Magician James Randi, whose daring escapes were later eclipsed by his work as the planet’s number one skeptic, made his final exit on Tuesday. Gone at 92 years old.
Randi was a marvelous magician. An entertainer, genius, debunker, and atheist, Randi began his career a magician not long after dropping out of high school and joining a carnival. As The Amazing Randi, he escaped from a locked coffin submerged in water and from a straitjacket as he dangled over Niagara Falls. Magical as those amazing feats seemed, Randi concluded his shows with a simple statement, insisting no otherworldly powers were at play:
”Everything you have seen here is tricks. There is nothing supernatural involved.”
In 1972, on an appearance on The Tonight Show, he helped Johnny Carson set up Israeli performer Uri Geller, who claimed to bend spoons with his mind. Randi ensured the spoons and other props were kept from Geller’s hands until showtime to prevent any tampering. The result was an agonizing 22 minutes watching Geller unable to perform any of his tricks.
In 1991, Geller sued Randi for $15 million on a charge of slander, after Randi said that Geller had “tricked even reputable scientists” with stunts that “are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes”, referring to the old spoon-bending trick. The court dismissed the case and Geller had to settle at a cost to him of $120,000, after Randi produced a cereal box which bore instructions on how to do the spoon-bending trick. Geller’s lawyer was disbarred mid-way into this action and Geller ended up suing him. After failing to pay before the deadline imposed by the court, Geller was sanctioned an additional $20,000.
Randi sought to disprove not just those who read palms and minds, but chiropractors, homeopaths and others he saw as predators seeking innocent people’s money.
An inveterate skeptic and bristly contrarian in his chosen profession, Randi insisted that magic is based solely on earthly sleight of hand and visual trickery. He chastised magicians who allowed or encouraged audiences to believe their work was rooted in extrasensory or paranormal powers. In contrast, Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable, such as a person appearing to be cut in half with a saw, when it was simply the result of an easy physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. Still, he was always careful to describe himself as an investigator, not a debunker, and insisted he was always open to the possibility of supernatural phenomena but simply found no evidence of it after decades of research.
He targeted those he saw as frauds with such tenacity and dedication that he admitted had become an obsession. Randi:
”I see people being swindled every day by medical quackery, frauds of every sort, psychics and their hot lines, people who claim to be able to find lost children or to help them invest their money. I know they are being swindled because I know the methods being used.”
He once showed the messages television faith healer Peter Popoff claimed to be getting from God about his audience were coming from his wife through an earpiece.
But the vast majority of those he aimed to show were frauds were lesser known, lured to prove their abilities by his Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation. Through his organizations, Randi was guardian of a one-million-dollar prize he promised to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under mutually agreed, scientifically controlled conditions. His detractors said they didn’t believe the money was real, but Randi had the bank documentation. No one ever came close to collecting.
Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Randi (known by everyone simply by that surname) had a pressing desire to question everything from a young age. He was so bored in school that his teachers acknowledged he was a prodigy far ahead of his peers. He never earned a high school diploma or went to college but in 1986 was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant.
He spoke with certainty. While he said he never really questioned his beliefs, he acknowledged there was always a chance he was wrong:
”I am probably right. But I’m always only probably right. Absolutes are very hard to find.”
In 1988, Randi tested the gullibility of the media by perpetrating a hoax of his own. By teaming up with 60 Minutes and by releasing a fake press package, he built up publicity for a “spirit channeler” named Carlos, who was actually Randi’s boyfriend, artist Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga. While performing as Carlos, Arteaga was prompted by Randi using sophisticated radio equipment. The hoax was exposed on 60 Minutes when “Carlos” and Randi explained how they had pulled it off.
Randi still found delight in observing magic he knew was a stunt. He talked about the crushing feelings of watching a friend die and spoke of the magic of love. In 2010, he came out as gay; saying was inspired by seeing the film Milk (2008). In 2013, he married his longtime partner, Arteaga. Arteaga had left his native country for fear of his life as he was a gay.
He is the subject of the documentary, An Honest Liar (2014).
Randi said he couldn’t help feeling angry that his targets continued to win new followers and earn checks he said were cashed at reality’s expense. He wanted to see frauds punished, but he recognized most people wanted to believe:
”The true believers will not pay any attention to evidence that does not show that they believe to be untrue.”
He could have been talking about MAGA followers!
When Randi let his displeasure with frauds slip out, it was mixed with wit, as when asked about his final wishes and how he’d like his ashes disposed:
”My best friend is instructed to throw them in Uri Geller’s eyes. I’d like him to get an eyeful of my ashes. I think that would be appropriate.”