By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
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By Ryan Pfeffer
James Randi, a.k.a the Amazing Randi, has made a career out of debunking purportedly fantastical events. In the late '70s, the magician and scientist humiliated spoon-bender Uri Geller on The Tonight Show by scuttling a supposed demonstration of psychic powers. About a decade later, Randi exposed televangelist Peter Popoff as a fraudulent faith healer. The potions and practices Randi has investigated over the years include paranormal activities, homeopathic medicines, massage therapy, dowsing -- even the laundry ball, a product that supposedly enables people to do away with detergent and fabric softener.
Now the 70-year-old Randi, whose nonprofit educational foundation is located on Davie Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, has plunged himself into another contentious subject: the purported Tequesta Indian site known as the Miami Circle. The location was to be transformed into luxury high-rise apartments but was rescued late last month when the Miami-Dade County Commission voted to condemn and purchase the property. As the media maelstrom and political pandering over the archaeological site next to the Miami River reached a peak, Randi sent out a missive via e-mail to his 9000 online subscribers questioning the authenticity of the findings.
Wishful thinking is not at all unknown to science. Though we like to think that proper scientists are careful and deliberate in their work, history shows us that in every field of science, great presumptions, wild suppositions, unwarranted conclusions, and other less-than-justified elements have brought many academics to ruin and disgrace.
The letter then goes on to question the underlying findings of the archaeologists who have worked on the Miami Circle site and pooh-poohs the importance of the relic. Perhaps most damning is Randi's speculation in the e-mail that the 38-foot-diameter limestone basin uncovered at the site is nothing more than a septic field. He bases this proposition on the fact that a septic tank was found at the site when an apartment building, constructed there in the '50s, was razed.
"In any case, if this is NOT the original septic field, where is it?" Randi asks in the e-mail.
In other words the circle may not be a centuries-old relic that will provide valuable insight into the world-view of the Tequesta Indians but rather a basin where apartment dwellers 40 years ago pumped their excrement.
"If it turns out to be a fake, it's going to set archaeology in Florida back a century," says Randi in an interview. "It just spoils science for someone to do bad science."
In this latest crusade, however, the Amazing Randi seems to have forgotten one crucial element of the scientific method himself: evidence. The famed skeptic has not visited the archaeological site. Nor did he talk with the scientists involved before sending out his e-mail bulletin. He lampoons the archaeologists for suggesting that the site has ties to the Maya civilization and that it's some type of celestial calendar, even though the archaeologists never made such claims. Randi also says that artifacts found at the site are most likely half a century old, ignoring significant evidence to the contrary.
"He just doesn't have all of the facts," says Robert Carr, the archaeologist leading the excavation. "I realize that part of what he does is debunk things, but it would have been good for him to have physically gone down there and seen it and talked to people."
Carr notes that pottery shards were found at the site that match up with styles typical of South Florida American Indians 2000 years ago. In the man-made holes that dot the limestone circle, shards were also uncovered that are believed to be 600 to 800 years old. Carr claims limestone rocks found in the holes have over time become cemented to the basin, a geologic process that would take far more than 40 years. The relics are currently undergoing radiocarbon dating.
As for Randi's septic-field allegation, Carr says that there is no chance that the Miami Circle is a modern structure that was used for waste. He points out that the septic tank found on the site has a pipe leading out of it toward the south, away from the archaeological site. That, he says, is presumably where the missing drain field is located.
John Gifford, an archaeologist at the University of Miami who has visited the Miami Circle site several times, concurs with Carr. He says that the possibility of the circle being a septic field has been carefully weighed and refuted. Gifford notes that it is clear from the stratographic evidence that whoever put in the septic tank was not aware of the limestone circle in the ground beneath it.
"We've got to give Carr and his associates a chance here," Gifford says, noting that the bulk of archaeological work comes not in the field but afterward in classifying and dating the artifacts.
Carr also points out that several of the claims regarding the site that Randi seized on from media reports did not emanate from Carr or any other archaeologist. An example is the idea that the circle is some type of celestial calendar, offering evidence of heretofore unknown astronomical and mathematical understanding among the Tequesta. "The problem is that the archaeologists never said that," Carr says. "Our opinion is the same as Randi's. We have a lot of doubts." Likewise, Carr says, archaeologists have never linked the findings at the site to the Maya civilization of Mexico, another commonly reported speculation about the circle that Randi jumped on.
Carr maintains that he is honored to have his research scrutinized by the Amazing Randi and is not concerned by the slight of his work in the e-mail. "I don't feel particularly crucified in any personal way," he says.
Randi says that he has no reason to apologize. His observations, he notes, were speculation, not stated facts. "There's no backing down," he says. "I haven't said anything that I would withdraw."
Last week, however, after Carr's team got wind of Randi's missive, they contacted him to clear up some of the misconceptions. Randi then sent out a second e-mail to his subscribers, partly backing away from his earlier speculations but also shifting some of the blame to the media for reporting erroneous information.
After recounting four historical incidents of scientific miscalculations or outright fraud (including an attraction at a New Jersey mall in which a fur coat in a block of ice was passed off as a prehistoric human), the Amazing Randi closes the second e-mail on a contrite note.
"I have no doubt that the scientists in charge at the Circle are dedicated and honest. I am open to seeing evidence that this is a prehistoric artifact. I acknowledge that the media have 'run away' with the story and thus damaged the integrity of the event. And I have no agenda here.
"But the alarm bells are still ringing away in my skull. That's what skeptics are all about, but they can be wrong."
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com