I’m a skeptic. That means if you present me with a choice of explanations for an evangelical, faith-healing preacher’s ability to spout, seemingly out of nowhere, personal information about desperate people hoping for miracle cures as being: A) the preacher is hearing the voice of God, or B) his wife is speaking to him through an earpiece reading from information cards filled out by the faithful – I’m going to pick the latter.
And a person who has had a big, big influence on my embracing of scientific skepticism died just this week.
That person is James The Amazing Randi.
Randi was a brilliant man who had never finished high school, but was awarded the MacArthur “genius” grant. He was a master conjurer (his preferred term to magician) and a fantastic escape artist. He gained world fame as an entertainer with a flair for the dramatic. Why, he even ended up on an episode of Happy Days as himself.
Much like one of his heroes, Harry Houdini, Randi became more and more disturbed by the con artists and charlatans who preyed on people’s gullibility and lack of skill detecting fraud and trickery. So, like Houdini, the diminutive conjurer threw himself into the task of rooting out the fakes and teaching the public of the importance of critical thinking and skepticism. He even had a lesson or two for scientists who believed they couldn’t be fooled. But as Randi has said, “No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”
A short list of his greatest hits in skeptical activism include ’70’s spoon-bending sensation Uri Geller’s failure on The Tonight Show (I mentioned that incident in a blog earlier this month), exposing TV evangelist and faith-healer Peter Popoff’s use of an earpiece to fool his congregation, the Alpha Project, and a hoax Randi set up to demonstrate the gullibility and journalistic laziness of the news media with fake channeler (that’s a redundancy) Carlos.
Randi has made numerous appearances on the Tonight Show hosted by his friend Johnny Carson to demonstrate all manner of chicanery. One particularly amusing appearance had him showing how tricksters perform psychic surgery. Psychic surgeons claim to be able to reach into their patients’ bodies and extract cancers and whatever bad stuff might be in there, all without anesthesia or leaving a scar. Well, Randi saw through the tricks and showed the audience what was really happening.
I should be careful. Randi would never say he was 100% sure of the methods the con artists were using. It might be possible Geller or others like him really have superpowers. However, it’s highly unlikely and Randi would demonstrate how someone with the skills of a magician, but no magical powers, can produce the same effects. So, with the two choices of magical powers or a magician’s tricks, which would you choose to explain the feats?
But Randi didn’t limit himself to television appearances, he would give talks on skepticism and explain the iffiness of such ideas as ESP, chiropractic, and homeopathy. He would often start his lectures by downing an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. Well, don’t worry. Since homeopathic “medicine” contains no active ingredients, Randi was just taking a handful of sugar pills. He didn’t even yawn.
Randi was also a prolific writer. Along with the numerous articles for skeptical magazines, including his regular column ‘Twas Brillig for Skeptic Magazine, he has written several books casting his skeptical eye on the aforementioned Uri Geller, faith-healers, Nostradamus, and many other topics. His seminal book Flim Flam is a must have for any critical thinker’s bookshelf.
There was also his organization the James Randi Educational Foundation created to further the cause of skepticism and science promotion. And, let’s not forget, there was the Million Dollar Challenge. A challenge that started as on offer of one thousand dollars, and grew to a cool mil with a generous donation, to be given to anyone who could prove paranormal abilities under test conditions. Conditions that were agreed to by the challenger before the test began. No one has ever earned the prize.
Phew! All that accomplished by one man whose desire to entertain people grew into a need to educate. What a man. What a legacy.
To learn more about James Randi check out the documentary An Honest Liar.
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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on Apple Podcasts.