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The Amazing Meeting 2011: What is the JREF?

Greetings from your roving correspondent, reporting from The Amazing Meeting, the annual conference organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation. This meeting is a bit different from the usual technology and gadget conferences I attend for TidBITS, but we’ve decided to cover it as some of the scientific and skeptical discussions taking place will likely intrigue the kind of thoughtful people who read TidBITS. To get a feel for the sort of topics discussed at the conference, I interviewed D.J. Grothe, president of the JREF, and also ended up coming away with a surprising Apple-related connection.

If you’re wondering where you’ve heard James Randi’s name before — and you’re somewhere in the “middle aged” range — you may remember him from his takedown of the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Geller had claimed a paranormal ability to bend spoons; Randi showed how spoon bending is done by magicians. You can see some of Geller’s Tonight Show appearance in this YouTube clip, which also exposes a faith healer.

More recently, you may have seen Randi take a lethal overdose of homeopathic sleeping pills as part of his TED Talks presentation… an overdose that left him unharmed, as there are no active ingredients in homeopathic medicine.

The JREF’s goal can best be summed up from an excerpt from the conference program: “to create a world where everyone has access to the tools of science and critical thinking, and charlatans can’t get rich by deceiving people.” Grothe discussed the JREF’s mission as an educational organization, reaching out through programs and conferences to provide tools to improve critical thinking. The primary targets of these tools include both the charlatans, and the well-meaning advocates of pseudoscience who inadvertently cause great harm by spreading damaging beliefs.

For example, we discussed the phenomenon of dowsers, who claim they can find hidden objects using branches or metal rods. There is no scientific basis for this, but that hasn’t stopped an unscrupulous company from selling thousands of “bomb detector” dowsing rods to the Iraqi government at $18,000 a pop, netting $85 million total. Obviously, the waste of such money is a small concern, compared to the harm caused when false positives cause the innocent to be arrested, or false negatives lead security forces to believe a cargo to be safe.

The JREF promotes the skeptical approach: just as you would look under the hood of a car before buying it, you should also inspect a new idea before incorporating it into your worldview. This applies equally to ideas you have already adopted; the JREF’s goal isn’t necessarily to change people’s minds, but to train them to review their own beliefs for fallacies in the same way they would critique the beliefs of others.

However, Grothe did catch me off guard by saying: “Apple is the only religion to which I am still a convert.” Grothe sees iOS devices as powerful tools for teaching skepticism, and to that end, the JREF is releasing several apps designed to teach the methods behind skepticism interactively. For example, one of their first apps will turn your iOS device into a dowsing rod — and will demonstrate why people using such rods can strongly believe that some outside force is directing its actions. It operates on the same principle as a Ouija board: a psychological process called the “ideomotor effect” causes unconscious movements to translate into effects you can see, but
which aren’t apparently under your control. Unlike normal dowsing rods, the iOS app will demonstrate the process using the accelerometer — and then explain how it works.

Grothe said this is the first of many such apps they have on the drawing board, including a psychic test app that tests your ability to predict which symbol is the next to be dealt from a pack of cards. Like the dowsing app, the psychic test app is planned to be a free download, but with a bonus twist: use your psychic abilities to show that you have a better-than-average ability to predict the cards, and you can apply to win a million dollars if you can repeat it under laboratory test conditions.

The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is a bit of a stunt: its existence acts as a standing question to all self-proclaimed psychics as to why they haven’t claimed the money themselves. But Grothe said that the JREF is in no way opposed to finding a winner, as anyone who can consistently demonstrate that a particular paranormal ability is a real phenomenon would proceed to open up new boundaries of science: “We’d all get Nobel Prizes,” he said.

Grothe mentioned that JREF has more ideas for these kinds of apps than they currently have money to pay developers, or staff ability to manage such projects — so readers who find themselves intrigued by the JREF’s mission, and who have iOS development skills, are invited to get in touch. Other ways to get involved include the usual tax-deductible donation, joining the JREF online, participating in their online forums (which include a ten-year archive if there’s anything you wish to research), or using their directory of skeptical meetings and local groups worldwide.

[Editor’s Note: Jeff Porten filed several other stories from The Amazing Meeting 2011 that we’ll be trickling out over time in the weekly email issues of TidBITS. If you’d like to read them while they’re still fresh, look for “The Amazing Meeting 2011: Skeptic Podcasts” (17 July 2011) and “The Amazing Meeting 2011: Richard Dawkins vs. Chuck Norris” (18 July 2011). -Adam]

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