James Randi wants to offer you $1 million. Sound appealing?
In order to claim that prize money, you must prove your paranormal ability is real, under mutually agreed upon testing circumstances. Still appealing?
Randi, a former stage magician and illusionist, has made a name for himself as a skeptic and paranormal debunker. Last night, in an event hosted by the student organization Society of Inquiry, Randi spoke about his work to about 150 curious members of the university community.
“As a human race, we seek answers, which is a good thing, except when we accept answers that are easy,” said Todd Robbins, Randi’s friend and the moderator for the event. “But when we seek comfort in them, we fail to see if they are there, in fact, and there are people around who will make profit from these answers.”
Randi is an internationally acclaimed skeptic of the paranormal: a true “ghost buster,” or “thorn in the side of those who are charlatans,” as Robbins put it. He doesn’t like the word “debunker,” he said, but his goal, and the goal of the James Randi Educational Foundation, is to protect people from being manipulated by con artists and criminals who claim to have supernatural abilities.
He calls it “woo-woo,” the fake magic and the people who claim to have it. In Randi’s case, it really does take one to know one: He practiced stage magic, the art of fooling people, for more than 30 years, retiring at the age of 60 to lecture on skepticism and reason full time.
“Magicians are entertainers. We are actors, we play the part of someone who can subvert the laws of nature,” he said.
He knows the tricks of the trade, and that’s why he can so easily spot the frauds and fakes. His biggest targets are homeopathic medicine, faith healers and mediums — the kind of people who profit, at the expense of believers, from woo-woo.
As a test, he once took 32 homeopathic sleeping pills — more than 15 times the recommended dosage. Randi said the experience was anticlimactic: Absolutely nothing happened, although it theoretically should have killed him. Poison control apparently laughed when he called.
It’s not that he’s a cynic, he said: “There’s a big difference between being skeptical and cynical. I try to avoid cynical.”
He just wants to show people everything is not always as it seems.
The sprightly 84-year-old supported his points by doing magic tricks for the audience to illustrate the power of illusion.
“As a magician, I can tell you people do make some assumptions,” he said. “You’ve already made an assumption about me. You know who I am and have been introduced to me, and you have already made one you are not even aware of.”
To the amazement of audience members, Randi proceeded to tell them he had no idea what they looked like — he had given the illusion he was wearing glasses but had really been wearing lensless frames for the first half of the lecture.
Randi has received hundreds of inquiries about the million-dollar challenge, but no one has ever been able to claim the prize.
Although he has angered many a famous medium and psychic by poking holes in their tricks, most notably Uri Geller, who was famous in the 1960s for allegedly being able to bend silverware and move objects with his mind, there was one particular parapsychologist who inspired the million-dollar challenge.
While doing a radio show in 1964, the irritated psychologist told Randi to “put his money where his mouth is,” so Randi did just that: He announced he would give $1,000 to anyone who could show proof.
Word spread, and the funding for the challenge grew to $1 million. It’s all held in trust by Evercore Wealth Management, as proved by a bank statement on the JREF website.
Randi insists it’s not rigged; applicants sit down with the foundation to agree on the rules of testing. None of the applicants have made it past the preliminary round because they either back down, are found to be faking early on or have an alleged ability that doesn’t lend itself to testing.
But Randi also has his devoted fans. He’s written popular books, broken two world records, won awards and was a favorite guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
And soon, he’s planning to travel to India, where he hopes to meet a man who was punished by the government for debunking an alleged miracle.
Many of the attendees were huge fans, eager to have him sign copies of his books.
“Well, it’s James Randi,” said Sofie Ingersen, a senior Danish exchange student studying anthropology. “I just became a member of the Society of Inquiry, so of course I like the events the club does, but it’s a huge thing that they got James Randi. He’s amazing.”