I believe in Magic. Not the magic of DnD magic users (“I cast fireball!”… “Damn it, Larry, you already cast your fireball spell!”); not the magic of the Harry Potter series (“It’s Levi oh SAH, dipshits. Christ, crack a book once in a while, Harry”); not the magic of untapped mental powers and Time Life book series about the hidden mysteries of the world, like Bigfoot and Noah’s Ark.
No, I believe in the magic of the world around us, the world we can see and smell and touch. Of the wonders we discover every day. Distant planets orbiting their stars, a few of them at the right distance to perhaps support life. New specifies found in remote places, or species once thought extinct rediscovered. The magic of a rover slowly rolling over the surface of Mars. The magic of galaxies and nebulae, revealed by a backyard telescope, or Tardigrades swimming through a drop of water under a microscope.
There is plenty of real magic in the world for those with a sense of curiosity, a thirst for knowledge. And it really angers me when charlatans and grifters take advantage of our desire to want to see these wonders to promote fake magic, a false sense of reality. The ultimate goal is almost always to make money off those they consider rubes.
I grew up in an age of mysticism. Coming out of the experimental 60’s, the 1970’s were full of people promoting the idea that there are untapped powers humanity would soon find a way to control. Telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, spirit channeling. Racks of books were dedicated to these ideas, and mainstream variety shows routinely featured their practitioners. Darryl Gregory’s book, Spoonbenders, is a work of fiction based around this outgrowth of 1970’s mysticism (one of the reasons it appealed to me so strongly).
And through it all, there was James Randi, a former stage magician and renowned skeptic, who taught us to see through the tricks and appreciate what was real. So it pained me when, shortly after his death, my favorite website for information from the edge of the mainstream published the following article:
What to say that already hasn’t been said about this poorly written piece of tripe. I’ll start with how this article jumps the shark by paragraph three:
He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism
You can stop right there, there’s almost no need to read more. Because that’s about as big a load of hogwash as I’ve seen in any tirade in the last year, and I’ve read most of what Donnie the Dickweed has posted on his twitter feed. That’s literally the “Hunter Biden is El Chapo and eats little children” of takes about James Randi. It’s a terrible analogy and nonsensical.
I grew up in the 70’s and graduated from high school in the mid-80’s. Peddlers of psychic phenomena were a HUGE industry back then. You couldn’t turn around without bashing your head on another book about all the great “mysteries of the mind” we were uncovering. ESP, telepathy, ghosts… people threw everything at the wall and hoped it would stick. The Psychic friends hotline was big for a reason, folks, and it wasn’t because it was a lonely hearts club hooking people up for hot Tinder dates. We were told about the secrets of Noah’s arc, the Loch Ness monster, bigfoot… and yes, these things are ALL related. All examples of how we “don’t know!” so much about the world around us and inside us.
We ALL wanted to believe in that stuff. Sure we did! Who WOULDN’T want to think “I can control people with my mind; I can levitate; I can read your thoughts; bigfoot is going to rip open my cabin in the woods and impregnate” – um, never mind, that’s a more recent thing. It all sounded wildly interesting, and when researchers started telling us “we only know what 10% of a brain does,” that became “we only use 10% of our brains” and that left 90% of our gray matter to run off acting like idiots doing heavy doses of mescalin.
But unfortunately for the peddlers of the grift, this stuff was researched. To. Death. Millions were spent on these studies. Those first scenes in Ghostbusters? Those were literally based on a Duke University program and research by Joseph Banks Rhine, which Duke funded for decades. And they stopped funding it why? Not because of James Randi. But because there was no evidence the phenomena actually existed, let alone a way to study it. The peddlers of this stuff made (and still make) claims of success, but when others try to repeat their experiments, the success is not repeated (this is important; science not only requires you “prove” your theory, it requires that your proof be replicable; the results coming out of these labs are like the cold fusion results of the 90’s… false).
Let’s say I tell you “rocks can fly, and we need money to research it.” Would you give it to me, or would you be skeptical? Is there any proof rocks can fly? No? Well, I’m going to INSIST that I’ve seen rocks sprout wings and fly, that they’ve only done so under very specific conditions that you haven’t experienced yet, and if you resist, you’re simply setting back the scientific research that I can use to show this is true.
Folks, that’s NOT how it works. You observe a phenomena (and show it to others). You THEORIZE about what is causing it. Then you TEST whether your theory is true. You don’t invent shit wholesale and then ask for money to prove the shit is real. You may theorize things you have not yet observed, like black holes for instance, but are backed up by other evidence (mathematical equations, related observational evidence).
The idea postulated in the article – that Randi set back real scientific progress on the search for psychic phenomena – is a total lie, because research continues. The University of Edinburgh is still a thing and still going strong. There are classes in a West Georgia university. The stuff sticks because people DO want to believe in “magic.” It’s just that, on close examination following rigorous scientific examination, there never turns out to be any real “magic” with these things. The people purporting to be psychics and telepaths always fall back on pseudoscience claims as to why they failed the experiments. “There was no energy stimulus in the deck of cards;” “I cannot perform clairvoyance to your order.” There have always been skeptics since the earliest days of this research pointing out the fakers, beginning with the Society for Psychical Research back in the 19th century. James Randi wasn’t new.
The problem here is the same one that plagues the GOP and the Q cult. People want to believe in things that are bigger than they are. They want to believe in miracles, in secrets that only they and a few others share, and help discover those truths. They want to believe in magic. And that’s, actually, a fundamentally wonderful thing about us as a species, that we are always straining to expand our knowledge, to explore the mysteries and secrets of the universe. The problem occurs when we replace solid, reliable scientific study with dogma, fakery, and lies. When grifters start taking advantage of people’s desires to believe. When money is exchanging hands. When people are taken advantage of and used. Q and Woo are not that different, they only have different focuses and different intents.
Skeptics are important. Skeptics are the ones who promote scientifically rigorous tests. Skeptics keep those who are overly enthusiastic about proving a cherished theory in check. Because setting out to “prove” something you already believe in is a recipe for either getting tricked by clever fraudsters, deluding yourself into seeing results that don’t actually exist, or faking the results to bolster your claims. And that does little to advance our knowledge of reality or provide us with insights into the world.
The day a truly telekinetic person steps forward and reveals their power, I’ll be thrilled. Until then, I remain like James Randi did… a skeptic who will require a high level of proof before you’ve satisfied me that you’ve discovered something.
James Randi wasn’t perfect. As I maintain, no human being has ever been perfect with the exception of Fred Rogers, and perhaps Dolly Parton. Randi was a curmudgeon, and maybe he didn’t understand climate research. So what? He was an EXPERT at understanding parapsychology and false peddlers of psychic phenomena. And that’s what he did, and what others will continue to do. Because we may want to believe in magic, but no one should use our desires and hopes and dreams to rip us off.
McCarthy set out to attack his political opponents and get his cherished legislation passed by drumming up a false communist threat to the country. He never actually found a single communist, though he accused many, many folks of being one. He was the charlatan in this story, the psychic who believed they knew “THE TRUTH,” and the one who was ultimately outed by skeptics like Margaret Chase Smith who were willing to put their reputations on the line to stop what they viewed as a grave injustice being inflicted on their country. The person who wrote the article knew exactly what they were doing by associating McCarthy with Randi: attempting to create a false connection in the mind of readers in order to bolster their claims. It’s a moral equivalency fallacy, and only shows that the writer is once again peddling misdirection and fakery when the truth won’t support their claims.
Keep believing in magic, folks. And keep being skeptical. It’s the ONLY way to go through the world.