James Randi & Social Darwinism

“I’m going to play it, okay?”

“Yep”

Suddenly, over the phone, I can hear the unmistakable voice of James Randi. I’m stood in the silence outside of the building I work in and journalist Will Storr has called me so that I can hear exactly what Randi said to him with regards to Social Darwinism during an interview that went on to be published in ‘The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science’. It has been suggested by some that Will Storr quote-mined Rand by stating he’d said:

I’m a believer in Social Darwinism. Not in every case. I would do anything to stop a twelve-year-old kid from doing it. Sincerely. But in general, I think that Darwinism, survival of the fittest, should be allowed to act itself out. As long as it doesn’t interfere with me and other sensible, rational people who could be affected by it. Innocent people, in other words. James Randi, The Heretics

In fact Doubtful News reported today that James Randi, in a direct quote to Sharon Hill, stated he didn’t say he believed in such a thing.

“The statement “I’m a believer in social Darwinism,” did not come from me. In fact, I had to look up the expression to learn what was being referred to. This attack appears to be calling me a Nazi, nothing less. I demand that Mr. Storr refer me to the original sources to which we assume he has referred. Until then, I’ll only say that he has carefully selected phrases and statements out of context, not the sort of referencing that I would have expected from him.” James Randi

Godwin’s Law aside, when this was published I got in touch with Will to let him know what had been said and that’s when our phone call took place. I listened to the interview being played to me over the phone and I heard James Randi talk about how he believed that those addicted to substances should be allowed to “do themselves in“. He then said ‘I’m a believer in, if you call that Social Darwinism, I would have to generally agree”. There’s a pause and then Storr points out that many would consider such a belief to be a right wing view of other people. The conversation continues.

What is of interest to me here isn’t what sort of person such a belief makes James Randi (everyone is susceptible to faulty thinking, after all), but instead how quick people have been to accuse Will Storr of quote mining the man he was interviewing. As Will pointed out to me in our conversation, it isn’t something he would do because of the legal trouble he would inevitably get into, and the fact that such behaviour would put his journalistic reputation on the line.

Quote Mining
Quote mining is the deceitful tactic of taking quotes out of context in order to make them seemingly agree with the quote miner’s viewpoint [RationalWiki]

James Randi said that if his beliefs that drugs should be made legal so that those with addictions can “do themselves in” is Social Darwinism, then that is what he believes. This was not taken out of context in ‘The Heretics’. It also also not a radical new announcement from Randi, who has previously written about such beliefs.

James Randi demands that Will Storr refers him to the original source to which he has referred to in his book, and I hope that he’ll get in touch with Will so that he too can hear what he said during the interview and retract the allegation that Will Storr has quote mined him. Will doesn’t want to put the audio online because he doesn’t want to “start a war”.

James Randi isn’t perfect – I’m not stating he should be or that he has ever claimed to be. Perhaps, in the rush of the interview Randi said things he didn’t mean – or he forgot what he’d said during his time talking to Storr? I don’t know, but what I do know is that this reaction from some skeptics  supports the main theme of ‘The Heretics’ – that we all believe weird things, that we’re all susceptible to confirmation bias, and can be a bit closed minded when those beliefs and ideas that we hold to be true are challenged with new or conflicting information.

27 thoughts on “James Randi & Social Darwinism

  1. Hm.

    Okay.

    Not everyone’s perfect, but I think it would be good either for Randi to hear the interview, or for the audio of the interview to be released uncut/unedited to the public…

    IMO, of course…

    1. I think it’s up to James Randi to make that decision. Will doesn’t want to go on the attack. If Randi doesn’t remember what he said in the interview then it’s probably best for him to listen before it goes public, even if it does at all. It’s easy enough for him to get in touch with Will.

  2. The quote you refer to having heard: “‘I’m a believer… if you call that Social Darwinism, I would have to agree.”

    Quote from his book: “I’m a believer in Social Darwinism.”

    Are these two quotes referring to the same statement?

    1. They are. The book edits down a conversation stretched over time, with gaps in speech and so on, to make it better reading.

      James Randi is stating that if believing that drug users should be allowed to kill themselves (“do themselves in”) through their stupidity is social darwinism then that is what he believes.

  3. I am one of the people who questioned the accuracy of the quote, not because I didn’t think it was possible that Randi said such a thing, but because the language didn’t sound like him and the meaning isn’t quite what he has written/said in the past.

    Even reading this post, you didn’t confirm that the quote was verbatim, and given the sensitivity of the topic, I would like to know exactly what he said. If the quote is indeed verbatim, well that’s just one more thing that I don’t agree with Randi about. It’s disappointing, but it doesn’t make him evil.

    1. He spoke about believing that drug users should be able "to do themselves in" if that's what they choose. He then went on to say 'I'm a believer if you call that Social Darwinism, I would have to agree" regarding what he said. I presume that Will gave a physical reaction to what he'd said re: "do themselves in" and he responded to that.

      I also don't think Randi is evil, but I also don't believe that Will Storr had ill intentions.

  4. Don’t know and don’t really care whether Randi is a Social Darwinist or not, but it’s absurd for Storr to refuse to post the audio online at this point. He’s making claims about Randi’s views that are extremely inflammatory and Randi denies having said.

    Regardless of whether or not Randi did or did not say it, the best thing for all involved now is to have *exactly* what he said available for the rest of us to examine and determine how accurately he was quoted.

    The “start a war” line is bizarre…if Randi said the things on the post you linked to, his views are outrageous and need to be exposed.

  5. I will be a bit cynical but this controversy must be doing well for this book. I suppose Mr Storr would like us to buy the book if we want more of the quote.

    Randi has made it known in the past that he is a libertarian. A political philosophy that wants more of the free market to be in control more than the government. I dont think Randi wants to actively weed out people. I think its what is consequence of legalizing the drugs if people want to go out and abuse them.

    There is already been divisions between Rebecca Watson and some of her critics. I hope there is not going to be a very divisive and personal fight between liberals and libertarians.

    1. The quotes are online, actually, so you don’t need to buy the book at all. In fact, I linked to them in the post above…
      Also, when I spoke to Will he told me he’d love for all of this to just blow over.

  6. This is games.

    If Randi denies this, and Storr has a tape proving he did then either Randi retracts or Storr publishes.

    No games.

    But it does matter if Randi is a social darwinist, because it undoes much of his work against charlatans because it is such a vile, and unscientific, position to hold.

    1. I believe that the JREF and Storr have spoken in private about the recording. Will was v. aware that people against Randi would use the recording to attack him and was reluctant to publish it.

      I do think it’s a shame if he holds that view, especially as the JREF do outreach work. At the end of the interview Randi also admits that on occasions he has lied and gotten carried away with mistruths, and I think that’s an even bigger shame.

  7. Well, JREF is not Randi and Randi is not JREF – it employs many people, and presumably tolerates a diversity of views. So it would be a shame if this was to affect JREF – however, supporting ideas like social darwinism is something, that many people, including myself, find repellent and unforgivable. Even when well intentioned, such as the eugenics advocated by the Fabian Society in its early days, the consequences in practice have always been horrific.

  8. This is a killer from him as well: “I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race.”

    1. There were a few things he said in the interview that were disappointing. About addiction, mental health and about lying too.

  9. What an irony,I never thought I`d come to defend James Randi.I always felt the man was an overrated narcissistic ego-maniacal publicity seeker,but accusing him of being some kind of crypto Nazi is utterly ridiculous. Skeptics-believers même combat, it`s about emotional immaturity & hysterical bondage to politically correct. The betrayal of critical thinking.

    1. Try reading what has been written before misrepresenting what people have said and written. They are Randi’s words represented as he said them. Your defence is irrational and emotional.

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