A reply from Randi and a short response from Chris French on this exchange follow this letter.

The new enlarged Skeptic is a big improvement – well done!

However I was disappointed by the interview with James Randi by Chris French.  Chris began his interview by writing, “If sceptics were allowed to have patron saints, James Randi would undoubtedly fill that role”. In accordance with his reverential tone, he spared Randi the slightest challenge. But in view of the fact that Chris and I are working together on an experimental investigation of telephone telepathy I wish he had asked Randi about his so-called Pigasus award for research on this very subject.

Here is what Randi wrote about my research in the announcement of “the Pigasus awards” in 2007 (http://www.randi.org/pigasus/index.html): “Category #1, to the scientist who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult:  For 2006, it goes to UK biologist Rupert Sheldrake, for his ‘telephone telepathy’ claims related to ‘morphic resonance’. This man’s delusions increase as time goes by, and he comes up with sillier ideas every year.”

Is it silly to investigate apparent telepathy in connection with telephone calls? Several surveys have shown that most people claim to have had telepathic experiences with telephone calls. Experimental research on this subject by myself and others, reported in papers published in peer-reviewed journals, have given statistically significant above-chance results (details on my web site at http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/telepathy/index.html).

Randi is often rude and offensive. Unfortunately many of his fellow sceptics let him get away with it, and treat him with adulation. His presence on the cover of the new-look Skeptic together with Chris French’s uncritical interview helps to build up this iconic status. Randi may have done a useful job in exposing fraudulent showmen, but he has no scientific credentials, and has made fraudulent claims himself. (For one example, see http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/randi.html.)

In Randi’s “Amazing” meeting in Las Vegas in 2005, delegates at the media workshop given by Randi and Michael Shermer were handed a manual called Communicating Skepticism to the Public which told them how to become a media sceptic: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.” 

In real science, becoming an expert requires qualifications and hard work, but as Randi and Shermer pointed out, the rules are different for sceptics. All you need is to form a club with like-minded people: “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

Randi fuels the widespread public perception of sceptics as negative and dogmatic. Even worse, he makes organized scepticism seem like a fundamentalist crusade, with his meetings as revivalist rallies. For sceptics who are genuinely interested in promoting science and reason, he is not an asset but a liability.

If sceptics want to be taken seriously, then organized scepticism should be subject to the same kinds of quality control as genuine science.

Rupert Sheldrake,

The full interview with James Randi can be read here and seen here.

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