James Randi Debunking the Paranormal
James Randi (born August 7, 1928), internationally billed as The Amazing Randi, is a stage magician and scientific skeptic best known as a debunker of pseudoscience. Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, in Toronto, Canada, Randi is the creator of the James Randi Education Foundation's million dollar challenge offering a prize 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. He occasionally features on the television program Bullshit!, hosted by noted skeptics Penn & Teller.
His interest in debunking the paranormal started when he was in his early teens. He was present at a magic show when a magician asked for someone from the audience to help him with his performance. Randi, having experimented with magic tricks himself, raised his hand. The magician responded, "Ah, young man, you're a magician yourself, aren't you?", much to Randi's amazement. After the show, Randi approached the man and asked how he knew this. The man told Randi he did not. It was simply part of his routine and whenever he turned out to be right, he would credit his "magical powers" and whenever he was wrong, he would turn it into a standard quip.
Randi subsequently witnessed many tricks that were presented as being supernatural. One of his earliest reported experiences is that of seeing an evangelist using the "one-ahead" routine to convince churchgoers of his divine powers.
The Amazing Randi
Randi has worked as a professional stage magician and escapologist since 1946, initially under his birth name, Randall Zwinge. Early in his career, Randi was part of numerous stunts involving his escape from jail cells and safes. On February 7, 1956, he appeared live on The Today Show and remained in a sealed metal coffin submerged in a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes, breaking what was said to be Houdini's record of 93 minutes.
Randi was the host of The Randi Show on radio in the mid-1960s. He also hosted numerous television specials and went on several world tours. Randi is noted for escaping from a straightjacket while suspended upsidedown over Niagara Falls on Canadian TV program World of Wizards.
Randi appeared as "The Amazing Randi" on a television show entitled Wonderama from 1967 to 1972. In the February 2, 1974 issue of Abracadabra (a British conjuring magazine) Randi defined the magic community saying, "I know of no calling which depends so much upon mutual trust and faith as does ours." Many new magicians and non-magicians are unaware of how the magic community holds him in very high regard. In the December 2003 issue of the The Linking Ring, the monthly publication of The International Brotherhood of Magicians, Points to Ponder: Another Matter of Ethics, p. 97, 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 1974 tour, Randi performed as the dentist and executioner on stage. Also, Randi had built and designed several of the stage props, including the guillotine. An incident where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police searched the band's lockers during a performance has been cited by Randi as leading him to apply for American citizenship.
Randi is author of Conjuring, (1991) 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!.
During his early career, Randi had a firm policy of not working for promoters who segregated audiences based on race. He would write into his contracts the promoter may not deny tickets to blacks or segregate the audiences in any way. Once while touring in Florida, he found the concert promoter ignored this stipulation in his contract. He discovered blacks were forced to watch a show from the balcony. He immediately walked away from the tour. Randi got paid in full for the balance of the tour.
Career as a skeptic
Randi entered the international spotlight in 1972 when he challenged the public claims of Uri Geller. Randi accused Geller of being nothing more than a charlatan using standard "magic" tricks to accomplish his allegedly paranormal feats, and he backed up his claims in the book The Magic of Uri Geller.
Randi was a founding fellow and prominent member of CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Randi later resigned from CSICOP during the period when Geller was filing numerous civil suits against him. 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. He still maintains a respectful relationship with the group and frequently writes articles for its magazine.
Randi has gone on to write several books criticizing beliefs and claims regarding the paranormal. He has also been instrumental in exposing frauds and charlatans who exploit this field for personal gain. In one example, his Project Alpha hoax, Randi revealed that he had been able to orchestrate a years-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. Some said that the hoax was unethical, while others claimed his actions were a legitimate exercise in debunking poor research techniques.
Randi's comprehensive exposé of faith healer Peter Popoff resulted in a sharp decline in Popoff's influence and popularity.
Randi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award in 1986, drawing upon his conjuring skills to write and educate the public on superstition and pseudo-scientific matters.
In 1987, Randi became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1996, Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi updates the JREF's website on Fridays with a written commentary titled Swift: Online Newsletter of the JREF. Randi also contributes a regular column, titled "'Twas Brillig", to The Skeptics Society's Skeptic magazine.
Asteroid 3163 Randi was named after him.
In September 2006, he joined the cast of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast with a weekly column titled "Randi Speaks".
The rivalry between Randi and his opponents has ended up in court on several occasions. These episodes include the following.
* In an interview with Twilight Zone Magazine, Randi accused Uri Geller and Eldon Byrd of being the ringleaders in a criminal blackmail plot aimed at destroying Randi. Byrd sued Randi; the jury found that Randi's claim regarding Byrd was defamatory, but awarded Byrd $0 in damages (thus preventing further appeals by Byrd) apparently based on their rather low opinion of him.
* In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, Randi was presented as saying that Uri Geller had driven a close friend to "shoot himself in the head", which Randi afterwards claimed was a metaphor lost in translation. However, Randi made a similar statement ("The scientist shot himself after I showed him how the key bending trick was done.") in the August 23, 1986 Toronto Star that seemed to validate Geller's charge. Since the referenced suicide victim died of natural causes, Geller successfully sued both the newspaper and Randi in the Japanese courts. Randi could not participate in the trial, did not recognize the court's authority (since "insult", as opposed to "libel", is not a legally cognizable basis for a civil action in the U.S.), and refused to pay the $2,000 judgement that was awarded.
* Randi once commented that Uri Geller's tricks are of the same quality as those Randi read on the backs of cereal packets as a child. Geller sued both Randi and CSICOP. CSICOP disavowed Randi, pleading that the organization was not responsible for Randi's statements. The court agreed that including CSICOP was frivolous, and they were dropped from the action. Geller was ordered to pay substantial damages to CSICOP. The order specifically excluded Randi from receiving any of the damages. At this time, Randi and Geller had both run up huge legal bills amounting to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars. In a private meeting they achieved an out-of-court settlement, the details of which have been kept private. This case, as noted above, was directly responsible for the decision of Randi to part company with CSICOP.
* Alleged psychic Allison DuBois, on whose life the television series Medium was based, and whose alleged abilities and other claims Randi has questioned, threatened Randi with legal action for using a photo of her from her website in his December 17, 2004 commentary without her permission. Randi removed the photo, and now uses a caricature of DuBois when mentioning her on his site, beginning with his December 23, 2005 commentary.
* Late in 1996 Randi launched a libel suit against a Toronto-area psychic/self-published author/entry-level web developer named Earl Gordon Curley. Curley had made a number of objectionable comments about Randi on Usenet. Despite constantly prodding Randi via Usenet to sue (Curley's implication being if Randi didn't sue then his allegations must be true), Curley seemed entirely surprised when Randi actually retained Toronto's largest law firm and initiated legal proceedings. The suit was eventually dropped in 1998 when Earl Curley died at the age of 51, allegedly drinking himself to death.
The $1 million challenge
James Randi Educational Foundation
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) currently offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. In 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his own money payable to the first person who could provide objective proof of the paranormal. Since then, the prize money has grown to the current $1,000,000, and the rules that surround claiming the prize are official and legal. No one has gotten past the preliminary test which is set up and has to be agreed upon by both Randi and the applicant.
In the conditions and rules governing his $1 million challenge, Randi plainly states that both parties (himself and the party accepting the challenge) must agree in advance as to what conditions of the test constitute a "success" and what constitutes a "failure". He also refuses to accept any challengers who might suffer serious injury or death as a result of the test they intend to undergo.
Critics say that Randi has set up the system so that the million-dollar challenge cannot be passed, despite the fact that contestants are allowed to participate in setting conditions for success and failure. Randi himself states that "What if someone wins the million dollars? ... I think it's very highly unlikely.", but bases this on the unlikelihood of the paranormal. For details of the disputes, see James Randi Educational Foundation.
Randi's caustic style
Parapsychologists generally try to downplay the Randi challenge because of attacks on Randi's character, and also because of his harsh, uncompromising style of writing and presentation, which has won him enemies among those who claim to be paranormal experts. Randi's supporters note that there are other organizations of skeptics that have similar standing offers to prove the existence of paranormal abilities, and anyone claiming to be an expert in their field of the paranormal can apply for any of these other prizes, avoiding Randi altogether. In his weekly commentary, Randi often gives examples of what he feels is the nonsense that he deals with every day to explain his lack of patience.
In the book The Faith Healers, Randi explains his anger and relentlessness as arising out of compassion for the helpless victims of frauds. Also, in his weekly commentary, which he publishes every Friday, Randi often expresses dismay that he has to frequently expose various frauds because few others do so.
Recently, Randi has accused Sylvia Browne - a well-known, self-proclaimed psychic medium and author of numerous books on spirituality, who has performed thousands of one-on-one readings and assignments with a wide variety of groups and individuals - of avoiding the $1,000,000 challenge despite agreeing on Larry King Live in September 2001 to accept it. Randi keeps a clock on his website recording the number of weeks that have passed since Sylvia accepted the challenge without following through.
According to a special announcement on the JREF website, on Thursday February 2, 2006 Randi underwent emergency coronary artery bypass surgery. The circumstances surrounding his admission to the hospital were not clear at the time but it appeared to be unexpected. As of early February 2006, he was declared to be "in stable condition" and "receiving excellent care" with his recovery "proceeding well". The weekly commentary updates to his website were made by guests while he was hospitalized.
* MacArthur Foundation fellowship award, 1986
* Richard Dawkins Award, 2003 (inaugural award)
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