The New York Times Magazine profiled 86-year-old super-skeptic James Randi yesterday. It’s a good read. Here are a dozen things I learned.
1. Randi started his career working Toronto nightclubs as Randall Zwinge (his real name), an entertainer who could predict the future. Soon, he began planning a very neat if somewhat morbid trick.
Each night before he went to bed, he wrote the date on the back of a business card along with the words “I, Randall Zwinge, will die today.” Then he signed it and placed it in his wallet. That way, if he were knocked down in the street or killed by a freak accident, whoever went through his effects would discover the most shocking prophecy he ever made. Zwinge kept at it for years. Each night, he tore up one card and wrote out a new one for the next day. But nothing fatal befell him; in the end, having wasted hundreds of business cards, he gave up in frustration. “I never got lucky,” he told me.
2. Randi has a collection of some 4,000 books about magic, hoaxes, mysticism, and the like,
… arranged alphabetically by subject, from alchemy, astrology, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle to tarot, UFO’s and witchcraft.
3. He doesn’t take kindly to being called a debunker; “scientific investigator” will do just fine, thanks very much. The difference means a lot to him:
“If I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”
4. When he was an illusionist, people would refuse to believe he didn’t really possess supernatural powers, no matter how many times he told them the truth.
In 1949 he made local headlines for a trick in which he appeared to predict the outcome of the World Series a week before it happened, writing the result down, sealing it an envelope and giving it to a lawyer who opened and read it to the press after the series concluded. But no matter how many times he assured his audiences that such stunts were a result of subterfuge and legerdemain, he found there were always believers. They came up to him in the street and asked him for stock tips; when he insisted that he was just a magician, they nodded — but winked and whispered that they knew he was truly psychic.
5. Fifty years ago, he put a sign outside his home that read “randi, charlatan.”
6. His dogged multi-year attempts to unmask “psychic” spoonbender Uri Geller, who would become his life’s nemesis, as the real charlatan, were met with a degree of appreciation by Geller himself:
Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon — “My most influential and important publicist,” as Geller described him to me.
7. Still, mutual cordiality was hardly in the (ahem) cards. Geller sued Randi multiple times, at one time because the investigator
… had characterized [Geller] as a sociopath and suggested his psychic feats had been learned from the backs of cereal boxes. Geller’s suits in the United States were eventually dismissed. But the legal costs of fighting the cases were overwhelming, and Randi went through almost all of a MacArthur Foundation grant of $272,000 awarded to him in 1986 for his paranormal investigations.
8. His whole life, Randi claims, he has avoided drugs, alcohol, and tobacco products.
“Because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers,” he once said. “And I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That may mean giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world.”
9. In 1987, to make a point about audience gullibility, Randi invented a serially-reincarnated entity called Carlos who manifested himself in the body of Randi’s boyfriend, José Alvarez (real name Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga). After multiple TV appearances in Australia, Randi and “Carlos” gave a faux-supernatural performance at Sydney’s Opera House,
… after which the audience was invited to place orders for crystal artifacts, including the Tears of Carlos, priced at $500 each, and an Atlantis Crystal, offered at $14,000. Each proved popular — though Randi’s team never accepted any money for them.
10. Twenty years later,
… during his TED talk taking aim at quackery and fraud, Randi delighted his audience by gobbling an entire bottle of 32 Calms homeopathic sleeping tablets — which Randi speculated was certainly a fatal dose.
He survived intact.
11. In 2008, Randi sank his proverbial teeth into a British businessman named James McCormick, who was peddling some kind of dowsing device that McCormick claimed could detect explosives at impossible distances. After an eventual investigation by U.K. law enforcement,
… last year McCormick was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, having sold at least $38 million worth of his miraculous device to the Iraqi government.
Hmm. Considering the victim, perhaps he should have gotten a medal instead?
12. A brand new documentary about Randi’s life, An Honest Liar, is four months from being released.
The Times has an interesting slideshow that accompanies its Randi profile piece; you can view it here.