I’m standing in a lukewarm hot tub with 30 atheists. A big guy named Rick is teaching me the history of the modern Skeptic Movement. He’s explaining how magician James Randi and biologist Richard Dawkins have debunked psychics, mind readers, remote viewers, astrologers, homeopathists, acupuncturists and God.
This, I imagine, is how the Sophists must have felt—philosophizing in crowded Greek bathhouses as the fingers and toes prune. Then again, the pre-Socratic philosophers spent their time forming hippy dippy theories (“All things come from water,” “Everything is in flux”), and the modern Skeptics spend their time picking those theories apart.
Last week, 1,320 Skeptics gathered to Las Vegas to disprove, discuss, debate, and inquire. They were joined by a man who swore the moon landing was faked, a man who claimed he could cure terminal diseases over the phone, and 1 million pissed-off ghosts.
So did this motley crew play nice? The answer might surprise you ...
Part One: Richard Dawkins, James Randi, and Some Random Guy With No Identification
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m pulling into the South Point parking garage. I’m heading to The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM!): A Celebration of Critical Thinking and Skepticism. It’s the eighth annual meeting. And I’m running late.
The Richard Dawkins press conference is supposed to start in 10 minutes, and I haven’t even parked, let alone walked through the casino and to the convention hall, let alone checked in at the press registration table, let alone fired up my laptop up and typed up some clever questions. Oh, I’ve scraped by with dumb ones in the past, but Richard Dawkins topped Prospect magazine’s list of Top 100 British Intellectuals, so clever queries were de rigueur.
I double-time through the casino, breeze through the registration process—nobody asks for ID—and locate the room in which the press conference is set to take place. I take a seat next to a young man holding a giant crystal ball in his lap. I deduce that he’s not a “genuine” fortune teller (i.e., one who genuinely claims to tell fortunes), but a Skeptic pretending to be one. Presumably, to show how silly fortune tellers are.
“Do you know what I’m going to ask Dawkins?” I say to the pseudo seer, secretly hoping he’ll write my questions for me.
“You plan to ask Dawkins ...”—the mock oracle stares into his ball and squints his eyes—“questions pertaining to skepticism.”
Thanks for nothing, Nostradamus.
Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, enters the room wearing a light-brown blazer over an open-collared shirt. Within minutes, he’s fielding questions about arresting the pope and why American political leaders have to end their speeches with “God bless America.”
And then it’s my turn to ask something. Here’s what I come up with:
“When I checked in to the conference, they didn’t ask for my press credentials or for my drivers license or anything. They just gave me this press badge and let me in. Do you think they should have been more skeptical?”
Seemed like an appropriate question to ask at a Skeptics meeting.
“You think you should have been frisked for fear that you were armed?” Dawkins replies.
A couple people snicker, but Dawkins goes on: “I think it’s a rather nice characteristic to be trusting. We live in a deeply mistrustful world. And when you go though airport security, as I do, you get the feeling that the world runs on mistrust. I get the feeling, when I remove my shoes, that bin Laden has won. I think I’d rather take my chances in being blown up. So maybe we in the Skeptic movement are very trustful. It’s an interesting paradox that you possibly may have unearthed.”
When I asked the question, I wasn’t thinking about violence. What I’d meant was, Do you think TAM! organizers should be more concerned about freeloaders skipping the $425 registration fee? But it’s not surprising that Dawkins interpreted the question the way he did. He’s not only one of the smartest guys in the world; he’s also one of the most controversial. Crudely put: There are people who would like to see him dead.
Having casually unearthed a mind-shattering paradox—this according to Britain’s No. 1 intellectual!—I exit the press conference and walk through the convention hallway. I see skeptical conventioneers wearing T-shirts from previous TAM! gatherings, from the Center For Inquiry, and from SkeptiCamp.
Everybody is talking about the Million Ghost March. Apparently, to protest this year’s TAM!, mediums from across the globe have called upon 1 million dead souls to haunt South Point. Word is, the mediums specifically called upon the ghosts of Michael Jackson, Liberace and Hunter S. Thompson.
A young conventioneer tells me the Million Ghost March is a joke, originally posted on a Skeptic-friendly, Onion-like website (and then reposted on woo-woo websites that didn’t get the joke), but before I can investigate further, I’m told that James Randi, the man responsible for the whole convention, is ready for our interview.
James “The Amazing” Randi has spent 70 years performing magic and investigating paranormal claims. As a lifelong magician myself, I was honored to spend some one-on-one time with the prolific Kris Kringle dead ringer.
“Does being a magician make you more skeptical, or are Skeptics attracted to magic?” I ask.
“The first one,” Randi replies. “It makes you more skeptical. Magicians see how easily people are fooled and how quickly people make assumptions. Let me give you an example ...”
Randi crumples up his cocktail napkin with his right hand. He takes it with his left. He readjusts. Then he opens his left fist.
The napkin is gone.
“We all make assumptions,” Randi continues, “and often our assumptions are wrong. You assumed that I transferred the napkin from my right hand to my left—in part because I was looking at my left hand—but I actually kept it in my right hand the whole time.”
Well, Randi may have assumed that I assumed that he put the crumpled up napkin in his left hand, but in actuality, I knew that he didn’t. See, I’ve been performing false transfers myself for 22 years, so I know one when I see one.
Of course, Randi’s assumption about my assumption only proves his initial point: we all make faulty assumptions. Happens to the best of us.
Randi and I weren’t the only magicians at TAM! The current President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is a magician (DJ Grothe), the TAM! press manager is a magician (Austin Luton), and three of the TAM! lecturers/performers are magicians (Michael Weber, Johnny Thompson, Jamy Ian Swiss).
Penn & Teller couldn’t make this year’s TAM!, but even the most skeptical Skeptic wouldn’t question their skeptic street cred. Five nights a week, Penn & Teller perform a “mind reading” illusion in which they satirize the tactics commonly used by psychics, mediums, and so-called body language readers. During the trick, Penn delivers the line, “All psychics, mind readers, and mediums are, without exception, bullshit. Their tricks are evil and immoral.” And when he does, the audience bursts into applause.
So you have to wonder: Do Penn & Teller have a self-selecting audience (i.e., Do only Skeptics see their show?), or do average Americans like Skeptics now? Are the tides turning against Sylvia Browne, John Edward and Uri Geller, and toward James Randi and Richard Dawkins?
Perhaps. But still, not everybody is on the same page ...
Part Two: The MythBusters vs. The Moon Hoaxer
Adam Savage, co-host of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, just finished his lecture, which involved being good even while lacking belief in the supernatural. The Skeptics are pouring out of Ballrooms A & B. But they’re not talking about Savage; they’re taking about “the moon hoax guy.”
“What was that moon kid’s problem?” one Skeptic asks.
“Do you think the moon hoax guy flew all the way from Australia just to do that?” asks another.
I don’t need a mind reader to tell me who the “moon hoax guy” is; he’s the one everyone is pointing at. He looks just over 20 and he’s got a moustache and he’s wearing a black suit.
Everybody’s talking about him, but nobody is talking to him. So I walk up and introduce myself.
His name is Jarrah White. He describes himself as “The Grandson of Apollo Hoax Theory.” He believes the Apollo moon landing video was faked. He believes we’ve never been to the moon. He believes we can’t go to the moon because the radiation would kill us along the way.
In other words, White is a skeptic.
But he’s a skeptic with a lower-case “s”—he’s not really part of the Skeptic community.
According to JREF president DJ Grothe, “Skeptics have little in common with ‘moon hoaxers’ and other conspiracy theorists because we in the Skeptical community are open to evidence and to changing our minds. Moon hoaxers, Birthers [those who believe Obama is not American] and Truthers [those who believe 9/11 was an inside job] form conclusions from which no amount of evidence can dissuade them.”
I ask Jarrah “Grandson of the Apollo Hoax” White about what went on during Savage’s lecture. Before he answers, he pulls out a dictation machine from his pocket. He wants to make sure I don’t misrepresent his position or misquote him.
We take a seat on a bench and I do my best to type White’s exact words as they come from his mouth. He looks over my shoulder, at my computer screen, as I type, which only lowers my accuracy.
“I’m interested in the moon landing conspiracy,” White says. “MythBusters did a program where they disproved some of the theories advocated by moon landing hoaxers—those of us who don’t believe we’ve actually landed on the moon—and during Adam’s speech, I pointed out that he botched his exposé.”
“How so?” I ask.
“The conspiracy theory is this: The ‘astronauts’ were filmed on wires, on a film set. And then the footage of them on the wires was slowed down. The MythBusters disproved the wires and slow motion separately. They never combined the two.”
“And you got the mic and said this during Adam’s speech?” I ask.
“And did he cede that point?”
I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It sounded like White made a simple point and Savage agreed to it.
To see whether there’s more to the story, I walk into the green room, and ask Savage himself. Turns out there is more to the story.
“My complaint wasn’t with what he said during the speech;” Savage tells me, “my complaint was what he did afterwards.”
“What did he do?”
“He monopolized me. He kept asking more and more questions, and he saw that there were a hundred people standing around, trying to ask me their own questions and trying to get autographs, but he wouldn’t let any of them get a word in. I didn’t come to TAM! to appease any one guy.”
“Does this sort of thing happen everywhere you go?” I ask.
“That was the first time, actually. I just got my irate fan cherry busted!”
“And do you think his main point has any merit?”
“Moon landing deniers claim a hundred different things, and on that list, one is wires, one is slowed down tape, and one is wires & slowed down tape. When we shot the show, we made choices about what we’d use to produce a reasonable narrative. We couldn’t address all 100 moon hoax conspiracies.”
I walk out of the green room and find White still on the bench. A group of Skeptics has gathered around him, and they’re debating the specifics of the Apollo video.
One of the Skeptics asks White, “How do you respond to the reflectors?” And White responds to the reflectors.
“Are you an atheist?” asks another, presumably attempting to judge White’s place at the convention.
White says that he is an atheist, and that answer seems to surprise everybody.
After the Skeptics dissipate, I ask White why he flew in all the way from Australia to make this point to Savage. I ask why he spends his life trying to convince people that the moon landings were faked. (White’s got a website, a YouTube channel, etc.)
“It’s important to get the truth out,” he says.
“But you said you’re an atheist, too. And a lot of people believe that God exists. So why don’t you spend your time on the God issue? Why is the moon one so much more important to you?”
That question gives White pause. (None of my others did). After the pause, he tells me that he wanted to be an astronaut as a kid.
See, White never became an astronaut. And now, it’s too late for him. So, I could speculate that after White was first told that he couldn’t become an astronaut—for this reason or that—he became envious of those astronauts who’d already flown into space and to the moon. I could then speculate that White’s emotion led his intellect—i.e., If I can’t fly to the moon, then no one can ... or has ... and therefore, the moon landing must have been faked.
Any psychologist or trial lawyer will tell you: The heart leads the mind. Of course, the heart can lead the mind to the right place. So even if my speculations are accurate, it doesn’t necessarily make White wrong. (What makes White wrong is the fact that we have been to the moon.)
Still, the Skeptics at TAM! respect White’s dissenting opinion. Perhaps because they identity with White. Perhaps because they’re usually the ones doing the dissenting.
At most meetings, the “crazy” guy is thrown out (or tased) after he asks his “crazy” question or makes his “crazy” point. But not at TAM! What follows White’s “crazy” question? Discussion, debate and civility.
This respect continues throughout the whole conference. During a panel on the paranormal, a man in the audience stands up, takes the mic, and claims that he can “restore normal feelings and sensations” to breast cancer survivors ... by looking at them. He says that he can also cure illnesses over the phone.
I expect the audience to burst out laughing. I expect Randi, who is on the panel, to make some sort of joke at this man’s expense.
But I am wrong; Randi takes the man’s claim seriously:
“This is eminently testable,” Randi says. “We’ll have to talk to a statistician to see how many cases we need to look into, and we’ll have to talk to medical authorities, but we can work out a protocol for this test. We will be in touch.”
The audience applauds.
Randi isn’t just pretending to take this guy’s claims seriously; Randi is taking them seriously. And that, I imagine, is the hardest part of being a lifelong Skeptic: Whenever somebody comes forward with an unlikely-sounding claim, you can’t dismiss it outright just because you’ve heard similar bogus claims in the past. Because if you do, if you judge before you investigate, then you’re not much better than the guy who believes everything he hears.