“I’m going to play it, okay?”
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 Randi 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 accusation 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 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.