condoning of #MeToo related problems in movement skepticism. (And, allegedly, Shermer was part of those problems, too.)

Finally, Randi almost certainly knew that his long-time lover, Devyi Peña, was an identity thief. Hiring him at JREF, the nepotism wouldn't look good even without the above. That, of course, makes it worse. Even if Randi didn't know that Peña had engaged in willful criminality, the hiring made it look like he did know and was trying to protect him. All the information in this graf, plus Shermer's history, is documented here. More on Shermer here. That documentation notes that this goes back to the time of Paul Kurtz as founder of CFI. (Randi as founder of JREF, as much as Kurtz at CFI, also fell willing victim to founders syndrome.)

Related? Randi started sniffing his own press clippings too much later in life. The claims that Peña magically (I see what I did there) skeptically enlightened most of Australia have been put paid to by many people, for example.

So, contra Penn Jillette, I won't love him forever. "Flim Flam," his first famous book? Might be a good title for his biography. (And, neither of the above obits included most of this. The NYT, at the second link, touched on a bit of the first issue, indirectly, and on the third issue, but only to claim that it was an accident by Peña, not willful identity theft, a claim which is, per Harry Frankfurt, "bullshit.)

When I was a kid, I remember seeing Randi on the Tonight Show and being interested.

As a much younger adult, doing intellectual judo on my seminary education, he and other skeptics were of a bit of help, though not nearly as much as Messrs. Hume and Wittgenstein, followed by some atheistic (but not "Gnu") philosophers.

As I got older yet, though, and moved left politically, and developed my own skepticism, though, I took a look at Randi's movement more carefully. And, even before the MeToo antics, the more and more I saw, the less and less I liked.

And moved on.

Probably why I didn't hear of Randi's death until four days after it happened.

This all said, since an announcement of his death is one of just two announcements posted to JREF in the past six months, I may not be missing much anyway.
In addition, founders syndrome is semi-cultic, something that any good skeptic should steer clear of, of course.
Update: Via Orac, Mitch Horowitz at Boing Boing has a takedown obit at least as scathing as anything I've ever written. 

And, let's look at Horowitz.

That said, this is as close to true as he gets.
He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud.
Half-true on some, less than half on others. A showman, yes. To the degree showmanship affected his skeptical claims, not so much. Less true of the bullying — except possibly inside his management of JREF. A fraud? Well, with Peña, take your choice of "fraud" or "hypocrite."

That said, Horowitz trying to cite Ray Hyman as supporting him shows how far off base he is. And, while Orac mentions that and more, I don't need Orac to know that. Ditto when Horowitz mentions the likes of Dean Radin.
Horowitz is himself a non-skeptic of the first rank on paranormal claims. And, thus, wrong!
That said, Orac, in savaging Horowitz?
I've commented at Orac, essentially summarizing my points here and, while not saying Horowitz is right, that Orac cut Randi a fairly big pass on several issues. 


Update, Dec. 22. So, Randi was also a Jesus mythicist, at least buying into the bullshit that Nazareth didn't exist 2,000 years ago?
Oh, he's wrong, by the way. Exist it did indeed, so shut up mythicists.

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