Sunday, August 31, 2014

Film Review: An Honest Liar

Last week I went to see the film An Honest Liar which was directed by both Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein. The film chronicles the life and importance of skepticism's elder statesmen, James "The Amazing Randi." Randi is well know for being a magician and escape artist who became a debunker of some pretty famous people who claimed to have paranormal powers and other supernatural gifts. Randi has spent decades debunking and showing the trickery behind spirit channeling, faith healing, clairvoyance  and the bending of objects by using one's mind.

As the film suggests and as Randi so vehemently states, the motivation to expose liars and hucksters is to show how truly evil those are who prey upon the gullible and needy by taking their money and giving false hope by basically using trickery or technology to fool those who are vulnerable and who want to believe in spirits and the supernatural.

Randi's professional history is very well documented so a film about his life could be considered superfluous or unnecessary. However, the film captures and holds the viewer's interest because of some startling personal revelations. In addition, the 90 minute film moves quickly thanks to excellent commentary from fellow skeptics like Michael Shermer, Mythbuster's Adam Savage, Penn and Teller (Penn doing to talking of course), fellow magicians and those who have assisted Randi in revealing how the scientific studies into psychokinesis (PK) are deeply flawed and hugely biased by those scientists who support PK's existence.

In terms of revelations, Randi comes out in the film (as he did in 2010) and admits he is a gay man. As an octogenarian, he comes to terms and talks openly about hiding his homosexuality and the positives of his life with artist Jose Alvarez. Another revelation deals with the immigration status of Alvarez who, it turns out, used a forged passport and kept another man's identity for a quarter century. Alvarez apparently only admitted his true name and identity to Randi after INS officials burst into their home and took him away in handcuffs. The finale of the film is set during the legal proceedings at which point we learn if Alvarez will be allowed to stay in the United States. (No spoilers here).

Much like Harry Houdini who spent a large part of his life exposing the fakery behind seances, Randi set out to show how easily people can be duped into believing anything which gives them spiritual comfort.

The film reminds the viewer of the experiment done in the late 1980's in which Randi and Alvarez invented a person out of thin air who claimed to be a channeler of spirits. Randi created fake press packages and newspaper articles which he sent off to the media.  Once the television interviews began, Alvarez as the pretend channeler quickly gained enough popularity to hold arena events to show off his "powers." Randi and Alvarez eventually exposed the truth about the hoax and their effort to show how the media sometimes doesn't check its sources and how people can be easily duped. Rather than being thanked for their expose, Randi and Alvarez became the targets of a huge backlash by people who still wanted to believe in channeling and supernatural forces.

The two highlights of the film for me focused on the ongoing war between Uri Geller and Randi as well Randi's exposing televanglist Peter Popoff as a fraud.

Geller is an Israeli man who would go on TV during the 1970s and 1980s and bend spoons by just allegedly rubbing them and he'd also do other feats to show his mystical powers. Randi showed time and again that Geller was faking by replicating each of his tricks. In a checkmate by Randi, through his intervention with Tonight Show producers, Geller was exposed publicly on Johnny Carson's show and was unable to replicate his "powers."

The other episode in the film focused on the Evangelist Peter Popoff who appeared to know the ailments and problems of people who would come to his stadium-filled revivals and who he would "heal" through the power of prayer and touch. As documented in the film, Rev. Popoff was shown to be getting his divine information not from god but from a small radio transmitter in his ear. His wife was actually reading the names and ailments of random people in his audience after they had filled out prayer cards before the religious services would begin.

In both cases, Geller and Popoff each made (and still sadly make) a pretty nice living hustling those who need to believe in the spirit world and magic to give meaning to their lives.

Perhaps the best message we can take from the documentary is about staying honest with ourselves while at the same time being healthily skeptical about claims made by people concerning pseudoscience, the supernatural and the paranormal. The film is ultimately a cautionary tale about knowing yourself and not being afraid to use critical thinking skills, reason, and healthy skepticism when confronted with extraordinary and magical claims.

Finally and to this day it should be noted that no one has come forward to take the one million dollar prize challenge which The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered to scientifically test magical or other supernatural claims. Based on what we know about reality as well what we know about pseudoscience and spirituality, I'd say Mr. Randi's money will remain very safe for a long time.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Godless Grace Manuscript Sent to the Humanist Press

The completed manuscript for our book, Godless Grace: How Non-Believers are Making the World Safer, Richer and Kinder, has been sent to the Humanist Press.

The book was actually two years in the making. My co-author, Linda Ford Blaikie, and I worked diligently over these last eight months specifically to completely research the trends impacting humanist activism and also capture ethnographically many interviews with humanist activists from around the globe.

We are very appreciative to all those who volunteered to be profiled. We are also very thankful to the Humanist Press for their interest in working with us on this project. Linda and I are also both delighted to have had Dr. Phil Zuckerman write the forward and American Atheists, Inc. President, David Silverman, pen the afterward. 

With final editing, book jacket selection and other incidentals we await a firm publication date. I anticipate the book will be available for sale later this year.

Dr. David Orenstein, MLS, MS, Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Ode to Dryopithecus

For those who may not know. Dryopithecus is a transitional primate which is the root ancestor to both ancient and modern apes and humans.  The fossil is dated to have existed in the middle of the Miocene epoch (16 MYA) This species branched into three later animals directly related to gorillas and chimps, one is closely related to orangutans and one branch lead to ancient hominins (australopithecines and us, etc).


Your teeth are raw;
Your adaptations lead
to a more gracile jaw

Walking a 16 million-year journey;
Reaching forward to create a
more diverse primate colony

Apes and humans in all their pieces
Listed as hominids;
We owe our existence to you
a most lovely ancient species

So this may not be a really great poem. But we can certainly see the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology.