JAMES RANDI: SKEPTICISM’S GREAT ACHILLES
I have long felt that the skeptical community has a James Randi Problem.
At one time or another, seemingly every professional skeptic offers thanks and praise to Randi, lauds his Million Dollar Challenge and/or joins his self-named foundation (JREF). They applaud him for forty years spent debunking all things paranormal, line up in droves to attend his annual Amazing Meeting—“a celebration of critical thinking and skepticism sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation”—and they rarely, if ever, engage in any critical thinking about Randi himself.
Thus far, they seem unmoved even by the specter of “Jose Luis Alvarez.”
I put the name in quotes because Randi, a Plantation, Florida resident, has lived and worked with “Alvarez” for roughly 20 years, even traveling the world together to debunk psychics and stage mediums. But the feds, this last September, arrested “Alvarez” and charged him with stealing another man’s identity—obtaining passports and getting paid under the name of the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide in the Bronx.
So, who is the man who has been living in Randi’s home and working with him for 20 years? According to the Sun Sentinel, Alvarez is actually Deyvi Pena, who came to the United States from Venezuela in the mid-80s on a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. And now? The questions about Pena extend from his identity to his age to how the feds have come to accuse him of stealing the name, date of birth and social security number of a New York man, back in 1987, in order to travel internationally with Randi. And it is this relationship—the long partnership between Alvarez/Pena and Randi—that should now concern the skeptical community.
In short, what did Randi know and when did he know it?
The answer would seem to matter—a lot.
The identity Randi puts forward for public consumption is truth seeker. His professional role, at least on the surface, is to unmask hoaxers and charlatans—not live with them, or abet them. But as I write in Fringe-ology, Randi strikes me as proving, at best, a highly problematic spokesman for a movement purportedly engaged in truth telling. In fact, I would argue, the now 83-year old Randi, a one-time stage magician and long-time skeptic, has always been too consumed with the prospect of claiming total victory to be bothered overly much by more nuanced truths. But let’s back up a step.
Judging by what has been written about the case thus far, those who know Randi’s partner, who we’ll call Pena/Avarez, like him. They describe him as having arrived in America, in the mid-80s, with serious ambition to further his art. He has since had gallery showings in New York and San Francisco of what the Sun-Sentinel describes as “colorful, modernist” paintings. Operating under his allegedly assumed name, he gave a lecture, in 2011, at the University of California in Berkeley, billed in fantastic terms and garbled syntax: “Utilizing the concept in theoretical astrophysics of parallel universes and space as a continuum membrane with no beginning or end, Alvarez will place his cast of characters as a stand-in for the strong human desire for knowledge and transformation and his continued visual inquiry into the realms of the fantastic and the philosophical.”
Pena/Alvarez remains best known, however, for his late-80s work with Randi. He took the stage as “Carlos,” a supposed mystic channeling the spirit of an ancient seer, while Randi oversaw production of what proved to be an elaborate hoax. The idea was to educate people by fooling them: Get audience members and the media to believe in “Carlos” the psychic, then tell them the truth: They had been fooled.
See? Randi argued. All you have to do to convince people you’re a psychic is proclaim yourself one—and act the part.
But the problems with any Randi-led narrative begin immediately. For starters, the media saw right through Carlos. So when Randi goes around saying how easy it is to fool people, using Carlos as an example, he is propagating a myth. The Carlos hoax largely backfired—as these pieces from the Grail and The Skeptic (click The Second Coming, “Skepticism,” here) neatly attest. And of course, the layers of mythmaking where “Carlos” is concerned now seem endless. In fact, the false “Carlos” narrative hides Randi’s actual inability to hoax the media. And “Carlos” himself was less person than Chinese box, hiding “Alvarez,” who allegedly hid Pena.
Identity theft is a serious federal offense.
Randi’s partner, who renewed the “Alvarez” passport as recently as 2008, faces a sentence of up to 10 years. His attorneys have notified the court they intend to plead guilty. And while a plea agreement would likely land him a far shorter sentence, he could also face deportation if he is here illegally.
At first blush, there are good reasons to root for someone like Pena: I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who feels they might find a better life for themselves in the United States. And while I’ve never been in that position, I believe I understand how the desire to take part in all America offers could lead someone to take tremendous risks and even break the law.
The problems with extending too much sympathy to Pena/Alvarez is that the real Jose Luis Alvarez has faced myriad inconveniences, indignities and hardships in the years that someone else has been using his identity. According to the complaint filed against Alvarez/Pena, the real Alvarez was not surprised someone had stolen his identity. He had spent years enduring hassles with the IRS and credit card companies.
As the Sun-Sentinel reports: “Alvarez, a teacher’s aide from the Bronx, said he has suspected for several years that someone had stolen his identity — … that he’s been dunned by the IRS for taxes he didn’t owe on income in Florida, that his bank account has periodically been frozen and that he had difficulty renewing his driver’s license. He’s had to repeatedly prove he is who he says he is, brandishing his New York driver’s license and a birth certificate, as well as his employment record.”
Recently, when the real Alvarez tried to obtain a passport to travel to his sister’s wedding in Jamaica, his application was pegged as potentially fraudulent—because, after all, someone else had already been traveling the world with a passport bearing all the same information. Sadly, the real Jose Luis Alvarez was not able to work the matter out in time to attend his sister’s wedding at all.
Events like family weddings don’t reoccur. And if Pena/Alvarez is guilty as charged, he stole that event from the real Jose Luis Alvarez and severely compromised his quality of life for many years. Worse, according to the affidavit of the special agent in the case, when Pena/Alvarez was questioned, he allegedly tried to do still more harm to his victim. Pena/Alvarez told the agent “he was aware that an individual was using his personal information in New York City.”
Certainly, then, if Randi did know the man he lived with was living under someone else’s name, this is a sad aspect of his legacy. But thus far he has remained mostly mum on the subject—a real change of pace for the usually irrepressible, irascible and outspoken skeptic. “I’ve been advised silence is the way to go,” he told the Sun-Sentinel.
Even worse for the reputation of the great Truth Teller, when the Sun-Sentinel asked him what he thought of their conclusion that “Alvarez” is really Pena, he didn’t take the traditional, and dignified way out, and simply say “I have no comment.” Instead, he offered this meek obfuscation: “Well, if that’s who you think he is.”
There is, however, a trail of facts that critical thinkers might pursue in order to come to their own conclusions. The Sun-Sentinel has done a diligent job of pursuing the story, and their coverage offers up a timeline that figures to grow clearer as legal proceedings continue.
1984 — Deyvi Pena moves from Venezuela to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida under a student visa. His listed age is 22.
1986 — Randi wins a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, for $272,000 and hires Pena as an assistant. Pena starts appearing around town with Randi and is known to associates as Deyvi or David. In 1986 a Toronto Star reporter shadowed Randi at La Guardia airport, while researching a profile, and wrote: “A few feet behind him, David Pena, a young man of about 20, struggles with three large suitcases.”
1987—Pena allegedly becomes Jose Luis Alvarez, applying for a U.S. passport using the name, date of birth and social security number of a man living in the Bronx, New York. The newspaper cites one person who knew Pena/Alvarez around that time saying he needed a new identity and did not have legal identification.
So, Pena allegedly becomes Alvarez—and performs on and off as “Carlos.” A quick look at the JREF site shows Alvarez is mentioned there 9 times—though nothing (outside the message boards) I could find in connection with the legal charges he faces and nothing on Pena. Is it possible that Pena/Alvarez was confiding his situation to a friend, but not Randi, the man he worked for and ultimately lived with?
There are some telling details. Pena would now be 50, and Alvarez’s listed age is 43, a seven year difference. And intriguingly, the Sun Sentinel found, when Alvarez first performed as “Carlos” Randi billed him as 19 years old—the same age as the New York man whose identity was allegedly stolen by Randi’s partner. Further, in this video, recorded in 2009, Randi says, around the 2:40 second mark, that one worry they had before they put Pena/Alvarez on stage as “Carlos” is that his “Bronx” accent might creep through.
The real Jose Luis Alvarez is from the Bronx. But the man by Randi’s side, who had allegedly adopted that identity, was from Venezuela.
Had Pena/Avarez somehow known, from the moment he met Randi, that he would one day adopt the identity of a man from the Bronx, and fooled the incredible skeptic by adopting a Bronx accent? Or was Randi just continuing to perpetuate Pena/Alvarez’s cover? Does he himself not know the difference between Venezuelan and Bronx accents? We await the answer. And at this stage, answers are finally forthcoming: Alvarez/Pena has admitted in court that his real name is Deyvi Pena. A court hearing is set for March 14, and Pena’s defense attorneys has claimed the whole truth will be revealed, which she bills as a “compelling story”. But clearly, in the meantime, this whole episode looks awfully bad for Randi—and I expect it will look bad for many in the skeptical community when all is said and done.
Because, if the last months are any indication, the skeptical community will largely ignore or rationalize the story as they have done thus far.
Just recently, in fact, Richard Saunders, host of the Skeptic Zone, spent a half-hour fawning over Randi, the legend, without asking him a single question about the Alvarez kerfuffle.
Has Richard Wiseman weighed in, on his site? Nope.
Nothing at U.K. Skeptics.
Or Ben Radford.
I can find nothing from Michael Shermer on the topic, or Mike Hutchinson, and—well, this is what we humans tend to do on behalf of the people and beliefs we’ve come to revere. And in this case, too many of the people who drape themselves in the cloak of “Critical Thinking” have willingly, I would argue, pulled the wool over their own eyes when it comes to James Randi.
The JREF message board is a case in point. They deserve props, I suppose, for leaving this long thread in place for people to monitor developments in the case and discuss it. But JREF’s president D.J. Grothe strikes a sour note in his post on the subject: “We at the James Randi Educational Foundation are shocked by the sudden arrest of James Randi’s beloved longtime partner, Jose Alvarez,” he writes. “Many of us have known Jose for years, both as a friend and as an ally to our cause who has traveled around the world to promote skepticism and critical thinking. Our thoughts are with Jose and Randi in this difficult time, and we hope they will be quickly reunited.”
Is that what it comes down to? Which side we’re on?
Is it not somehow troubling that an organization built on rooting out fraud had, in its midst, a man allegedly committing fraud at a federal level? And there is nothing from Grothe on the seriousness of the charge? Nothing about waiting for the process to play out before reminding us of “Jose’s” accomplishments?
We all search for something to believe in. And while those who chose James Randi believe themselves to be above the rabble who get taken in by street-side fortunetellers, I believe they simply fell for a hoax of another kind. In Fringe-ology, I write at length about what I consider the most irrational moments in Randi’s rationalist career. So I won’t get into them here. But Randi is a fount not so much of critical thinking but critical gaffes: Rupert Sheldrake, Zev Pressman, Arthur C. Clarke, Gary Schwartz (and Loyd Auerbach), Dennis Rawlins and Dennis Stillings have all, at one time or another, fallen into the gap between Randi and reason.
And Randi himself clearly enjoys his own shapeshifting. On the Skeptic Zone podcast, he talks at length about the title of the forthcoming documentary about his life. It’s called An Honest Liar, and the conceit is that, as a magician, Randi’s job is to deceive and misdirect and create illusions.
All I can say is that, after the Jose Luis Alvarez case shakes out, there might be a great jumping off point for a second documentary.