I was working on another blog post, when this recently came to my attention, and I felt compelled to address it. I found within a circle of peers a certain Schadenfreude over the bizarre developments with the "Amazing" James Randi. As well as some bile over Penn Jillette’s skeptical atheist screeds. I’m not a fan of Penn Jillette’s more scathing attacks on various subjects that deal with esoteric topics, the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and the like. I have thumbed through his recent book, and the fact that Glenn Beck is a major advocate, leaves one more example as to why Jillette’s credibility is suspect. But, while I find Jillette’s brand of "Skepticism" to be obnoxious, I can’t discount the possibility that informed skepticism can have real value. After all, Dana Scully was willing to meet Fox Mulder half-way in many cases.
Some of the following points might be uncomfortable for some readers, but I want to address them to illustrate how proponents of certain fields, in countering attacks on their detractors, can end up sinking to the level of the detractors they condemn. The "Amazing" James Randi is a former magician / illusionist, who is a professional skeptic known for being scathing, condescending, elite, and cruel to the people he targets. The latest real scandal about James Randi can be summarized in the following:
James Randi’s partner, Jose Luis Alvarez, is under investigation by South Florida Federal authorities for identity fraud. Jose Alvarez has been celebrated as a plantation artist who has been showcased in Florida galleries, but to Federal authorities, Alvarez is a cipher, a man who might have stolen the identity of a New York artist, and has been using it over the last twenty years. Authorities have been referring to him under the acronym "FNU LNU." Alvarez first began "channeling" the spirit of an ancient "seer" named "Carlos," in the late eighties, for the purpose of being exposed by James Randi. It was an elaborate hoax you could argue, that played out as performance art.
It’s been surmised that Randi and Alvarez have been long-time lovers; Alvarez was a teen when they first met, and thus, it has been inferred by Skeptic debunker Tim Bolen that James Randi is a serial pedophile. There’s a problem here; in studying the evidence that Tim Bolan offers to tag Randi as a pedophile, Bolan cites other encounters with male teens, as well as includes an audio clip of a conversation with someone that sounds about sixteen or seventeen. What is supported by the evidence is that James Randi is by definition a ephebophile: Someone attracted to young teens. Do I condone his behavior? No. Do I suspect Randi has been guilty of statutory rape? Certainly. To counter the accusation that I am rationalizing such behavior, would I ever defend an organization like NAMBLA? Absolutely not.
But I’m a little uncomfortable with Tim Bolan’s angle in so much as that it has a distinct undercurrent of homophobia, and whether intended or unintended is unclear. Many anti-gay organizations have attempted to conflate or shoehorn the idea that all homosexuals are pedophiles, and the psychological data just doesn’t support it as demonstrated from here*. Homosexuality and pedophilia are very different behaviors. Often, people will hide under the guise of ‘protecting the children,’ while operating with a completely different agenda. The entire subject of pedophilia triggers such a visceral reaction, and rightly so, that I have personally observed people’s IQs drop by twenty points, when they accept an accusation based on something inferred at face value. Such accusations should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, the guilty parties who practice such behavior should be ostracized. But the term 'pedophile' has become so loaded and overused to the point of abuse, and the subject has become the witch hunt de jour of the past two decades, that the term itself has become the perfect tool for character assassinations, and there is little critical assessment by the public when the accusation is made. Interestingly enough, the Millennium episode, "Monster," illustrated the witch-hunt mentality I cited.
I realize that what I am arguing here is nit-picking semantics, but accurate definitions, for those who seek truth, should always matter. To those who believe in the paranormal or esoteric fields, it can devalue your cause if you sink to the level of your opposition. While this might be bordering on sacrilege to suggest, is Tim Bolan really all that different from James Randi?
One of the reasons why Bolan’s closing insinuations weaken his earlier arguments in the aforementioned piece, is that James Randi’s past history as a debunker should have been given enough ammunition to discredit him without delving into his personal life. I doubt that James Randi’s work as a professional skeptic has been sincere. There are other professional skeptics who are well-intended, sincere, and are driven by a concern to see that people don’t get exploited by frauds.
A colleague of Randi James, Joe Nickell, has managed to offer an approach to professional skepticism that isn’t condescending to the innocent bystanders of paranormal, unexplained events. While I don’t agree with him on many points, he seems willing to met people half-way on a subject-by-subject basis. Joe Nickell has espoused 'Humanistic Skepticism,' and has managed to define his brand of paranormal investigating as neither "mystery mongering" nor "debunking"” Unlike some armchair skeptics, Joe Nickell has traveled the world and has done field research in various areas, such as cryptozoology. He has been known to chide fellow skeptics who seem to not care to honor claimants with on-the-ground investigations, but as he has personally explained:
"I decry both a credulous and a close-minded approach, holding that mysteries should neither be fostered nor dismissed but rather carefully investigated with a view towards solving them."
While not a scientist, he has taken a forensic approach to his investigations, and interestingly he doesn’t make the mistake of dismissing the experiences of witnesses, and manages to respect their perception, and that their perception has validity:
"I've spoken with many witnesses, and they are sane, intelligent, sober, honest people who have seen something that, yes maybe they've mistaken for something else, but even skeptics have been mistaken."
Joe Nickell’s approach seems to work to his credit, as I haven't found much bile directed toward him. In other words, his approach differs from skeptics who adopt skepticism as an ideological faction as opposed to a method of inquiry.
Of peripheral, albeit fascinating note, many skeptics are former illusionists / magicians. Now it is hard to ascertain if this point is driven by the influence of the iconic illusionist Harry Houdini, or if these skeptics all share a similar mindset that would compel them into these areas.
Perhaps proponents of paranormal investigations should not be as reactive to well-intended skeptics, as they both seek the same objectives–to find the truth behind such mysteries.
For paranormal investigators, there needs to be a filter and a willingness to not just accept things at face value. While I personally might not agree with someone like Joe Nickell, his approach can challenge people to examine every possibility of a subject, even if the answers turn out to be mundane.
Special thank you for editorial assistance from XScribe... and for keeping me honest.
* The following cited represents one group of data that clarifies the debate over why homosexuals are not pedophiles, even legitimate Catholic psychologists cannot make a simplistic distinction on the subject. In the case of exceptions, the statistical evidence of homosexuals being pedophiles is below one percent.