Skeptic and Magician James Randi Escapes the Closet at Age 81
Skeptic and magician James Randi has pulled off yet another daring escape. The famous debunker of scam psychics has emerged from the closet at the age of 81. Randi made the big announcement on his blog last Sunday. After all these years, Sean Penn's biopic Milk inspired him to finally go public.
"I’m prepared to receive the inevitable barrage of jeers and insults from the "grubbies" out there who will jump to their keyboards in glee to notify others of their kind about this statement, which to them will be yet further proof of the perfidy of the rationalist mode of life that I have chosen," Randi wrote, "Those titters of joy will be unheard over the murmur of acceptance that I confidently expect from my friends."
Randi got more than murmurs of acceptance from his many friends and supporters in the skeptics' movement. The news was greeted warmly by major pro-science blogs including Boing Boing, Will Wheaton, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy.
Randi's post burned up Twitter, sparking a groundswell of support and enthusiasm:
- Wow. To Mr. James Randi, my hero: of course I support you. That's one thing, at least, you never need doubt -- katsushiro
- James Randi has just proven once again why he is and always will be Amazing--LijitThePenguin
- James Randi has come out of the closet at 81, and continues to be astonishing, revolutionary, and fucking classy --hexachordal
- James Randi, um dos meus heróis, saiu do armário. Eu pensei: "whoa!"--Myke_Greywolf
Randi elaborated on his decision and his views on gay rights in an interview with D.J. Grothe on For Good Reason, the podcast James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi said he knew he was gay from childhood. He never felt ashamed, but in the pre-gay rights era, coming out wasn't an option. Being open about his orientation would have hurt his family and his career as a magician and radio broadcaster. "I never made an issue of it," Randi said, "I couldn't afford to." Even so, he never pretended to be straight: "There was no protective coloration, I've never adopted that in any way."
Randi's coming out story reflects the era he grew up in. He's clearly ambivalent about whether it matters, or should matter. He said he didn't come out earlier because it didn't really matter. Everyone who mattered sort of knew anyway and seemed to be fine with it. Yet he ultimately decided that not coming out would be a kind of "dishonesty by omission." For Randi, coming out seems less like a political statement and more a gesture of personal integrity. As he nears the end of his life, a very public figure wants to be open about who he is.
There was an odd moment in the interview when Randi stressed that he grew his trademark bushy beard to add to his cachet as a magician. It wasn't to cultivate a macho image, he said. "I managed that without the beard," he added mischievously. That goes without saying. When you've escaped from a straightjacket suspended over Niagra Falls, like Randi has, you've got nothing to prove.
Randi said he supports gay marriage. He even hinted that he would be interested in marrying his longtime partner if same-sex marriage were legal in his home state of Florida.
Grothe asked Randi if he saw any connection between skepticism and gay rights. Grothe, who has been openly gay since he was 14, noted that cultural conservatives often use pseudoscience to justify discrimination. Randi agreed that enemies of pseudoscience could play a role in debunking these myths. "Maybe we should put a bit of emphasis on it, eventually, when the occasion calls for it," he said.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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