James Randi, The Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police – Newsweek and The Daily Beast

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In a flat expanse of southwest Las Vegas, six miles from the gaudiness and glitz of the Strip, sits the massive South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. Enter its cavernous “gaming floor” and one is immediately pulled into a world of middle-aged waitresses in skimpy costumes, geriatric gamblers, and men in tanktops—arms invariably graffitied with tattoos—scanning The Racing Form.


Article via Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist

But during a four-day stretch in mid-July, these stereotypical Vegas denizens shared the hotel with a very different, very un-Vegas crowd. On the far end of the casino and up an escalator, in a windowless conference center, there was an annual convention taking place called The Amazing Meeting—a gathering known to attendees simply as TAM.

TAM is organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a group devoted to a philosophy called skepticism: the debunking of psychics, mediums, pseudoscientists, faith-healers, homeopaths, and anyone else who makes claims that defy the known laws of science. Skepticism has a wide following—the Internet is littered with self-proclaimed skeptic blogs, podcasts, and forums—and JREF is widely acknowledged to be the movement’s hub. Over 1,000 people attended this year’s conference, which featured an array of panelists and speakers, from magician Penn Jillette to comedian Father Guido Sarducci to Steven Novella, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. (And yes, it was ironic that this militantly rational group decided to hold its annual meeting in a casino.)

James Randi speaks at The Amazing Meeting in 2013.

The activists of TAM see themselves as waging a broad, multifront battle to drag American culture, inch by inch, away from the nonscientific and the nonlogical. This turns out to be a surprisingly uphill struggle. Probably the majority of Americans believe in some degree of what JREF’s founder, James Randi, calls “woo-woo.” (“Please use woo-woo,” he instructs me. “I’m trying to get it into extensive use.”) In 2005, for instance, Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans subscribed to at least one paranormal belief. Television personalities like John Edward earn huge audiences by purporting to commune with the dead. Numerous Americans swear by homeopathy, ingest supplements with no proven medical benefit, or believe, against all available evidence, that genetically modified organisms might transform humans into tumor-covered golems.

Indeed, whether it’s feng shui consultants rearranging your apartment’s “energies” or alternative medicine advocates pushing dubious internal “cleanses,” woo-woo is very big business in the United States. “People like the flavor of bullshit, the aroma,” Randi says. “It’s very rare that people will stand for a complete lack of bullshit in anything.”

During a 2010 address to TAM, Slate science writer Phil Plait conceded that he “sometimes wonders” if the goals of skepticism are “reasonable.” Not because the arguments themselves are deficient, but because most people aren’t predisposed to question extraordinary claims. “Our brains don’t work that way,” Plait argued, because they “aren’t wired for skeptical thinking. They’re wired for faith.” And therein lies the central challenge for the skeptic movement: if we’re genetically predisposed to magical thinking, if we desire a certain amount of bullshit in our everyday lives, can a group of people ardently opposed to superstition ever really win?

Randi made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
 

Written By: Michael Moynihan
continue to source article at thedailybeast.com

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  1. A thought on susceptibility to woo woo. We have a family friend who has gone off the deep end. He is convinced that aliens will contact him if he but asks them. He thinks smart meters are harming his health. He annoyed the emergency room folks twice imagining he was having a heart attack. He is trying to persuade his doctor he has muscular dystrophy. He sleeps on a pad designed to keep him “grounded”. He was always one for strange enthusiasms like sewing magnets into his clothes. He was in a bad accident that left him unable to walk for a few years. He decided he was going to walk again, and created his own grueling program, and now walks normally. The odd thing is is he a working computer programmer trained in electrical engineering. So this attraction to woo is not just a simple ignorance. I think part of it is vastly overvaluing the importance of one instance, as though one instance of simultaneity is iron clad evidence of causality.

  2. A thought on susceptibility to woo woo. We have a family friend who has gone off the deep end.

    You bring up a good point. This person sounds as if a mental illness is going on. They are best helped with psychologists/psychiatrists etc.

    I’m not sure this group/skeptical groups in general are fully dealing with the full range of woo and misinformation that is going around today. (Woo – A word I ironically learned from my former New Thought minister referring to all the trappings of new age materials not recognizing that she was the biggest purveyor of woo woo. I wonder if she listened to Randi to a certain extent to use this word.) Yes, they are productive dealing with anti-vacers, and certain medical information, but why focus on John Edwards, Uri Geller, UFOs, and other bizarre issues that do not make up the crux of the problem? I hear more women telling me to “put it out there” or “Don’t say that, you don’t want to put that out there.” I’ve had women at the cosmetics counter try to sell me some anti-aging nonsense. ( Let me tell you – There is more notable woo going on at the cosmetic counter that never comes to any of these skeptics’ attention. Perhaps they are dominated by men who just don’t look in this direction.) I have lots of co-workers that go on “cleanse” diets regularly by drinking lemonade and maple syrup or even use a prepackaged “cleanses.” Each month, copies of the latest horoscope are passed out. One friend blindly follows what her pyschic tells her to do. Another gets antibiotics for her viral colds. Many follow the advice of doctor Oz.It seems as if the media is the worst perpetrators of woo around.

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