The Sciences

Randi's big shoes to Phil

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitAug 4, 2008 5:00 PM


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Edited to add: The comments to this post have been amazing incredible. My sincerest thanks to all of you; knowing that everyone has my back makes this a lot easier.

I have a big announcement to make: James Randi has offered me the position of President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I am extraordinarily honored, and I have accepted this duty. Wow. Just writing that seems incredible to me. If you want the official news, you can read our press release. That tells you the facts. It gives you a taste of all this, but I want you to get the flavor. You see, James "The Amazing" Randi has always been a hero of mine. I'm not alone there, of course. At every one of Randi's conferences, I see people approach him rather sheepishly, or in awe, or just, well, amazed. And they say these great things: Randi changed their lives. Randi taught them how to think. Randi showed them what the world is really like.

I feel the same way. I've told this story a million times: when I was in high school, I had a little portable black and white TV that sat on the corner of my desk. I'd stay up late watching Carson (Johnny, not Daly). One night, Carson had this guy on, a little dude with a fantastic white beard, and he got a volunteer from the audience to lie down on a table. Then, explaining the whole time that it's a fake, he starts pulling tissue out of this guy "psychically" just using sleight of hand (you can watch a piece of the clip on YouTube). I was in hysterics, laughing my butt off. But at that time in my life, I was prey to a lot of pseudoscience: UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, all sorts of garbage. Watching Randi on The Tonight Show showed me that this stuff can be easily faked, or people easily misled (willfully or not). I started being more skeptical, and became more of a critical thinker as time went on. It was already inside me to be this way, but it was Randi who showed it to me. In 1996, Randi started the JREF, a foundation to help him help others like the teenaged me. He has been working tirelessly for years to promote critical thinking and skepticism, and to de-fraud the fraudulent. He's been an inspiration. In 2002 I sent him a copy of my first book, asking him to write a "blurb" for the back cover. He did (it was great!), and shortly thereafter asked me if I would come talk at the first skeptical conference the JREF was holding in Florida. I agreed, and gave my Planet X talk -- just a few hours after Columbia disintegrated over Texas. That was a hard talk to give, to be cheerful and support NASA against slander from conspiracy theorists just a short time after losing those astronauts. But I muddled through, and Randi was very supportive, saying I would be a regular at those meetings. He was right. I was very proud to give him an award of sorts at the most recent meeting in June, a cup filled with hundreds of notes from audience members, each saying how Randi has changed their lives for the better.

So we go back a bit, he and I. But it was still a shock when he pulled me aside not too long ago and asked if I would like to carry on with his work. What can you say to that? He's Randi. There's only one answer. I accepted. There is no way I can replace Randi, or fill his shoes, or even be moderately Amazing. I won't even try. Happily, I don't need to: he will continue to work with the JREF, guiding the Foundation as the Chairman of the Board of Directors. There is a lot of Randi in the JREF, and of the JREF in Randi, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So what I will do is try to continue on with the JREF's mission: educate the public. Take on the psychics, the antiscientists, those who would do harm to our collective intellect. Promote real science. That I can do, that I will do, and that is a promise. I also promise to continue this blog. As much as Randi and the JREF are intertwined, so am I with speaking my mind here on the blog. I've been doing this a long time, and I'm not about to stop now. I want to thank everyone who supported me in this journey, and warn them that we've only just started. There is a very long road ahead, and I'm grateful that Randi was and still is there to break the trail.

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