The day after mediums marched on Downing Street, to protest against their possible ruination by legislation, it seemed apt that some of the finest proponents of scientific scepticism held their own gathering.
The event in Conway Hall was billed as “An Evening with James Randi and Friends”. Randi—possibly the world’s most acclaimed scourge of psychics, healers and out-and-out chancers—was making a rare trip to the UK. He topped a bill of five renowned science communicators.
The first speaker was Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He put into context scepticism in the UK, drew attention to The Skeptic magazine and promoted Skeptics in the Pub, London’s long-running series of sceptical talks.
Simon Singh theorised on why the Teletubbies equal evil, electrocuted a gherkin on stage and explained the importance of pigeons to understanding the origins of the universe. He even managed to hold an audience in thrall with a Katie Melua anecdote (no mean feat, that).
Ben Goldacre writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian, where he analyses everything from the machinations of large pharmaceutical corporations to the pseudoscience of certain health and cosmetic products. Bad science has a habit of lingering on, as he highlighted with a BBC clip showing modern day ‘medical practitioners’ in the UK still diagnosing patients with a version of the Dynomizer — a piece of kit discredited in the 1920s after claims by its inventor that it could diagnose any disease from a single drop of blood were shown to be false.
Susan Blackmore traced her progress from believer in the paranormal to sceptic, and how James Randi influenced her career path.
Finally, James Randi entertained the audience for an hour on the work of the James Randi Education Trust and his $1 million challenge (to be awarded to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal or supernatural powers—the money remains unclaimed). He also illustrated his talk with two clips on his unmasking of the charlatanry of a US televangelist and exposing the techniques used by “Psychic Surgeons” (making sure he warned anyone faint of heart in the audience to look away).
It was a fascinating evening. As the skeptical movement prides itself on asking difficult and challenging questions, however, it was a pity that no time was allotted for a Q&A session with the speakers.
By Ross MacFarlane
Image from Kevan's Flickr photostream.