Just as the final bell begins to toll on the the decade from hell, at least one faint spark appeared to light the unknown dread ahead. James “the Amazing” Randi, that old conjurer largely responsible for making debunking of the paranormal if not an actual religion then at least a national pastime, has been hoisted on his own petard.
For decades Randi has gotten away with ridiculing all evidence of paranormal and psychic phenomena, often with little or no investigation into the claims. Nonetheless, the “skeptics” who share his view that anyone who makes paranormal claims is either self-deluded or fraudulent consider Randi–as did the MacArthur Foundation–a genius.
Serious researchers –Puthoff & Targ, Dean Radin, and Rupert Sheldrake, to name four– push back, a response that elicits a flurry of emails in which Randi continues to claim authority while evading direct questions . The skeptical community never bats an eye.
Then just two weeks ago, Randi picked the wrong fight by weighing in on in on the subject of Man-Made Global Warming.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a group of thousands of scientists in 194 countries around the world, and recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it. They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous. ..I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts about planet Earth.”
The reaction was swift and merciless as his tribe of fellow travelers instantly debunked the post, characterized him as a global warming denier, chastised him for commenting publicly without knowing what he was talking about, and scolded him for using his very public platform to give ammunition to the anti-science crowd.
Of course he quickly responded to their outrage in characteristic fashion:
“Well, my piece on AGW — Anthropogenic Global Warming — has elicited a huge response, both positive and negative. The subject, dealing with the influence of our species on the observed increase in overall temperatures around the globe — said to be about 0.7º Celsius — is apparently a matter of great contention, and I almost regret having entered into it. Almost…” He goes on to quote several readers’ outraged responses, agreeing that he got some things wrong, before wrapping up with an admonishment: “Again, the importance and the impact of this phenomenon is well beyond my grasp. I merely expressed my thoughts about the controversy, and I received a storm (no pun intended) of comments, many of which showed a lack of careful reading that led to unfair presumptions and interpretations.”
Unfortunately, none of the dozens of responses I read asked the most obvious question: if Randi’s thinking is so sloppy and self-serving on this critical subject–one that has mired the globe in a lunatic debate over whether man or mother earth is to blame for the atmospheric changes threatening civilization–maybe he’s not such a genius after all. Maybe there are other phenomenon “well beyond [his] grasp” that he debunked with as little understanding or investigation as he did AWG.
OK, so it’s not a Tiger-Woods-Emperor-Really-Has-No-Clothes game changer, with its never ending and often richly entertaining unraveling. Still, Randi’s global warming faux pas certainly equals the moment when Dorothy pulls back the curtain and reveals the mighty Oz as a traveling salesman from Kansas–who is not a villain, but a entrepreneur, a guy who spotted an empty market niche and filled it. Just like Randi did all those decades ago.
Another sign hopeful sign that the long Dark Age of Dubunking may be ending, Rupert Sheldrake the aforementioned Cambridge trained biochemist (who was highly regarded for his scientific acumen until he came up with the theory of Morphic Resonance that made him a pariah in his chosen profession) is the subject of a Science and Society Masters dissertation by Phillip Stevens for Imperial College, London titled “Has the Scientific Community Been Unfair to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.”
In a word, the paper’s answer to the title question is yes, the scientific community has been unfair to Sheldrake. Stevens’ was recently interviewed by Alex Tsakiri on his Skeptiko podcast . Here’s some of what was discussed:
“Stevens found that despite an unblemished academic record and a research fellowship at the Royal Society, Sheldrake faced public scorn from colleagues for publishing his theory of morphic fields which suggests a living, developing universe with its own inherent memory.
But the biggest surprise came when Stevens looked at Sheldrake’s collaboration with skeptics like Dr. Richard Wiseman. According to Stevens Wiseman failed to follow normal procedures scientists use when collaborating and reporting their results.
“Wiseman actually did repeats of Sheldrake’s results. He never denied this, but he only admitted it, I think, ten years later. I mean, in normal experiments, if you repeat someone’s results, you say it. And there didn’t seem to be any reason for him not to say, ‘I’ve repeated his results. These experiments work. Sheldrake wasn’t wrong.’ And you know what? Sheldrake was a Research Fellow at the Royal Society. I would hope that when he has some experiments and tests things he’d get it right because he’s from one of the best institutions of science in Britain and in the world. So I really don’t know why Wiseman took so long just to say, ‘Yes, the patterns in Sheldrake’s works were repeated in my own,’”said Stevens.”
You can read the dissertation here while guardedly rejoicing the dawning of what may be a somewhat enlightened new decade.