LSSRandy

The real magic of the Amazing Randi

Like many of us who grew up in the Age of Aquarius, by my twenties, I had acquired a hippy-dippy attitude toward claptrap, balderdash, hooey, and bunk. Bigfoot? They have film; experts are baffled. Flying saucers? Can all those stories be wrong? Psychics? There are scientific studies, right? Ghosts? Seems plausible.

By the early 1970s, there was no one more famous in the world of supernatural hokum than Israeli psychic spoon-bender Uri Geller. There were two highly publicized reasons he had the stamp of scientific legitimacy: he had been tested at, and sanctioned by, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and former astronaut Edgar Mitchell endorsed him as the real thing. For those of us who grew up with the Mercury space program, astronauts were the gold standard of scientific veracity.       

By 1974, I was a young stage magician who had not yet fully grasped the broader implications of that trade. I had always been inclined toward skepticism, as illustrated by my Catholic elementary school penchant for questioning Christian dogma or my unwillingness to accept my friends’ assertions that shaving makes your beard grow faster. But no one had yet provided me with the tools for methodical skeptical thinking. So I was pretty damn impressed by Uri Geller, who appeared to provide scientific validation in support of the supernatural.

Enter Randi

I had heard of (James) The Amazing Randi through the magic community. The 5-foot 6-inch bearded sorcerer with penetrating eyes and an impish manner was exactly as advertised: amazing. (If you’re not familiar, click the link at the end of the story.) One day in the mid-seventies, I was in Walden’s Bookstore in The Boulevard Mall, and I came across a paperback titled The Magic of Uri Geller, as revealed by The Amazing Randi. At $1.75, it was a lot to spend on something I expected to dispute, but I sprung for it anyway because I liked Randi.

That exact moment my life changed forever

The book incontrovertibly exposed Geller as a complete fraud—not to mention a run-of-the-mill magician—but, more importantly, it revealed that the “scientific evidence” supporting him was laughably feeble. For one thing, the SRI turned out to have nothing to do with Stanford University. It was the name two exceedingly credulous researchers gave their testing facility. Because they were desperate for proof of the supernatural, they acquiesced to Geller’s manipulation of test protocols. In short, they were bamboozled. And astronauts? The early ones were test pilot cowboys, willing to climb into experimental aircraft before they were proven safe. The real brains of NASA remained behind in Mission Control.

Reading Randi’s book was a profoundly transformative experience. It didn’t just reverse my opinion of Geller; it laid bare the mechanics of credulity, including my own. The book led me to wonder what else I had irrationally accepted on thin evidence. Humans—even very smart ones—approach everything with biases that interfere with objectivity. The trick is learning to question everything. I expanded my research into other paranormal claims, from homeopathy to religion. Nothing held up under scrutiny.

Dominos

One by one, my beliefs fell, each toppling the next. My growing knowledge of magic also had new relevance. I learned how to do cold readings like psychics (they have no special powers), and, more importantly, I understood why people do not see through their tricks. It was the same reason “investigators” find evidence of ghosts, or the public thinks crop circles can’t be human made, even after the people who make them step forward and demonstrate how they do it. It’s the psychology behind people’s willingness to be duped that’s most applicable to the minutia of everyday life. From then on, I approached everything with healthy skepticism (sometimes to the annoyance of friends).

Randi at UB

When I heard that Randi would be giving a free lecture at the University at Buffalo (UB), I made it a point to attend. This was the late seventies; half the audience seemed to be magicians. When a few years ago, I came out of magic retirement to create a lecture for Hallwalls' Science and Art Cabaret in Buffalo, one of the impossible feats of mentalism I performed was taken from Randy's UB performance that I had seen years before.

With a combination of wit, wisdom, and expertise, Randi made a convincing case for robust skepticism. After the event, people were handing out information for an organization I had not previously heard of: the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) (then known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). This organization was launched by the late UB Philosophy professor Paul Kurtz, along with many distinguished founding members, including Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, B.F. Skinner, Philip J. Klass, and James Randi.

CSI is located near the UB North campus and is a nonprofit educational organization under the umbrella of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), which seeks to "promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims." It’s always surprising to me that more people aren’t aware that this prestigious center exists in the Buffalo region, with chapters around the world, including the Office of Public Policy works in Washington DC.

Home at last

I had found my people. I quickly became involved with the burgeoning CFI and helped initiate the short-lived WNY Skeptics. That group conducted a haunted house investigation, arranged a bus trip to Toronto, and drank a goodly amount of beer, before being overshadowed by the international organization.

The CFI publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which educates and promotes scientific literacy, critical investigation of pseudoscience, and deals with scientific evaluations of extraordinary claims and myths. Free Inquiry magazine covers issues around religion, ethics, history, and world affairs from a humanistic point of view. In the nineties, I produced numerous illustrations and cover designs for these two magazines.

Secular Rescue is another branch of CFI, that supports nonreligious activists and bloggers in the Middle East and Bangladesh in their pursuit of safety from persecution. The Richard Dawkins Foundation promotes scientific literacy and works to advance secularism around the world. The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science provides educators with free online resources and workshops to help them teach evolution, natural selection, and diversity.

My 15 minutes

You can draw a line from Randi to my on-camera and behind the scenes appearance on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, during which I and members of the CFI debunked a psychic who materialized gold and cut jewels from her skin and eyes (yawn). I remember overhearing Paul Kurtz tell the show’s LA producers by phone that “we have a magician who can duplicate the feats of the psychic.” My national TV debut was recorded on 35 film, under glaring Hollywood lights, and someone powdering my face between takes. I was scared shitless, thinking I had to prove myself. My resulting stiffness shows. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have to prove anything, or convince anyone. All the director wanted was lively footage to air. It was a good lesson on how the media operates. 

Another time, I volunteered at CFI-led international Humanist convention held at UB and I was asked if I would give some guy a ride to the bank. I said sure, but my Chevy Van with the funky paint job and no air conditioning was hardly a luxury ride. No matter, the man said. I learned that he was visiting from his home country of Costa Rica. He told me that the literacy rate there is 98%, and they are committed to environmental sustainability. Eventually, I asked the man what he does. “I’m the past president,” he said. “Of what?” I asked. “Costa Rica.” This Central American country had an atheist president, and he was in my rickety van!  

The years roll on

Randi was exceedingly generous with his fans. Or maybe he was just a shameless ham. He was always willing to spend time with anyone who wanted to talk, and he was continuously "on." Around the third time we met, I asked him to sign my yellowing copy of that first book, and I recounted how it had transformed my life. His reaction was something like, "Oh yes; I updated that book later." I'm guessing he had heard my story many times before.

About ten years ago, word spread that Randi had developed some sort of cancer. His fans grew concerned that he was not going to be with us much longer. “I am going to die,” he stated assertively during one of his CSI lectures. “That is an incontrovertible fact…just not immediately.”

Death is final, but…

Last Tuesday, at age 92, Randi made his final exit from the stage. Now that he’s gone, it seems to me that he lives on. There is the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the many people whose eyes have been opened by his work. We soldier on, though the work will never be done. True believers, Randi would say, will not pay attention to evidence that does not support their beliefs.

Sound familiar?

Here’s that link.

A propensity for dumbth

Dumbth is a term coined by the late comedian, writer, musician Steve Allen to describe incompetence, illiteracy, and gullibility. As Allen explained it, “It's a combination of ignorance and stupidity, plus some unidentified ingredients.”  

Dumbth in action

A Facebook friend of mine asks, “Can anyone cite a study that demonstrates masks vs no-masks are better in a viral hotbed???” Another posts a meme of a chain link gate, but no fence, and the text, “Perfect example of how a mask works.” Yet another friend matter-of-factly declares that COVID-19 was created in a lab in Wuhan. One very educated friend states flatly, “The frustrating part is ‘the science’ [note the quotation marks] does not support lockdowns (the opposite is true), and yet we continue to use them.” He also says there are no studies on the effectiveness of lockdowns. There are. And don’t even get me started on my exchanges with anti-vaxers.

Is this just a Buffalo thing, or is it something more universal? Why?

New research appearing in the journal Royal Society Open Science attempts to determine what predicts belief in COVID-19 misinformation. The specific popular conspiracy theories and misinformation used in the study are not supported by a majority of people in any of the five countries studied. But portions of each population, including the US, believe them all.

Furthermore, the study finds that belief in such misinformation is “associated with a reduced self-reported willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and a lower willingness to comply with common health guidance measures such as wearing a mask or social distancing.”

What and who?

What makes people susceptible to COVID-19 misinformation? Here’s a surprise: the researchers found that political conservatism is linked to higher susceptibility in every country—except in the US and the UK, where nonconservatives do no better at avoiding dumbth. Older people have a lower susceptibility to misinformation, except in Mexico. Self-identifying as a member of a minority was associated with heightened susceptibility, except in the UK. Trust in scientists was linked to lower susceptibility to misinformation everywhere.

Here’s another surprise: performance on numeracy tests had the greatest correlation to beliefs in misinformation. That’s right, tests that evaluate math skills and logical reasoning are good predictors of whether you will buy into internet dumbth. Here’s a test question example: “Out of 1,000 people in a small town 500 are members of a choir. Out of these 500 members in the choir 100 are men. Out of the 500 inhabitants that are not in the choir, 300 are men. What is the probability that a randomly drawn man is a member of the choir? Please indicate the probability in percent.”

Analytical thinking

These questions do “not merely measure mathematical ability” but rather “the ability of individuals to understand and use quantitative information more broadly,” say the researchers. And the results are not actually a surprise. “Our findings are consistent with a large literature which finds that reflective and analytical thinking are consistently associated with reduced susceptibility to misinformation,” say the authors.

The researchers have created an online game that they say will help “inoculate” players against fake news. “This game produced in collaboration with the UK government with support from the WHO and UN can be played in English, French and German at www.goviralgame.com. We hope that this game will contribute to reducing the spread of misinformation about the virus.”

Another week, another truck crash

What is it with trucks and highway overpasses? On the heels of two recently reported accidents involving semis on the I-190, two sharp-eyed readers sent LSS a story of another local truck accident last week. This one involved the Young Street CSX railroad bridge in the City of Tonawanda, and a tractor-trailer that was too tall to pass through. This is not unusual.

Since 2000, fifty-seven trucks have slammed into the Young Street CSX railroad bridge, three just in the past couple weeks. Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis has had enough. He issued an indefinite executive order banning trucks from Young Street between the Fremont Street Bridge and the Vietnam Veterans Highway on/off ramp. The railroad bridge—which is made of reinforced steel—has never been damaged in any of the accidents.

Why so many?

The bridge has a clearance of 11 feet, 6 inches, and the standard trailer is 13 feet tall. The clearance is posted on the bridge, so why do so many drivers think they can make it? The unfortunate trucks are usually northbound, heading to North Tonawanda. They likely get off I-290 at Colvin Avenue or the Twin City Highway and are trying to avoid the Grand Island Bridge toll.

One theory for the accidents is that many of the drivers are Canadian and can’t make the conversion to the metric system quick enough. The city asked the Department of Transportation to put up a metric sign (3.5 meters), along with the U.S. measurement, but they forbade it out of concern that it would cause confusion.

Another likely cause is that some truckers use off-the-shelf GPS navigation devices or apps meant for passenger cars that typically don’t show low bridge overpasses. The apps take drivers down roads they shouldn’t be on. There are professional GPS devices that alert drivers of such issues.

Another potential problem is that drivers often must depend on information from shippers as to the combined size of their chassis and loading container. Some say drivers do not have the proper training to avoid such crashes. And sometimes, truck drivers simply aren’t paying attention to height limit warning signs.

The takeaway

The trailer in last week’s accident was towed from the scene and the driver was issued a summons for the crash.

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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