James Randi & Social Darwinism revisited

After my recent blog post about listening to the interview that Will Storr did with James Randi, it would seem that people from the JREF have listened to the same recording after I put them in touch with Storr. Over on the Doubtful News post where Randi initially denied making the comments he was reported to have said during the interview, he has recently left a comment retracting the allegation that he was quote-mined by Will Storr. James Randi wrote

 The unfair suggestion that Mr. Storr tried to provoke me, or that he’s a “bad guy,” is something I must dismiss, since I believe I would have remembered that sort of behavior. In any case, I now know much more about the described encounter, and I maintain that I would never have said I was a Social Darwinist, since I only recently learned in detail what that term really means, and in fact I was quite ignorant of the history of the movement organized around that false idea. I’ve been surprised that this was not obvious to people discussing the matter, but I accept that the conversation with Mr. Storr went just as described. No problem with that.

I think that confusion has arisen around being an out and out Social Darwinist, and holding views that have roots within Social Darwinism, which Randi admitted to during the interview with Storr when he spoke about believing drug users should be able to ‘do themselves in’ and if that was what Social Darwinism was, then he was a beliver. Randi can maintain he didn’t say he was a Social Darwinist, but nobody has suggested he did. Randi goes on to say

Though my Foundation is small, we’ve had a measurable and important effect on both young and old, internationally, and countless persons have expressed their thanks to us for educating them against false beliefs and attitudes. There are few greater rewards than that. Now, contrast that with the fact that there are massively-funded, very widely publicized, very active charities and agencies that constantly demonstrate to the public the damage done to them by narcotics or alcohol, the dangers of using them, the dire results on individuals and on families, and the very real penalties – health-wise and financially – that are thus incurred. I have always believed that people should be held accountable for the bad decisions they make, especially when society spends so much in time and resources to warn them of the likely consequences. I cannot understand how any informed adult who is aware of the facts may still choose to misuse drugs or alcohol. I believe that they should simply get out of the way of those who want a cleaner, better, safer and productive environment in which to raise their families.

This is a horrible, horrible opinion of people who are addicted to drugs. I have family members and old school friends who’ve battled addictions who weren’t successful the first or the second time they tried, but went on to successfully turn their back on an addiction that had a vice like grip on them and their lives. To suggest that they should ‘simply get out of the way‘ is insulting. People turn to addictive substances for a number of reasons, and a blanket judgement of this nature is very ignornant.

I’m well aware that I sometimes “shoot from the hip” and speak on things about which I know very little. In this present situation, I published my personal opinions about drug addiction without knowing very much about the neuroscience behind addiction, or the addiction recovery field. Not only did I say some deeply regrettable and insensitive things, but as I’ve learned more about the questions and issues at hand, I accept that I have been wrongheaded on a number of topics related to these issues. Even at 84, I’m still learning. Please bear with me, folks.

This is a very good point. No matter how intelligent you are, no matter how long you have been around, no matter what things you may have experienced or encountered during your life there is still so much to be learnt, and so much of our personal worldview is built on biases that we don’t even register. This is why you have to turn you skepticism inwards as much outwards – being honest about the limits of your knowledge isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength.

However, I do think that somebody of Randi’s standing should already be taking time to afford the ideas that he thinks are true the same skeptical scrutiny that he affords other people and their ideas. After all, this isn’t the first time that Randi has publicly shared opinions that are irrational and unsubstantiated. However, don’t worry, I won’t be suggesting he should simply get out of the way any time soon.

Those who have stuck their fingers in their ears and denied it possible that Randi could have said what he was quoted to have said, those who have angrily pointed fingers, and those who have accused people (including me!) of trying to demonise James Randi have the most to learn here. Hold nobody as an infallible super hero in your mind and you’ll never be disappointed by them. For those who have used this drama as an excuse to trample on James Randi’s name & to tarnish the JREF and their work I’m going to adapt a bible quote here – let he who is without faulty and biased reasoning cast the first stone. You’re human too – dig deep enough into the past of anyone and you’ll find something equally as irrational and disturbing.

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11 Comments on James Randi & Social Darwinism revisited

  1. Paul Pearson // 3 March, 2013 at 5:48 pm // Reply

    Nobody is perfect, and most people would openly admit to having been wrong, or spoken out of turn, or simply had a daft moment where they spoke complete rubbish without thinking. In the past this would have occurred in private, with only a few listeners who could question and clarify what was actually meant. This ‘incident’ is another example of the inability to correct yourself when talking in a public environment to many people. This has become far more common I think due to enhanced communication tools on the Internet. We all need to take a breath, and when we hear something which sounds offensive, stupid or simply wrong, we need to consider what was really meant, and ask for clarification. Well done Hayley for asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions. Maybe some day everyone will come to accept that asking for clarification is not a personal attack!

  2. Hayley,

    I’m glad Randi was able to reach out and clarify his intent, and your conclusion is correct – people on one side should not stomp out any indication that prominent skeptics are fallible and human, and the others should not look for reasons to gloat in the face of this. There should be no hero worship in the skeptic community, period.

    There is just one thing that troubles me about the way you’ve covered this, starting with this quote:

    “I think that confusion has arisen around being an out and out Social Darwinist, and holding views that have roots within Social Darwinism, which Randi admitted to during the interview with Storr when he spoke about believing drug users should be able to ‘do themselves in’ and if that was what Social Darwinism was, then he was a beliver. Randi can maintain he didn’t say he was a Social Darwinist, but nobody has suggested he did.”

    In your previous post, you very much suggest that he was referring to himself as a dyed-in-the-wool Social Darwinist. It’s right in the title, and the article goes on not to speculate from a neutral standpoint, but to string together instances in the past that fit the bill. It’s reminiscent of the JAQing off some do when they “just ask questions”.

    I don’t find it particularly neutral because while you have linked to other incidences in the past where Randi has expressed some (to put it lightly) shitty opinions, you have also declined to speak about the biggest portion of his work — public science advocacy. He has devoted countless numbers of years to informing the public of the ways they are being fooled and taken advantage of so they might have a better quality of life, which is quite the opposite of what I would consider Social Darwinism to be. If we are to be Bayesian in any capacity, we have to weigh *all* of the past in with new information instead of just the pieces that conveniently fit.

    Will Storr also followed a similar suit in pretty strongly pushing the conclusion to “definitely a Social Darwinist”, and to decline releasing the original material for the rest of us to hear and judge ourselves is still baffling me, given that as skeptics, we prefer original material over second-hand accounts. I’m not sure about the mentions of quote-mining, and I must assume that if Randi doesn’t think he is, then he’s not, but I still just find it very strange to purposely withhold original material, especially when in question.

    Are some of Randi’s views problematic? Damn straight they are, and they ought to be addressed (as you have begun to here). But even in as much as you have given his apology and clarification a voice here (for which I’m grateful – corrections/apologies should be noticed), I’m not entirely convinced that you’ve been fair. Randi obviously has more nuanced views than what he showed in the interview, given that he, himself, has admitted to trying to help others out of their addictions. It’s not as stark as his views being “rooted in Social Darwinism” as it seems, or at least that is my interpretation.

    • The reason Will Storr asked Randi about Social Darwinism is because of those earlier comments that he made, which is exactly why I linked to them. The title ‘James Randi and Social Darwinism’ was used to indicate that I was writing about… James Randi and Social Darwinism. If I had wanted to say he was a Social Darwinist then I would have titled it ‘James Randi believes in Social Darwinism’ or similar. I also did not suggest anywhere that he had at any point suggested he was a Social Darwinist – I spoke about the things he had said, his ideas and opinions. I find it offensive that you would accuse me of JAQing with regards to this.

      I am also confused as to how I could have been any fairer to James Randi in this situation. People suggested Will Storr was quote-mining James Randi, others were suggesting this was proof that James Randi was a terrible person – so I went to the source material to find out once and for all what was going on and what had been said.

      Defend Randi all you feel you need to, but please do not suggest I have an agenda when I do not. That crosses the line and is offensive.

  3. Thorsten Siebenborn // 6 March, 2013 at 9:43 am // Reply

    Greetings,

    as readers of “Daily Grail” are aware, this is not the first time Randi failed. The problem is, it isn’t only flawed opinions, Randi is, in my opinion, fundamentally dishonest.

    http://www.dailygrail.com/Skeptics/2008/3/Randis-Sleight-Hand

    The Wuerzburg tests are really one of the rare cases where it can be shown
    that Randi is lying because we have documentation of the event and it was organized by the German part of CSI, the GWUP.

    The candidates can be found here:
    http://www.wdr.de/tv/quarks/sendungsbeitraege/2004/1012/pdf/Q_Psi.pdf

    Peter Schick
    Rüdiger Flade
    Johannes Grüner
    Herbert Wunsch
    Karl-Heinz Reuter
    Kurt Gerlach
    Harald Wiese

    No Suitbert Ertel as claimed by Randi.

    The documentation of the event:
    http://www.gwup.org/zeitschrift/skeptiker-archiv/155-skeptiker-2005-2

  4. You have addressed pretty much nothing I outlined and instead have assumed I am blindly defending Randi while taking criticism as a personal attack. If I somehow expressed myself poorly, then I apologize for as much. I have nothing against you, I have even complimented the things I thought you’ve done well here. I can’t say you’ve been even a fraction as charitable towards me.

    I have to say, I’m extremely disappointed and I will not be back.

    • To be perfectly honest, I don’t owe you or anybody who comments on my blog any explanation or response, and in the case of your comment I responded to the points that I felt most important to clarify. If you felt that wasn’t charitable then that’s fine, but I’m not going to apologise.

  5. I think Randi has been around long enough to summarize what he sees as a better society, my view is that all net-negative contributors to a society should have a one strike and out policy applied, from crime to taking drugs, I’d even make alcohol illegal, it is by far more harmful to society than drugs.

    We have 7 billion people on a planet that may not be able to support them much longer, either now or in the future difficult decisions will have to be made, countries and peoples that do not apply or allow some form of Social Darwinism, cannot be competitive with societies who will, China has no qualms in telling people how many children they can have, and have little time for OOW children and drug offenders.

    I don’t really care for people ‘turning their lives around’, so what? They hardly ever contribute beyond average to society, so are still net negative. For me if you are too sick, lazy or stupid to contribute in a even more competitive world, then what is wrong applying socially what nature would do herself? In the wild the sick, the stupid and the lazy get eaten and don’t contribute to the gene pool and sully it.

    I can understand your thinking, I’ve had family member with addictions to varying degrees of success of ending it, some died, and TBH I would have rather they died first attempt, than spend years continually seeing if the next attempt would be successful. The heartache is the same, makes no difference if they die ten years ago or ten years from now. In this day and age no one can make the claim that they ‘Didn’t know’ that drink and drugs or a life of violence was ‘wrong’, people these days DO make a conscious choice to go down that path, I see no reason to expect them to make better choices in the future, with their “I know best” attitude.

    Anyway, nice article, it’s good to see a lesbian typing out a more level headed response, rather than some biased slant towards LGBT, as I mostly do.

    • Firstly, I’m not lesbian, and secondly, your opinion of the ‘too sick, lazy and stupid’ is highly offensive. Also, really uninformed and stupid. Just stupid.

    • Not to mention showing no empathy, humanity or evidence that you know anything whatsoever about the neurological and psychological mechanisms of addiction. Also, what the hell does any of this has to do with sexual preference or the LGBT community? Because Randi is gay?

  6. Anthony McCarthy // 4 April, 2013 at 7:40 pm // Reply

    Oh, for heavens sake. What would it take for “Skeptics” to admit that James Randi lied? He’s been doing this for decades, saying something that gets him into hot water and then walking it back knowing that his fan base will forgive anything he says or does. Most of the Catholics I know are more critical of the pope.

  7. I know nothing of the controversy discussed here but what I do know is that a sizeable number of scientists do not trust Randi in his evaluation of evidence. Or to put it another way – he is dishonest! He is also a publicity-seeker and arrogant in his assumption that most of the people who describe unusual experiences that they have had are gullible or superstitious. We don’t need James Randi and his foundation to teach us how to think!
    I often read accounts of his high IQ but that doesn’t impress me. There’s no fool like an educated fool! I know he is a very clever illusionist because he can talk through his arse!
    I intend to form a foundation to study Randi and how he has managed to fool so many intelligent people for so long. Come back Uri Geller! All is forgiven!

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