Tuesday, March 11, 2008

We met Randi!

As posted earlier, James Randi spoke at UIUC. Four of us Gateway Skeptics were able to make the 3 hour (each way) road trip and were rewarded with the chance to meet Randi and ask him a few question. He was even kind enough to pose for a photo (contrary to his expression). Afterwards, we went out for some great deep dish pizza with a few fellow bloggers. Click below for a synopsis of the evening.

The lecture was sponsored by the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers organization from UIUC. Apparently, the president of the club was inspired by The Amaz!ng Meeting to start the organization on his campus and was dedicated to getting Randi on campus. It seems like he succeeded. Unbeknownst to us, they also invited Nobel laureate Dr. Richard J. Roberts to speak about atheism.

The introduction to Dr. Roberts lecture was strange to say the least. The student in charge knew (and admitted to knowing) very little about Dr. Roberts research and it did not seem like he was going to take the time to lern about it. Also, the student's cell phone went off no fewer than three times while he was at the podium. It was funny yet sad.

Dr. Roberts talk on atheism focused mostly on the lack of scientific questioning in religion. He also touched on contradictions in religious teachings, the uselessness of prayer, why there is evil and several other topics that would be typical in a Richard Dawkins lecture. This included claiming that indoctrinating children into a particular religion is a form of child abuse. Unlike Dawkins, however, Dr. Roberts did not seem to be an authority on the topic. When asked in the Q & A session after lectures, Dr. Roberts admitting to only studying comparative religions for a handful of semesters while in school. I think it showed.

On of the most curious aspects of his talk was his discussion on schizophrenia. Dr. Roberts claims that many personal religious experiences can be attributed to schizophrenia. Since I have heard similar claims elsewhere, that did not strike me as a strange claim. What did was when he claimed that those who are intelligent and schizophrenic are most often diagnosed as having bipolar disorder while those of lesser intelligence are deemed schizophrenic and crazy. He claimed that the intelligent individuals are able to separate their hallucination from reality while others cannot. It was a strange tangent that I'm not sure is factually correct.

Before I leave Dr. Roberts for The Amazing Randi, I would like to share one of his quotes from the Q&A session. Dr. Roberts was discussing why he became a scientist. He attributed his curiosity to being able make fireworks as a child. He then made the following comment:

I know why terrorists like explosions. Everyone likes a good explosion.
Call me strange, but I don't think that's the reason terrorists blow things up.

Overall I think Dr. Roberts did a mediocre job selling atheism. However, he was talking to a audience who was mostly non-religious so little harm was done.

After Dr. Roberts talk, the president of Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers got up to introduce Randi. While he was better than the student who introduced Dr. Roberts, he wasn't much better. I won't go into details but I will say that it is a good thing Randi needs no introduction.

Randi's talk opened with a video montage chronicling some of his achievements as a skeptic and debunker. After the video, Randi came on stage to a healthy applause from the few hundred in the audience.

Randi focused the beginning of his talk on how people are fooled by others and how they fool themselves. This was accomplished by a few anecdotes and a few magic tricks. Randi then went on to explain the Million Dollar Challenge. This of course led to the story of Sylvia Browne accepting the challenge and never following through with the testing. This discussion included some impersonations of Sylvia by Randi and his looking for the proper name to call her regarding her insatiable money lust [Flavin reminds me this was regarding Montel William's money lust indicated by his having Slyvia on so often]:
What do they call that in the media business? Oh yeah, a whore.
Randi then moved on to discussing how smart people are fooled while making a few despairing comments regard those with PhDs. There were in jest of course. The talk then turned to homeopathy and how ridiculous the dilutions are. This led to a discussion of faith healers, and we were treated to two video clips of Randi on the Tonight Show with Carson where Randi exposed Peter Popov (this clip is similar but not the same) and psychic surgery. This pretty much concluded Randi's lecture. It was quite wonderful as the crowd's standing ovation implied.

The Q & A session, however, was not as great. Sans one or two questions, those asked were neither insightful nor new. They ranged from simple questions about religion to asking Randi if he believes in ghosts. One question, however, stood out among the others as ridiculous. I'll try to tell it slow so you can enjoy it.

An Asian student stepped up to the microphone and told a story about a car accident he was in. Apparently, he was involved in a hit and run where he did the running. He claimed he was scared and did not know what to do so he left the scene of the crime. When the cops later came to his door, he denied having anything to do with the collision so he was promptly cuffed and hauled off and rightfully so. The kid was eventually let off the hook by the judge and what the kid described as "the grace of Jesus". Why Jesus would bother with this kid and his traffic violations, I do not know. Anyway, this story went on for a good two minutes before some in the audience started shouting "Get to the question!" The kid stuttered and then asked is science can explain love. There was an awkward silence as the audience dealt with the non sequitur. Randi and Dr. Roberts responded with a curt "No." This was not good enough for the kid at the mic as he continued by rambling about the saying of Jesus which Randi promptly questioned the validity of. Eventually the kids mic was turned off after being booed by the audience. The kid proceeded to stand behind the dead microphone for approximately 10 minutes, waiting to speak again. Eventually, he must have realized where he was and sat back down. Again, funny yet sad.

After the lecture, we were able to get a picture with Randi and ask him a few questions one-on-one. We then met up with the Action Skeptics, Tom, and two of his friends. (1, 2, 3). We grabbed some pizza and talked religion, blogs, comics and video games, as young skeptics often do. As the picture illustrates, it was an enjoyable end to the night.

Here's suggesting we invite Randi to speak in St. Louis.


Saint Gasoline said...

Damn, I've always wanted to see Randi (although he doesn't look too pleased in that photo). You lucky bastards.

Ben said...

That's Randi's default picture pose. He was quite pleasant.

Flavin said...

The "whore" comment was with regard to Montel Williams. The proper word for Sylvia is "vulture." "Harpy" is also accepted.

The Amaz!ng Meeting should be spelled with a !.

Ben said...

Well maybe the whore comment was wishful thinking.

Akusai said...

Damn, I look goofy in that picture.