Portrait: James Randi: Schooled not to be fooled

U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 26, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Nearly every time James Randi goes to a restaurant or a mall, somebody stops him to say that with his snowy beard, balding pate, and smiling eyes, he should play Santa Claus. Boy, have they got the wrong guy. Randi sometimes snaps back, “I haven’t heard that in . . . 20 minutes.”

Actually, Randi can be quite jolly. As “the Amazing Randi,” his witty magic routines cracked up Tonight Show audiences in the 1970s and ’80s. And in his own cranky way, Randi has devoted the past 20 years to helping people. Of course, Randi’s idea of “helping” is to fiercely debunk modern-day fairy tales: “I go straight to the truth of the matter. A lot of people think this is not an approach that wins me friends. I’m not out to win friends. I can’t do it any other way.”

Randi’s not such a grinch as to go after Santa. But his dogged pursuit of spoon-bender Uri Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff, and continuing tests of self-proclaimed psychics, have won him a MacArthur “genius” grant and scientific acclaim as perhaps the world’s most important hoax-buster. “Since the death of Carl [Sagan] and Stephen Jay Gould,” says Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, “Randi is one of the very, very few left willing to stand up and challenge the not-very-well-thought-out but well-accepted assumptions of society.”

Randi chokes up when he talks about the loss of friends and allies like Sagan and Isaac Asimov. And that loneliness worries him. Though spry, Randi is 74. He wonders how long he can keep up his grinding schedule of testing (and flunking) dowsers (they think they “feel” underground water by waving sticks above the ground), debating psychics on the Larry King show, and giving $7,500-a-pop lectures about how easy it is to fool people. There are, of course, plenty of other hoax-busters — just check the roster of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. But Randi fears none have the showmanship or renown to get the message to the public.

Shoe biz. Randi believes passionately that the public needs more skepticism, since he feels surrounded by hoaxers. Literally. Across from his office is a chiropractor. “Quackery,” Randi says, using the harsh language that worries friends and has sparked several slander suits. (The American Chiropractic Association says a federal agency found spinal manipulation to be “safe and effective” in treating lower-back pain.) A nearby shoe store features a Florsheim display for its “MagneForce” shoes with built-in magnets that will, allegedly, reduce foot pain. “Pseudoscientific claptrap,” Randi charges. (John Florsheim declined to respond to Randi’s criticism but plans to discontinue MagneForce products.)

Worst of all is television. John Edward’s “talks” with dead relatives of audience members on Crossing Over are a “scam. . . . He plays 20 Questions for millions of dollars.” Randi charges that Edward makes generalizations that could apply to any number of people, such as “I’m getting a name [from the beyond] that begins with M.” Who doesn’t have a dead friend or relative whose name begins with M? Randi asks. Edward’s spokeswoman declined to comment.

Such incendiary indignation is nothing new for the man who was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge. A lonely and troubled child prodigy, Randi found solace in magic tricks. His IQ was nearly off the charts, but he didn’t have many friends because he couldn’t keep from impatiently correcting Toronto teachers’ and schoolmates’ inaccuracies, or exposing deceptions. He loved learning magic because magicians, he believes, are honest charlatans. They tell their audiences they are going to fool them. And they have the skills to identify nefarious humbugs. When the teenage Randi was hauled off by police for exposing “tricks” used by a spiritualist visiting a church, the boy’s father gave him a paddling. Not long after, Randi decided not to take his high school final exams and joined a traveling carny as a magician.

“The Amazing Randi,” as he billed himself, won notoriety for Houdini-like escapes from handcuffs and jails. His continuing passion for debunking also drew attention. So when Uri Geller burst on the scene in 1972, Randi was called. Geller claimed his telekinetic powers were so strong that he could bend metal. He typically demonstrated by seeming to melt a spoon just by rubbing it. Johnny Carson asked Randi to prepare a test for Geller’s 1973 appearance on the Tonight Show. Randi told the prop manager how to mark and secure the spoons so Geller couldn’t weaken them or prepare melted copies in advance. As Carson’s cameras rolled, Geller squirmed and concentrated but bent not a single spoon. Geller later said Carson’s skepticism blocked his powers. In a telephone interview this summer, Geller said that his powers have been proven scientifically and that Randi cynically used him to further his own career. “If I wasn’t around, Randi would be some little tiny magician based out of New Jersey. Today he is like an old man frothing from his mouth.”

Despite Randi’s high profile, hoax-busting was unprofitable until 1986. That’s when he took on TV faith healer Peter Popoff. Suspecting that Popoff’s hearing aid was really a radio receiver, Randi got a private investigator to bring a scanner and tape recorder to the faith-healing sessions. The scanner picked up Popoff’s wife, Elizabeth, calling, “Petey, can you hear me?” and reading information audience members had written on “prayer cards” or mentioned to ushers. On the Tonight Show, Randi showed a clip of Popoff appearing to get an inspiration about a “Harold” in the audience. “Cataracts,” Elizabeth relayed. “God is going to burn those cataracts right off your eyes!” Popoff thundered. “Popoff says God tells him these things,” Randi quipped. “Maybe he does. But I didn’t realize God used a frequency of 39.17 megahertz and had a voice exactly like Elizabeth Popoff’s.”

Psychic challenge. Within months, Popoff was bankrupt. And Randi had won his MacArthur award. Donors began contributing to his new foundation, allowing Randi to devote himself full time to hoax-busting. He set up a “million-dollar challenge” — to be paid from foundation reserves to anyone who could offer scientific proof of his or her paranormal powers.

Since then, Randi has traveled the world investigating, and often debunking, hundreds of people angling for the million, as well as anyone who makes a suspicious claim. Showing how “psychic surgeons” use sleight of hand to make it appear they remove tumors without an incision from unsedated patients, Randi likes to pull a bloody glob out of the belly of a giggling volunteer, look shocked, and then say, “That’s not supposed to come out,” and stuff it back in. He didn’t need to say a word to get a laugh out of the watchers of a Nova documentary when Russian “face readers” examined a picture of mass murderer Ted Bundy and decided he was a “leader.”

As hard as Randi works, and as often as he succeeds, he admits he may not be making a big dent in the overall level of hokum. Popoff is back on the air, he notes with a sigh. Geller bought a British soccer team and hopes to inspire the players to win. Even Randi’s foundation has fallen victim to a hoax. Its endowment has fallen because of the stock market’s Enron-related decline. Accounting sleight of hand, it seems, is beyond even the formidable powers of the Amazing Randi.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday August 25, 2002.
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