Magician and skeptic James Randi brings his psychic slayer show to Australia
James Randi is very much looking forward to coming to “Straya”, as he puts it. I know this, not only because he tells me so, but because I can see his eyes twinkling over Skype. Hang on, though. Did the magician and cold reader insist on Skype so that he could dupe me?
“Oh well, it can’t do any harm,” he chortles. “I get to see a pretty face and hey, it’s better than most of the things I look at. Skype is a little more personable and the price is great isn’t it?”
For someone who has devoted half a decade to exposing psychics, ghost chasers and pseudoscience peddlers as frauds, Randi sure is jolly. He classifies all the above as “woo-woo”, for instance, and clearly enjoys bringing “skeptic justice” to the world. He has a one-million dollar bounty on offer for anyone who can prove their powers.
“The skeptical movement, never mistake it, isn’t anything callous at all,” he cautions Time Out. “We are not naysayers. We may eventually get to say that ‘this is nonsense’ after we investigate, but we try to be understanding. We are honorable, in that we look for the truth and we demand evidence.”
Back in 1980, Randi appeared on The Don Lane Show over here and enraged the host, who regularly had psychics on air. To take Don’s point, if we discount healers claiming to cure cancer, “where’s the harm”?
“Well, the harm is that you’re misleading people,” Randi counters. “In my estimation it’s highly unethical. It’s changing people’s minds so that they depend on quackery instead of depending on commonsense and evidence.” He’s seen this firsthand at the James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida. “I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve had tearful people show up at my door with family members in tow, saying, ‘Our mother has taken another mortgage on the house and we are going to lose everything because some wonder worker has convinced her to hand over all the money.’”
Randi insists that he’s sorry Don Lane is no longer with us, “because I never got to iron things out with him. He tried to do a trick on me. I got to the studio an hour-and-a-half early, because I was always a little uncomfortable about these things, and I found out from the prop man that he had all these spoons out of view, despite me asking him not to do something so tired and old.”
Lane was hoping to catch Randi out, as the magician had been vocally challenging Uri Geller’s claim that he could bend spoons with his mind. Randi insisted spoon bending was merely a magic trick – and an elementary one at that. Let’s see how easy it is then, was Lane’s thinking.
“By getting there early I managed to do a little bit of trickery and prepare all these spoons,” Randi continues. “Later, on air, I pretended it was a terrible shock to see them – ‘Oh my goodness, we agreed we wouldn’t do this,’ but I bent them successfully and Don was caught out.”
In a fury, Don swept everything off the table as the audience applauded. “Piss off,” he yelled at James Randi.
“It was rather rude, to say the least,” Randi says coyly. “But I was victorious.”
The evening will feature a screening of 2014 doco An Honest Liar followed by a Q&A session with Randi.
Randi’s hit list
1. Uri Geller
“He is a conjurer, but he only has four tricks. Count them: one, two, three, four. You wouldn’t think a repertoire like that would bet him where he has gotten, but he is fabulously wealthy because there are people out there who just don’t read the books that I write.”
2. Deepak Chopra
The new-age guru has responded to Randi’s million-dollar challenge with a million-dollar challenge of his own to atheists: explain how an independent thought is formed. “He has to answer my challenge first because I made it first,” says Randi. “He hasn’t proven anything that appears in his books as an actual fact.”
3. US Immigration
Randi’s husband, Venezuelan painter Devyi Pena – whom he married last year at the age of 85 – narrowly escaped jail for passport fraud. “He was tempest tossed,” Randi told the judge. “This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt.”