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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 2, 2009

MAGIC COMES IN two forms: wonderfully entertaining stage magic and so-called “real” magic in which are included all those baffling things like dowsing, levitation (could it really exist?), and mysterious appearances that remain unexplained. The Columbia Encyclopedia devotes several pages to magic and when you’ve read it, you’re as puzzled as before.

Not so, James Randi, who for years performed as “the amazing Randi’ and now devotes his time to exposing fakers. In his opinion, there is no “real” magic. In his view, anything can be duplicated or manipulated.

In fact, his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds & Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural is pretty much the standard work on the genre and deals with such subjects as the Abominable Snowman and ‘End of the World prophecies’.

In a foreword, Arthur C. Clarke claimed to have been a fan of Randi since seeing his trussed figure escape while hanging from a crane a hundred feet above Niagara Falls. This Encyclopedia, he maintains, should be in every high school and college library “as an antidote to acres of mind-rotting rubbish…”

Randi himself, winner of a McArthur Foundation grant (the so-called “genius” award), set up the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) devoted to “creating a new generation of critical thinkers.” He invited people claiming psychic abilities to prove their claims, en route to an award of one million dollars if they satisfied a panel of objective observers. Needless to say, nobody yet has passed even the preliminary test and the challenge will expire next March.

Only actual performances under pre-agreed conditions are accepted with all tests “designed in such a way that the results are self-evident, no judging or voting process (being) required.” The only requirement is that applicants must have a “media presence” (i.e. having been written about or known to the media in regard to his or her known powers).

In the course of discrediting fakers, the JREF instigated the Pigasus Awards whose winners, he announced jokingly, would be announced by telepathy — with winners allowed to predict their victory. Among categories eligible for Pigasus Awards are

(i) the scientist who said the silliest thing in relation to parapsychology;
(ii) the psychic performer who fooled the most people with the least effort and;
(iii) the person who showed the most persistent refusal to face reality.

Champions have included Uri Geller (about whom Randi wrote a book); Silvia Browne who affects to communicate with the dead; Montel Williams who was defined as “a media whore” after professing disbelief in Browne’s claims but continually inviting her to his show because she brought ratings. Browne, a self-described psychic, was among the first to accept the proffered $1 million if she could prove her claims. Her application was accepted in 2006 but she has never followed up, despite frequent reminders.

Randi’s theory is that Browne’s credibility would be shot if she tried and failed. He accuses her of preying on grieving families with her readings, giving people “a false glimmer of hope;” people, he maintains, would be willing to “do anything and pay any amount of money for a glimpse of finding their loved ones or communicating with them.”

He’s become a new star on YouTube with short, direct talks that get thousands of hits and always end with a wink. In one, for example, he talked of how an astrologer rendered him a superficially correct horoscope based on the date that he offered that was 20 days later than his real birthday. And among other ways this magician misleads so-called psychics, is to proffer incorrect details. Banks that seek some private detail such as mother’s maiden name, as identification for security purposes, are apparently unaware that such details are accessible by any competent researcher. Thus, Randi gives each inquirer a different name and keeps a record, so when this ‘secret’ pops up again he knows its’ source.

Because of my long-time acquaintance with Randi, I persuaded him to answer a few questions. They follow, along with his replies.

James Randi

You’re sometimes compared/equated to Houdini. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Yes. He’s dead, and I’m not.

Did you originally earn your living as a ‘magician’ and how long  was that career?
Until I reached 60 years of age.

‘Real’ magic and ‘stage’ magic overlap in one place, illusion. Do you have any belief at all that there is such a thing as ‘real’ magic or are you convinced that it is always illusion and can be replicated?
I don’t understand your first sentence here. What’s “real” magic..?  And what do you mean by “magic”? There is no evidence of any sort to support belief in supernatural abilities. (In his encyclopedia, Randi states: “Magic and science are opposites in every way.”)

Why do people cling to superstitions even when they have been repeatedly informed otherwise?
I dunno. You’d have to ask them all, and every answer would be different…

What led you into your role as a more or less professional skeptic?
My expertise in knowing how people are deceived and swindled.

What is, briefly, the message that you convey in your frequent lectures and appearances?
See previous answer…

The James Randi Educational Foundation must have enlightened – and maybe changed — many superstitious people in its 12-year existence. Have any of them told you that?
Many, many.

Clearly nobody has managed to win your $1million challenge to prove their claims, but have there been any nearly-credible attempts that almost fooled you?
Never… Our most common claim is for “dowsing,” using a pendulum, parallel wires, or a forked stick to find persons, gold, oil, or anything.  Read about these subjects on our web page…

You were kind enough to invite me onto your late night radio show in NYC back in the Sixties but I don’t remember what we/you talked about. What did your show usually discuss and what kind of questions did you get repeatedly from your listeners?
Anything and everything — from cooking to card tricks to politics, five hours a night, five nights a week…

When you were given your McArthur Foundation award what was it in recognition of ? And has it made a difference to your life?
It was $272,000, in 1986, for my exposures of faith healers. And, yes.

Isn’t there a certain contradiction in exposing fraudulent  claims about mysterious happenings not being “Magic” but as a magician (who doesn’t explain tricks) sometimes leaving the credulous with their belief that these aren’t tricks  but are actually magic?
Yes. Who does this…?

Each year the JREF organizes one or two sessions of “The Amazing Meeting” described as “a celebration of critical thinking and skepticism.”  The next one is scheduled for July in Las Vegas.