James Randi

James Randi (b. 1928) is a Canadian-American stage magician and scientific skeptic best known as a challenger of paranormal claims and pseudoscience. Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi began his career as a magician, as The Amazing Randi, but after retiring at age 60, he began investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, which he collectively calls ‘woo-woo.’ He has written about the paranormal, skepticism, and the history of magic.

JREF sponsors The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offering a prize of US$1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event under test conditions agreed to by both parties. Although often referred to as a ‘debunker,’ Randi dislikes the term’s connotations and prefers to describe himself as an ‘investigator.’ He has written about the paranormal, skepticism, and the history of magic. He was a frequent guest on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ and was occasionally featured on the television program ‘Penn & Teller: Bullshit!’

Randi was born in Toronto; he took up magic after seeing Harry Blackstone, Sr (‘The Great Blackstone’) and reading magic books while spending 13 months in a body cast following a bicycle accident. He confounded doctors who expected he would never walk again. Although a brilliant student, Randi often skipped classes, and, at 17, dropped out of high school to perform as a conjurer in a carnival roadshow. He practiced as a mentalist at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, and wrote for Montreal’s tabloid press. In his twenties, Randi posed as a psychic to establish that they were actually doing simple tricks and briefly wrote an astrological column in the Canadian tabloid ‘Midnight’ under the name ‘Zo-ran,’ by simply shuffling up items from newspaper astrology columns and pasting them randomly into a column. In his thirties, Randi worked in Philippine night clubs and all across Japan. He witnessed many tricks that were presented as being supernatural. One of his earliest reported experiences is that of seeing an evangelist using a version of the ‘one-ahead’ technique (in which a performer pretends to read messages sealed inside envelopes by clairvoyance) to convince churchgoers of his divine powers.

Though defining himself as a conjuror, Randi’s career as a professional stage magician, and escapologist began in 1946. Initially he presented himself under his real name, Randall Zwinge, which he later dropped in favor of ‘The Amazing Randi.’ Early in his career, he performed numerous escape acts from jail cells and safes. On February 7, 1956, he appeared live on ‘The Today Show,’ where he remained for 104 minutes in a sealed metal coffin that had been submerged in a hotel swimming pool, thus breaking what was said to be Houdini’s record of 93 minutes.

In the mid 1960s, Randi hosted ‘The Amazing Randi Show’ on the New York radio station WOR . This radio show, which filled talk radio host Long John Nebel’s old slot with similar content after Nebel went to WNBC in 1962, often invited guests who defended paranormal claims, among them Randi’s then-friend James Moseley. Randi, in turn, spoke at Moseley’s 1967 ‘Fourth Congress of Scientific Ufologists’ in New York City, stating, ‘Let’s not fool ourselves. There are some garden variety liars involved in all this. But in among all the trash and nonsense perpetrated in the name of Ufology, I think there is a small grain of truth.’

Randi also hosted numerous television specials and went on several world tours. As ‘The Amazing Randi’ he appeared regularly on a children’s television show titled ‘Wonderama’ from 1967 to 1972. He also hosted a revival of the 1950s children’s show ‘The Magic Clown’ in 1970, though the program enjoyed only a brief life. In a 1974 issue of the British conjuring magazine ‘Abracadabra,] Randi, defining the community of magicians, stated, ‘I know of no calling which depends so much upon mutual trust and faith as does ours.’ In a 2003 issue of ‘The Linking Ring,’ the monthly publication of The International Brotherhood of Magicians, it is stated, ‘Perhaps Randi’s ethics are what make him Amazing’ and ‘The Amazing Randi not only talks the talk, he walks the walk.’

During Alice Cooper’s 1973–1974 tour, Randi performed on stage as a dentist and executioner. He also designed and built several of the stage props, including the guillotine. Shortly after that, in a 1976 performance for the Canadian TV special ‘World of Wizards,’ Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls.

Randi was once accused of actually using ‘psychic powers’ to perform acts such as spoon bending. According to psychologist James Alcock, at a meeting where Randi was duplicating the performances of Uri Geller, a professor from the University at Buffalo shouted out that Randi was a fraud. Randi said, ‘Yes, indeed, I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living. Everything I’ve done here was by trickery.’ The professor shouted back: ‘That’s not what I mean. You’re a fraud because you’re pretending to do these things through trickery, but you’re actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.’ A similar event involved Senator Claiborne Pell, a believer in psychic phenomena. When Randi demonstrated how to view a concealed drawing by the use of trickery, Pell refused to believe that it was a trick, saying, ‘I think Randi may be a psychic and doesn’t realize it.’ Randi has consistently denied having any paranormal powers or abilities.

Randi is author of ‘Conjuring’ (1992), a biographical history of noted magicians. The book is subtitled: ‘Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, & Chicanery and of the Mountebanks & Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public, in short, MAGIC!’ The book selects the most influential magicians and explains their history in the context of strange deaths and careers on the road. This work expanded on Randi’s first book, ‘Houdini, His Life and Art, an illustrated work published in 1976 (co-authored by Bert Randolph Sugari). It focused on the professional and private life of Houdini.

Randi also wrote a children’s book in 1989 titled ‘The Magic World of the Amazing Randi,’ which introduced children to magic tricks. In addition to his magic books, he has written several educational works about the paranormal and pseudoscientific. These include biographies of Uri Geller and Nostradamus as well as reference material on other major paranormal figures. He is currently working on ‘A Magician in the Laboratory,’ which recounts his application of skepticism to science. He is a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov’s fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers.

Randi entered the international spotlight in 1972 when he publicly challenged the claims of Uri Geller. Randi accused Geller of being nothing more than a charlatan and a fraud who used standard magic tricks to accomplish his allegedly paranormal feats, and he presented his claims in the book ‘The Truth About Uri Geller.’ Geller sued Randi for $15 million in 1991 and lost. Geller’s suit against the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was thrown out in 1995, and he was ordered to pay $120,000 for filing a frivolous lawsuit. He also dismissed Uri Geller’s claims that he was capable of the kind of psychic photography made famous by the case of Ted Serios. It is a matter, Randi argues, of trick photography using a hand-held optical device. Randi was a founding fellow and prominent member of CSICOP. During the period of Geller’s legal dispute, CSICOP’s leadership, wanting to avoid becoming a target of Geller’s litigation, requested that Randi refrain from commenting on Geller. Randi refused and resigned, though he maintained a respectful relationship with the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. In 2010, Randi was one of 16 new CSI fellows elected by its board.

Randi has gone on to write several books criticizing beliefs and claims regarding the paranormal. He has also demonstrated flaws in studies suggesting the existence of paranormal phenomena; in his ‘Project Alpha’ hoax, Randi revealed that he had been able to orchestrate a three-year-long compromise of a privately funded psychic research experiment. The hoax became a scandal and demonstrated the shortcomings of many paranormal research projects at the university level. Randi has appeared on numerous TV shows, sometimes to directly debunk the claimed abilities of fellow guests. In a 1981 appearance on ‘That’s My Line,’ Randi appeared opposite psychic James Hydrick, who said that he could move objects with his mind and appeared to demonstrate this claim on live television by turning a page in a telephone book without touching it. Randi, having determined that Hydrick was surreptitiously blowing on the book, arranged foam packaging peanuts on the table in front of the telephone book for the demonstration. This prevented Hydrick from demonstrating his abilities, which would have been exposed when the blowing moved the packaging. Randi writes that, eventually, Hydrick ‘confessed everything.’

Randi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius award in 1986. The 5-year grant helped support Randi’s investigations of faith healers, including W.V. Grant, Ernest Angley, and Peter Popoff, who Randi first exposed on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ in 1986. Hearing about his investigation of Popoff, Carson invited Randi onto his late-night TV show without seeing the evidence he was going to reveal. Carson appeared stunned after Randi showed a brief video segment from one of Popoff’s broadcasts showing him calling out a woman in the audience, revealing personal information about her that he claims comes from God, and then performing a laying-on-of-hands healing to drive the devil from her body. Randi then replayed the video, but with some of the sound dubbed in that he and his investigating team captured during the event using a radio scanner and recorder. Their scanner detected the radio frequency Popoff’s wife Elizabeth was using backstage to broadcast directions and information to a miniature radio receiver hidden in Popoff’s left ear. The information had been gathered by Popoff’s assistants, who handed out ‘prayer cards’ to the audience before the show, instructing them to write down all the information Reverend Popoff would need to pray for them.

The news coverage generated led to many TV stations dropping Popoff’s TV show, eventually forcing him into bankruptcy in 1987. However, the televangelist returned to the airwaves a decade later with faith healing infomercials that reportedly pulled in more than $23 million in 2005, from viewers sending in money for promised healing and prosperity. The Candian Centre for Inquiry’s ‘Think Again! TV’ documented one of Popoff’s more recent performances before a large audience who gathered in Toronto in 2011, hoping to be saved from illness and poverty.

In 1988, Randi tested the gullibility of the media by perpetrating a hoax of his own. By teaming up with Australia’s ’60 Minutes’ program and by releasing a fake press package, he built up publicity for a spirit channeler named Carlos who was actually artist Jose Alvarez, a friend of Randi’s. Randi would tell him what to say through sophisticated radio equipment. The media and the public were taken in, as no reporter bothered to check Carlos’s credentials and history, which were all fabricated. The hoax was exposed on ’60 Minutes’; Carlos and Randi explained how they pulled it off. In the book ‘The Faith Healers,’ Randi wrote that his anger and relentlessness arises out of compassion for the victims of fraud. Randi has also been critical of João de Deus (John of God), a self-proclaimed psychic surgeon who has received international attention. Randi observed, referring to psychic surgery, ‘To any experienced conjurer, the methods by which these seeming miracles are produced are very obvious.’

In 1982, Randi verified the abilities of Arthur Lintgen, a Philadelphia physician who is able to determine the classical music recorded on a vinyl LP solely by examining the groove on the record. However, Lintgen does not claim to have any paranormal ability, merely knowledge of the way that the groove forms patterns on particular recordings. James Randi stated that Daniel Dunglas Home, who could allegedly play an accordion that was locked in a cage without touching it, was caught cheating on a few occasions, but the incidents were never made public. He also stated that the accordion in question was a one-octave mouth organ concealed under Home’s large moustache. Randi distinguishes between pseudoscience and crackpot science. Most of parapsychology is, he argues, pseudoscience, like homeopathy, but nonetheless is a legitimate science, even if, in his view, it is odd that over 120 years of research practitioners have failed to come up with one positive experiment. He compares this failure to a doctor who, over a career of similar length, has failed to cure a single patient and yet persists in his profession.

In 1996, Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi and his colleagues update JREF’s blog, ‘Swift.’ Topics have included the mathematics of the one-seventh area triangle. Randi also contributes a regular column, titled ”Twas Brillig,’ to The Skeptics Society’s ‘Skeptic magazine.’ In his weekly commentary, Randi often gives examples of what he considers the nonsense that he deals with every day. He has regularly featured on many podcasts, including The Skeptics Society’s official podcast ‘Skepticality’ and the Center for Inquiry’s official podcast ‘Point of Inquiry.’ From 2006 onwards, he has contributed to ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast’ with a column titled ‘Randi Speaks.’ In addition, ‘The Amazing Show’ is a podcast in which Randi shares various anecdotes in an interview format.

In his essay ‘Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright,’ Randi, who identifies himself as an atheist, has stated that many accounts in religious texts, including the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus Christ, and the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, are not believable. For example, Randi refers to the Virgin Mary as being ‘impregnated by a ghost of some sort, and as a result produced a son who could walk on water, raise the dead, turn water into wine, and multiply loaves of bread and fishes’ and questions how Adam and Eve ‘could have two sons, one of whom killed the other, and yet managed to populate the earth without committing incest.’ He writes that, compared to the Bible, ”The Wizard of Oz’ is more believable. And more fun.’ In ‘An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,’ he looks at a variety of spiritual practices skeptically. Of the meditation techniques of Guru Maharaj Ji he writes: ‘Only the very naive were convinced that they had been let in on some sort of celestial secret.’ In 2003 he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) currently offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to eligible applicants who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. Similar to the paranormal challenges of John Nevil Maskelyne and Houdini, in 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his own money payable to anyone who could provide objective proof of the paranormal. Since then, the prize money has grown to the current $1,000,000, and has formal published rules. No one has progressed past the preliminary test, which is set up with parameters agreed to by both Randi and the applicant. He refuses to accept any challengers who might suffer serious injury or death as a result of the testing. As of 2007, only those with an already existing media profile and the backing of a reputable academic were allowed to apply for the challenge. As a result, resources would not have to be spent testing obscure claimants and could instead focus on prominent alleged psychics and mediums such as Sylvia Browne, Allison DuBois and John Edward with a campaign in the media.

Randi has been involved in a variety of legal disputes but claims that he has ‘never paid even one dollar or even one cent to anyone who ever sued me.’ However, he says, he has paid out large sums to personally defend himself in these suits. A Baltimore District Court found Randi liable for defaming Eldon Byrd for calling him a ‘convicted child molester’ because, although Byrd had been found guilty of child pornography offences and admitted to molestation, the admission was part of a plea bargain so he was not actually convicted. No damages were awarded to Byrd. Uri Geller tried to sue Randi a number of times, accusing him of libel (once because Randi commented that Uri Geller’s public performances were of the same quality as those found on the backs of cereal boxes). Geller never won, save for a ruling in a Japanese court that ordered Randi to pay Geller one third of one percent of what Geller had demanded, but this ruling was canceled, and the matter dropped when Geller decided to concentrate on another legal matter.

Randi was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2009. He said, ‘One day, I’m gonna die. That’s all there is to it. Hey, it’s too bad, but I’ve got to make room. I’m using a lot of oxygen and such—I think it’s good use of oxygen myself, but of course, I’m a little prejudiced on the matter.’ Randi also said that after he is gone he does not want his fans to bother with a museum of magic named after him or burying him in a fancy tomb. Instead, he said, ‘I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller’s eyes.’


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