The horror that is the skeptic/atheist movement

This is so painful for me: Hayley Stevens has posted a measured critique of James Randi. It’s all true: Randi did flirt favorably with eugenics and climate change denial. He was a stage magician, not a scientist, and I can say from personal experience, from multiple long conversations with him, that it’s true. He would shy away from such ideas if he knew he was talking to a scientist, but he’d let the nonsense leak out, still. He had a poor reputation with women — he didn’t have much to do with them, which obviously didn’t affect me much, directly, but it did mean he was much more comfortable with us Old Boys and led to underrepresentation of women in the movement. He occasionally let that slip out, too, like his remark downplaying the sexual assaults of Michael Shermer, “Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion”. He personally introduced me to Lawrence Krauss, and was part of a conversation in which Krauss asked me to not criticize a certain guy named Jeffrey Epstein; Randi just knew Epstein as someone who liked sexy women and who donated to Krauss’s science efforts. Randi was immensely popular, but his lasting influence could have so much greater if he hadn’t been so narrow in many of his views. I hate to say it, but Stevens characterizes that movement entirely accurately.

This one isn’t so painful: Eiynah has a podcast titled “Woking Up” in which she totally shreds Sam Harris. Without reservation, I’d say that Harris’s ongoing popularity has been a disaster for atheism or the “New Atheism”, whatever that is, and she exposes the fact that he’s awfully supportive of racists and makes terribly bad arguments against the Left. I enjoyed that one, since I’ve never been a fan of the Harris school of deceptive reasonableness in the service of the worst possible takes. It’s easy to see right through him, and the people who can’t simply favor his polite racism.

No gods, no masters, and no goddamn hero worship.


  1. JoeBuddha says

    Yeah, I used to have a lot of heroes, growing up as a sci-fi fan, but I finally matured in my viewpoints about the Golden Age writers and such which cured me of that. Not to mention people like Rowling. Now, I have heroes, but only a handful.

  2. mikey says

    @3 Beat me to it. A ridiculous hatchet job, if “tone trolling” can be said to be hatchetry. They had it pinned to the top of the site for days. I was dismayed, as they usually are pretty hard on obvious bullshit.

  3. mikey says

    Not that I would condone any of his actual flaws, but that piece was complaining about the good things he accomplished….

  4. PaulBC says

    I would look at Randi as just representing a different generation, and it’s fair to praise his accomplishments without endorsing everything about him. I always preferred Carl Sagan’s brand of smugly teasing skepticism to the showmanship variety, but it takes all kinds, and Sagan carries personal baggage too.

    I would be hard-pressed to think of an icon of my youth that I wouldn’t consider fairly awful in some contexts. (Particularly golden age science fiction authors.) Maybe the take-away is to accept the good work and avoid any kind of hero worship.

  5. mnb0 says

    “and no goddamn hero worship”
    It’s a good thing that you learned that lesson (I learned it several decades ago, when I found out that anarchist Michael Bakunin was an antisemite).

  6. oddie says

    I went to one skeptic/ atheist conference in 2009 and they spent the entire time making fun of how stupid Christians were and I never went to another one. It was a super disappointing turn off. The in group out group energy was intense and gross.

  7. says

    Good episode. I bookmarked the podcast.
    Harris is one of the people who disparages offense in general terms as if it were a bad thing and not a general human instinct to be engaged with. So what if a group (people called racist) don’t like being called racist?
    They are adults responsable for their own actions. If their political decision making is damaged from a racism claim so badly they hurt themselves and people critisizing them Harris should be targeting criticism at them.
    But since it’s an example of white fragility Harris won’t. Did Harris ever argue with creationists? If so I’m wondering how he ever managed to handle the comparisons with Nazis and general disparagement? He seems soft.

  8. chrislawson says

    I agree with a lot of that Hayley Stevens post, except for her implicit support for Mitch Horowitz’s article, which for all of its fair discussion of Randi’s many flaws, is clearly OK with Randi debunking Uri Geller and his ilk, but not with Randi debunking Horowitz’s preferred flavours of pseudoscience.

    Case in point: Horowitz defends Rhine for extensively cataloguing even negative results in his 1940 book with Pratt and others. But in fact, that book excluded the largest ever trial to that time, Woolley’s 1926 BBC broadcast, which showed no significant effect. The reasoning was that Woolley used a method of asking the audience to ”perceive” five different “thoughts” including two playing cards and then write in with their guesses. Out of more than 25,000 responses, only 148 guessed the first card and 93 guessed the second. By chance alone, around 480 respondents should have guessed either card. The hit rates for the other “thoughts” were even lower, but it’s impossible to define the a priori probability of guessing a picture of three lilacs in a hand.

    Unfortunately I have not been able to dig up a copy of the original paper [Woolley, V. J. (1926). The broadcasting experiment in mass-telepathy. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 38, 1-9.] as my uni, quelle surprise, doesn’t carry this journal. These numbers all come from a blog post about an old story in the New Zealand Herald.

    Now the reason for Pratt and Rhine excluding this dataset was given thus: since the selected cards were not “popular” cards, it meant the audience response was skewed against them. This is very true, but irrelevant. If anyone had genuinely been able to perceive the thoughts, someone should have been able to guess correctly all five of the thoughts. Even 3 or 4 correct guesses would have been impressive.

    Anyway, my point is that this sensitivity to bias didn’t stop them from including Rhine’s own studies, many of which which used his famous five symbol cards, well known to be biased by preference in that people guess “star” 30% of the time even though it only comes up 20%. So this is a clear example of excluding negative data, even worse, it is inconsistent exclusion of data. I can forgive Pratt and Rhine for this (well, a little anyway) because they were muddling around with meta-analysis around 30 years before the statistical tools and design philosophies existed to do it well, but it’s hard to accept someone writing this year about the inclusive data analysis of Pratt and Rhine.

    And I’d also like to observe that Horowitz’s link about how unfair Randi has been to Rupert Sheldrake(!) by refusing to release experimental data (taken from a story by antiskeptical reporter Will Storr)…and also to Gary Schwartz for adamantly defending the psychic powers of one John Edwards, complete with a link to Schwartz openly refusing to release his raw video footage to Randi!