The Extraordinary Influence of James “The Amazing” Randi October 22, 2020

The Extraordinary Influence of James “The Amazing” Randi

In 2010, during The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, I had a chance to interview James Randi. There’s a recording of it somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s gone now. What I have is a transcript. And in that transcript, I made a rookie mistake, suggesting to Randi that he was a legendary “debunker.”

Randi corrected me of that right away: “We do not accept the term, ‘debunking’… We are not debunkers. We are investigators.” (It’s a statement he’s made many other times.)

A picture from The Amazing Meeting 8 in 2010.

He was right, of course. Calling yourself a “debunker” suggests you’ve already reached a conclusion without looking into the matter. That’s not what he did. That’s not what we should do. What made Randi such a legend was that, when confronted with an extraordinary claim, he would suggest an ordinary explanation for it, and then work to confirm it. He took the other side seriously enough to investigate their claims. In a way, he showed the other side a kind of respect they didn’t normally get from non-believers.

I doubt they felt that way for long. He tore apart the supernatural claims of psychics and televangelists with such precision that they were left scrambling for credibility. It’s one reason his Million Dollar Challenge was so alluring: He was willing to part ways with all that money — and that money really did sit in his foundation’s bank account — if psychics proved they could do the thing they claimed they could do.

No one ever came close to winning. No one who claimed supernatural powers and crossed Randi’s path was able to get away with it for long. Just ask Peter Popoff and Uri Geller, two hucksters whose own eventual obituaries will surely include long sections about how Randi, at least temporarily, paralyzed their careers.

Randi died on Monday at the age of 92. The public found out yesterday. And in the past 24 hours, I’ve seen countless people expressing how much he meant to them or influenced them, sometimes directly.

Magician Penn Jillette said it bluntly: “You invented us.”

Many others joined in:

Randi also founded the organization that later became the Center For Inquiry. CFI released this statement mourning his death:

Well before his association with CSICOP, Randi was the public face of skeptical inquiry, bringing a sense of fun and mischievousness to a serious mission. Whether exposing fraudulent psychics and faith-healers or revealing the false promises of alternative medicine, his showmanship and expertise in illusion made him an extraordinarily effective messenger for the promotion of critical thinking over magical thinking.

Beyond his own groundbreaking work, James Randi is responsible for inspiring several generations of skeptics and science communicators who are pushing back against the false claims of pseudoscience, the paranormal, and the supernatural, as well as those who profit from them. What began as a committee of intellectuals and a magazine has now expanded into a universe of activists, scholars, entertainers, media platforms, and institutions, like CFI, who share Randi’s mission and his passion.

If you’re not familiar with him, try to check out the film An Honest Liar or read his 1982 book Flim-Flam! (which, sadly, holds up all too well).

Given all the ways I knew Randi had inspired other people, I asked him in our interview if there was anything that inspired him. He just pointed to everyone attending TAM that year:

You don’t know how many people have taken me aside and broken down in tears, in my arms in many cases, and said, “Mr. Randi, you’ve made a lot of difference in my life.” [If I got that] maybe twice a year, [it’s all I would] need to keep going. But I get it, oh, a hundred times a year… I need people to tell me these things every now and then, and I find it so refreshing.

I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant because it wasn’t meant to be. The fact that so many people would tell him — with specificity — how he gave them the tools to change how they think, meant a great deal to him, and he loved hearing those stories. It gave him the energy to keep doing his work. And he would surely encourage everyone now to continue spreading the gospel of critical thinking.

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