There’s a really nice and informative piece about James Randi for tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine (already online), called “The unbelievable skepticism of James Randi.” It’s chock full of information about Randi’s history, his Amazing Challenges, his run-ins with Uri Geller, his relationship with José Alvarez (plagued by legal troubles over immigration status), and his health problems, which seem serious but haven’t felled the guy yet. I recommend the article highly, especially if you haven’t yet seen the movie about Randi, “An Honest Liar” (I haven’t, but readers who have weigh in below).
Just a few snippets from a long piece:
He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because 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.”
Randi’s epochal battle with Uri Geller is especially fascinating. Here’s just one bit:
Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.
Finally, Randi on science and God:
Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”
Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”
When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.
“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”
I wasn’t aware that many modern skeptics are still religious, but being a “religous skeptic” seems to me to resemble being a “married bachelor.”
Anyway, there’s a lot more to read, and you’ll enjoy it.
h/t: Sharon Hill