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This week's Rational Hero is the incomparable James Randi. AKA the Amazing Randi, MacArthur Award Recipient, professional magician, debunker of pseudoscience, TV star...the list goes on. If you want a more complete description I suggest his Wiki entry. James Randi is also the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). From the JREF website: "Our mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today." They also provide scholarships, publish books, and organize major conferences, notably "The Amazing Meeting," meets annually in Las Vegas, is a gathering of fellow skeptics. A couple of my favorite highlights of Randi's illustrious career are his work to expose the fraudulent spoon-bending trick of Uri Geller and uncovering the quackery of the religious charlatan Peter Popoff. One of James Randi's more-important offerings is a one million dollar prize to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal activity. The challenge started in 1964 with a thousand dollars of James Randi's own money and has since grown to a cool million. If you think you can pass his challenge, good luck, no one has even passed the prelims. I really could type all day about the accomplishments of this great Rational Hero--but I won't, that's why we have Google. Below, I have posted three videos: 1) the exposure of James Hydrick as a fraud (Which Hydrick later admitted); 2) The exposure of Peter Popoff; and, 3) A trailer of "The Honest Liar" a documentary about the Amazing One. Please contribute if you can help in the completion of this important film. Thank you Randi, and may you continue to grace us with your magical life--even if it is just a trick.
Last night I saw the Seattle Repertory theater's production of "Photograph 51," which focused on Rosalind Franklin, the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA. I really enjoyed the production. Most of the credit for this discovery has been attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick and, to a lesser extent, Maurice Wilkins. The three men received Nobel Prize recognition for the work in 1962. Dr. Franklin was not awarded the prize, principally because she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.) It is not clear whether she would have received the prize, even if she had lived, because of the prevailing male chauvinism of the time. Although I enjoyed the play, one of my big problems with plays based on history, is that it is often difficult what actually happened (this is hard enough when looking through the fog of history) and what is a product of the playwright's imagination. That being said, I think the play stuck reasonably close to the historical account that I read in Wikipedia. One of the things that I really enjoyed was the depiction of Franklin as the crusty curmudgeon that apparently she was. Collegiality, especially in the rough-and-tumble competitive world of research--especially where there are a lot of (mostly male) egos to protect, can get you far. It seems that, in summary, Franklin provided the data, Wilkins provided the collegiality, and Watson and Crick provided the vision and chutzpah. Too bad they couldn't all play nice with each other. But, in the end, what is really important is the DNA. Personally, I find it breathtaking that we have progressed from the structure of DNA, through recombinant DNA, to the sequencing of the human genome, to the increasing mechanization and digitization of DNA analysis, all in the space of a lifetime. My lifetime, that is.
BELIEVER: My back has been hurting, so I went to the acupuncturist yesterday.
SKEPTIC: Sore back, eh? That’s a bummer. Hope it’s not serious.
BELIEVER: I feel better. Seems to have worked. So, what do you think of acupuncture? Ever tried it?
SKEPTIC: I thought about it, but recent data have shown that it really doesn’t do anything beyond the placebo effect.
BELIEVER: Data, schmata, I feel better.
SKEPTIC: I’m sure you do.
BELIEVER: So, how can you say it doesn’t do anything? And what’s the placebo effect?
SKEPTIC: The placebo effect is the psychological boost you get from the treatment, that isn’t really caused by the treatment itself.
BELIEVER: So, you’re saying it’s all in my head?
SKEPTIC: No, not exactly, I’m saying that it works, but it works no better than a sham treatment.
BELIEVER: What’s a sham treatment?
SKEPTIC: A control, a fake treatment.
BELIEVER: So, it’s psychosomatic. I’m faking it.
SKEPTIC: No, everybody, everybody who believes, benefits from the placebo effect.
BELIEVER: My acupuncturist said that it’s been around for ten thousand years.
SKEPTIC: That doesn’t make it valid. I just want evidence that it works.
BELIEVER: I told you, it works for me.
SKEPTIC: I guess it won’t help to tell you that, for some reason, sham acupuncture, actually seems to work better than the treatment.
BELIEVER: So, you’re saying I’m full of it, my acupuncturist is a liar, and ten thousand years of wisdom is baloney, and the fake treatment works better than the real thing. That’ll make you popular.
SKEPTIC: (sigh) It gets lonely in an evidence-based universe.
Greetings Fellow Earthlings (and hello to any alien spies.) Since this is the first entry the blog, I suggest you checkout my webpage at scotbastian.com to get a good overview of what I'm about. Are you back? Okay then. This blog will be about, what I'm about. Science, skepticism and theater. Welcome to my world. The kind of topics I will cover, will follow in subsequent posts. But for now: Do ya think?
Every week I intend to feature a Rational Hero. There are so many champions of human rationality! Usually, I will feature a living hero. But this week's hero, is from recent history. Carl Sagan was one of the great champions of science education. Thank You Carl, for your service to humanity. Below is one of the more famous videos featuring Carl Sagan's voice and his words.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.