An Evening with James Randi & Friends

I spent yesterday evening with James Randi & Friends - about 500 of them.

James Randi

The event was this one, which promised “A rare opportunity to share an evening with James Randi and his associates in an evening of discussion about science, pseudoscience, scepticism and the paranormal.”

James Randi, in case you didn’t know is famous for being a skeptic and used to appear on TV shows debunking people like Uri Geller the spoon bender. James’ website his here and you can read more about him on wikipedia here.

So, am I now a fully converted Skeptic?

Well, for starters I still don’t think I really know what it means to be a Skeptic. The Skeptics Society say this.

Skeptics say “When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.” But then I don’t really get what’s the big deal about “believing”, anyway? I change my mind all the time. And I’m happy to let other people believe whatever they like. Your religion may be dumb, but mine’s even dumber.

Consequently I didn’t really know what to expect from the evening. I’d heard some of the speakers before, and have read a couple of books by Simon Singh. (I even cracked a couple of the codes in his Code Book.)

Unfortunately, I think in the end I was rather disappointed by the evening. All the speakers were clearly interesting people who I’m sure could have come up with some fascinating things to show us. Instead, although I received an evening of mildly amusing recycled humour, I came away feeling that I hadn’t really learned anything new.

There were moments where speakers discussed things that I’d have loved to have heard more about, but the brief amount of time they got to speak meant that nothing got covered in any depth. For example, I’d love to have heard more from Dr Ben Goldacre about The Placebo Effect and the research done in that area.

I think a highlight would have been Prof. Richard Wiseman’s magic demonstrations - particularly the sleight of hand psychology demonstration - had I not seen him do this before at the Dana Centre with magician Jeff McBride a few years ago.

I’d also liked to have heard more from Simon Singh. His gherkin electrocution demonstration to show how sodium lighting works was entertaining, although could perhaps have done with a little more explanation? Proving that The Teletubbies are evil, however … I mean, come on … who hasn’t seen that dumb joke before?

I guess the highlight of the evening should have been hearing from the great, sorry, Amazing James Randi, himself. I can’t really remember much of what he had to say, however. He “fooled” us by talking into a non-functioning microphone on a stand (that none of the other speakers had bothered to use, since they all had clip on mics), and by wearing a pair of spectacles without lenses in. Which, given how far away I was sitting, I’d have needed psychic powers to spot even if I’d known. Big deal.

The videos he showed us were entertaining, but looked about twenty or thirty years old. Except of course, I could have stayed at home, saved myself the eleven pounds ticket price and four pounds train fare and watched them on youtube, instead. They’re here and here, to save you wondering.

The message of the evening appeared to be how terrible it is that there are people on this planet willing to believe things that the skeptics present weren’t willing to believe. People might be paying money for psychic readings from people who aren’t really psychic? Gosh, how terrible. Other people might make choices and decisions based on criteria other than “rational scientific reasoning”? Oh, no! Homeopathy might be dangerous? People might be sending Peter Popoff a tenner for faith healing, even though he uses a radio ear piece to communicate with his backstage assistant? Good job we don’t have anything serious happening on the planet that we need to worry about instead …

While I’m on the subject of debunking frauds, I’d like to give a special mention to mobile phone company Vodaphone. Their website clearly states about their “Passport” scheme: “Once you’ve paid your 75p connection fee, you can chat away as though you’re at home, knowing that the rest of the call is at your usual UK tariff.”

Of course, when I receive my bill a month later, I discover some rather large call charges on there. Turns out that “chat for 75p for as long as you want” actually means “after an hour we will start to bill you extra”. I spoke to their customer services where I was informed that this was clearly mentioned in the terms and conditions.

In the spirit of the James Randi $1,000,000 challenge, if anyone can show me where it says that you will be billed extra after an hour to make (not receive) calls in the T&C here, (assuming they haven’t changed it by the time you read this) then please let me know and I’ll send you my mobile phone to keep forever.

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