Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, have often been lionised by the 'New Atheist' movement for their lambasting of aspects of Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Islam, alien abduction theories and other beliefs. But their personal views have a little more subtlety than most people would probably assume, given the tone of their various productions, and their disdain is not so much for religion on its own but for unthinking belief and forceful proselytising. In a recent interview with Esquire, Stone and Parker took time to criticise Richard Dawkins and his minions, and many of the South Park duo's thoughts on beliefs - and in particular, the need for story-telling and rituals - resonated pretty strongly with me. Some highlights from the interview:
[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade's most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly ... temperate. They say it themselves: "There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground." Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.
On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.
"The boys were in the middle saying, 'This is f**ked up,' " said Parker. "Any side who thinks they're totally right is f**ked up. That's the heart of every show."
...Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
"He's such a dick," said Stone. "You read his book and you're like, 'Yeah, I agree with that. But it's the most dicky way to put it... I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I'm a self-described atheist."
...You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there's some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.
..."I'm concerned about people being happy," said Stone. "With religion I was always like, Does it matter if it's true if it makes you happy?"
"As storytellers for fifteen years, we started looking at religions for their stories," Parker said..."[T]here's something about dressing up and playing the part. To me, that's religion. You can write down how to make the perfect cup of coffee. But to make it really good, you have to play something fictional, you have to dress up, you have to think, This is the most important thing."
You can also listen to Stone and Parker explaining their feelings about Richard Dawkins and 'whiny' atheism in this audio interview from earlier in the year (warning: plenty of NSFW language):
By the way, at the end of the interview they mention that they'd love to see a book on atheism by Penn Jillette. Turns out they got their wish.
A day after Randi's zombie horde (so wonderfully ironic!) challenged James Van Praagh to take the JREF's million dollar psychic challenge, the Amazing one has lent his name to a British challenge of 'Psychic Sally' Morgan's claimed abilities:
A celebrity psychic who claims to speak with the dead in sellout shows across the country has been challenged by sceptics to prove her supernatural powers. They have invited TV "star psychic" Sally Morgan to demonstrate her ability to connect with the spirit world in a specially designed test in Liverpool on Monday.
The Halloween challenge is backed by the US paranormal investigator James Randi, and qualifies as the first step towards claiming a million-dollar prize established by the James Randi Educational Foundation for any psychic who can prove their "gift" to be real.
...Sceptic groups, led by the science writer Simon Singh, arranged the test after one of Morgan's shows in Dublin last month at which some members of the audience reported hearing someone at the back of the theatre apparently feeding her information on stage.
More details are available at the Merseyside Skeptics' Society website. The test, if Morgan agrees, is to be held in three days time and is a simple one - Morgan has to match ten photos of deceased individuals to names on a list. To pass she must get 7 or more correct.
Readers will know my thoughts on these types of tests. On Twitter I mentioned that I hoped that Chris French and company would design something reasonably scientific and fair which might give some indication as to whether something interesting was happening, rather than the usual James Randi-style short test/crazy high p-value. This appears to have been optimistic on my part - my back of envelope calculations have the p-value for this test at roughly 0.00001...ie. odds of occurring by chance of around 1 in 100,000 (though I'm definitely no statistician, so please correct me if necessary!). And it would seem that no matter what the difficulty of that test is, it will not be enough, because once Sally passes that rather stringent test, then "she will be invited to enter into discussions with [the] JREF with a view to arranging a final challenge for the $1m prize." Wow, generous!
The fact that this test, just announced, is scheduled for just three days time - that is, Halloween - tells you what you need to know about this challenge. It's a publicity stunt, just like Randi's million dollar challenge is. The very brief 20 minute test, issued on short notice, with a high p-value, and with Randi's even more stringent test to follow, is no scientific or fair test of the existence of psychic abilities...it's a gimmick, plain and simple. Though I guess it's already done its job, with a mention in the Guardian already. Nevertheless, I would hope any science-minded people involved in this are at least just a little embarrassed with themselves.
But that is not to say that a test is completely off-base - in my opinion, the matter of psychic or mediumistic ability is still up in the air, and *should* be tested in a scientific manner. It would be good to see more psychics/mediums undergoing scientific testing to see if there is something genuine going on. However, with publicity stunts such as this, and obvious antipathy toward them by the 'objective scientists', why would they put themselves in that situation?
Personally, I'd like to see a short test, at an 'easy' p-value of 0.02 or similar, for absolutely no prize at all. In my opinion, if you're charging people based on your 'psychic ability', that's the sort of challenge you should expect to pass. If the challenger doesn't take the test, there's good reason to say "poor show". If they do and pass, scientists/skeptics don't have to acknowledge psychic ability, but I'm sure that would be enough to make any fair-minded person sit back and say to themselves "this deserves further study". After all, isn't that what science is all about, rather than publicity stunts and prizes?
You might also like...
Before artist Jose Alvarez traveled the world with famed magician and professional skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, he was Deyvi Pena, a young man from Venezuela with a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
Mystery has shrouded Alvarez's true identity since he was arrested under the name "John Doe" at Randi's Plantation home on Sept. 8. The legal predicament swirling around Alvarez also raised questions in skeptic circles and beyond: How much is known by Randi, whose very reputation as a truth-seeker may now be jeopardized?
So far, neither Randi nor Alvarez and his attorneys have revealed the artist's identity, but the Sun Sentinel has learned that Alvarez initially went by the name Pena. As Alvarez, his colorful, modernist paintings have been shown in galleries in New York, San Francisco and Palm Beach.
The Sun Sentinel tracked down three people who knew Pena in the mid-1980s. They each said a photograph of the painter who now calls himself Alvarez was the man they knew as Deyvi or David Pena, who first appeared at Randi's side a year or so after the magician moved to Broward County.
Federal authorities have accused Alvarez of stealing a New York man's name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987 – just before he and Randi began a series of international performances.
...The lawyers have told Randi, 83, not to comment on the case. "I've been advised silence is the way to go," he said.
When asked about the Sun Sentinel's determination that Alvarez was previously known as Pena, Randi would only say, "Well, if that's who you think he is."
If 'Jose Alvarez' does turn out to be Deyvi/David Pena, then it would seem that Randi has some questions to answer, as the latter is the name (at the time) of the 'assistant' he hired in the mid-80s. This article from 1986 names his assistant as David Pena, so if Pena is Alvarez, it seems certain that Randi knew about the two names to some degree. At the very least, his last quote above is deliberately vague.
Though you wouldn't know anything was happening if you get your news about James Randi from the James Randi Educational Foundation...
Update: 'Jose Alvarez' has been released on a $1,000,000 bail surety after revealing to the court that his name is indeed Deyvi 'David' Pena (full name: "Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga"). One significant aspect of the hearing was that, in trying to satisfy the judge's concern that the man's true identity had been revealed, James Randi testified under oath that he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago. The two bonds set by Judge Seltzer were a $1 million personal surety bond guaranteed by Pena and Randi, and a cash bond of $50,000. After the hearing, Pena's lawyer said that "the government and the public will know how all this happened and snowballed... That's all going to be revealed. It's a very compelling story."
We can only speculate at this stage what this "compelling story" is, though two options may be (a) claims that Pena met Randi after escaping from a cult and/or (b) that laws against gay marriage 'caused' Pena to seek another method of staying with his partner Randi. Whether a federal judge finds the story compelling may be another matter...
Also, does Randi's statement provide confirmation that he knew of the identity fraud? It seems likely, though there could be situations in which this is not the case (e.g. he continued to think David Pena was traveling on that passport, and simply believed that "Jose Alvarez" was a stage name). Randi has a tendency to come out of sticky situations rather shiny, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out...
For years those interested in anomalous phenomena have had to put up with a string of platitudes from self-labeled skeptics, not least among them the phrases "anecdotes are not evidence", and "the plural of anecdote is not data". But it appears that things have changed, because a story overnight suggests that skeptics are now more than willing to accept anecdotes as validating evidence when it comes to mediumship.
Chris French is a well-known skeptic in the United Kingdom, a Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and editor-in-chief of the UK magazine The Skeptic. I have a lot of time for Chris, because he's willing to get in and do experiments on anomalistic claims. However, in this case I find it hard to give him a pass mark.
Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Here's how he sums up the train of events:
Let me describe what happened so that you can make up your own mind. On Monday 12 September, a caller named Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station. Sue said that she had attended Morgan's show the previous night at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and had been impressed by the accuracy of the readings she made in the first half of the show.
But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her ("like a projection room") with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man's voice and "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later."
Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who – you'll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.
A member of staff realised that several people near the back of the theatre were aware of the mystery voice and the window was gently closed. The voice was not heard again.
Sue speculated, again not unreasonably given the history of psychic frauds, that the man was feeding Sally information that had been gathered by engaging members of the audience in conversation in the foyer before the show began. This is a technique widely used by psychic fraudsters, as audience members will naturally discuss with each other who they are hoping to hear from "on the other side", how their loved one died, and so on.
...Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally's followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.
So, on the basis of one person's testimony (given that the following caller on the radio show seemed to 'follow' her lead...e.g. she begins by saying she thought the voice was actually a heckler), and going against the direct testimony of the theatre manager, Chris French has written an article in a national news outlet claiming that Sally Morgan is an outright fraud who uses an ear-piece to receive information.
Now, fair play to him, French has come out on Twitter and said that he did not write the headline, which should be taken on board. However, while he may not make a direct accusation within his article, the tone and framing is rather obvious, just with the addition of legalese/weasel words - see for example his ending sentence "sadly, however". I also note that @TheSkepticMag twitter account happily tweeted the story under it's rather precise headline.
That's not to say that Sally Morgan is innocent - caller Sue may well be on the money with her accusation. Personally, I don't know 'psychic Sally' and her act from a bar of soap, just as much as I don't know "Sue". Given that Sally Morgan has psychic phone lines and the like running from her website, she certainly doesn't endear herself to me on first viewing. But that's not the point I'm trying to make here - which is that skeptics are the first to dismiss anecdotes about reports of anomalous experiences, and yet here embrace it when it validates their belief system, to the extent that they will shout it from the rooftops.
What would have been the correct course of action, given the seriousness of the allegations, is to investigate further. Try to talk to Sue in person, look for corroborating witnesses, and probably crucially, talk to the two people who were said to be in the box behind Sue (given that the theatre manager has already stated that nothing untoward was happening). That would offer a far better basis for allegations or quashing the story than going off the testimony of a caller to a radio show.
So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Shameful behaviour from so-called "rationalists" - I'm sure we all hope that each of our own reputations could not be smeared so quickly and easily to millions of people...
Interestingly, the suggestion most heard from skeptics when it was pointed out to them that there was very little supporting evidence for such a big claim? "Well, if she's innocent I guess she can sue." So, apparently, skeptics now think that it's okay to smear anyone, and the innocent can just prove themselves so through litigation. Which, given this kerfuffle over the last few years, is rather ironic...
On the flipside, this case also brings attention to the fact that people claiming mediumistic or psychic powers have no formal qualification system or standards governing them. If Sally is truly psychic, it would be nice to see her hook up with some open-minded scientists and set about showing her abilities under scientific testing, given the emotional impact her 'performances' can have on people:
In the end, if you read the comments to the Guardian article, and news spreading across Twitter, it all comes down to believers vs believers, shouting quotations from their particular gospel and/or at their particular flock. Somewhere in the middle, let's hope a few people with common sense and scientific curiosity remain...
Skeptic James 'The Amazing' Randi is renowned as a scourge of paranormal frauds and hoaxers, but it just may be that identity theft isn't one of his areas of expertise. Federal authorities have arrested his partner of more than two decades, 'Jose Luis Alvarez', saying that his identity was stolen from a man in New York some 24 years ago:
Alvarez, who purportedly is 43, was charged with stealing a New York man's date of birth and Social Security number in 1987 to obtain a U.S. passport. A grand jury indicted Alvarez on Wednesday on a charge of passport fraud, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and aggravated identity theft, which automatically tacks two years in prison onto any other sentence.
More immediately pressing for Randi, and Alvarez's attorneys, is securing Alvarez' release from the Broward Main Jail. Prosecutors have said they will seek to have him held without bond. A courtroom showdown is set for next Wednesday, when a judge will consider arguments for and against bail.
For Alvarez to be released, he may have to reveal his true identity, which would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.
"He's in an interesting box," said Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney based in Fort Lauderdale. "I can't imagine a magistrate judge giving a bond without knowing who it is they are giving the bond to."
Interestingly, when asked by a reporter if he knew about the alleged identity theft, Randi responded by saying his lawyers had told him "not to comment on our knowledge or lack of knowledge."
The irony in this arrest (beyond the alleged fraudster being the Amazing Randi's partner) is that Alvarez first came to public notice when he pretended to be a channeler of the spirit 'Carlos' in Randi's much-vaunted (not least, by Randi himself) 'sting' for Australian television in 1988. Here's Randi's YouTube summation of the hoax (actual footage starts around 5:40):
So far there has been no official comment from the James Randi Educational Foundation about Alvarez's arrest.
You might also like...
Last week the James Randi Educational Foundation hit the publicity jackpot (Time, AOL, CBC, Gizmodo, Discovery) when it played a central part in a feature on ABC's Nightline dedicated to the topic of psychic powers, with Randi's famous million-dollar challenge being conducted on national TV (officiated by his trickster protege Steve Shaw, aka Banachek):
I've made my feelings about Randi's MDC pretty clear in the past (see "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge"), so there's not much need for me to repeat most of those criticisms again here. But there are a few points that I'd like to apply to this particular program.
Firstly: there is something very wrong with an organisation that is supposedly dedicated to raising the public understanding of science and skepticism deliberately obfuscating the fact that its well-known challenge is no real scientific test of the topic and thus says *nothing* about the existence or non-existence of the paranormal. Now when you raise that point, Randi and others will be quick to say that "we never claim that, it's just a one-off challenge". But the MDC is always promoted as the be-all-and-end-all of tests - "if you're psychic, you'd obviously just go and take Randi's money". For example, this is the way in which it is reported in the media:
Of course, just because psychics have not been able to find missing persons doesn't mean that they might not have other psychic abilities. It's important to keep an open mind, and try to demonstrate psychic powers in an objective, scientific manner, under conditions that rule out deception.
The Million Dollar Challenge has been around for many years... Will these celebrity psychics take Randi's challenge? If they have the powers they claim, and can demonstrate them under scientific conditions, they have nothing to lose.
In fact, the publicity of having their abilities validated would likely raise their profiles even higher (to say nothing of the satisfaction they would get from publicly proving the skeptics wrong).
Either the psychic information they give is accurate, or it isn't; there's no real way that skeptics could disprove genuine psychic powers. If the psychics have the powers they claim, they have nothing to lose and $1 million to gain.
(If any 'skeptics' want to say the above is just typical extrapolation by the media, it's worth noting that the syndicated Discovery article above is written by none other than Ben Radford, who has more than a vested interest in the skeptical movement and should know better).
As I pointed out in my MDC article, the "nothing to lose" part is absolute bollocks - when they lose (as they likely will, at Randi's normal success benchmark of beating odds of 1,000,000 to 1) they are 'outed' as non-psychic, sometimes with much media fanfare (as in the clip above). And the 'objective test' is nothing of the sort. The test itself may be scientific in some respects, but the benchmark to be considered a success is not (one-shot, extremely high odds).
And if you thought the usual million-to-one odds were a bit harsh, how about the test faced by the first 'psychic' on the Nightline version of the MDC (pick the correct photo from a set of twelve envelopes, and do that at least nine times out of twelve attempts)? I spoke to well-known parapsychology researcher Dean Radin about this particular test and he quickly did the math, and also pointed out another problem with the test setup:
Assuming each person has to select one correct reading out of 12 possibilities, then the odds of getting at least 9 correct matches is 29.6 million to 1....
In addition, the psychics selected for the test were not vetted for prior ability. Roaming around looking for storefront psychics, and assuming that they have actual talent, is roughly equivalent to roaming around random high school athletic fields, selecting a few runners at random, entering them into the Olympics, and requiring that they win. It's nonsense.
In another segment of the show, reporters went and talked to - and received 'readings' from - celebrity psychics James van Praagh and Allison Dubois. Again, this was poorly done - the reporters give their names before turning up, and then when the reading is done they compare the 'hits' to what information about themselves they can pull up online? This proves nothing either way - for example, in Van Praagh's case he nails a number of things, and then is virtually labeled a fraud because the information is online. I have no experience with Van Praagh, so have no conclusion either way, but this was really poorly executed.
But hey - more power to the JREF. They just got a big chunk of publicity on national TV, for the cheap, cheap price of a million dollars that was always going to stay in their pocket anyhow. And, coincidentally I'm sure, this week the JREF have announced a funding drive looking for ongoing donations in the range of $16 to $48 per month. So you too can help pay James Randi's $200,000/year wage so that he can continue complaining about people making money from unscientific claims...
My recommendation? Ignore it all - the phony and/or deluded psychics, and the media-hungry skeptics, and keep your eye out for real scientific investigation of these topics. Y'know, this sort of thing.
Prominent atheist Sam Harris has a couple of videos on YouTube in which he answers questions from Reddit users, covering everything from atheist ethics to alien abductions and life after death. Harris is an interesting one - he seems very open to some specific 'spiritual' approaches to life, and edge science topics like parapsychology, while also being a vociferous critic of formal religion and a hardcore proselytiser for the scientific orthodoxy. Whether you agree or disagree with his views, I think he still makes for an interesting person to sit down at a table with and discuss some of the deeper topics in life, religion and science. You can watch the first part at YouTube, and I've embedded the second 'conversation' below:
Here's an interesting excerpt from his response to the question "In the absence of religious belief, how do you talk to a child about death?" (at 21:50):
There's this taboo in our society around admitting we don't know... that seems to me to be a problem. It's actually the basis for exploring anything honestly, to admit that you don't know.
Now with death, I can honestly say I don't know what happens after death. There are reasons to be skeptical of survival of death. There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of any specific story about survival, but in terms of the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, I'm not in a position to say "oh yeah, I know exactly what happens after death - you are zeroed out in precisely the way you are zeroed out before your birth."
Now, there are good reasons to believe that's true, based on what we know about the brain, but this is not a matter of scientific certainty and if consciousness were in some way independent of the brain, I wouldn't expect the world to appear much differently, or any differently than it does now... there's a mystery to consciousness.
But I don't see the giving of false promises and false fears to children to be paying any kinds of dividends that we want to conserve in our culture.
...I think we can honestly say we don't know what happens.
I think this is a fine response, although I've pulled out one section (in italics) that I just don't agree with. If consciousness *were* found to be independent of the brain, the entire modern Western worldview is tipped on its head - and furthermore, a whole lot of avenues are added to the map of reality, many of which may well lead to places that committed atheists have plainly said don't exist.
Nevertheless, it's a breath of fresh air to see a high-profile neuroscientist (and atheist) not simply parroting the talking points, and being honest enough to say that, at this point, consciousness remains a mystery, and we *just don't know* if there's something beyond death. (This isn't the first time I've posted about Harris discussing this topic)
Which is all the more reason to consider scientific exploration of these areas not only a valid endeavour, but an important one - rather than dismissing it as fringe science.
You might also like...
For those who like to have resources at hand when writing or reading about weird and wonderful topics, this might be worth a look: the first 29 years worth of Skeptical Inquirer magazine (1976 to 2005), in searchable PDF format, for just $US25:
As the official publication of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer magazine has provided critical, science-based examinations of a wide variety of topics, from alternative medicine to zombies. This DVD or CD-ROM spans twenty-nine years of the magazine, from its origins as a bi-annual skeptics magazine (first called The Zetetic) to its modern incarnation as The Magazine for Science and Reason.
Whether you feel comfortable padding the coffers of CSI(COP) is another matter...though it's hard to argue with the value. Remember too that you can download copies of Marcello Truzzi's Zetetic Scholar - perhaps the true descendant of The Zetetic - as free PDFs from George Hansen's website.
Dredging through some old notes on the weekend, and ran across this fun story that I thought would be worth sharing (for those who don't already know about it): In 1983 James 'The Amazing Randi' had one of his greatest publicity coups, when he unveiled the results of Project Alpha. Randi had 'embedded' two young magicians into a parapsychology lab research program, trying to fool the scientists into thinking they had genuine paranormal powers. To a certain extent Alpha did succeed, though Randi also overstated the degree of his success somewhat (quelle suprise!). CSICOP co-founder, the late Marcello Truzzi, wrote up an excellent overview in Zetetic Scholar 12/13 which is well worth reading (downloadable as a free PDF from George Hansen's website), as Truzzi is one of the more trustworthy observers of parapsychology in recent decades, and Alpha is one of the more interesting episodes in its history.
An interesting sideline to the Project Alpha hoax, as recounted by Truzzi, was that in the wake of his triumph Randi got hoaxed right back by a peeved psi researcher - and one of the unexpected outcomes was that Randi was exposed as telling outright lies. See this excerpt from Truzzi's article:
Not all psi researchers were put on the defensive by Alpha. Dennis Stillings, director of a Minneapolis group called the Archaeus Project, which puts out a newsletter by that name, was outraged and initiated a retaliatory hoax which started as a small joke but escalated into something more significant. Stillings felt that Randi was trying to reap advantage from lies told to the psi researchers and was, in effect, blaming the victims. Stillings believed that any person could be deceived by lies and that Randi was just as susceptible to such human error as anyone. So, Stillings (1983a) issued a phony, one page, special issue of his group's newsletter (of which only two copies were mailed out and these to Edwards and Shaw with the expectation that they would show it to Randi). The ersatz issue contained a short, two paragraph, fraudulent announcement that the Archaeus Project had just been given "a fund of $217,00O...as seed money for a program in PK research and education" It said the funds were for "grant money to PK investigators, especially those interested in 'metal bending"' and for "developing a program of educating children in the range and nature of parapsychological phenomena." Finally, it said that "Those applying for grants, as well as those gifted with paranormal abilities" should write to Stillings. Stillings also separately wrote a letter to Shaw telling him that since Shaw was a fraud, he should not apply for any of the money.To stretch the joke even further, Stillings also published a warning "Advisory Notice" (Krueger, 1983) - to parallel Randi's similar advisory notes - in a previous real issue of his group's newsletter.
Though Stillings' original prank struck me as being a bit silly (after all, Randi never claimed to be immune to trickery, and conjurors fool one another all the time), what happened next went far beyond Stillings' expectations and turned the matter into a significant episode. Upon seeing the phony announcement, and apparently without properly checking things out, Randi decided to give one of his annual psi-mocking "Uri Awards" to this receipt of a phony grant. Thus, on April 1, 1983, Randi's Discover news release gave a "Uri" in the funding category: 'To the Medtronics Corporation of Minneapolis, who gave $250,000 to a Mr. Stillings of that city to fund the Archaeus Project, devoted to observing people who bend spoons at parties. Mr. Stillings then offered financial assistance to a prominent young spoon-bender who turned out to be one of the masquerading magicians of Project Alpha -- a confessed fake." In this incredible award statement, Randi managed to falsely identify a major corporation as the funding source (when no source was ever mentioned in the original announcement), escalated the award from $217,000 to $250,000, misdescribed the purpose of the phony award, and falsely claimed one of his associates had been offered funds!
Sad to say, but almost three decades later little seems to have changed in the way Randi operates.
You might also like...
Atheist champion Richard Dawkins has managed to halve his fan base in a matter of days with some comments he's made this week. The brouhaha started innocently enough, with Skepchick blogger and co-host of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Rebecca Watson's anecdote about being propositioned in an elevator at 4am during an atheist conference.
“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’
Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”
This minor opinion took on a life of its own, and soon escalated into a bit of a confrontation between a few skeptics/atheists, as P.Z. Myers explained at Pharyngula. The legitimacy of Watson's complaint provoked plenty of hot-tempered debate in the comments section to Myers' blog post...when all of a sudden, Richard Dawkins turned up and posted the following 'imaginary letter' aiming to point out the discrepancy between Watson's encounter and the kind of situations faced by oppressed Muslim women:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and ... yawn ... don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so...
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Most commenters were unwilling to believe that this was the real Richard Dawkins posting ("Does anyone seriously think that the Richard Dawkins posting here is actually Richards Dawkins?"), but Myers soon confirmed that it was indeed he. Dawkins then went on to jump from the rather warm frying pan into the blazing hot fire by posting two follow-up comments, the first of which compared the complaint to Catholic complaints about P.Z. Myers defiling a communion cracker, while his second comment noted his surprise at the fiery reaction to his entry into the debate.
I'm not going to get into the entire debate...the comment threads at Pharyngula alone are on the larger side of a thousand - so if interested, follow the links and get reading. However, following are some of the responses from various prominent skeptics: