|artwork by Carl Christensen
“They don’t have any scruples on that, just like any other thief or burglar. A thief doesn’t look at a house and think to pass it up because the family has just suffered a recent tragedy. No, he goes in and robs it anyway.”
James Randi is a magician by trade, but let’s get one thing straight: he does not believe in magic.
For over 40 years, “magic” was Randi’s bread and butter. He performed around the world as The Amazing Randi. Along the way, he wowed thousands, and even broke several of Houdini’s records (i.e. longest underwater submersion).
For Randi, being a magician was a feat of great showmanship. It was a theatrical illusion with big entertainment value. It was, however, nothing less and nothing more.
Magic by definition is “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” As an illusionist Randi could not help but rationalize claims of “magic.” He knew full well that everything he did was a trick; there was no paranormal activity. Other magicians, however, were claiming that their acts were supernatural. Randi was not about to stand by and keep quiet.
Beginning in 1972, Randi began to take a stand against those claiming to have supernatural powers. He made international headlines when he challenged the work of Israeli magician Uri Geller on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Geller was famous for bending spoons, and other metal objects with his mind. Following the advice of Randi, Johnny Carson presented Geller with metal objects that he had never seen or held before: Geller panicked and could not perform the tricks. Although this infamous late-night TV moment drew a lot of skepticism on Geller, he continued to perform around the world.
Randi’s claims against Geller were convincing because he could duplicate Geller’s trick and explain how he was doing it. According to Randi, all of Geller’s spoons were pre-bent and already weakened.
At the age of 60, Randi retired from the stage and began to dedicate all his time and energy to investigating the claims of the supernatural.
In the late 80s, he took on faith healers. He had one particularly successful investigation against televangelist Peter Popoff. Popoff was raking in millions hosting healing crusades and pandering miracle water that could heal all illnesses. Randi immediately saw through Popoff’s act; he was using the oldest tricks in the book. And so, he decided to “demystify” the man and his claims. Popoff claimed to hear God’s voice, but in reality it was his wife talking to him through an ear piece. She had screened people coming into his crusades, learned of their illness, and relayed that to Popoff. It was a scam. Randi presented his findings on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Popoff soon vanished, but eventually came back, stronger than ever.
In 1996, James Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). It continues to be the headquarters for his paranormal investigations and research. It is essentially an organization of skeptics who publicize claims of the paranormal and work to debunk the claims.
The cornerstone of the organization is the $1 million prize. JREF offers anyone who will demonstrate a paranormal feat, under their test conditions, $1 million. Thus far, many have tried and all have failed. The money is still sitting in a bank account.
Today, James Randi is 83 years young, he continues to investigate the paranormal, and he is as busy as ever.
There is much I WANNA KNOW about James Randi. I spoke with him from the JREF headquarters in Florida.
From the million dollar challenge, to Popoff and Geller, to religion, to the James Randi Educational Foundation, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: As recently as May of 2011 Peter Popoff was in Toronto “healing” and collecting money. Why is this man not in jail after all these years?
James Randi: Well, because he has not been charged. Some politician with some authority has to react to the public outcry on the thing. Everybody is going around nursing Jesus because it’s an election year in the United States. They’re afraid to touch the subject. Our President always asks God to bless us every time he makes a speech. It’s getting really ridiculous. We carry on this charade, and politicians carry it on or they know they cannot get elected.
RK: What is it about Peter Popoff’s character that continues to capture the imagination of many people?
JR: No, it’s the character of the general public. They should be smarter than that, but they’re not. They’ve been raised in a system that preaches to them that this stuff is all real and proven, and politically correct to accept. They fall for it and they depend on it. He’s just taking advantage of people’s ignorance. There’s a lot of that out there.
RK: Uri Geller is another person you famously demystified, yet he continues to perform and make money around the world. How do you feel about that?
JR: He’s pretty well had his day now. He’s currently touring Europe trying to find his successor, that’s the name of the program anyway. He’s done very well for himself on four tricks. I’ve got to give him that. I don’t know of any other magician who only knows four tricks.
Geller is just one of the thousands around the world who consistently ignore the million dollar offer that has been around all this time. They say they can easily take it, but they decide to ignore it.
RK: Do you think a common characteristic of the people you “out” is that they are delusional?
JR: They’re not delusional. They know exactly what they’re doing. You don’t think Sylvia Brown does that by mistake do you? The readings she does are not guessing, she has a system of doing it. A magician doesn’t step out on stage and try to get a rabbit out of a hat when there’s no rabbit already there. You’ve got to be prepared. A performer has to have the script in front of him or her, and they have to follow it. It doesn’t happen by accident.
RK: Is it fair to assume then, that they all share some similarities in regards to greed, or power?
JR: They’re all different. They all want to make money. They all want to make a living. They find an easy way to do it, and it’s so easy that the money just pours in. If you found that you could go in your backyard and find gold-nuggets by digging around you would do it. That’s exactly what they’re doing. Unfortunately, they’re taking other peoples money and making them suffer. They don’t care about that though. They don’t have any scruples on that, just like any other thief or burglar. A thief doesn’t look at a house and think to pass it up because the family has just suffered a recent tragedy. No, he goes in and robs it anyway.
RK: Of all the people you’ve demystified, is there one in particular that you are most proud of?
JR: No. There’s been hundreds over the years, and they all deserved to be done in, and I managed to do in quite a few them. That’s the same old question: who’s your favorite movie actor, or what’s your favorite book? I don’t have a favorite book or actor. They all deserve it or I wouldn’t go after them.
RK: Why do you think so many people are prone to buying into paranormal claims?
JR: They’re being promised something supernatural. With religion, they are being promised eternal life. That’s something you can’t resist. If you choose to believe in that, you will. These are huge prizes that are offered.
RK: Your million-dollar prize has been sitting around for a long time now. If psychics are so confident in their abilities, why do you think they are refusing to step-up and take your money?
JR: They have standard answers to why they don’t take it. It’s either, there’s no million dollars, or James Randi doesn’t exist, or it’s already been won, or he won’t pay up. All the explanations and answers to those are on our website. They say the prize doesn’t exist, but three or four times a year I post on our site saying if you want to see the evidence for the million-dollar prize give us a phone call, email us, ESP, or tarot-cards, anything. No one has ever asked to see the evidence of it. That speaks volumes right there. They could sue me in a court of law if I didn’t have it, and they would win.
RK: Have any of the paranormal claims you’ve investigated ever confounded you?
JR: Frankly, no. I’m 83 years of age now, and I’ve been a magician since I was a kid. I know the tricks and none of them are surprising. They’re all the same old-tricks that have been going on for hundreds of years. We magicians know how these things are being done.
RK: You seem to have made a non-believer out of Barbara Walters throughout the years. And now, she’s outed James Van Praagh on her show. Is converting people, like Barbara Walters, your primary goal?
JR: Well, she may still believe in Jesus, I don’t know. I haven’t talked with Barbara in about two years now. Just because one falls under her examination doesn’t mean she feels the same about all of them. That’s just one out of thousands. She may have done a turnaround, I’m not sure. She certainly did a turn around on James Van Praagh, but the evidence was right there. It was very, very obvious.
RK: The art of conjuring is something you take seriously, and have tried to protect from cheats. Do you think mainstream magic has been bastardized by performers like Criss Angel and David Blaine?
JR: No, not at all. I’m not worried about the conjuring profession. It will march on in society. As long as people realize that these are tricks. They are entertainers. They are actors playing the part of a magician. There aren’t any real magicians out there. Everyone should know that, and if they don’t know that I’d be very surprised because we’ve advertized the fact for hundreds of years.
RK: You were considered a child prodigy. How do you draw the line between gifted and paranormal?
JR: The point is that prodigies of various kinds are understood by psychologists, they can trace it and tell how and why it happens. Paranormal means something that is recognized by science but there is no explanation. I don’t know of anything that matches that description, so the paranormal, I guess, does not exist.
RK: You’ve often said that you don’t outright dismiss the idea of paranormal activity, you just want proof. How do you think it would change your outlook if you discovered something that satisfied all your doubts?
JR: Well, it would change it considerably. I’d pay the million dollars and I’d find more about it. I’d probably get a Nobel Prize for studying the thing, so I don’t care.
RK: As a skeptic of all things paranormal, and a devout atheist, where do you draw meaning and purpose from?
JR: All I have to do is look into the eyes of a two month old baby and I get the whole thing. That’s enough for me. It’s enough to live for, and inspire me. I don’t need miracles and people running around on brooms in the night-sky. I don’t need any of that to make the world a beautiful place. It’s a cruel place, it doesn’t care about any individual in it, because that’s the way nature is. I’ll manage somehow. I don’t have to have a meaning for life. That’s a meaningless phrase in my estimation.
RK: You appear to be an upbeat and positive person. Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?
JR: I’m always optimistic, sure. That doesn’t mean I’m complacent about it. I try to improve my life and those around me. I think that’s what all of us should be doing. It’s a purpose in life that is very rewarding. I’ve found it to be very rewarding.
RK: You could have retired decades ago and still achieved an incredible career. What compels you to keep on working?
JR: The letter’s I get from people who say that what I’ve done has been useful to them, and they encourage me to keep doing it. I get those letters literally every day of my life. And, when the James Randi Foundation holds its conferences in various parts of the world, we get huge crowds and they all express their gratitude for what we’re doing, and I follow up on it. It’s very rewarding.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON JAMES RANDI:
1) Go to his website: http://www.randi.org/site/
2) If you have a supernatural power and want to make a million dollars, email email@example.com to claim your prize.