For a skeptical audience, the mention of illusionists may bring James Randi to mind, and I think that it's only a matter of time until I address the man, and his methods, in this blog. So why not now?
Randi is a skilled illusionist, a firm skeptic, and one of the more famous of the professional skeptical writers. He's written a number of books on the topic of skepticism, and heads the James Randi Educational Foundation, which bills itself as "an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural." His organization offers a million dollar award to anyone that can prove paranormal abilities in a controlled setup. The award remains unclaimed. I'll write about the contest in another blog post. The JREF home page is randi.org.
I used to read James Randi's newsletter regularly. He's obviously intelligent, and has a sharp wit, and his writing tends to be very entertaining. As I read his work, though, and other skeptics to a lesser extent, there was something that kept nagging at me. At the time (about seven years ago, when I was twenty-one) I was more likely to believe whatever I read, and I took Randi's debunkings as (may I use the word?) gospel. But, sometimes, I would read an explanation, and I would think that it didn't quite cut the butter. Then, in late 2003, Randi debunked The Oregon Vortex, and my whole view of him came tumbling down.
The Oregon Vortex is a so-called "mystery spot" in southern Oregon. Mystery spots are areas where a person standing in one spot seems to be taller than when they're standing in another spot, a few feet away. There are other reported anomalies, but the size change is the primary attraction, and it's what James Randi focused on in his article. Randi explained the basics of forced perspective, where an individual will see something as being larger, even though it's actually just closer, and inversely, something further seems to be smaller. How this applied to the Oregon Vortex was that, while the shapeshifting people seemed to be standing on either side of a rectangular board, they were actually standing on a skewed board, that only looked rectangular from a certain camera angle, and as they moved closer and further from the camera, on this skewed board, they seemed to grow or shrink. He gave an example of this with spice jars and a piece of cardboard.
But it didn't work for me. Not for a second. I'd never been to the vortex (I actually hadn't heard of it before then) but very brief research confirmed what I thought, that The Oregon Vortex is a tourist spot. The photos posted online were not taken by the employees, but by the visitors. So I wondered why the only person that had noticed these skewed boards was somebody that had never been there. In other words, no matter how much the skeptical writers called the tourists idiots and "woo-woos," I found it very hard to believe that nobody had noticed that the boards weren't squared. In fact, it seemed obvious to me that this wasn't the case. I wondered why it didn't seem obvious to everybody else, who were quoting and linking to Randi's newsletter.
Long story short, I became quickly disillusioned with this style of debunking after that, looking back through posts I had already read, and now easily recognizing what I've come to call "whack-a-mole" debunking. It's quick, dirty, and entertaining, but it's unfortunately inaccurate from time to time. Even more unfortunately, it's sometimes obviously inaccurate. The kind of inaccurate that one doesn't have to leave the desk to recognize. This kind of debunking is still practiced at the JREF, and is still very popular throughout the skeptical community, to my chagrin. It proves nothing, and teaches nothing. I'm all for educating the public about critical thinking, but to publicly avoid a real consideration of people's real beliefs is to put a bad face forward, and to make your own beliefs seem hard to defend.
Well, as an epilogue, I checked out The Oregon Vortex a couple of years later. The tour guide had people stand on three different platforms that would change their sizes. The first spot was quite convincing, though I didn't see much of anything on the other two. I took careful note of the perfect rectangularity of the boards with a piece of paper I had. I also noticed that the three boards didn't seem to radiate out from a central "vortex," which tells me that there was probably something afoot other than the bending of space-time. There was no time for any kind of investigation during the tour, but I didn't leave in a bad spirits.