Famous debunker of the supernatural James Randi, also known as "The Amazing Randi," has produced an entertaining volume of short items on paranormal claims. Hardly deep reading, this is popcorn of the intellect, but smoothly popped and well seasoned.
The entries, organized alphabetically, cover a wide range of categories. They include people and organizations of the past and present, bizarre phenomena, bogus or real sciences, occult practices, claims of various unusual abilities, and objects said to have extraordinary properties. The book is not simply a rebuttal of obvious nonsense, but a collection of fascinating information. Under "cat," we learn that the Egyptian city of Bubastis was built to honor cat worship and held an annual cat festival which attracted seven hundred thousand pilgrims. The article on Paracelsus is over two pages long and provides some fascinating details about the sixteenth-century alchemist. Modern pretenders to psychic abilities, such as Jeane Dixon and Uri Geller, get their just deserts; Randi treats the shamans and witch doctors of primitive societies more gently, perhaps because they can't know any better.
The first of two appendices covers the lifespans of the people subjected to the "curse" of Tutankhamen's tomb. The figures rebut any notion of a plague of early deaths among those who violated the tomb. Randi mentions that the average lifespan of the tomb explorers listed actually exceeds the life expectancy of that period, though he fails to note that a sample containing only adults will naturally have a longer lifespan than a random sample of people. The second appendix lists a collection of failed end-of-the-world prophecies, starting with Jesus, who said that some of his apostles would still be alive when the Kingdom of God came in glory.
Arthur C. Clarke's foreword offers a disturbing comment which needs to be mentioned, even though it doesn't reflect directly on Randi:
"Freedom of the press" is an excellent ideal, but as a distinguished jurist once said in a similar context, "Freedom of speech does not include freedom to should 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre." Unscrupulous publishers, out to make a cheap buck by pandering to the credulous and feebleminded, are doing the equivalent of this, by sabotaging the intellectual and educational standards of society, and fostering a generation of neobarbarians."
It is very sad that one of today's leading science fiction writers supports censorship. Books such as Randi's, which challenge notions that are precious to large segments of society, can be published only because the government is forbidden to ban books which "sabotage" anyone's standards, including those of the credulous and intolerant. Randi's book shouts a warning against the flaming nonsense which we see on the New Age shelves and the supermarket tabloids; may no one ever silence him.
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