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CFI World Congress: More Highlights

Special Report

Ben Radford

Volume 33.4, July / August 2009

Longtime CSI fellow and Skeptical Inquirer contributor Elizabeth Loftus presented a talk about her pioneering, decades-long research into memory. Claims of paranormal events and experiences often come down to memories and recollections, in which the credibility of the claim rests on how accurate a person’s memories are. Other times the result of faulty memory is more serious than a mere belief in the paranormal—including many innocent people having been convicted and imprisoned based on eyewitness testimony. Loftus drew from recent examples (such as then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s false memory of visiting Bosnia under sniper fire and a clip of her recent appearance on the newsmagazine 60 Minutes about a miscarriage of justice)  to demonstrate once again just how fallible our recollections can be—and the danger in assuming they are accurate.

CSI senior research fellow Joe Nickell explained the important distinction between investigating and debunking. While investigation often leads to debunking, he said, a good investigator must follow the evidence to the most reasonable conclusion rather than begin with an assumption about the nature of the mystery. With humor and wit, he recounted anecdotes from many of his cases, including that of Toronto’s “haunted” McKenzie house, one of his first investigations. Joe solved the mystery by tracing unexplained, ghostly noises to a stairway in the building next door. He interviewed an employee there who was well aware of the ghost claims but never brought it up; it seems Joe was the first person to ask about it!

Introduced by Joe Nickell, James “The Amazing” Randi put his skills as a magician to work immediately. He approached the stage, adjusted the podium microphone, and began his talk. He soon wandered away from the podium with no loss in volume, surprising the audience. Randi revealed that the microphone he had been speaking into for several minutes wasn’t even on; he had guided the audience’s assumptions with a mere gesture and was in fact speaking on a wireless microphone.

Randi regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes from his decades of tireless work, including a Bob Newhart-like standup routine in which Randi gave his side of a telephone conversation he had many years ago. It seems that a prestigious scientist was impressed by a psychic’s ability and warned Randi that his million-dollar prize might be in jeopardy. He described the amazing psychic feat to Randi, who while on the phone promptly located one of Martin Gardner’s books on magic, faxed the relevant page to the scientist, and patiently waited for a response that never came. Randi’s take-home message is sage advice for everyone, lay public and skeptical inquirer like: “You too can be fooled.”

Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, lamented the lack of critical thinking in America. Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jacoby noted that “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” She drew on many examples of the sorry state of intellectual affairs in America, from Sarah Palin to the dominance of video culture over print media to “junk thought” and rampant anti-intellectualism. Jacoby’s talk was not all gloom-and-doom; she saw some encouraging signs in President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place in government (see p. 8 in this issue).

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.