Learning from the Scientific Skepticism of the Amazing Randi

By Jon Miller Updated on October 25th, 2020

Growing up in Japan in the 1970s, I was exposed to a lot of entertainment about supernatural or extraordinary phenomena. In books and on TV, there were what seemed at the time like serious investigations of UFOs, ghosts, ESP and crypto creatures. Tune in next week, for the stunning yet always inconclusive conclusion. Yuri Geller was huge. My friends and I stared at forks and spoons that would never bend. Maybe someday, if we practiced hard enough…

Then, illusionist, dis-illusionist, and scientific skeptic the Amazing Randi came along. He made it his mission to expose various fraudulent psychics, faith healers and clairvoyants. Soon, debunking the supernatural became part of TV programming. James Randi passed away aged 92 this week. His demonstrations were part of what helped snapped my young mind out magical thinking and replace it with a healthy scientific skepticism.

Here is some of what I’ve learned since.

Faith-based Blinder Lead to Financial Blunders

One thing the Amazing Randi and others have demonstrated is that it’s easy to fool people who want to be fooled. There are various tricks of the hand, word and eye. Charlatans who claim to speak to the dead practice cold reading, working off cues from the audience. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But when we want it to be true, we lower our guard and even offer the fraudster hints on how to fool us.

When we need a horse to keep its eyes on the road ahead and not be spooked by the traffic on either side, we give them blinders to limit peripheral vision. When humans desperately want to find something, and don’t want conflicting facts to distract from this, they put on figurative blinders.

Whether in personal finance or in making business decisions, studies have shown that people discount the negatives due to something called positivity bias. We may give subconscious hints to the salesman, disregard the financial due diligence and buy the hype, or believe the exciting product launch will go without a hitch. I’ve been bit by this bias. When I wanted strongly to be right, or wanted something to be true, I didn’t always do my best thinking.

Everything Happens… for a Reason or from a Cause?

When people say, “I believe everything happens for a reason,” often they are not stating a belief in cause and effect. They are saying they believe that events in their life are not random but somehow guided by destiny, a greater plan or a higher power. We often hear this from successful people who have overcome challenges. It seems like they were destined.

Self-belief is important. Trying to make sense of life and to find positives in the face of challenges is part of human nature. But if we accept that everything that happened, good or bad, was meant to be, we risk accepting abnormalities that are in our power to change. Everything may happen for a reason. But there is no doubt that everything happens due to one or more causes and conditions.

What Makes It Go?

Before he was an author and professional skeptic, James Randi was a magician and escapologist. He understood how magic tricks and illusions worked. This made him uniquely qualified to question extraordinary claims. He could challenged charlatans to back up their claims with evidence that stood up to scientific scrutiny, because he knew how they were cheating. Nobody has won his one million dollar paranormal challenge since its started in 1964.

Personally, it’s a thrill to first be amazed by a magic trick and then to learn how it works. I’ve seen this light bulb turn on for people in the Lean management context. This happens when people make the conversion from working in a batch to one-piece flow, from push to pull or from command-and-control to collaborative management.

None of this is magic, but there are tricks and mechanisms that make it work. It’s crucial to understand, explain and teach these tricks. Otherwise people accept on faith that Lean works, until lacking the underlying mechanisms, it fails.

Producing Evidence to Support Claims

James Randi didn’t find much of what religion offered believable. This didn’t fit with my upbringing. He was very critical of those who took advantage of people’s credulity, defrauded and did them harm, especially in the name of religion. That I can agree with.

Regarding his views on atheism, he appears to have an open mind to the existence of a higher power

“I’ve said it before; there are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot.”

It may seem like faith in the unproven and belief in the importance of evidence couldn’t coexist in the same mind. And yet Dr. Deming himself is credited with saying, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” For open minds, faith and science aren’t incompatible, as long as one isn’t confused for the other.

The Challenge of Agreeing to Rely on Evidence

I’ve learned that it’s difficult for people with different beliefs to agree use evidence to resolve their differences. This requires the two sides to agree on three things. First, they need to agree that their beliefs could be wrong. Second, they need to define what evidence would prove or disprove their beliefs. And third, they need to actually work together to collect evidence to proves or disproves the notion in question.

This is easier if both sides are scientific skeptics. Most of us aren’t. We hold tight to a core set of beliefs and don’t allow them to be easily shaken by facts. When the two sides can’t agree on a common, evidence-based process, finding consensus on solutions to complex societal issues is challenging.

Can We Embrace both Science and Faith?

Many countries that have prospered by embracing modern science and technology still embrace superstitions and traditional beliefs not yet backed up by evidence. Holding conflicting beliefs is a feature a free society rather than a bug. As a young person, both science and the paranormal were mysterious and appealing. As an adult, I try to be open to extraordinary evidence but skeptical of exceptional claims.

  1. Chris Goglia

    October 28, 2020 - 5:18 pm

    This is a really great post and a great analogy to explain how people understand lean. I totally agree as well it seams like these concepts should be well known but its alarming to see how little people utilize them. Personally when I look at lean projects it almost seems like magic the way they help businesses. Inevitably thinking this way is going to divide people who have been “doing it this way for years’ and it “works”, but when they see the potential of thinking lean, it might be a little easier to sway their opinion to learning about it. A lot of lean solutions are simple enough it’s just a matter of defining it, implementing it, monitoring it, and adjusting it and any company can be more efficient.

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