James Randi Essay

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 Canadian-born magician and escape artist James Randi had a highly successful career as a stage performer from the 1950s into the 1970s, but since the early 1960s, he has been primarily known as the world’s leading skeptical investigator of paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims. In the beginning of this phase of his career, he carried around a blank check for $10,000, which he promised to anyone who could show, under proper conditions of observation, evidence of any of those claims. With inflation and the participation of some generous donors, the prize is up to over $1 million today and has yet to be given away.

He achieved his greatest notoriety with his ongoing battle with Israeli psychic superstar Uri Geller, who in 1972 convinced a pair of scientists at Stanford Research International (not a unit of Stanford University) that his paranormal gifts were genuine, chief among them clairvoyance and his ability to bend metal objects, usually silverware, with his mind. Randi next consulted with the Tonight Show’s then-host, Johnny Carson, a skeptical ex-magician, on ways to prevent Geller from cheating. The result was an embarrassing twenty-two-minute Tonight Show appearance during which Geller was unable to perform any of his usual feats. From this experience, Randi went on to write an entire book detailing ways to duplicate many of Geller’s “psychic” feats without resorting to any paranormal gifts.

Randi’s mantra is a simple one: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a person is claiming something that is not possible given our current understanding of the world, then it is unlikely to be true, and substantial scientific evidence should be required of that person before his claim is believed.

James Randi demonstrates Uri Geller–style spoon-bending. Photo courtesy of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

His devotion to the pursuit of truth against a rising tide of nonsense and pseudoscience earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a prize usually given to people pursuing groundbreaking academic research, in the 1980s. He put the funds toward his efforts to expose the tricks of phony faith healers. In 1976, he was a founding fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), made up of leading scientists and thinkers in a variety of disciplines, and he has more recently left CSICOP behind, in part as a result of their being named as co-defendants in lawsuits filed against Randi by Geller and others, forming his own organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The JREF serves as a clearinghouse of information on pseudoscience, skepticism, and the paranormal, and it also hosts annual conferences devoted to those topics (see also Cold Reading, Parapsychology, Pseudoscience).

Bibliography:

  1. Randi, J. The Truth about Uri Geller. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1982;
  2. Randi, J. Flim-Flam! Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1987.

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