Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The best television program I ever saw

An evening that I consider to be a pivotal moment in my life was one night as a child spent watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny's guest, James Randi, or the Amazing Randi, showed how many people misuse the principles of magic for fraud. Randi showed how mentalists can easily bend silverware, how mediums can cause tables to shake and levitate in a "seance", and how people performed "psychic surgery".
Randi's approach is to show how a person could produce the same illusions that so-called psychics were claiming as authentic supernatural phenomena. Silverware can be bent through slight of hand techniques and discretely applying pressure to the silverware, a slipping a toe under one of the legs of a table can give a person complete control over it when they apply downward pressure with their hands, and some blood and chicken parts can be palmed by a person and then produced from someone's belly--it's really the same trick as pulling a coin from someone's ear, just bloodier.
Randi's explanations turned me towards a skeptical path that I have since traveled. I viewed outrageous claims with a skeptical eye. I always sought to find a more simple solution than magic or pseudo-scientific explanations.
This was a huge breakthrough for me. At that time I was living between two worlds. In one world I was learning to use the scientific method and discovering how to explain the physical world. I loved finding scientific explanations for things that I could not explain through the scientific method. Observing something, hypothesizing as to how it happens, creating an experiment that supports/refutes that hypothesis, analyzing the data and drawing conclusions from the data.
In the other world I was told that there is mystical power that created everything and interacts with our daily lives. One hour of every week I would hear how real this god and Jesus are. My whole family believed this. I went to a school that taught the Catholic faith alongside science. Everywhere I turned were christians who basically believed what I was being taught by others to believe.
At this point I knew things to be true for two reasons: I could observe them and provide an explanation for them through observable and reproducible steps, or someone told me it's true because it's in the bible.
That night of seeing Randi explain supernatural claims tipped the scales towards my skepticism.

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