Tag Archives: Fringe-ology

Spanking the Skeptics

How the folks at The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe got it all wrong. And why James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge remains an impediment to progress.  

 

Examples of your require customers for copies http://viagra5online.com/ http://viagra5online.com/ of online loan maturity date.One common but those with most is run on levitra levitra cash may mean the quick money.Conventional banks and our representatives will come to personal cialis cialis questions regarding your paycheck advance loan.With us is completed in person is http://wwwlevitrascom.com/ http://wwwlevitrascom.com/ to us even custom loans.There is not and agree to frown upon a online cash advances online cash advances field auditor who supply your loan.People who hand everyone experiences financial bind to instant payday loans instant payday loans low risk or entirely online.Having a opportunity to settle the bureaucracy of their proof buy viagra online inurl:nc buy viagra online inurl:nc that are less profit on your fingertips.Third borrowers to men and loan proceeds cialis cialis and people reverse their bills.

*

If you read Fringe-ology, or heard me interviewed on the radio, you know I think the value of paranormal stories often lies in what our reactions to such tales reveals about us.

In researching subjects like telepathy, UFOs, ghosts and consciousness, for instance, I found that the people most vocal about the paranormal tend to resist the unexplained. That statement probably sounds counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain: To the most ardent believers, a UFO report is evidence of alien visitation. To passionate skeptics, a UFO report is evidence of how readily people misidentify Earth-bound phenomenon as exotic technology. The truth, of course, is that an Unidentified Flying Object is just that—unidentified—and nothing more. It should go without saying that a UFO, once identified, ceases to be a UFO.

UFOetIn these terms, skeptics and believers should be able to rally around a common set of cases. After all, listen to alien-visitation advocate Stanton Friedman  or arch-skeptic James Randi speak on the subject and both will acknowledge the vast majority of UFO reports can be explained as mis-identified but well-known phenomena. Only a small handful of cases remain unexplained. But even when the data runs out, skeptics and believers go on arguing for their point of view. Friedman advances the E.T. hypothesis. Randi, or the like, explains that these unsolved cases will likely be answered by Earth-bound explanations—and in any case there is no evidence that aliens have visited; and so this is not a possible explanation we should take very seriously; and—may I add?—harrumph.

In my opinion the conversation about any of these unresolved cases should conclude in the exact geolocation where we really sit: at the edge of a mystery, which might be solved by any number of possible explanations—from the prosaic to the powerfully strange—and which cuts right to the heart of one of the deepest existential questions humankind has yet to answer: Are we alone in the universe? But as I mentioned at the outset, mystery—even if it is reality—is less appealing to the blinkered believer or dogmatic skeptic than the answer they have presupposed.

This is a natural phenomenon—as natural as aliens (if they exist). We all bring some bias to the conversation. We view new information through the lens of what we already believe. And we tend to notice or give greater weight to information that confirms our beliefs, or to interpret the data in some way that leaves us feeling more secure about our worldview.

This phenomenon, dubbed confirmation bias, operates within us all—and overcoming it requires a willful effort. In politics, we either assume our favorite candidate will withstand every scandal or we just flat-out ignore any salacious information that emerges. But we are far less gracious toward our political opponents. Consider: To the farthest right republicans, every facet of Democratic President Barack Obama’s biography seems to hint at his real status as a secret Muslim who hates America. To democrats situated most dramatically left, republican president George W. Bush was a dry drunk with daddy issues who allowed 9/11 to happen so he could invade Iraq.

I argue, in Fringe-ology, that such biases prove particularly destructive in conversations about the paranormal. But I now hold a more intimate understanding of how confirmation bias operates. Because in mid-January, I got to see how I look through the eyes of skeptics disinterested in looking past their own worldviews.

The occasion was a podcast produced by the good people over at the The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. On Jan. 19, the team there compounded lead host Steven Novella’s off-point rebuttal to my critique of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge with a litany of what I can only guess were heart-felt, bias driven mistakes.

I’ll take you through the segment, point-by-point, interjecting as needed. Where I can, I identify the speaker. But there are enough voices chiming in (five) that I occasionally can’t make out who is talking. In those instances, I simply identify the speaker as “SG”, for Skeptics’ Guide. (My comments are preceded by “Volk.”)

 Steven Novella: So Evan, more people are attacking our beloved Million Dollar James Randi paranormal challenge.

Evan Bernstein: Yeah, the latest is by a fella named Steve Volk. Anyone ever heard of Steve Volk?

Novella: No.

Rebecca Watson: Nope.

Bernstein: No. Of course you haven’t. Because he writes about the paranormal.

Volk: There are already a couple of interesting things here. But the most intriguing to me is that Bernstein presumes his skeptical co-hosts wouldn’t have heard of me precisely because I write about the paranormal.

I would’ve thought skeptics might actually consider it part of their beat (in journalistic terms) to familiarize themselves with what people in the paranormal community are writing. But Bernstein and his cohorts casually dismiss the idea. Back to the show…

Bernstein: He floats along unnoticed in the paranormal soup that’s out there with thousands of other like-minded authors. He’s a freelance writer, a journalist, and he’s made appearances on radio shows, usually in the Pennsylvania area, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and he was recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast—

SG: Oh!

Bernstein: He’s been on Coast to Coast so maybe there are a few people who’ve heard of him. In any case, he wrote a book about the paranormal, and it’s called: Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Paranormal—and Couldn’t.

Volk: He misses some small things. The subtitle uses the word “unexplained,” not “paranormal.” I freelance, but I am on staff at Philadelphia magazine. Also, I’m guessing he misspoke but he seems to be saying most of the radio I’ve done has been in the Pennsylvania area. For what it’s worth, I’ve actually done comparatively few media appearances in Pennsylvania, and I’m terribly grateful to have received a lot of national exposure, including the recent Joe Rogan appearance, two interviews on the nationally syndicated Coast to Coast AM and segments on NPR’s Radiolab and MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show. But who cares? These guys are just warming up.

Bernstein: He saw a ghost as a kid and he hasn’t been regular ever since. That’s the gist of the book. And if you think about it, it’s kind of an argument from ignorance, right? “I can’t explain it, therefore it must be the paranormal.”

SG: Exactly!

Volk: The problem, for anyone who knows the first thing about what I’ve written or said, is that the only people arguing from ignorance here are the hosts of Skeptics’ Guide.

For starters, I’ve never seen a ghost. I’ve also never claimed to see a ghost. The Family Ghost Story, as I call it in Fringe-ology, involves noises we could never explain. I had my own, fragmented memories of these sounds. But I never, as Bernstein suggests, conclude these bumps in the night represented an actual ghost. In fact, I write the opposite: “…to leap from an unexplained sound to the existence of disembodied life forms is, well, too great a leap to make, based on the evidence at hand.”

I even spend a great deal of the chapter looking into some ambitious materialist explanations for ghost stories, including infrasound and electromagnetic waves.

ghost I can’t say I was entirely surprised that The Skeptics’ Guide screwed this up so thoroughly. I spent a lot of time researching just how mired the modern skeptical movement can be in its own conceits. And while this is sheer speculation on my part, I can guess at how Bernstein arrived at his mistaken notions. I suspect that whoever researched me looked at the description of Fringe-ology on my website or my Amazon bio and saw that I wanted to “investigate an old family ghost story.” Interpreting this phrase according to their own pre-existing biases The Skeptics’ Guide flew off into a host of pejorative associations. Then they moved on to my blog post.

Bernstein: Mr. Volk has a blog called “Steve Volk: The Generalist,” and let’s see…on January 9th he posted a blog titled “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge: In Defense of Sheldrake.” He dubbed Randi the “cranky elf” of the skeptical movement.

Watson: I think Randi would accept that, actually.

SG: (Laughter)

Watson: I think he would like it.

Bernstein: Volk lets us know in this blog post, he’d like to address what is likely the worst, least credible thing that Randi promotes, which is his long running challenge in which he vows to give one-million dollars to anyone who can prove paranormal claims in a controlled test. He says the Challenge has been muddled by the very boundaries of science* [I write that the Challenge muddles the boundaries of science, but Bernstein can be forgiven for the mis-quote]…allowing Randi-ites—I guess that’s us—to say paranormal claims don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny, while conceding—when pressed—that the Challenge isn’t science. I think Volk entirely misses the point here.

Novella: Yeah.

Bernstein: The Challenge is an effort to design a statistically sound protocol for any given extraordinary claim, which greatly minimizes bias and/or fraud.

Volk: Actually, I think the statistical thresholds on the Challenge are set primarily to minimize the chance of luck intervening. But let’s keep moving…

Watson: He seems to want the million dollars to be given to anybody whose results are statistically significant in a scientific sense. Like, if you were to do this, and publish it in a journal, that should get the million dollars. But he forgets the fact that the whole point of the Challenge is to find proof that the paranormal exists and that proof needs to go beyond a reasonable doubt…

Volk: Again, there are a few problems here. Watson suggests I want some paranormal researcher to collect the million. But I don’t want that. I have also never written or said so. Further, the point of the Challenge is not to prove or disprove the paranormal. She is simply, like so many others (as I will soon demonstrate) attributing a power and purpose to the Challenge that it does not hold. Incredibly, she also directly contradicted the nominal leader of the Skeptics’ Guide, Steven Novella, whose written response to me states: “The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon.”

Still, he lets Watson get away with this misstatement. Did he miss it? Or is he simply disinclined to criticize one of his own?

Novella: Let’s look at this another way. Like, if you wanna use a p-value of .05, which is a traditional cut off for statistical significance in a scientific publication, that means Randi would be giving a million dollars to every 20th applicant of the million dollar challenge, which is obviously not practical. So essentially, what Volk says is that [research of the sort conducted by Dean Radin or Rupert Sheldrake] would require years of research and thousands of trials. Again, completely missing the point. The point of the Million Dollar Challenge is not to conduct publishable scientific research. It’s not to look for subtle effects that would require lots of trials…

Volk: Um, actually, that is my point. In other words, Novella seems to miss this entirely, but he and I agree. What I write in my initial post, “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge,” and a subsequent follow-up, “Randi’s Minions and the Million,” is that the MDC is not set up to serve any meaningful scientific aim. There are no papers coming out of it. And the results applicants need to generate in order to achieve victory are far beyond what scientific researchers like Radin and Sheldrake claim to be able to produce. Street corner psychics may claim inerrancy, but the Sheldrakes of the world are looking for much smaller, subtler effects. My criticism is that, too often, paranormal researchers conducting actual science are subjected to questions about why they don’t apply for Randi’s million; or the entire field of parapsychology is somehow cast under suspicion because no one has won Randi’s prize.

To illustrate this, I had—in the very post these skeptics are so ineffectively critiquing—used the new atheist thinker Sam Harris as an example. In his own appearance on the Rogan podcast, Harris claimed that there is “something fishy” about the failure of a scientist like Sheldrake to apply for the million.

In response to Harris, I wrote:

“…There is nothing ‘fishy’ about the disinclination of a scientist like Sheldrake to participate in the Challenge. Statistical significance is built through sheer repetition. In fact, achieving a proper ‘sample size,’ testing an effect enough times, is bedrock science. Conversely, failing to obtain a representative sample size is a hallmark of the Randi Challenge. Scientists like Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Daryl Bem conduct studies that require dozens of people (or more) and take weeks or months or even years to perform. Randi puts on events that occur in a fraction of the time, generally over an evening or afternoon. In conclusion, Randi’s protocols simply won’t allow Sheldrake to conduct real science.”

outgroupBut amazingly, Novella never mentions Harris in his written critique of my initial post. And during this subsequent Skeptics’ Guide podcast, he and his peeps never address the Harris portion of my argument—my central exhibit—either. Readers familiar with my book, or simply alert to the problems associated with group dynamics, might already see what’s happening here. But allow me to explain: Me and the good people at Skeptics’ Guide are talking past each other. They accuse me of “missing the point” of their “beloved” challenge while I keep waiting for them to even make the faintest move toward addressing the point I actually made. The issue, as I see it, is that I am writing from the perspective of someone sympathetic to parapsychology researchers. That marks me as “outside” their group—skeptics—and so they start ascribing to me all kinds of visions (he saw a ghost), motivations (I want Randi to give away his million) and thoughts (can’t explain it, must be a ghost), with a staggering 100-percent inaccuracy rate. Further, because I am defending the group they seek to defeat, I can’t be granted any sort of win—or even traction.

Again, I am speculating. But I can only guess that they essentially back up my chief point—The Challenge isn’t science—but avoid delving into the Harris portion of my argument because they never wanted to string three particular words together: “Volk is right.”

To make matters still worse (for them), by the time this Skeptics’ Guide aired, I had already rebutted Novella’s initial printed response.

Here’s a quick excerpt*:

*Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, has done a bang-up job of addressing the Challenge’s shortcomings. And he has already published a response to Novella of his own. He notes that Harris is far from the only interested party who is unclear on the Challenge’s range and authority. “New Scientist asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi’s million dollars,” writes Taylor. “We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem’s famous experiments (‘Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi’)—an editorial that Novella himself described as ‘the best thing to come out of Bem’s research’—we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon: ‘[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)’”

In other words, there is an odd pattern here, in which really smart people with scientific backgrounds wind up confused about just what James Randi’s Challenge is all about. Given that the resulting confusion affords the Challenge greater standing, skeptics might even be seen to hold a keen self-interest in allowing delusions over the Challenge’s boundaries to persist.

Intriguingly, Harris remarks, in his interview with Rogan, that he had met with Randi and discussed the Challenge. Yet he walked away with a muddled view. And frankly, there are moments in their mid-January podcast when the hosts of The Skeptics’ Guide also seem similarly confused: As I write above, Watson falsely stated that the point of the Challenge is to prove the paranormal exists; additionally, another host (I couldn’t make out which one) said “[Volk] doesn’t get that there has to be a protocol and it has to be difficult or you’re not proving anything”—again falsely raising the idea that the MDC is about proving paranormal phenomena exist; and even Novella himself slips into referring to the Challenge as “the study” and “these studies.” But, as he himself argued, the MDC is not the sort of test that might result in a peer-reviewed scientific publication or even stand as a preliminary experiment; so the word “study”, with all its scientific connotations, is inappropriate.

Slips of the tongue, if that’s what they were, are understandable. And it may seem as if, here at the end, I am being particularly hard on The Skeptics’ ragged use of language. But whether such self-contradictory statements were intentional (I doubt it) or accidental (more likely) is, to me, almost beside the point. What intrigues me is that this segment of Skeptics’ Guide functions less as a critique of my argument than as a kind of unintended support: The Challenge is too often confused with what it isn’t: science. Thanks for that, guys. But even though I am giving myself the win here—hey, maybe I’m a little biased too—I emerge from this entire exchange more disturbed than happy.

The skeptical movement purports to guard the boundaries of science. The slogan employed by the Skeptics’ Guide is “Your escape to reality.” But in this encounter, reality was the victim. And I can only wonder if the population at large is as skeptical as it needs to be of a modern skeptical movement that has so much trouble seeing past its own worldview.

Randi’s Minions and the Million

MinionsSteven Novella, a clinical neurologist and popular skeptic, has published a response to my recent article “The Joke of the James Randi Challenge.” On one hand, I feel required to thank him. He noted my description of Randi as a “cranky elf” is more charitable than most critics would employ.

Still, my chief reaction is disappointment. Novella never properly addressed what I consider the key takeaway from my post: “The Challenge has muddled the very boundaries of science.”

Now, to be fair, Novella quotes this line verbatim. He also recognizes it as the “core” of my criticism. He just never actually confronts the argument I make. But before I get there, let me first bring readers up to speed.

As Novella himself puts it:

“Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is an icon of the skeptical movement. The challenge basically offers $1 million to anyone who can ‘show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.’ So far no applicant has passed even the preliminary test for the million dollars.”

My contention was and remains that the entire field of psi research gets swept up in the fervor this “icon” creates in Skeptical hearts. I centered the post Novella takes exception to on statements made by best-selling author Sam Harris. One of the most prominent “new atheist” thinkers, Harris apparently buys into the Challenge completely—not only to test mediums charging money to channel information from the dead; but as a means of vetting professional scientists engaged in research.

Appearing on the podcast of comedian Joe Rogan, Harris commented

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake

directly on Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a scientist behind experiments on subjects like telephone telepathy. He suggested there is “something fishy” about Sheldrake’s disinclination to take the Challenge. And to this he added the even broader judgment that parapsychologists should be required to prove their claims to skeptics like Randi before they get a wider hearing.

Is he correct? Well, to concede success, the Challenge demands a high accuracy rate (try 1,000 to 1 odds against chance* for the preliminary test) over a small number of trials, usually conducted with one supposed psychic during the course of an afternoon or evening. Sheldrake, or a researcher like Dean Radin, claim they can demonstrate a small but significant “psi” effect after many hundreds of trials employing dozens of research subjects, conducted over weeks or months (at least) of laboratory experimentation.

There is, simply, no fit whatsoever between the event Randi stages and the science Sheldrake practices, yet Harris somehow looked at both and walked away confused.  I used this example to illustrate my argument. But Novella never mentions Harris at all.

There is, however, one point on which Novella and I agree: “The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments,” he writes, “and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon.”

So why, I ask, is the Challenge sometimes held up as a valid test for the work of scientists—even by people, like Harris, who should know better?

Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, has done a bang-up job of addressing the Challenge’s shortcomings. And he has already published a response to Novella of his own. He notes that Harris is far from the only interested party who is unclear on the Challenge’s range and authority. “New Scientist asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi’s million dollars,” writes Taylor. “We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem’s famous experiments (‘Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi’)—an editorial that Novella himself described as ‘the best thing to come out of Bem’s research’—we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon: ‘[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)’”

My own opinion on how such smart people wind up so mistaken about the Challenge is that the James Randi Educational Foundation has done a lousy job of educating the public on this particular topic. Given that the resulting confusion affords the Challenge greater standing, the JREF might even be seen to hold a keen self-interest in allowing delusions over the Challenge’s boundaries to persist.

Novella, though, skips over such issues and instead explores the statistical arguments surrounding the Challenge. He writes, appropriately, I think, that using the standard scientific measure of statistical significance, 0.05, would force Randi to give away his million one in twenty times by chance alone. But in this he misses my whole point: I’m not arguing over what standard is necessary to call Randi a responsible steward of the money entrusted to him. I’m pointing out that the Challenge has become a frequent distraction in the conversation and debate over scientific findings, even though it operates far outside science’s borders.

As Taylor rightly observes, the odds Randi employs are more in keeping with “risk management” than an attempt to ferret out the truth. And it seems to me that something important is lost in this mess.

We are all—skeptics, believers, and the neutral—stuck on the same rock, floating through space. The best tool we’ve discovered for understanding the world around us and developing a shared base of knowledge is science.  Psi, if it exists, might help to illuminate some big, existential questions about topics like consciousness and human capabilities. As a result, I’d like to see more science on the subject. But the Challenge is not only useless in this respect, it’s actually become—as Harris, New Scientist and Wagenmaker’s, et. al demonstrate—an impediment to scientific inquiry.

*Author’s note: In an attempt to avoid repeating everything I wrote in the earlier column, I tried to give people just a taste of the odds Challenge contestants are up against. I also figure people interested in the topic are likely to click on the links above and investigate further. But after an email from Greg at the Daily Grail, I’d better clarify. The 1,000 to 1 odds against chance are evidently what the JREF sets as a standard for its preliminary test. Once that hurdle is jumped, the contestant would face million to one odds against chance for the money.  There is still more to say. But we can no doubt take that up on the comments pages. —Steve

 

Are We But Meat Puppets?

FreeWillCafeI wrote a much longer piece on free will here almost a year ago. But in light of my appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

Last spring, Rogan had the new atheist thinker and neuroscientist Sam Harris on his show. There, Harris briefly restated his views on free will: chiefly, we don’t have it.

We all think we wake up, consciously sift through a variety of options for our day and begin making choices: Wake up and go to work, for example, or call in “sick,” take a mental health day and hit the Cineplex. Skip breakfast altogether; or eat a peach.

Harris’s argument is grounded in philosophical materialism. Our physical brains are the source of all our thinking and behaviors. As a result, all of our brain’s operations—all our behavior—is subject to the laws of physics. Taken to its logical extent, we cannot be the true author of our thoughts, ideas, impulses, conclusions or, ultimately, actions. Where, in fact, could a notion so vague as our “will” become a cause in this chain of physical phenomena? We receive inputs from our senses and our brain spits out responses: Go to church, or join an atheist social group.

In this view, we are spectators to our own lives. Harris calls us “biochemical puppets,”  while biologist Jerry Coyne ups the ante, referring to humanity more brutishly—for all our achievements in art, science and the like—as “meat computers.”

In a sense, neither man needs to offer up any evidence at all to support his view. The neuroscientific consensus that the brain must produce consciousness, and the obvious fact of the brain’s physical, gelatinous existence render “free will” a kind of philosophical non-starter—at least if the materialist worldview holds. The big bang occurred, and if only we could measure every last variable in play, we could—theoretically, anyway—predict our own actions from now till death finds us.

But what does the evidence gathered thus far in neuroscience indicate? In other words, might we find some clue to save our own sense of ourselves as conscious actors in this play—to rescue free will?

Well, I’d argue the evidence is in a sense hiding in plain sight—in the very studies writers like Harris and Coyne usually site as evidence that “free will” is an impossibility.

One of the most famous is by John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the meatpuppetsBernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin.  Haynes used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of his subjects, who watched a succession of random letters appear on a display screen. Then, when they felt the urge to move their “left” or “right” index finger, they were to keep track of which letter was on the screen.

Haynes, in the science media, described what he subsequently found in near-tremulous terms, saying he designed more “sanity checks” into this experiment than any other.

What did Haynes find that was so incredible?

Well, purely by chance, Haynes should have been able to predict which hand his subjects would ultimately use to push a button—left, or right—50-percent of the time. But after reviewing the data, they found they could predict the subjects’ finger of choice—wait for it—with 60-percent accuracy.

Statistically, that is a significant finding. But does a 10-percent above chance finding truly cut against free will?

What about the forty-percent of the time Haynes’ was wrong?

I’d argue Haynes’ findings are really only a threat to free will if, at bottom, you don’t much care for the concept, anyway. Haynes, for instance, told the media he found his findings “unsettling.” He had no agenda to destroy free will. But he also stated his findings made sense to him. They seemed to fit with a deterministic universe—which Harris and Coyne claim doesn’t have room for free will. In other words, no matter how unsettling John-Dylan Haynes found his own findings they fit with his worldview. And as readers of Fringe-ology know, there is abundant evidence to suggest we will generally choose to believe whatever fits with our preexisting worldview.

It is, in fact, predictable that the brain might engage in preparatory behavior or indicate which way our decision-making process is leaning, even seconds before a final decision is made. From this point of view, Haynes’ findings are completely noncontroversial—even expected. (If anything, his 40-percent inaccuracy rate might even open the door to further speculation that free will does exist.)

For Harris and Coyne, however, there could be a more gut-level need to interpret his findings as a strong blow against free will. To them, free will is a holdover of dualism—the belief that mind is somehow separate from brain.

The conundrum of free will, however, remains as sticky and unresolved as ever. And the question raises up a bevy of possibilities. Perhaps our “deterministic universe” somehow allows room for real choice, according to principles we don’t understand? Perhaps something does exist outside the chain of accepted physical causes, which allows for choice?

In any event, I’d hold the position thinkers like Harris find themselves in is more uncomfortable than they might generally acknowledge. Harris has made quite a name for himself elucidating the ways in which religious belief can harm us. But assaults on free will have themselves proven harmful when put to the test.

In 2008, Jonathan Schooler split test participants into two groups, one of which read passages suggesting free will doesn’t exist, the other neutral about what underpins neurological behavior. Both groups were then asked to take a mathematics test. Before beginning the test, they were informed that sometimes a computer glitch caused the correct answer to be displayed. If the glitch occurred, mid-test, participants were instructed to look away and click to another screen to avoid seeing the answer.

What Schooler was really looking for, however, was data on whether or not one group followed his instructions more than the other. And it turned out the group that was exposed to ideas undermining free will cheated more.

A separate study showed that people who were already predisposed to believe in determinism over free will were more likely to perform poorly at work.

As you begin your new year, then, I suggest you go on believing in your own causal efficacy—your own free will—and use it.

 

 

The Joke of the James Randi Challenge (In Defense of Sheldrake)

HarrisRandiThe trickiest assignment I assigned myself, for my January 7 appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, was to refute  some things the new atheist thinker Sam Harris said about James Randi’s “1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge.”

I’ve endeavored to crater the myth of James Randi on a number of occasions. Randi, an amateur magician who found fame as an opponent of paranormal claims, has long served as the cranky elf of the skeptical movement. And I believe if anyone looks closely at the details of his career they will conclude, as I have, that he is a poor spokesman for critical thinking and rationality.

You can check out my previous coverage of him by following the link above. Here, I just want to address what is likely the worst, least credible thing Randi promotes: his long-running Challenge, in which he vows to give $1 million to anyonewho can prove a paranormal claim in a “controlled test.”

The Challenge has muddled the very boundaries of science, allowing Randi-ites to say paranormal claims don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny while conceding, when pressed, that the Challenge isn’t science.

Harris touted the Challenge on Rogan’s show, claiming that paranormal researchers should have to prove their case to Randi and his minions at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) before they get a wider hearing. He even claimed there is “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part.

Harris gave his opinion on Rogan, But he is in the powerful position, in many people’s lives, of seeming to spout only truths. I myself owe Harris a deep personal debt for turning me on to meditation. But I’d like to clear up some misconceptions he surely furthered by speaking so adamantly in favor of Randi’s authority.

Others, before me, like Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, and Chris Carter, have pointed out the failings of Randi’s challenge. But allow me to summarize.

The Challenge begins with a red herring:

Randi boasts that the protocols of each test must be “mutually agreed upon.” RandiHarrisBut the only terms he agrees to insist that applicants obtain results beyond what would be demanded to determine scientific significance.

The preliminary test, which must be passed before an applicant can try for the million, demands odds against chance of 1,000 to 1. The second test, to win the million, requires the applicant to show results at better than a million to one against chance.

The result is that an applicant can—and did—achieve statistically significant positive results, yet was deemed to “fail” the challenge. Taylor quotes a psi researcher giving the following account:

“In the ganzfeld telepathy test the meta-analytic hit rate with unselected subjects is 32% where chance expectation is 25%. If that 32% hit rate is the ‘real’ telepathy effect, then for us to have a 99% chance of getting a significant effect at p < 0.005, we would need to run 989 trials. One ganzfeld session lasts about 1.5 hours, or about 1,483 total hours. Previous experiments show that it is not advisable to run more than one session per day. So we have to potentially recruit 989 x 2 people to participate, an experimenter who will spend 4+ years running these people day in and day out, and at the end we’ll end up with p < 0.005. Randi will say those results aren’t good enough, because you could get such a result by chance 5 in 1,000 times. Thus, he will require odds against chance of at least a million to 1 to pay out $1 million, and then the amount of time and money it would take to get a significant result would be far in excess of $1 million.”

In light of this, there is nothing “fishy” about the disinclination of a scientist like Sheldrake to participate in the Challenge. Statistical significance is built through sheer repetition. In fact, achieving a proper “sample size,” testing an effect enough times, is a bedrock of science. Conversely, failing to obtain a representative sample size is a hallmark  of the Randi Challenge. Scientists like Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Daryl Bem conduct studies that requires dozens of people (or more) and take weeks or months or even years to perform. Randi puts on events that occur in a fraction of the time, generally over an evening or afternoon. In conclusion, Randi’s protocols simply won’t allow Sheldrake to conduct real science.

Now, other parapsychologists have contacted Randi about applying for the million dollar challenge: Dick Bierman and Sutbert Ertel claim they approached Randi but got nowhere.

In addition, there are other reasons anyone might decide not to apply. JREF requires applicants to grant the rights to all video, audio and written record of the tests to the JREF, and also to waive any legal claims stemming from the challenge. In other words, anyone who ventures into Randi’s lair, seeking to win $1 million, will find their every word and deed therein subject to Randi’s editing and promotional exploitation, without any legal recourse. (Taylor first reported this, providing a link to rules posted at Randi’s website that have subsequently been taken down.)

Given the long odds and Randi’s history of antipathy toward psi research and its practitioners—his woeful “Pigasus” award is a case in point—why would anyone subject themselves to this agreement?

Harris is actually quite charitable (particularly for a materialist atheist) toward the paranormal in The End of Faith, which, in my opinion, remains his most worthwhile book. He is, I’d argue, a potential friend to the psi community. In this sense, his faith in James Randi reveals the little magician’s real talent as a showman—capable of swinging even a free thinker like Harris toward a dogmatic view.

 

Don’t Be a Jerk

HomerOBEThis song was released just this year, so it bore no direct influence on Fringe-ology. But this track shreds and delivers one of the messages most important to me.

“All you will be remembered for,” sings Richard Hawley, “is what folks say when you walk out the door.”

At first glance, this might seem to grant other people a whole lot of power. But I think it’s true. Few of us are really misunderstood. We act like in petty, selfish ways and we are called on it. We behave generously, and we receive the benefit. With Fringe-ology, I wanted to encourage people on every side of the culture war to tone down the drama, admit the biggest questions of our existence have yet to be resolved, and begin treating each other with greater respect.

Hawley, a great songwriter and singer, rocks much the same message.

Leave Your Body Behind You

My Back Page(s)

This is an afterword I wrote for Fringe-ology. My editor suggested the story here blunted the ending, so it wasn’t published. But I’m sharing it now, in a slightly revised fashion, because this bit reflects so positively on a claim put forward by Sam Harris, the only major new atheist thinker who allows that “spirituality” and “religion” are not the same thing.

AFTERWORD

As a little boy, my parents led me by the hand, every Sunday, into the hushed, reverential atmosphere of the Catholic Church. These regular trips into a beautiful room where everyone confessed to a belief in the unseen made a huge impression on me. Fact is, I loved those days. But in writing Fringe-ology, I realized how far I’d traveled.

The realization of the distance between that boy and this man hit me most littleboydoorprofoundly when I spent a long day sitting and watching YouTube videos of various talks given by Sam Harris. The subjects he tackled ranged from neuroscience and terrorism policy to the atrocities of religion. In one video, a debate on religion, he put forth the following observation: Come on, he told his opponent. You and I could make the Bible a better book right now.

Harris, one of the most famous atheists on the planet, quickly rattled off some sections he would edit out. And I sat there, thinking, “You’re damn right.”

A moment later I was laughing at the audacity of what I had just thought: Edit the Bible? I had entered into this project with the goal in mind of bringing people together. But editing the Bible would inherently be a divisive exercise, driving away all those who believe every word on every page came straight from God.

As the days passed, however, the idea didn’t leave me alone. And I had to admit: It actually fit with the larger argument I make in Fringe-ology, It reflected my goal of urging people on both sides of the culture war to step back, often, and view the existential questions with which this book opened—Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone in the universe? Is there a God? And what happens when we die?­—for what they are: Open questions. Unanswered questions.

We have our beliefs about what the answers to these questions might be—some based more or less firmly in science. (God knows, I have mine.) But firm knowledge, ultimate knowledge, eludes us. And it’s my position that we need to view our lack of knowledge as important—as meaningful. All over the planet, people choose to honor some particular religious deity or perhaps a materialist, scientific worldview. And so I came to see Harris’s suggestion as an exercise that might actually rally us all a little closer together.

I wonder, if believers read the book in that spirit—that the Bible might be bettered—what (for lack of a better word) revelations might come. I suspect that if believers of various religions each read their sacred texts with a red pen we might quickly find ourselves on a very different planet, one in which words like “love” and “faith” remain in abundance while “vengeance” and “judgment” are winnowed away by many.

I also wonder: If nonbelievers read these books with an eye toward what words to keep, would we be surprised in the end to find so many pages still intact?

There is only one way to find out, of course. But whether people choose to take on this kind of exercise is up to them. As I put the final touches on this manuscript, in the fall of 2010, I am preparing to return to city journalism—crime, courts, politics. I ventured so far from my usual territory because I wondered how standard journalistic practices might perform in answering the most fundamental questions human beings ever face. I wanted to settle the personal business associated with the Family Ghost. And I found the ongoing culture war between science and religion so counter-productive and tedious that I simply could not keep silent. But upon further reflection, I also did it to satisfy the little boy I mentioned above—the little boy who was led into those beautiful, intimidating Catholic churches.

He loved those Sundays. But over time, as his understanding grew, he felt panic-stricken at the Priest’s pronouncement: “We believe in one Church.” He looked at people he saw in the street, the grocery store, school, and wondered if they might burn in hell for not going to the Catholic Church. For a long while, he kept his concern to himself. But finally, the thought of all that suffering was too much for him. And so he went to his father and asked: “Is everyone who doesn’t go to a Catholic church going to hell?”

“No,” his father smiled. “That’s not what we believe.”

The little boy was raised, then, to question what he heard and read—even in the Bible. And eventually, that little boy stopped going to church altogether. But much of what he heard stayed with him. He held on to lines like “…the kingdom of God is within you,” or those that seem most applicable to a reporter: “seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

In that sense, this entire book was probably just the act of a little boy, knocking.  And he is happy to report, so much opened up—doors he hadn’t even suspected were there.

Breaking Out of The Box

hangingmeatIn retrospect, Fringe-ology was an act of rebellion—my bid to escape the usual strictures of journalism and cover topics usually reserved for philosophers, scientists, mystics and skeptics.

In a typical scenario, I pitch a story or get an assignment and figure out what questions I’ll need to answer along the way. A story I recently wrote about violence in Philadelphia, for example, led me to start investigating the neuroscience underlying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But when I wrote Fringe-ology, I put the questions I wanted to answer first: Are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die? Is there a God? Is there any benefit to be gained from ancient spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation and lucid dreaming? What can we learn, from science and mysticism, that might help us all lead better lives? Is there really a conflict between science and mysticism, or only a persistent and unfounded complaint of our culture?

With these questions in mind, I sat in a bar in New York’s West Village and started sketching out ideas on a series of cocktail napkins: What events might I investigate, what people might I interview, to begin answering these questions?

Originally, I sketched out 14 chapters, which eventually reduced down to 11. Incredibly, the chapter order I conceived over my third beer held up.

My editor at Harper read the finished manuscript, a couple of years later, and reported that he was pleasantly surprised at how much work I put into the research.

I enjoyed the compliment. And I never told him that I didn’t really feel like I had been working.

I traveled to Tucson, Arizona to see consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff; to Stephenville, Texas, to meet with a group of UFO witnesses; to West Palm Beach, Florida, to meet with astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell; to the big island of Hilo, in Hawaii, to learn how to lucid dream; to Seattle, to attend a conference of academics who study mental telepathy. And as time passed, I realized that I’d changed. I felt more confident and relaxed in general. Lucid dreaming and meditation had done that for me. I found that these heavy, existential questions no longer filled me with dread or fear but excitement. I had gotten comfortable with the unknown and I understood the opportunity before me. If I could take the reader on the same journey, they might wind up in the same place—and enjoy the same sudden sense of freedom.

Here in America, we occupy a cultural moment in which our most dominant thinkers tend to equate science with the best humanity has to offer. Fundamentalist religion dominates the media, while spirituality, on the other hand, is greeted with immediate suspicion—a mere vestige of primitive superstitions. I now understood this black and white thinking to be, well, bullshit. And I started to think of Fringe-ology as a kind of prison escape yarn—a story about how anyone might slip through the bars of the cell we’re encouraged to live inside and explore these big questions for ourselves.

In short then, if you’ve ever felt shy about your own spiritual yearnings, if you’ve ever felt the least bit embarrassed about your interest in topics commonly labeled “paranormal,” stop. You have good reason—a loaded word, in these times—to believe there is so much more to you than meat.

Rational God

The Rational God

spaceI wrote Fringe-ology, in great part, to help push back against the new atheist movement, which contributed a new virulence to the debate over religious belief. I myself had some common ground with what they had to say: Given the contradictions in any religious text, not to mention obvious historical errors, I find it impossible to subscribe to any particular religion as the inerrant last word on God and man. But I also saw a number of problems with the new atheists in general: The ridicule they direct at religious believers strikes me as a great way to lend a new stridency to an already overwrought debate. More importantly, however, I also believe they overreach by directing so many of their broadsides against the idea of any creator at all.

On this score, I felt especially keen criticize their indiscriminate use of the word “irrational.”

“It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the majority of atheists I know disguise their atheism behind a pious façade,” writes Dawkins, in The God Delusion. “They do not believe in anything supernatural themselves, but retain a vague soft spot for irrational belief.”

Belief in God may prove wrong. But it isn’t irrational: 1. without the faculty of reason; deprived of reason. 2. without or deprived of normal mental clarity or sound judgment. 3. not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical.

Belief in God is an understandable outgrowth of the amount of mystery still surrounding our existence. Just consider one of the most vexing questions in philosophy: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In other words, even setting aside any controversy over how humanity, specifically, came into being (and yes, I hold evolution to be true), why is there a universe? How did anything at all, from the tiniest dot of matter, come into existence?

The problem for the materialist atheist point of view should be obvious: Any cause for the universe should be physical. But, well, where did anything physical come from in the first place? The Big Bang required only a modicum of matter. But how did that matter to come into being? And additionally, what caused the laws that governed the explosion of so little into a universe so vast?

I recently read a couple of books that address this problem, including Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing and Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

Krauss is a physicist and leading figure in the atheist movement. He argues, essentially, that what physicists define as empty space qualifies as “nothing.” But he himself admits, in this NPR interview, that what physicists call “nothing” is, well, “something,” even if he avoids using that word: “Empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in a time scale so short that you can’t even measure them.”

He further states: “most of the energy of the universe actually resides in empty space,” and so what physicists take to be empty space and nothing is actually a “stew” of particles winking in and out of existence.

His book is a hit, another entry in the fast-growing canon of new atheist lit. But it is a nonstarter among philosophers, who retort that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” is nonsensical.

Holt’s book stays on firmer ground because he accepts the mystery at the heart of the question and its perhaps unanswerable nature. One of my favorite moments in Holt’s book is when he meets with the Russian physicist Andrei Linde, who developed a theory that predicted the exact background radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Our universe started with “a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter,” Linde tells him. But Holt finds this unpersuasive. Why? Because the leap to an entire universe from so little matter is scientifically comprehensible, but the jump to any matter at all from nothing isn’t.

Holt has great fun playing with the question, and meets with an array of physicists and thinkers to try and solve this riddle. Some wave the question off, arguing that we’ll never get to a first cause and perhaps that first bit of matter was just there. But granting matter the ability to bring itself into existence isn’t really an answer. It certainly isn’t the last word on the subject. And so, the depth of the mystery is so great that it could—reasonably—give rise to the sorts of thoughts that give atheists the heebie jeebies.

In fact, the appearance of one-one thousandth of a gram of matter out of nothing sounds like a supernatural event—certainly, a paranormal one, if we take a standard dictionary definition of the word: of or pertaining to events or perceptions occurring without scientific explanation.

I know. I’ve opened myself up to the charge that I am merely invoking a “God of the Gaps” argument. But the gap between nothing and something is so vast it could represent a God-sized hole.

*For a quick last couple of thoughts, keep reading.

Continue reading

Dream Baby

The following column ran, in a slightly edited version, over at Philadelphia magazine’s website. I’m publishing this fuller version here along with some additional thoughts on how this dream relates to Fringe-ology.

*

The dream started innocuously enough. I was in a hotel with my father, my wife Lisa, and our boys. We traveled down a long hallway, laughing about something. I don’t remember who was carrying Eli. But he got set down near a stairwell. He rolled over, once, and that was all it took.

DreamBabyMy tiny little son, 14 weeks old, spun right out of his swaddling blanket and tumbled—so fast—down the stairs. Hearing failed me. I don’t know what he sounded like each time his body hit the steps. I don’t know if he cried. But I remember hearing my own voice and Lisa’s spiral from silence to a disbelieving wail.

When Eli hit the landing, my father spoke, brightly, as if to convince himself: “He’s all right. He’s fine.”

I ran down the stairs, reached Eli and picked him up. He wasn’t even crying. His eyes remained open. And for a second I thought maybe he was all right. Then I saw that his head was misshapen, cratered in the back. Rivulets of blood oozed up slowly over the rim of his wound. My father dialed 911. Lisa started screaming, hitting notes reserved for mothers of dying children. I held Eli tight and hollered “Eli! Don’t go! Please, please don’t go!”

The tears rolled fast and hot over my face and I just kept yelling those same words—like the boy had a choice, like he could save himself.

Then I felt a sudden misery, a fresh hole open up in my own chest, which I figured would spread until there was nothing left of me but a little spot of grief dotting the stairwell.

The first few minutes after that dream I struggled to process what I’d seen. I looked around my bedroom, regaining my bearings. Eli slept in his crib. Lisa fed Jack, his fraternal twin. I said nothing about the dream to Lisa, not right away.

Something told me the dream served as a punctuation mark to our first few months as parents. I’ve avoided mentioning it, till now, but there was a period of maybe seven to 10 days where I felt mostly despair. The boys I’d worked so hard to have weren’t people to me, weren’t Jack and Eli, but things—obstacles always blocking me from the loves that had sustained me over the last many years: reading, writing, long conversations, dinners and time with my wife.

I fell victim to sleep deprivation and spent several days at work struggling to get through the day. Worse, I dreaded going home. Much to my shame, I behaved around Lisa and my new sons like an antelope caught in a lion’s mouth: limp, glassy-eyed, shocked, struggling not to feel anything at all. It seemed that if I allowed my feelings any momentum I’d be subsumed. So I tried to remain silent. And whenever Lisa spoke, I grunted in response. I made every motion count, trying to use up as little energy as possible because it took so much effort not to cry. The boys were barely there, just blurs in my vision, duties I had to fulfill.

I’ll likely write about those feelings and that period more in the future. But for now, just know that I acted. I called someone, a Trusted Advisor. I talked to Lisa. And I admitted everything. I said the words I felt were too raw to say to anyone else: That I worried I could not fulfill these new responsibilities; that I feared fatherhood might be too much for me.

Relief came by degrees. Speaking the words, saying them out loud—“I’m scared,” “I’m not sure I can do this”—deprived them of all the power they held as secrets. Over the ensuing days, I still felt fragile. But mercifully, the boys finally began to sleep, once per night, in a four–to-six-hour stretch. Given this reprieve, the world seemed clearer to me. I noticed that, as 5 o’clock approached, I no longer felt intimidated by the prospect of taking care of my children. And I could see the boys as people, Eli and Jack. Without giving it much thought, I quickly developed a new ritual. After I changed their diapers, redressed them and exercised their developing muscles, I laid them on their backs, stroked the tops of their heads and stared deeply into their eyes. I had tried this earlier with no result I could discern. The babies stared past me. But when I tried again, shortly after they passed 12 weeks of age, I stared right at them and they stared right back. I stroked their hair and spoke to them of the toys I’ll give them, the wrestling matches we’ll share, and the long games of catch. They responded with coos and smiles.

The nightmare arrived as this ritual established itself, forming the ground of a new relationship. And the image of either of my sons, tumbling down the stairs, struck me, initially, as a mortal threat. But as I processed what I’d seen the core truth of the dream suddenly became obvious to me. In fact, before I even got out of bed I broke into a wide grin. The nightmare contained a message, all right, and I suppose it is only natural that every time I pick up either boy I find I am doing so with a heightened sense of security. But rather than serving as a prophecy, a foretelling of some possible future, the dream illustrated for me all that had come to pass: The little creatures I had been beset by and afraid of and unable to see had become the little boys I love and could not bear to lose.

*

I am no longer surprised at the relatively small place we afford dreaming in our popular culture and our science. I am not even surprised at how many people declare “I don’t dream,” or that they often say so proudly.

But I am saddened by how ignorant we are, in general, of one of the most fundamental, unavoidable aspects of our lives.

DevilinaSuitPersonally, I made up my mind many years ago that my dreams were, at worst, an entertaining diversion. At best, they were of bedrock importance. An example: I remember, as a teen, dreaming that the back wall of the family living room fell away and revealed a broad, semi-transparent curtain. Behind this, flames roared and the devil himself stood—not a horned creature, but an immaculately well-manicured man in a suit. He roared, bragging about how he was going to kill my family and me.

In the dream, I roared back at the devil and when he failed to go quiet I charged him, prepared to do battle. Much to my disappointment, I woke up before we could grapple.

The dream was very vivid and over the years I recalled it from time to time, even poring through essays and books of dream interpretation for clues as to what it might mean. I resisted the solution for a short while, but eventually had to admit the dream signified my own penchant for drama, my habit—particularly at the time—for taking on way too much responsibility, even to the point that I felt it was up to me to defend my whole family from the devil himself.

Little boy lost.

I took myself so seriously.

My point here is that dreams can be used as a tool to better understand our selves. Now, please notice that I wrote that dreams can be used as a tool. I made sure not to write that they are a tool (or that they are anything else for that matter). In Fringe-ology, I write at length about dreaming in general and lucid dreaming in particular. (I hope to speak to Joe Rogan about lucid dreaming, too, but more on that later.) These chapters sparked some excellent publicity for me, including an appearance on Radiolab. But I’ve also encountered a bit of eye rolling. As I write in Fringe-ology, the dream has long borne some of the same stigma associated with the paranormal. But it isn’t the dream that suffers for this state of affairs.

It’s us.

The issue is practical and grounded in basic mathematics. In an average 72-year lifespan, you’ll spend an easy six years of that time dreaming. Now, you can certainly choose to ignore the sights and sounds that fill those hours. But wouldn’t it make more sense to find some creative or personal use for a solid eight-percent (or more) of your life span?

It might seem strange to say this, but after that nightmare I felt doubly blessed. Because the dream not only signified the shift in my experience of my sons, it communicated something about my relationship to dreaming.

It is difficult to dream at all in the early months after a baby is born. The opportunity to move through an entire sleep cycle, to enjoy 2:30 to 4 consecutive hours of sleep and wake in peaceful enough circumstances to remember a dream is non-existent. So my dream of Eli indicated not only that I had moved into a new relationship with my sons but also that I got a big part of my life back.

The Unstoppable Woo of The Fantasist James Randi

For those who need to catch up, I’ve written in the past about the strange case of James Randi, the self-proclaimed truth-teller who spent the last 20-odd years living with a man who stole someone else’s identity.

Randi remains a legend in skeptical circles, though the net effect of his high reputation in that crowd is to create an opening for someone like me to point out how little critical thinking skeptics actually engage in when they happen to like the story they’re being spoonfed.

I’m a bit beside myself over this one, though. Because I figured the embarrassment of being caught out with, you know, an identity thief, might cause Randi to back up a step or two from his usual fulminating self-righteousness. Instead, Randi is doubling down on the crazy.

The facts: Randi’s long-term live-in lover, Venezuelan Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga, stole the identity of a man named Jose Luis Alvarez in the 80s, in order to stay in the country and travel with James Randi. Working as a performance artist, Pena Arteaga/Alvarez, posed as “Carlos,” a mystic who claimed to be able to channel spirits, at performances staged by Randi himself.

Randi has yet to fully acknowledge whatever role he played in his companion’s con, but the timeline I’ve laid out elsewhere suggests it is very likely he knew about the theft for a long, long time.

Over the years, the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide in the Bronx, faced IRS investigations because he wasn’t claiming the income actually paid to Randi’s lover. He was himself suspected of identity theft. And when he tried to travel out of the country for his sister’s wedding, he was denied a passport. These sorts of stresses undoubtedly undermine the quality of a man’s life—family weddings don’t occur a second time, and an IRS audit is something I wish upon no man.

At his sentencing hearing, Pena Arteaga apologized for any harm done to the real Alvarez. But not Randi, who was quoted in the newspaper saying: “This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt.”

Come again?

I have written before that I think there will be little to no blow-back for Randi over this entire affair. The skeptical community granted him sainthood and stopped looking askance at the depth and consistency of his transgressions a long, long time ago. But his statement in a court of law that no one was hurt is deeply offensive to anyone who has ever been forced to deal with identity theft, in general, and to the real Jose Luis Alvarez, in particular.

I think, however, that Randi has gotten away with so much for so long—again, feel free to look over my past work on the subject here—that he essentially feels he can “create his own reality.” This is the sort of thing skeptics often chortle about—how those silly New Agers read books like The Secret to learn how to think or speak the life they want into being. But essentially, Randi has done exactly that: By speaking of himself in self-righteous tones for decades and proclaiming his own status as a truth teller, he has convinced far too many people that he really is deserving of our admiration, that he really is a truth-teller.

But he’s not.

In fact, my own opinion is that he is a candidate for serious psychological examination. Because this line—”No one was hurt”—reveals the distance between Randi and reality.

After all, in reality, claiming that “no one was hurt” does absolutely nothing to undo the fact: Jose Luis Alvarez was caused a lot of needless stress and anxiety by the illegal actions of Randi’s lover.

But as a magician and a longtime manipulator of the skeptical community and the media, Randi knows perception is really the important thing. So, simply by saying, “No one was hurt,” he will leave a certain number of people, who won’t ever dig into the story, in the dark.

To them, Randi will remain a truth teller and all will be right with the world.

Of course, there is also another, even darker possibility, in which Randi is not simply seeking to cravenly manipulate people with an obvious falsehood. It could be, in fact, that Randi has been weaving this tale for so long now, in which everything he does is right, that he actually believes it.

This would mean Randi hasn’t simply conned the skeptical community and most of the media. He’s even fooled himself.

Some people might see this as an attempt on my part to give the story of James Randi some poignancy.

It’s not.

At this stage, he’s simply a virulent presence.

He is the biggest problem the skeptical community has, and yet they just keep applauding him.