originally published September 12, 2014
One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.
I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.
James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.
Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.
The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign.
Randi was a consummate performer. While suspended in a straightjacket over Niagara Falls on a Canadian TV special, he wriggled his way to freedom. When Alice Cooper took his shock-rock shtick on the road in 1973 for his Billion Dollar Babies tour, Randi appeared on stage in character, lopping off Cooper’s head using a trick guillotine that he had designed and built.
But it was when he turned his attention to the world of psychic powers that he started to earn a few enemies.
James Randi’s primary nemesis would turn out to be Uri Geller, the man who became famous by ruining his silverware drawer. While demonstrating to a group of people that he could easily duplicate Geller’s psychic spoon-bending phenomenon, a professor from the University of Buffalo cried out that Randi was nothing more than a fraud. Randi was quick to agree, explaining that his living was made through trickery, and that everything he had just done could be logically explained.
That’s not what the professor meant. He believed that Randi was covering for his psychic abilities by lying and calling it a trick.
Randi’s fame as a magician and escape artist were eclipsed in 1972 when he spoke very openly and publicly about Uri Geller, insisting that Geller’s “abilities” were nothing more than the work of a talented illusionist. He published a book, The Truth About Uri Geller, in 1982, and was the unquestionable victor when Geller sued Randi for libel a few years later. Had Geller billed his psychic hoodoo as showbiz instead of psychokinetic truth, Randi would probably have said nothing. But he couldn’t stand someone inflating their own importance through such blatant manipulation.
Another target of James Randi’s skeptical bitch-slappery was Ted Serios, a man who claimed he could take photographs of his thoughts. Serios – and it should be noted that Uri Geller performed this bit as well – would hold a small tube against his forehead, then snap a Polaroid of his scalp through the tube. The resulting photo would be blurry and dark, but it would often clearly depict something. Randi exposed the scam, noting that Serios and Geller would slip a small photograph and a magnifying lens into the tube before snapping the pic.
When psychic James Hydrick demonstrated that he could turn the pages of a book with his mind on a 1981 broadcast of That’s My Line, Randi offered an amendment to the trick. Deducing that Hydrick was causing the pages to turn by carefully blowing upon them, Randi scattered a bunch of Styrofoam packing peanuts upon the table. Suddenly Hydrick couldn’t turn the page.
Eager to disassemble the most heinous of public fraudsters, James Randi turned his attention to the world of televangelism. In 1986, he appeared on The Tonight Show, demonstrating to Johnny Carson precisely why noted faith healer Peter Popoff should be immediately discredited. He showed a tape of Popoff calling a woman to his stage, seemingly informed of the numerous details about this stranger by God Himself. He then laid his hands upon her and drove the devil out through her pores.
Then Randi re-played the same tape, but synced it with a piece of audio that he and his team had picked up by using a radio scanner and recorder. This captured the sound of Popoff’s wife, who was uttering the woman’s details into a receiver in Randi’s ear. It turns out the audience had been invited to fill out ‘prayer cards’, which included all of their detailed information. Popoff’s career was ruined; he declared bankruptcy the following year. Then, naturally, he returned to television in infomercial form, earning several million dollars because people are astoundingly stupid and forgetful.
The James Randi Educational Foundation was launched in 1964, offering a $1000 prize to anyone who could demonstrate actual psychic ability under scientific conditions agreed upon by both parties. That prize has grown to a cool million dollars, and has yet to be claimed. Psychic John Edward, self-proclaimed medium Rosemary Altea, and author/psychic Sylvia Browne have all been invited to take the challenge, yet with the promise of an easy million bucks for showing off what they claimed to be a genuine ability, they still haven’t done it.
Recently, Randi’s foundation has turned its attention on Theresa Caputo, known to those who allow themselves to be hypnotized by the drek on TLC as the Long Island Medium. He has been sued numerous times by frustrated charlatans, but claims he has never once paid out a dime. His debunking skills remain unchallenged, and with a million dollars on the table, one would have to assume that someone should have come forward to claim it by now, if psychic powers truly exist.
While it’s true that James Randi has undoubtedly shattered a tremendous number of hopes that ESP, telekinesis, and other such magic might be real, he should be lauded as a folk hero for disseminating mountains of truth to the masses, and showing us that, when something truly appears unexplainable and beyond the tangible grasp of understanding, it’s probably nothing more than a trick.