Flim-Flam!

The ultimate book for skeptics.

I just finished Flim-Flam! by James Randi. You may have heard of “The Amazing Randi” — he’s the one offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. (You can learn more about Randi’s challenge on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Web site.)

The book details many attempts to claim the prize — which was only $10,000 when the book was written — as well as the facts behind many of the things commonly believed in popular culture: The Bermuda Triangle, Chariots of the Gods, UFOs, astrology, psychic surgery, etc. Randi is relentless in his quest to expose charlatans, especially those who prey on believers with cash to “donate” to his efforts.

Although this book is now 25 years old, it’s an extremely timely read — especially with fakes like Uri Geller appearing on television to con viewers. (Randi is also the author of The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposes many of Geller’s tricks.)

Nowadays, people are willing to believe almost anything; it’s good to read something that brings reality into the equation.

Are you a skeptic? You need to listen to Skepticality or read Skeptic magazine.

Question the Media!

“Critical thinking” is the antidote for “truthiness” in our public life.

As the quality of our local newspaper here in Wickenburg declines to the point that it’s not worth spending the ten minutes it takes to read each week, I found “Skepticism: The antidote to ‘truthiness’ in American government and media” by Roy Peter Clark on Poytner Online a very interesting read. In preparing for an appearance on Oprah, he made a few notes, including this one:

4. Join with others in your community to analyze how you are being served or disserved by your local news media. As famed editor Gene Roberts said about one newspaper: “You can throw it up in the air and read it before it hits the ground.” What does your community need in the form of coverage that it is not getting? Who owns the news companies in your community? Are they in the news business to serve the public or to maximize their profits?

Or push the agendas of certain special interests?

Okay, so I added that last bit. But the point is, a newspaper should provide the news. All the news that matters to the public. Every side of every issue.

The current situation in Wickenburg’s local newspaper affects me directly: for the past three weeks, I’ve been mentioned in articles in the paper, but I have yet to be interviewed by a “reporter.” Tell me: how can a serious journalist write about a topic without speaking to the people who are making it newsworthy?

I’ll tell you how. When it isn’t in their best interest or the interest of their publication to objectively report all sides of an issue.

(A side note here: Lately, a large number of people in Wickenburg are outraged by the one-sidedness of the local newspaper. It’s gotten to the point that many people have cancelled their subscriptions. (Bravo! My husband and I did this well over a year ago and the only thing I miss is the regular supply of newsprint for the bottom of my parrot’s cage. I especially miss seeing his random bird droppings on photos of particular people here in town.) Some of them have even gone so far as to write letters to the publisher explaining why they are canceling. (I doubt that those letters will appear in the Letters to the Editor pages, which are the most popular pages in the paper.) Others have pledged to let their subscriptions lapse or simply stop picking it up on newsstands. Will this revolt by the people help? Probably not. If their finances begin to feel the pain of lost subscriptions, I’m sure one of the special interests they support will step up with a bailout. Quietly, of course. That’s how most Good Old Boy transactions are handled in this town.)

Mr. Clark adds this little bit of wisdom:

5. Look for role models of candor and accountability, people in public life who have proven to be reliable over time. Look for folks within a movement or political party who have the courage to speak, on occasion, against the interests of their own party.

Or against their government or town?

Frankly, Mr. Clark’s article has a lot of good advice — especially these days, when the media is spending more time manipulating public opinion than objectively reporting what’s important in the world around us. I highly recommend it to anyone.