The Amaz!ng Meeting 5.5 (25-27 January 2008) – Report (Part 3 of 3)

Saturday 26 January (afternoon)

The Future of the JREF $1M Challenge – James Randi


This segment of the conference had been scheduled to be the live preliminary testing of a Challenge candidate named Chris Cordero. His claim concerned being able to project a card into the mind of an unaffiliated receiver. Alison Smith had negotiated an acceptable test protocol, which included the procedure, receiver, randomization scheme, venue and measure of success, but Cordero was a no-show.


Randi pointed out that this illustrates a typical case for the Challenge, and as another example, he related the story of a local dowser who participated in a preliminary test in the JREF library where he consistently found gold in uncovered coffee cups but failed to replicate his achievement with covered ones in which the gold had been placed using a random, blinded method. He added that 65% of those who request an application do not follow through. He reiterated the simple conditions of the Challenge – (1) tell us what you claim to be able to do, (2) describe under what conditions you need to perform, and (3) state to what accuracy you can achieve your claim. Despite the straightforward nature of the rules and the fact that the Challenge has existed since 1964, no one has passed even a preliminary test. In reality, the Challenge is avoided by celebrity paranormalists and, instead, attracts fringe candidates.


Randi stated that the Challenge will be ended in two years (a fair warning time period for any potential applicants) so that JREF can make better use of the money and stop tying up staff resources in fruitless negotiations that go nowhere. Some audience comment complained that ending the Challenge will eliminate its utility as a dare to those who make outrageous claims and will be cited by critics as evidence of capitulation to paranormal claims. However, Randi indicated that JREF reserves the right to reinstate the Challenge for special cases and are investigating the use of “hole in one” insurance to cover the liability.


Bart Farkas is currently writing a history of the Challenge.


Getting the Truth Out There – Michael Stackpole


Michael Stackpole, a science fiction writer, is chairman of the Phoenix Skeptics. He got his start in activism during the moral panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s. He became heavily involved with debunking the myth that role-playing games cause kids to commit mayhem, and in doing so, he learned the techniques and qualities required of a spokesperson, especially one continually faced with debate-based interviews. Ultimately, an activist movement needs a spokesperson, and the success of the movement will likely turn on the quality of the spokesperson.


He discussed his experience with public opinion. He believes that people think they cannot be fooled and so find it easier to believe in other explanations, even paranormal ones. He also explained what he calls the “grey fallacy.” That is, between an outrageous claim and a valid explanation, people support the notion that there may still exist a reasonable compromise. When dealing with “true believers,” he warned that there will be no Perry Mason moment, and so he advised focusing instead on being seen as the person who does not lie.


For spokespersons, he advised:

  • Nobody really listens to be educated; they listen to be entertained.
  • Science is seen as cold, so need to appeal to emotion and be interesting.
  • Validate and sympathize with peoples’ feelings.
  • Communicate love for science and reasoning.
  • Demonstrate humour and confidence.
  • Need to do the research and know the material in depth.
  • Deliver information with confidence and authority.
  • Conduct critical analysis of the other side’s material.
  • When confronted with dishonest tactics, calmly point out when the other side is being unfair.
  • Do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” and then follow up after researching the issue.
  • Cultivate the local media.
  • Tape and critique yourself in interview situations.

Exposing Uri Geller – James Randi


Randi briefed that Geller is taking his Successor TV show to Germany and announced that he will be following him there to make himself available as a critic for the German media. He went over his 35+ year engagement with Geller and reviewed the video evidence of the times in which Geller had been caught out, including the Korean TV exposé of Geller and Randi’s replication of Geller sketching a sealed drawing on the Barbara Walter’s show.


Randi demonstrated Geller’s spoon-bending trick, which Geller reputably got from a 1968 edition of Abracadabra magazine. Randi used a spoon that he had prepared before the segment, having bent it back and forth at the neck 80-200 times until stress fatigue fractures had developed. The spoon was solid in appearance and sounded solid when tapped on the table but responded quickly when held at the ends and oscillated up and down by a thumb and forefinger at the neck. The spoon became rubbery and then broke once manipulated beyond its critical point. Randi then had someone from the audience perform the trick.


Randi indicated that Geller may be attempting to change his image from claiming that he has psychic powers to calling himself a “mystifier,” whatever that means. If so, he should, in theory, be liable to damages since many governments, universities and private individuals have spent millions of dollars and many academics have fallen into disgrace with their colleagues in investigating the so-called “Geller effect.”


Sunday 27 January

Tour of JREF HQ – James Randi


On the Sunday after the main conferenc, an open house was held at the small bungalow that serves as JREF headquarters. Randi was in his glory showing attendees his collection of tricks, treasures, books and oddities in the Isaac Asimov library.


TAM 5.5 in Review


The meeting’s speakers represent the activist side of the skeptic community. Though both skeptical activism and skeptical engagement are important, the speakers showed that skeptical activism requires more focus, professionalism and involvement. Their advice for those who wish to pursue activism was:

  • Decide who your specific audience is and then set yourself up to speak to them. Tone, terminology, messages and communication modes are different for a general/critical audience than for fellow skeptics.
  • Do not present yourself to the general public as “those smug, self-righteous know-it-alls”.
  • Worthwhile activism takes a significant investment in time. Since everyone has a career in the real world, time management becomes an issue. Treat activism as a profession instead of just a hobby.
  • Do not necessarily avoid the issues other skeptics are discussing, but to become known in the wider skeptic community, bring something new to the conversation.
  • Successful activist groups seem to develop non-deterministically from the enthusiastic initiative of an individual with a single-issue focus – i.e., someone who was simply pursuing a very specific personal quest – as opposed to groups of like-minded individuals who are seeking a cause. It is possible that this observed tendency just represents the sample bias of the TAM’s speakers. However, the conclusion seems to be that niche skepticism can garner fame, but general skepticism tends to lead just to skeptical engagement.
  • The ultimate goal (but not the only job) of an activist group is to become known to the media as dependable spokespersons. In this regard, the media looks for knowledge, access, attitude and communication capability.
  • The amount of research and knowledge that is demanded for successful skeptical activism requires emotional investment and not just interested involvement.

The TAM series gives hope that skepticism is on the rise. As many people came to this mini-TAM as attended the first full TAM. More skeptic groups are establishing, more skeptic websites are posting, more issues are being investigated, more scammers are feeling the pinch and more people are joining the skeptic movement. If these indicators hold true across the wider skeptic community, then the future of skepticism certainly looks bright.

Author’s note: I have attempted to represent accurately what the TAM speakers discussed, but I don’t claim to speak on their behalf and will be the first to admit that I have mistaken arts of what they said.

Go to Report: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

10. February 2008 by barry
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