James Randi was an individual who was profoundly influential within the lives of many many people and so his passing at the age of 92 means that he will be greatly missed. Words that come to mind include “Hero”, “Mentor”, and “Friend”.
His career was that of a stage magician. It was not however that career that brought the vast influence he had. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor and hero, Houdini, he challenged and exposed faith healers and the supposedly psychic. As one of the co-founders of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry along with Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, and Paul Kurtz he promoted scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.
What is perhaps his most well-known challenge was the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. This was a prize of one million dollars formally offered by the JREF (the James Randi Educational Foundation) “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.“. I wrote up some notes at one public challenge event back in 2014. In the many decades that it ran, nobody was ever able to demonstrate anything paranormal.
He did have people who truly hated him. Individuals such as Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne were exposed as frauds who simply deployed trickery to fool people. Because Randi was a stage magician he knew how all the tricks were done and so he would appear on TV and do exactly the same except he explain that it was not supernatural. A common rebuttal from some was that while he was doing tricks, they were using real powers. Randi would make the observation that if that was indeed true then they were doing it the hard way.
To illustrate just how easy it was for a bit of trickery to fool highly intelligent people, Randi planted two fake psychics in a privately funded psychic research experiment. This because known as Project Alpha. The two students completely fooled the researches into thinking they had real psychic powers. They had also been instructed to be honest and if ever asked if they were using tricks then they should be very open about that, but nobody ever asked. As a press conference where the researches were to present their star psychics to the world, the students explained it was all trickery. The hoax became a scandal and demonstrated the shortcomings of many paranormal research projects at the university level.
What was perhaps his most famous takedown was that of evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff in the 1980s. Popoff would appear on stage and supposedly deliver messages from God about specific audience members and what was wrong with them. Randi exposed what was really going on during a Live TV broadcast of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Within the clip below Randi tells the story of what happened with Uri Geller for about the first 8-9 minutes, then goes on to reveal what happened with Peter Popoff …
The TED Talk
You might also be interested in his TED talk. It was one of the very best TED talks.
One last personal story
At the end of a TAM meeting in Las Vegas a few years ago, I recall walking one last time across the vast hotel casino lobby, and there to my delight was Randi coming the other way with Deyvi. He was delighted to stop and chat, because that was what he was like. He never held himself aloof, but was instead always friendly, hanging out, and doing impromptu illusions for anybody.
One year later, again at the end of a TAM meeting, I was once again walking one last time across that same hotel lobby, and there once again coming the other way was Randi with Deyvi. He was delighted to see us in more or less exactly the same spot one year later, and once again stopped to chat. Was there some supernatural force at work? Not at all, it dawned on me that the reason Randi was walking across the lobby at that moment was not because he was going somewhere. He had in fact arrived at his destination. He was simply taking the time to informally have one last chance to interact with those of us who had come to TAM.
- His Wikipedia page does a fine job coving the details of his amazing life.
- Here is the New York Times article on Randi
It is however appropriate that perhaps he himself should have the last word here …
There is also a Documentary on his life
The title is “An Honest Liar”, you should stream it and watch, it has some twists and turns with huge surprises within it. It is available on Amazon Prime.
When I first watched this I had the privilege of being in the room when the directors presented it. Randi himself was sitting right in front of me.
Here is the trailer to tempt you with ..
Randi’s influence has been profound and has rippled into many many lives, including my own. Here in there own words is the outpouring of grief felt by many at his passing …