An Honest Liar…an honest review

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After hearing several of my most trusted podcaster friends talk about the new documentary on James Randi, I decided to watch it. Netflix is streaming “An Honest Liar”, so I added it to my list, made some popcorn, and turned it on. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, only that several like-minded friends recommended it. My friends may have enjoyed it, but I didn’t, for reasons I am still struggling with, so bear with me.

For those who don’t know, The Amazing Randi, is a magician/escape artist turned debunker. He is famous for debunking Uri Geller’s psychic spoon bending tricks, and faith healer Peter Popoff, who it turns out, was not hearing the voice of God, but that of his wife through a hidden earpiece. Randi’s life long quest was to expose fakes and frauds like these and for that I have enormous respect for the man.

The movie documents Randi’s role as a debunker and the lengths he would go to in order to flush out con artists and fakes. It was fascinating to see just how elaborate some of his debunking tactics were. Randi teamed up with Australia’s 60 Minutes program to demonstrate the gullibility of people and the media. Randi released a fake press package (that no one bothered to check), and by doing so built up publicity for a “spirit channeler” named “Carlos”. Carlos who was actually an artist named Jose Alvarez. Alvarez drew crowds with his paranormal channeling abilities. After a few weeks of touring Australia, Randi and Carlos explained the hoax to 60 Minutes. Randi proved people would believe just about anything given enough authority and credibility. This is still true today. Con artist and pseudoscience peddlers get away with their snake oils largely because the news media either ignores the obvious, or in the case of Doctor, Oz, actually feeds into people’s gullibility.

As I watched the movie, my admiration for Randi and the work that he did grew. As many of my readers know, some of my biggest frustrations are those who peddle pseudoscience, and unsupported “facts”. Those who make money off these types of endeavors are near the top of my worst people list; right below those who harm children, and animals for pleasure. Yet as the movie continued, I started to become depressed. You see, the more frauds and fakes Randi exposed, the more the masses seemed to turn on him. A hard truth hit me, people would rather believe in mystical abilities over scientific facts. No matter how much is at stake, people would rather take their chances with faith healing rather than Western medicine. To be far, it doesn’t start and end with religious beliefs. There is the willingness of otherwise smart people (usually woman) to have a herbal practitioner push a tube up their colon in order to “detoxify” rather than have a Western doctor place a camera in their same colon to check for precancerous polyps. As much as I think we need more people like Randi who are willing to expose myths and frauds, the movie showed me that my views might be in the minority.

This doesn’t mean that I will stop. You will still find me outing pseudoscience through my blog, and my own podcast, once I can find a co-host with a better science background than mine. But what I won’t continue to do is comment on friend’s Facebook posts and contribute to Internet conversations. If nothing else, “An Honest Liar “showed me the futility of trying to educate someone who didn’t ask for it. But this is not why I didn’t like the movie. It was the filmmaker’s agenda that bothered me. Or, maybe, I just didn’t get the director’s goal. Did he make the movie as a tribute to Randi, or as we learn late in the film, expose a “hoax” that Randi willingly participated in.

I don’t want to spoil the movie by giving the ending away, so it’s hard to fully explain why I’m torn. Randi is involved in something that admittedly does harm to a family, yet I am not sure the world needed to know about it. As I watched as the very painful and personal drama unfold, I kept asking myself, “Did I really need to know this? What good does it do to expose this very bad (but understandable) life choice?” For all of the good Randi has done for the world, I am not sure he deserved to have this exposed. On the other hand, maybe Randi has found some measure of peace now that it is out there. If I could have been convinced that this was the reason behind the director’s decision to include this, I would have liked the movie more. As it is, I was left feeling uncomfortable and sad. This is not a good way to end a movie about a man who devoted his life to exposing fakes who made millions off of desperate and gullible people. This is how I will remember Randi, who at 86 is now retired, not as someone who helped keep a personal hoax hidden. I just wish the director were a little more forthcoming with his agenda.

April Fools!

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Happy April Fool’s Day!

According to History. com the history of April Fools remains a mystery. What we do is that on this day in 1700, English pranksters begin popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools’ Day by playing practical jokes on each other.

Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. People who failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes. These included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

Historians have also linked April Fools’ Day to ancient festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.

April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the Gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (Gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s bums, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them. Some fun the Scotts are. Glad I didn’t live during these hilarious times!

We don’t know when Americans started to celebrate the day, perhaps it was a tradition they brought with them to the new world. We do know, once popularized it spread across the globe. It is not just the people’s holidays, many companies and institutions get in on the fun. With resources and money many of the most popular and highly charged pranks have been pulled off by the media, corporations and respected names.

In celebration of this day I offer you five of the most successful April Fool’s hoaxes.

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On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query the BBC diplomatically replied, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”.

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In 1995 the Greek Ministry of Culture announced that during excavation for the Athens metro system, archaeologists had uncovered what they believed to be the tomb of Socrates near the base of the Acropolis. A vase containing traces of hemlock (the poison used to kill socrates) and a piece of leather dating from between 400 and 390 BC were found in the tomb. The news agency Agence France-Presse immediately issued a release about the story. What it didn’t realize was that the Greek Ministry was joking, forcing the news agency to issue an embarrassed retraction a few hours later.

1998pi

The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the ‘Biblical value’ of 3.0. Soon the article made its way onto the internet, and then it rapidly spread around the world, forwarded by email.

It only became apparent how far the article had spread when the Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation. The original article, which was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution, was written by physicist Mark Boslough.

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On April 1 1996, full page newspaper ads announced that Taco Bell has purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell.”While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt,” the ad said.

The fast food chain was quick to assure Americans that their access to the Taco Liberty Bell would not be hindered. Thousands of people called the headquarters of Taco Bell and the offices of the National Park Service, but were assured that it was a prank. My favorite part comes when the White House was asked to make a statement. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry quipped that the Ford Motor Company was following suit, with the Lincoln Memorial being renamed the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

And saving the best for last…

On 1 April 2008, the BBC announced that camera crews filming near the Antarctic for its natural history series Miracles of Evolution had captured footage of Adélie penguins taking to the air. It even offered a video clip of these flying penguins, which became one of the most viewed videos on the internet. Presenter Terry Jones (yes the Terry Jones) explained that, instead of huddling together to endure the Antarctic winter, these penguins took to the air and flew thousands of miles to the rainforests of South America where they “spend the winter basking in the tropical sun.”

Do you have an April Fool’s prank story? Do share!

BBC.Com
History.Com
The Museum of Hoaxes