I have a complicated relationship with the man who was James Randi. There was much that I liked, much that I didn't, but he always challenged me to look beyond the curtain.
An atheist, he always insisted that there was nothing out there and that anything paranormal was bunk. While I admired his debunking of charlatans I have always had trouble with his tendency, as with most skeptics, to insist that if he could explain it one way it couldn't be something else. For a man who loved science there a few too many times when he seemed to dismiss things out of hand without really looking, and a couple of times where he fudged things to prove his point.
On the other hand he was a great talker and if you heard him you'd fall under his spell.
What follows was piece I wrote a few years back, not so much on Randi but on belief, skeptics and our right to believe what the things we experience tell us are true. That last bit is one of the the things that annoys the piss out of me regarding skeptics and true believers which is their insistence that they have all the facts when that isn't always the case.
Since Randi insisted that we question everything - I am reposting my piece on questioning everything except the things we have experienced.
The piece that follows here has been kicking around since Tribeca. It started as a long piece on the Amazing Randi that came out of AN HONEST LIAR and which I decided to abandon for reasons I won’t go into. The piece grew when I saw NOAH and was intrigued at the way the people who god talked to saw the world and those he didn’t saw the world. I linked them because Randi is a devote atheist. I then bridged the pieces with a discussion of Bertrand Russell.
I think it’s a start to something but not a fully formed piece. I’m presenting it here because it’s something related to movies and because I’m so sick of the damn thing I want it out there so I don’t have to revisit it.
The public doesn't listen when they are being told straight forward facts. They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them then think about what the truth means. They'd rather have the romance and the lies.- James Randi
I’m bumping things around for this week’s Nightcap. I’m going to ramble, briefly, about skeptics, the silence of god and teapots. This rambling is the result of a couple of films and reading some Bertrand Russell.
Before we start I have to state that I’m agnostic when it comes to pretty much everything. I’d like to believe, or even disbelieve but I really need a bit more proof from every side before I sign on to anything.
The idea for the piece was kicked up while seeing the film on James Randi AN HONEST LIAR. Watching the film I was again drawn into pondering skepticism. I’ve been a follower of Randi’s for decades, ever since his battles with Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff brought him into the forefront. I once hung on his every word in the TV bits and loved what he was doing.
I fell out of love with him when I started reading some of his books and found that he was cooking some material himself (The one thing that hung with me was in Flimflam his presentation of charts in the Betty and Barney Hill UFO case and he spread it across several pages and in differing sizes making any real comparison impossible.) He was kind of cooking the data to prove his point (and even bits Liar seems cooked).
While I applaud Randi and his efforts to find the truth I’m less enraptured by some of his brethren, who take the position that if they can duplicate or explain something it must not be a real and is a trick. Randi at least makes an effort to try and get some sort of scientific control in what he investigates, but there are others I’ve run across who simply make pronouncements that things aren’t so or are the result of some explanation without investigating it. UFO skeptic Philip Glass frequently didn’t do his homework with some of his pronouncements like a sighting being a lighthouse not being possible because of the terrain. He may have been right, but many times it was for the wrong reason.
My feelings toward skeptics is suspect in that many feel that they don’t actually have to back up their pronouncements. These things can’t be so they are not. This has never happened before so it can't happen now.
This week I was reading a bit on Bertrand’s Russell’s Teapot. The teapot thing is Russell’s argument is that if you claim that there is a small teapot in orbit around the sun I don’t have to believe it unless you provide proof. Fair enough.
Actually I think the piece from Russell says that if you put a teapot in orbit around the sun that he doesn’t have to believe it’s there without proof. And I’m good with that but at the same time just because you don’t believe that I did something doesn’t make it not so. The whole teapot thing ultimately should make you question what anyone says or does since we can ultimately know if anything we tell each other is true unless we experience it. We don’t have to believe anything anyone says not just about tea pots or god.
The lack of proof or silence of God is a key point in Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH. Within the frame work of the story mankind is divided into two sections, the sons of Cain and the sons of Abel. The Sons of Cain are forced to deal with the indifference of god. Its their sins and arrogance that god is trying to wipe off the face of the earth. Noah and his clan are in god’s good graces and he speaks to them.
The point that I’m reaching for here is that within the context of the film Tubal-cain and his clan view the universe as being one way because god is silent and doesn’t speak to them. Since he doesn’t speak to them he doesn’t exist. Since he doesn’t tell them how the world is they have created their own way of looking at the world. While it isn’t wrong for them to think that way within the parameters of their world and their knowledge it still doesn’t mean they are right, it just means, within the context of the film that they are operating without all of the facts or possibilities. Or in the real world, like someone coming to a conclusion without all of the facts.
I have no problem with anyone believing in gods or teapots or not believing in them. I firmly support your right to feel either way. But at the same time I have a problem with you forcing your beliefs on me or anything else. Your view isn’t my view. And considering that science is constantly revising what the truth is as more facts come in I find it highly questionable to state that one thing or isn’t possible- especially teapots which are outside of our ability to see orbiting the sun.
The point of this rambling piece is that like James Randi says, we should question what we are told, especially when it's something fantastical like a teapot orbiting the sun. On the other hand just because we don't have evidence (of said teapot) doesn't mean things aren't there...since someday we may find out otherwise (science revises)
Question everything. However be careful when you dismiss for lack of evidence, because one never knows when one might find something unexpected down the road. Besides when you get down to it, we can't tell what's going on in the house next door to ours and you're going to tell me for certainty what's floating out in space or how the universe works?