Randi, You Old Goat

by | Dec 15, 2009

Nothing can surprise about the climate debate any more. First, UK homeopath-slayer Dr Ben Goldacre lays his climate cards on the table. Now his comrade in arms across the pond, James Randi, has done the same – only completely differently. Get this:

Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds […]

as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

It’s easy enough to believe that drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes are signs of a coming catastrophe from global warming, but these are normal variations of any climate that we — and other forms of life — have survived. Earth has undergone many serious changes in climate, from the Ice Ages to periods of heavily increased plant growth from their high levels of CO2, yet the biosphere has survived. We’re adaptable, stubborn, and persistent — and we what other life forms don’t have: we can manipulate our environment. Show me an Inuit who can survive in his habitat without warm clothing… Humans will continue to infest Earth because we’re smart.

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.


  1. Luke Warmer

    An interesting split in the ‘debunking’ industry. We need Harry Hill to co-ordinate a fight.

  2. Alex Cull

    LOL, Luke, that’s what I was thinking too! Climate change – immanent global crisis or ghastly scientific travesty? There’s only one way to find out…

  3. Jack Savage

    How interesting. Some months ago I searched Randi’s website for his views on man made global warming and found that he was in fact going along with the IPCC concensus. I was quite shaken by this as I have always found the Great Randi one of the clearest thinkers on most subjects of where there could be any hint of fraud. I am pleased beyond measure to find him changing his mind.

  4. James Anderson Merritt

    Thanks for passing this along. Randi’s statement gratifyingly seems to paraphrase what I have been saying and writing on the topic for many years. His endorsement of those views is an important reality check for me, and I’m sure for others of similar mind, who have taken flak in the excessively polarized climate “debate” (which has been, until recently, more of a monologue, with skeptics being cast involuntarily in the roles of rude, ignorant hecklers).

  5. Stefan

    I respect most those who will change their minds when new information becomes available. Randi has certainly gained my respect here.

    Also love the end quotation,
    Holmes: I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts…

    I hear Jeremy Brett’s excellent voice reading that.

    I don’t know about tipping points in climate but we seem to be passing a tipping point in the culture around this controversy.

  6. tadchem

    “Adapt or die” was a favorite adage with my grandmother, who left us in 1976, before “global warming” was threatened. Change is the driver of natural selection, and therefore evolution. Some people think climate change threatens their very lives. Perhaps they are right, but it doesn’t threaten mine or those of my family members. Only their efforts to try to resist change are a threat to us. Perhaps it is time for climate paranoia to be driven to extinction.

  7. Dubl D

    Nobody should know the power of fudged statistics more than someone in the medical field. In today’s reality, even without the Climate Debate, we should all have an automatic “Veto” button for anything that is justified by statistics by virtue of how utterly miserably they have failed us in clinical medicine.

    -30+ years after “statistical correlation” linked smoking to cancer, no causal mechanism proving this assertion has ever been found.

    -Nearly 30 years since statistical correlation linked HIV to AIDS the big news is that many “official AIDS foundations” have disowned the very scientist who discovered HIV for asserting that it has no known link to AIDS.

    -Vioxx, Feldene, FenFen, Yaz, etc, etc, etc, have passed statistically driven Clinical Trials only to unleash suffering and death on unwitting users

    -Silicone breast implants were “proven” to be dangerous, then not, then dangerous again, then “use at your own risk”, all via statistics.

    A doctor who challenges “statistical assertions” puts his own reputation and livelihood at risk. That Dr Randi is willing to do this in the interest of truth, is clear evidence of his integrity, and is his assertions are owed due consideration for it.

  8. Luke Warmer

    Randi’s not a skeptic anymore, he’s apparently a denialist!

    See dumbstruck ‘skeptics’ in action and even Ben Goldacre in discussion here:


    Sadly, Goldacre’s looking for examples of ‘Conspiracy’ with a capital C. Still interesting to see.

    I especially like another ‘skeptic’ blog saying that Randi isn’t qualified to comment on climate – they never claimed that for spoon bending or intelligent design.

  9. JMW

    At least Randi is willing to admit that he does not know very much about it [climate and climate science] and will therefore refrain from making definitive statements [opinions will be given, however, based on what he does know] about a subject he knows little about, instead of spending a week at the University of Google, which, apparently, is all you need to become a Climate Expert™.

    Randi keeps his head in all this, which to the believers means he’s been “seduced” by the deniers…

    He should’ve just toed the line so he could continue being The Hero of Reason, huh? /sarcasm

  10. geoffchambers

    What’s so interesting about this Randi that both you and Maurizio at Omniclimate devote a blog to his twinges of AGW scepticism? In his latest update, he’s just admitted that he wrote “cooling” instead of “warming” in the blog you link to, because of his “chemo-altered encephalon”. His modest admissions of incompetence in climatology hide the fact that he hasn’t bothered to inform himself at ClimateAudit and Wattsupwiththat about the nuts and bolts of the story.
    There are now thousands of computer geeks and politically motivated bloggers contributing more to the development of the global warming story than the blog philosophers of science scepticism like Goldacre and Randi. The fact that Rose in the popular Daily Mail, and the lightweight Delingpole of the Telegraph, are contributing more to the debate than all the “serious” science correspondents is now in itself an important part of the story.

  11. JMW

    Addendum to my comment: expect a [possible] retraction within the next few weeks as the chattering hoardes demand that he repent now, you heathen! look at The Science and come to Our Conclusion, and not the sceptic’s denier’s conclusion.

    I will withhold my full congratulations until Randi has dealt with this next test of his opinions RE The Science about climate change.

  12. Editors

    Geoff – “What’s so interesting about this Randi that both you and Maurizio at Omniclimate devote a blog to his twinges of AGW scepticism?”

    We thought it was noteworthy because his brand of scepticism is celebrated -championed, even – by part of the global warming commentariat. It came just after our post about Ben Goldacre, for instance. It’s interesting to see how Randi and Johnny Ball have been treated for their views on climate over the last week.

    I wrote an article for Spiked about 3 years ago, which (slightly) criticised Randi:

    Writing on his website about a recent article that complained about medical research being dominated by a ‘scientific research paradigm… acting as a fascist structure’, Godfather of scepticism and debunking, James Randi said: ‘If this is indeed serious, it’s an attack on rationality, on the scientific method, on reason, by people who should know better.’ Indeed they should know better, but is not knowing better really an ‘attack on rationality’ or simply irrational? Randi seems to have lost faith in rationalism’s power of explanation and be worried that people lack the ability to make up their own minds. So what is scepticism then?


    The rest of the article is not about Randi, but about the role that science is (or was) playing in political/social arguments, and how these arguments were increasingly identifying a movement of muscular atheists, intolerant liberals, and disoriented elitists. “Science” seemed to be playing a more ‘existential’ role than merely answering questions about the material world. That has many parallels with the climate debate, I think.

  13. geoffchambers

    Thanks for your reply and your link to the interesting article at Spiked. Even when the AGW bubble has been well and truly pricked, there’ll still be interesting discussions here about your many parallels to the climate debate. Looking forward to that.

  14. Blue Swan

    We’re in the second stage of a crumbling ideology.

    The first stage is when anyone at all — mostly fringe Internet dwellers such as myself, start to question the common wisdom.

    Now it’s the beta level celebrities.

    Once Leno starts to joke about it — watch out!

  15. The Errie World of Sir David King

    Is Sir David King working for Climate resistance now? – his paranoia over the CRU hacking sounds like a CR blog entry yet unwritten.

    Sir David ended;

    “What agencies have got the sophistication to manage that – I’ll leave you to think about that…” (errie organ music in the background)

    Luckily I didn’t have to think very long because radio 4 asked Cliff Saran, technology editor of Computer Weekly what he made of it and to paraphrase he reckoned it was a load of old bollocks. Ho hum. Unless Computer Weekly is part of the conspiracy of course


  16. artwest

    Geoff – “What’s so interesting about this Randi that both you and Maurizio at Omniclimate devote a blog to his twinges of AGW scepticism? (…)
    There are now thousands of computer geeks and politically motivated bloggers contributing more to the development of the global warming story than the blog philosophers of science scepticism like Goldacre and Randi.”

    True, but the computer geeks and politically motivated bloggers have a limited, albeit growing, audience outside of those already sceptical. It may be unjust, but someone like Randi, who is read by many people of many political shades who claim to be sceptical – but not about AGW – can have more influence on the unconverted if he becomes a full-blown sceptic.

    Similarly, we will know that AGW is finally on life-support when widely-regarded pop-intellectual figures like (e.g. in the UK) David Attenborough or Stephen Fry start to dismiss AGW and when AGW scaremongering becomes the routine subject of jokes on Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week.
    The disgraceful treatment of Johnny Ball shows how far we have to go on that, by the way: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/earticle/7841/

    We will know that the real heroes are people like Stephen and Anthony but it will be the publicly higher-profile figues, informed by their work at second or third hand, who will have the most obvious influence I’m afraid.

  17. Arn Riewe

    “In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.”

    Holy Crap! This guy is dangerous. He’s suggesting real solutions to real problems. And if I interpret him correctly, will only cost millions, not billions. This cannot be allowed to stand! We’ve got speculative solutions to speculative problems requiring global governance solutions. This must take precedence!

  18. Stefan

    Can the problem for Randi + world + dog be simply, that nobody gets the picture first hand?

    My wife and I often can’t agree whether we’re even talking about the same subject, and that’s when there are just two of us (two perspectives) involved.

    Even when scientists turn up to conferences and read each other’s papers, that’s still at best a second hand perspective. Then the scientist who wrote the paper might only be taking a statistical view on numbers collected by other people… which is yet more perspectives on perspectives.

    Then along come various voices in the media, and various public relations firms, and spin their perspective.

    And let’s not even get onto how people might choose to present their case in a manner designed to appeal to certain audiences. Perspectives on perspectives on perspectives…

    I’m not saying truth is impossible… just that there are many many nuances that are often just not directly accessible. I mean, the Iraq war was partly based on a “45 minutes” claim that apparently nobody was able to check directly.

    All this talk about “the science” is by a number of commentators who claim to know it to such an extent that they can summarise it to the public. But mention an issue they don’t know about, from science, that contradicts some key point or other, and they pretend it is simply “irrelevant”.

    A woman on the train the other day was in an argument with the guy opposite her, about global warming. He was a sceptical business person, and she was a scientist of some sort. She was trying to assure him that there are “only six” sceptical scientists in the world. I was dying to interrupt to ask her, “and who told you that?”

  19. James Randi

    I’m astonished — again — at how carelessly the “deniers” of GW read material. They only take in what appears to be support of their notions… I have clearly stated that I do not deny GW or AGW. Yet all sorts of woo-woos have jumped into the matter and exulted that I have. I was badly informed about the IPCC “concensus,” and and when I read further on the subject and learned just how perfidious that group is, I immediately issued another commentary — which the woo-woos pretend doesn’t exist.

    Get real, people. Accept that I’ve admitted I was wrong. There’s a real world out there, we’re not in the hands of a vast conspiracy, and we should be reacting to real scientific findings. Deny it all you want, but reality won’t go away…

  20. Editors

    James, thanks for coming here to comment.

    In your astonishment ‘at how carelessly the “deniers” of GW read material’, you seem to have carelessly read something into what’s been written here, or above, which is not there.

    In short: who are you calling “deniers”, and what is it that you think they have denied?

  21. Stefan

    How hard it is to say anything in public on this subject without being labelled either a “denier” or a “believer”.

    Personally, I grew up for a while in South Africa whilst Apartheid was still on, and I think this has left me very wary of any cultural movement—I saw a cultural environment where nobody, not even the smart educated teachers and professors, questioned the system—even when the system is obviously patently wrong. They knew the world was against them—there were sanctions after all—South African airways’ 747s were specially modified with extra fuel tanks in the nose of the plane, as they were barred from African airspace so couldn’t stop to refuel. It is not like it wasn’t common knowledge amongst whites that the world was forcibly telling them it was wrong. But you know what smart whites in South Africa would say?
    “The world doesn’t understand South Africa”. That’s what they said.

    Culture is a movement, a tide, an ocean pouring its waters through each individual person. You simply can’t run against the prevailing culture. You probably don’t even realise the waters that are running through your mind, appearing to you as if they are your own “well considered, individual” opinions. You can’t see those or run against them. You have to remove yourself from their influence, to gain perspective.

    It left me with an odd perspective; I would today be far more inclined to trust AGW science if there wasn’t a consensus. (And actually I used to accept it all right up until people started saying “there is a consensus”.)

    It isn’t that consensus makes it wrong; it just makes it harder to see if it is wrong, even if it is likely right, or wrong.

  22. Eric Anderson

    Is it just me, or is anyone else unclear about what Mr. Randi’s last paragraph in his comment above was supposed to mean or to whom it was directed? I haven’t seen much on this site to suggest people are denying reality. Reality about what, GW, AGW, Mr. Randi’s position . . . ?

    I do, however, agree with the last paragraph of Mr. Randi quoted in the post that other problems are far more pressing and more deserving of attention than global warming. Sounds right down the lines of Lomborg. :)

  23. artwest

    Mr Randi – if indeed it is you.
    I used to be a great admirer of yours, until I realised that you were truly sceptical only to a limited extent. It’s easy, and right, to be sceptical about evidence-less nonsense like homeopathy, obviously-fraudulent “inventions” and spiritualism.
    In your justified scepticism on these subjects you are cosily embraced by the scientific establishment. and have to face the wrath of only the easily-mocked, easily-refuted and (thankfully) relatively powerless.

    When it comes to “consensus” and powerful vested interests however your scepticism and bravery seem to desert you. Rather like Ben Goldacre you seem to think that a peer-reviewed paper or two is the end of the matter, despite what has been obvious for some time, that a peer-review is often little better than no review at all. The CRU emails should certainly have proved to the dimmest – and you are at the opposite end of the scale – that the peer review system is not only flawed but sometimes corrupt.

    The higher the stakes, the more likely the corruption and the greater the incentives for group-think, ambition, wishful thinking, manipulation – conscious and unconscious – and downright greed.

    There isn’t a need for an organised conspiracy of thousands – of course that is ridiculous and it does you no credit to attack that straw man.

    All it needed was a relative handful of scientists (some of whom, no doubt, started out with the best of motives) who had control of all the relevant data and the increasingly desperate urge to prevent anyone else from seeing it and independently replicating it (Remember, what science is supposed to be?).

    All the rest is piling in on a grand scale by numerous groups from environmentalists, to out-of-the-loop scientists desperate for a grant, to anti-capitalists, to capitalists slavering at the thought of making money out of thin air, to power-hungry politicians, to suddenly-green businesspeople with their eye on the main chance and on and on.

    All these people don’t have to sit in darkened rooms together conspiring – they just each have to see what is blindingly obvious: that the current best way to achieve their incredibly varied dreams is to embrace and exploit AGW.

    What most sensible people who are sceptical about AGW want is not anti-science, it is proper, rigorous science carried out as it is supposed to be – and patently isn’t in much of climate “science”. To characterise such people as engaging in “woo-woo” is not just insulting, not just wrong, but is contributing to a situation where bad science can continue to flourish in this field.

    In a few years time it will have become very obvious that catastrophic climate change was catastrophically wrong, but in the meantime, trillions of dollars will have been wasted fighting a non-existent threat. At the very least, this will mean that many will have suffered and died because real problems in the real world will have been sidelined. That isn’t something I would wish to have on my conscience.

    I hope one day that you will truly be a sceptic Mr Randi – not just when it’s easy to be. Every day that you bandy around terms like “denialist” is another day when you betray your intellect and your supposed admiration for the scientific method.

  24. Skepticism is a methodology, not a position on matters

    I am very confused by the position Mr Randi has taken; if I have understood correctly – Mr Randi thinks Global warming is real and man made. This being the case I am glad he has been even handed enough in his article to say that it’s not a 100% certain. If the post really is from Randi I am less happy he appears to dismisses those who are unconvinced by any aspect of the whole AGW debate or want to question the process as “deniers” as these two positions seem totally at odds. At the same time Randi himself seems unconvinced, skeptical or perhaps in denial for the need for green politics/mitigation based policy – the adaptive line that many so called ‘deniers’ feel is a better more natural line of action whether or not the weathers changing due to CO2.
    I would really like to hear more from Randi himself on this – although like the previous poster said – this is an actually difficult subject to take on unlike spoon bending and I suspect Randi is simply trying to avoid the subject since it’s such a hot potato – or at least this is how I see the irritable response to us trying to interpret this position

  25. Stefan

    I too am unclear, but I would take a view on it along the following (I’m not saying this is Randi’s view, just a view:

    It is unreasonable to believe that climatology as a science is wrong about climate change.
    It is unreasonable to believe that climatology as a science doesn’t have some unknowns.
    If some people break either of the above reasonable stances, then those people are being irrational; it is reasonable to dismiss such voices, whether they be “rah rah” pro or against AGW.
    The IPCC is part of the United Nations and is involved in politics. The political decisions about power and influence may or may not be compatible with a purely rational engineering approach to the problem of climate change. It is reasonable to question the proposed solutions being promoted by the IPCC if the IPCC is more of a political organisation than a scientific one. It is reasonable to question the IPCC Summary for Policymakers, even if the major body of the literature review itself, is largely drawn from purely scientific literature.
    It is reasonable to weigh the threat of climate change against other threats for which there is also scientific evidence. It is reasonable to consider immediate threats more important than distant threats, when making political decisions about survival.

  26. artwest

    It is unreasonable to believe that climatology as a science is wrong about climate change.
    It is unreasonable to believe that climatology as a science doesn’t have some unknowns.”

    But if the unknowns have as great or greater effects as the knowns then it doesn’t take much for climate models to be wrong – especially as they consistently fail to predict the future.

    We are talking about changes of fractions of a degree per century change when, as is evident from surfacestations.org, the very raw data is suspect, let alone what is done with it afterwards by a small tightly-knit group of highly-motivated scientists who refuse to show their workings.

    The signal-to noise ratio is so narrow that it reminds me of people staring at patterns on a stained wall with peeling paint convinced they can see the Madonna, while others are looking at the same thing and thinking that the wall needs a coat of paint.

    What is unreasonable is to look at an inherently highly variable and complex system, read the climategate emails and Harry’s ill-fated attempts to make sense of the climate models and conclude that this is any kind of dispassionate, mature. settled science.

    P.S. It’s as telling as hell to me that even when it is pointed out to GISS/NASA how atrocious many of their surface stations are and how unfit for purpose, they don’t give a damn about improving them. They just juggle the figures some more!
    Is that the action of scientists who want the truth, regardless of where it leads?

  27. Stefan

    artwest, I agree, especially about the supposed “signal” that can only be seen by “experts in the field” (witch doctors staring at tea leaves and cow dung).

    But I think people like Randi are in the business of having to maintain a public image of reasonableness. This means he can’t just go dismissing scientific fields willy nilly. Science as a whole has far too much credibility, and he could easily be shot down.

    Unfortunately we have no problem questioning the integrity of politicians, the police, the army, and even doctors. But we still suffer from the shampoo commercial syndrome–it says “science” so it gotta be true!!

  28. Stefan

    Actually this gets me thinking…. why is it so hard to question science??

    For example, it is obvious from common sense, that the amount of effort and skill expended on something does not equal the quality of usefulness of the final product. How many IT projects run by professionals run over budget and don’t deliver? How many doctors study diseases for decades without finding cures? How many products are brought to market which fail? How many architectural projects won awards for brilliance, only to be pulled down by later generations for total failure? In design fields, there are a few brilliant individuals and companies. Then the rest is mostly mediocrity. Climatology may be a science, but it looks like a terribly mediocre one, barely finding out anything useful and testable.


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