Sunday, January 8, 2012

Something troubling me . . .

Recently, I read a post by Trystan Swale of the possibly discontinued "Righteous Indignation Podcast" on his view of women and skepticism.  Swales' post referenced a blog by Chris Hofstader, the 21st Floor blog.  A blog with which I was formerly not acquainted.  Hofstaders' post compared the scrutiny skeptical female bloggers/podcasters Hayley Stevens and Rebecca Watson receive dealing with gender issues compared to the relative lack of coverage garnered upon James Randi and Brian Dunning* for their association with pending criminal matters.

It reminded me in particular just how little attention Randi's connection to a criminal matters is receiving within the skeptical community. I wish to be quite up front.  I have a great amount of admiration for Randi.  I recently gave a modest donation to the JREF during their season for reason fund raiser, and would gladly do so again.  Whatever  the allegations, even if completely true, they do not change my support of the skeptical mindset that Randi has sought to instill upon the public for the last four decades.  He has and continues to do wonderful work.

Hofstader's blog post noted that the "Dogma Free America" podcast was one of the few skeptical outlets that has discussed Randi's situation.  Therefore, for the first time in a fair amount of time, I listened to Rich Orman's podcast.  (It's pretty good.) There was not a whole lot new about Randi's case that I was not already aware, except that allegedly Randi was apparently aware that Carlos/Jose Alvarez once had a Venezuelan passport.  Otherwise, I knew Carlos was once some manner of psychic turned artist who was Randi's life partner.  It is alleged that Carlos was living under a false identity since the 1980's for reasons that are not clear.  In recent television terms, Randi was Betts to Carlos' Don Draper/Dick Whitman --loosely speaking ala "Mad Men."

Randi has authored "Flim-Flim," among other numerous books.  He has made a career of exposing charlatans and frauds.  The allegations against his partner are such that if true would seem to indicate that either Randi did not know he was sharing his life with someone who lived under a false identity, or he knew and went along with it. Either way, it is something that could be an instructive moment to learn from and discuss.  This episode could show even the best skeptic, hell even the paragon of modern skepticism, could be taken in, or that even the best of us can live quite complex lives.  Complex in the sense that some fraud might be acceptable or can at least be rationalized in a given situation, or possibly connected to the current status of gay marriage throughout most of the United States.

It also seems to me that skeptics, by not dealing with the situation head on, leave an opening for our cultural competitors to take ownership of the situation to their advantage.  Kevin Trudeau and Sylvia Brown are famously known for their past legal run-ins, both of which had fraudulent components.  While such activities in the past do not prove anything with their current claims, it does raise a character issue with each of them.  Now, Randi is mixed up in criminal case, which could be used to unfortunately tarnish Randi's character, and diminish the effectiveness of Randi's message.  Further, one excuse given by our cultural competitors for not partaking in the million dollar challenge is the accusation it is not on the up and up.  Randi's connection to this alleged criminal matter unfortunately lends credence to these objections.

I do not know all the ins and outs of Randi's situation.  Carlos is innocent until proven guilty.  I am not sure if the widespread notion among skeptics is not to discuss this situation until the legal process has completely run its course, or just never to speak of it.  Maybe living in Pennsylvania, home to the greatest College Football scandal ever, which has a component of protecting an icon has me sensitized.  In Penn State's situation, the protection given a icon in that situation probably backfired. My desire is not to hang Randi out to dry, or make him an outcast.  I do not know if not discussing this situation means people are losing an educational opportunity, and possibly missing the opportunity to take control of the narrative before others take control of the story, and the cultural competition spins it for their own ends.  Either way, the silence around this whole Randi affair just seems weird to me.

*I am limiting my focus to Mr. Randi's situation although to an extent similar points could be made about Mr. Dunning's situation.  Mr. Dunning, while quite popular, has not yet risen to iconic status to have Mr. Randi's impact upon the skeptical community.