An Evening with James Randi & Friends

James Randi is undoubtedly the most famous skeptic in the world. From his debunking of Uri Geller to the JREF forums / website, he’s been on my radar since I was a kid. He’s rarely in the UK, so when I heard he was visiting I eagerly snapped up tickets for his only public talk, at the NSS‘s Conway Hall last Saturday. He was flanked by five big names in skepticism, and the sell-out evening didn’t disappoint.

Richard Wiseman handled compere duties with aplomb, mixing magic and jokes, and seemed totally comfortable in front of an audience. Chris French then introduced the evening and gave some background on Randi, after which Simon Singh talked about his own fairly recent discovery of the skeptical movement. Unfortunately I have a problem with Simon Singh, as I was explaining to Abi on Saturday morning.

Some years back he wrote an article criticising a scientifically-dubious Katie Melua lyric. I cannot support him on this, as one day Katie will be mine and I clearly don’t want to jeopardise our relationship. Simon actually brought this up – the article, not the inevitable marriage – during his talk, and it turns out that Katie had phoned him a couple of days later and arranged a recording of a scientifically-accurate version of the song. Excellent – I can now like Simon Singh, and clearly Katie is even cooler than I thought. Sigh.

Ben Goldacre was as cool as you’d hope, if unfortunately beset by technical problems. His entertaining talk was also a neat demonstration of how sharp and knowledgeable the audience were – he mentioned the historical practice of alternative medicine practitioners creating fake qualifications, adding it was something that continued to this day. A murmur showed we knew exactly who he meant, and he was able to continue without mentioning her name, which pleased everyone 🙂

Then came the full-of-energy Susan Blackmore, who I’d most recently heard reducing a catholic commentator to incoherent ranting on the Jeremy Vine show, and she didn’t disappoint in person. She gave a presentation on her work on parapsychology, and her journey from believer to skeptic. She gave this up in the 90’s, but seemed to indicate she might be getting back into it, which would be a nice development.

After a break it was time for the main event: Randi himself. He’s weirdly familiar – I’ve seen / heard him countless times in the past few years, and seeing him in person is oddly surreal. He spoke for an hour on general skepticism, and showed a few clips of his most impressive moments on the Johnny Carson show: psychic surgery, and taking out Peter Popoff. I hope it’s not too patronising to say that for for a 79-year-old he was remarkably spritely! Very much on top of things, completely comprehensible and as acerbic as ever. I hope I’m in such shape at that age. He was, as ever, a touch negative regarding the whole fight against woo – other speakers had the same sentiment, but didn’t seem so bothered – but that’s forgiveable, given how long he’s been around!

This was first event of its type to be held in London, and seemed to go well enough that more will be arranged. Hopefully next time the speakers will be able to get into some decent skeptical meat. I enjoyed the evening, but it was designed to be fairly light and introductory, with even Randi giving a pretty unfocussed speech, and I’d love to listen to a proper dissection of a topic. Definitely worth going, though, and I got to see some of my intellectual idols up close.