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If it’s too good to be true then it isn’t.
James Randi is a sceptic and debunks psychics who are psycho. The bearded and wizened man has devoted his life to exposing the people who convince others that they can move pencils by commanding them to with extraordinary mental powers. The Canadian-American retired from professional scepticism earlier this year at the age of 87; in 2014, he was the subject of documentary Honest Liar, which currently has a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Heralded as the king of common sense, in 1964 he set up a challenge offering $1000 to to anyone who can prove they have psychic powers. The offer now sits at US $1,000,000.
World-renowned as a former escape artist, magician and skeptic, Randi’s legacy is far reaching. His career as an illusionist was sparked by the pursuit of Harry Houdini’s world records. One of Randi’s Guinness World Records involved spending 55 minutes enclosed naked in a block of ice reading a book. The 104 minutes he spent in a metal coffin at the bottom of a swimming pool smashed Houdini’s record of 93 minutes. He unravelled himself from a straight jacket hanging over the Niagara Falls. His performance as a mad dentist and executioner for an Alice Cooper tour in the 1970s should be talked about more often. With an established reputation as an escapologist, fraudulent psychics would be lucky to escape him. Randi’s personal understanding of trickery set him up to be the most annoying man for psychics the world over.
Although he looks like Dumbledore, Randi prefers the label conjuror over magician. A magician, he explains, is embedded in the fallacies of magic. A conjuror by contrast has simply mastered the art of suggestion and distraction. A psychic is someone who uses the same techniques as conjurors to convince people into thinking they have special powers. Randi harbours a deep personal antipathy to this fakery and has devoted his life to exposing it—again inspired by Houdini, who was similarly committed to saving people from being the dangers of being duped.
A conjurer’s purpose is entertainment. In Randi’s estimation, a psychic—anyone who claims to speak to the dead, astrologists, palm readers, spoon benders, faith healers—is driven by a purpose to exploit the vulnerabilities of other people. One such person was Sylvia Browne (now deceased). Randi didn’t think much of her claim to be a “medium”, saying “to my innocent mind, dead implies incapable of communicating.” Rather, Browne would ruin people financially and emotionally by dealing out rations of false hope.
By 2008 the medium was charging over $700 for 20-minute psychic “readings” over the phone. Her regular appearances on American mainstream talk shows afforded her a potent guise of legitimacy and by 2010 she was earning $3 million per year. A lot of the time her claims were relatively harmless. Apparently she had been to Heaven where, guess what, pets are allowed and there are are no insects unless you really like them and want them to be there. Others, however, were more tragic. She made many false predictions for desperate people about the locations of missing people. In 2004 Browne told a mother her kidnapped daughter was no longer alive. The mother died two years later. The daughter was recently found alive. Browne was also convicted for serious fraud in 1992. She is the only professional psychic to have accepted Randi’s million-dollar challenge (on the Larry King Live show in 2001) but has continuously refused to actually take the test.
In the 1970s a young Israeli named Uri Geller captured the attention of millions. Geller had a talent for melting spoons and wooing audiences with his soft, sultry accent; “I want it to bend, so it bends!” Many people, including scientists, were dumbfounded. Randi was not. Neither was then-host of the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, who called on Randi to test Geller in 1973. The psychic and his assistants were denied access to Geller’s props before appearing on the show. After much sighing and intense staring an ad break is cued. The show then concludes with Carson telling the audience Uri didn’t feel “strong” that night. Randi then wrote a book about him theorising that his ability to bend spoons was secretly achieved by weakening the metal with brute force before his appearances, pointing out that magicians do the exact same with an established technique called ratcheting.
There are countless other examples. Randi personally demonstrated how to conduct surgery without knives on the Tonight Show, pretending to pull strings of chicken guts out of a casually smiling man’s stomach, dryly commenting “oops that’s not meant to come out” before shoving it back in. Peter Popoff was a self-proclaimed faith healer who would slam his hand onto people’s foreheads screeching “hallelujah, may the lord praise you!”. Randi revealed he was being fed information by his wife through an earpiece who read him details off prayer cards. James Hydrick, the man who could move pages of a phonebook with his mind, was ruthlessly exposed when Randi scattered pieces of styrofoam around the book, claiming the page-turning was just subtle blowing. Hydrick, dressed up in silky pyjamas and sporting a pencil moustache, explained his mental powers were hindered by the static electricity created by the lightbulbs in the room, which held the pages down.
Unsurprisingly, Randi has made himself unpopular in some social circles. After receiving the MacArthur Genius Award of US$270,000 in 1986, he spent most of the money defending himself against libel suits. Uri Geller has attempted to sue Randi on multiple occasions, including in 1991 when the sceptic compared Geller’s public performances to those on the back of cereal boxes. Typically those exposed by Randi are plagued by what the skeptic calls “the resilience of the duped”. There is always a reason why the psychic powers failed to work in that particular moment. The subject had not asked the right questions. The aura around the spoon was unsettled. The static electricity from a lightbulb and some styrofoam was pushing down the pages of a telephone book. In some circumstances it is simply pride; in others, an unshakeable self belief.
However, Randi’s unpopularity is also very high amongst the very people he is striving to protect, and often his debunking has little effect on persuading people to believe differently. There is always a glimmer of chance, even hope, that psychic powers do exist.
In an old Simpsons episode, Lisa is outraged at a new shopping mall being built on an archeological site and starts digging, in protest, to prove there are still remains waiting to be uncovered. When she discovers an unusual winged skeleton the population of Springfield manically conclude it must be the remains of an angel, which Homer then steals and sets up in his garage with twinkling lights, novelty coasters and an entry fee. The episode questions the merits of religion over science, following Lisa’s attempts to prove the skeleton couldn’t possibly be supernatural. In the kitchen Lisa asks Marge “you’re an intelligent person, why do you believe in this stupid angel?”. She’s told by her wise blue-haired mother that people want something they can believe in that’s bigger than themselves, and to escape from their own lives.
Spoiler alert: the angel vanishes then reappears on a hill proclaiming a doomsday scenario. Springfield dramatically gathers on the hill and the skeleton proclaims “Prepare for the end… the end of high prices!”. It was all a twisted advertisement planted by the shopping mall. The doctor, scientist, priest, the school principal and Moe rush off to spend their money on unnecessary kitchen items.
Exposing supernatural situations often makes little difference to an audience’s mentality. Randi’s debunking is unpopular because people want to believe. “I know how people are deceived,” he says. “I know how they deceive themselves and most magicians allow people to deceive themselves.” According to Randi, the magician never works alone and always collaborates with a willing audience, whether they know it or not. In his words, “they want to be fooled”.
One of his most telling demonstrations involved horoscopes. A group of college students were gathered together in a room and given individual envelopes, which Randi explained contained a personality study that his staff had prepared for each person in the group. After reading through their personalised documents, Randi then asks the students to raise their hands if they felt the document accurately described them. Almost every hand went up. They were then told to hand their personalised study to the person behind them. Laughter started as it was revealed that every piece of paper said exactly the same thing, with broad statements such as “you discovered something about your sexual preferences this week”. Randi believes horoscopes embody attempts by people to regain control over their own lives. With some creativity, anyone can interpret anything to be applicable to them.
Randi’s targets have shifted over time. Uri Geller is now a bit more desperate, resorting to claims that bending iPhone 6’s are the fault of consumers, whose excitement and enthusiasm stirs up mental forces that cause the phone to twist. His awesome mental capabilities are no longer very awe-inspiring. Randi identifies many other ways that we “innocents” are still being duped. During a TED talk in 2007 Randi swallowed 32 homeopathic sleeping pills. “I just ingested six and a half days worth of sleeping pills… surely that’s a fatal dose. I’ve been doing this stunt all over the world for the last eight to 10 years, why don’t they affect me?” The packet claims the more diluted the medicine, the more powerful it is.
Above all, Randi is a devoted rationalist. Whether his true purpose is to rescue audiences from psychics or from their own stupidity is unclear. In his essay “Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright”, Randi describes the Bible as less believable than The Wizard of Oz. A “Bright” is someone “who bases their opinions upon logic, and upon rationality and upon evidence… if we don’t have evidence our decisions are then provisional… that’s the thing that makes them differ from the average person who takes anything that comes along and looks attractive.”
Speaking in favour of legalising drugs, Randi said “the principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself for a couple of years, after which Natural Selection would weed out those for whom there is no hope except through our forbearance and I’m very, very, weary of supporting these losers with my tax dollars… any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish by immediately gobbling down pills and injecting poison, is summoning up crocodile tears.”
A good life, he says, is provided by science, not psychics or the supernatural. He does not drink, smoke or become involved with any form of narcotics because it clouds his “reasoning powers” and distracts from his goal of living in the “actual real world”. Easy to say in a position of privilege. Science depends on resources, time and knowledge. The eternal and phenomenal typically doesn’t.
When asked why people need something to believe in, Randi’s response was “they need it because they’re weak. And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”
Every year, hundreds of people from around the world, believers and skeptics included, still attend the demonstrations of those attempting to convince Randi of their supernatural powers. The million dollars has yet to be claimed.