Since I'm a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement – essential for those of us who work in media outlets that cater to educated consumers. NewsWorks readers would be outraged if I suddenly started writing credulously about psychics, palm readers or homeopaths.
But for some people, skepticism is a movement, and last week I had a chance to learn a lot more about it at an annual gathering called The Amazing Meeting. It's a fundraiser for the James Randi Educational Foundation, James Randi being a magician and investigator of paranormal or supernatural claims.
This year TAM drew 1100 people – mostly non-gamblers - to Las Vegas in July.
I was asked to give a talk, and since the theme was "Fighting the Fakers", I chose to discuss some of the cranks and quacks I'd exposed though my columns and stories. I gave examples of the kinds of claims we journalists investigate, what we get right and why we sometimes go wrong. But I was, as always, gathering material for new stories.
Writing about the meeting, I believe, abides by journalistic ethics because there was no honorarium for speakers and while the foundation offered to pay some of my travel expenses, we are talking about Vegas in July, a setting that had the unintended consequence of leaving me with one more religious-type belief than I'd come in with – hell.
What intrigued me about the skeptics' movement was the central role of magicians, especially James Randi, 85.
His name became a household word in the scientific community after 1988, when he helped investigate the claims of Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist who managed to get a strikingly improbable result published in the prestigious journal Nature.
The experiments described in Benveniste's Nature paper purported to show that water could remember the presence of an antibody that was no longer there – it had been diluted to zero concentration. That's a claim quite similar to the discredited mechanism behind the discredited practice of homeopathy.
The editors at Nature could find nothing wrong with the methodology. Benvensite seemed to be following the scientific method.
Randi and the other investigators devised a clever follow-up test. Benveniste said he could distinguish water that had once held the antibody from water that had not. So the investigators asked him to try it again with samples labeled only by a secret code, thereby making Benveniste blind to whether he was testing a "real" sample or a control. According to Wikipedia, Randi taped the key to the samples' identity on the ceiling.
Lo and behold, Benveniste couldn't tell the difference when he didn't know ahead of time. A follow up paper was published in Nature, with Randi as an author.