The New York Times profiles James Randi

November 8, 2014 • 10:45 am

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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 11.28.29 AM
Randi with his partner of more than 25 years, the artist José Alvarez, at their Florida home. Credit Jeff Minton for The New York Times

h/t: Sharon Hill

37 thoughts on “The New York Times profiles James Randi

  1. I’m not sure that !*many*! modern skeptics are religious, but those who are probably have minimal beliefs and go for largely creedless forms of religion such as creationist-opponent Robert Pennock (a Quaker). A lot of Unitarians probably consider themselves religious in the larger (Einsteinian) sense of a life-philosophy centered on sacred values, while also being skeptical towards specific religious doctrine and dogma.

    James Randi maintained a close and lifelong friendship with skeptic pioneer Martin Gardner who in turn maintained to the end of his life a philosophical theism without belonging to any religion or church. Gardner did a lot to jump-start the modern skeptic movement with the publication of “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science”.

    Then there are selective skeptics who give exemption to religious claims and/or allege they are not testable by natural means and are as such immunized from criticism, as these links discuss.

    1. P.S. I especially admire Randi’s expose of faith healers, surely ranking with the expensive life-style of mega-church evangelists and science-obstructionism as one of the most harmful effects of modern fundamentalist religion.

    2. Those are very useful explanations of skeptics who keep fingers crossed behind their backs regarding certain areas. I knew they were out there…
      But are they then ‘skeptics’?

      1. The columnist I cited John Shook distinguishes “scientific skepticism” and “rationalist skepticism”, the former attacking pseudo-science only, the latter being more sweeping and criticizing religion as well.

        On the other hand, if you regard theology as essentially a failed science…

  2. I and my then-college-age son spent a couple of hours with Randi in his Ft. Lauderdale office/home (before he moved). He was a delight to talk to and answered every question on any topic except for: “How did you do that?” He talked about most of his life and his longtime friend Martin Gardner.

  3. I would wish that I am as sharp and clear thinking as Randi is at his age. But I would have to become much smarter than I am in order to have hope of that.

    1. Came here to say just that – it was a fantastic profile, very honest. Although I was surprised that so little mention was made of the JREF and the million dollar prize.

    2. I think that’s the same film that Jerry mentions in the OP. I watched it and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was very touching to see the relationship Randi has with his partner.

      My only criticism is that the exposition was a little light. My daughter needs me to watch it with her to explain some of the background. I suspect this is a conscious decision by the filmmakers to maintain some tension.

      What is depressing is the persistence of people’s appetite for these charlatans. Even when the tricks are pointed out people still want to believe them. Geller said just because Randi could do the exact same tricks did not mean that his weren’t genuine! One hears the exact same arguments against evidence for physical consciousness. Just because one can produce qualia by physical processes does not mean they are physical processes. Of course, it’s true that it doesn’t *prove* the Gellers and Popoffs of this world are charlatans, but it does show it’s reasonable to believe they are performing tricks.

    3. I was about to recommend this documentary as well (I would also add that a minimalist way to proxy overseas sites without any risk of disturbing your network setup is the Hola! plugin for Google Chrome, as it only affects the current browser session, not the entire PC).

  4. Uri Geller maintaining his career after the Tonight Show debacle is surely galling.

    But the article says this:

    “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.”

    I wonder if that’s a misprint because it doesn’t seem to make sense.
    If people thought that magic would work every time, and Geller’s magic didn’t work on the show, then that would imply his audience would doubt he had magic.

    I see Geller’s failure-yet-success in just the opposite light. Most people are primed, especially by the prevalence of religion, to accept that magic DOESN’T work all the time. When you are always praying to a God who isn’t there, you have to excuse the lack of results somehow. You get used to not seeing any obvious “magic” occur. And then the standard excuses are “God doesn’t do miracles on your beck and call!” And “God/The Supernatural, doesn’t like performing for skeptics…belief is valued first, then come the miracles.”

    So I’d think that all those who saw Geller’s Tonight Show failure in a positive, or non-incriminating light, were primed to do so. Of course it doesn’t always work. REAL Magic isn’t like that, we know from experience it only happens sometimes (and we count the hits, not the failures)!

    Now, if Geller’s magic HAD worked, or always worked in front of anyone any time, THEN that would be suspicious; then he’d likely be using tricks!

    1. I think the key word here is “tricks”. If he was a trickster he could trick people every time. He didn’t on this occasion so clearly his magic is not a trick. Just maybe a little unreliable.

    2. Even “magic” can be the operative concept here. To a true believer, psychic phenomena are not magic; they are purely naturalistic phenomena that some people are better able to “tap into” (or exploit) than others. This would hold for dowsing, telekinesis, ESP, ELF effects on cows near high tension power lines, magnetic bracelets and headbands, and spoon-bending. Magic is merely trickery — silly stuff only little children believe to be real. There’s no such thing as “real” magic.

    3. My intended comment was also on the point that

      Geller [‘s] failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.

      A severe, and unusual, case of bullet-to-foot syndrome.

  5. Johnny Carson, an amateur magician himself,
    endowed the million dollar challenge and Randi’s foundation.
    Randi has also educated scientists on how to detect frauds.

  6. “The unbelievable skepticism of James Randi.”

    I look forward to reading the hard copy tomorrow.

    The “unbelievable” of the title catches my eye; “unbelievable” to whom – the writer?

  7. Hi Jerry,

    I’m not sure you will allow this past moderation, but here goes…

    I still admire Randi for what he has done for critical thinking and promotion of science and his exposing of charlatans and frauds. However, several occurrences whilst posting at the JREF put me off continuing to post there.

    Firstly, his treatment of those posters who dared to disagree with him, or who he misunderstood to be disagreeing with him (as in my case); his climate denialism (which he never completely disavowed as far as I know); and his misunderstanding of evolution which he seemed uninterested in correcting.

    He was also a bit Of a Johnny-come-lately as far as airing his homosexuality was concerned. I would have loved to have seen him lead the charge. I understand that it might have been very difficult I his case, but still.

    1. “…Johnny-come-lately… as far as airing his homosexuality was concerned.”

      Back in the olden days it was not consider prudent or safe to do so. Now it appears,everyone just must know your personal business.

    2. Hi. Yes, I’ve been wondering about Randi ever since a few things came to light about him personally. I’m by no means an aficionado but I love the exposes of various shysters that I’ve seen on Youtube.

      Recently I was in my local library and I picked up a book by Will Storr called The Heretics, which was about anti-rational sectors of society, groups like U.F.O.-spotters and creationists. I was almost immediately irritated by the agnostic empty-headedness(some would say open-mindedness) of the author, particularly his habit of implying an equivalency between the certainty displayed by sceptics on one side and creationists or whoever on the other, so I can’t say I’m a fan of Storr.

      However, there was a sizeable section on Randi which painted a deeply unattractive picture of the man, not with conjecture and rumours, but with words straight from Randi’s mouth. My general impression had been of Randi as an irascible, brave, honest guy but the accusations of dishonesty in the book, relating to Randi’s autobiographical inconsistencies, and, most depressingly, a very ugly hint of social Darwinism during an interview, left me a little non-plussed.

      I’m a big fan of the decades he’s spent unmasking gits and there’s been no greater a cheerleader for scepticism over the last 40 years, so I’d like to know whether this has come up before, whether I’m misguided, whether I’ve just been pulled in by journalistic sleight-of-hand…

      Apologies in particular if this book and its author have come up before.

      1. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to like the man. What’s important are the ideas. Nobody’s a saint (especially saints).

        He seems quite manipulative (regarding Project Alpha and using Alvarez to impersonate a psychic), stubborn, and has a bit of the old showbiz about him.

        Same thing about Dawkins, Harris, Penn & Teller, … and especially Hitchens (The Muhammad Ali in the category of opinionated, irascible skeptics). They all have quite a few deeply dislikable traits.

        Nonetheless, you can say that of anyone you’d care to mention. However, I have a lot of respect for many of their ideas, and indeed their work and commitment to fight the bullshitters of this world.

        Uri Geller, however is a complete immoral ass-hat. He just has to open his mouth to see he doesn’t get it. Or does he…

  8. Randi hit the nail on the head with his expose on fake faith healer John of God of Brazil years ago. But, with the continual media promotion of Oprah, Dwyer CNN and other woo-mongers, John of God is still raking in the millions.
    Recently The news show 60 Minutes with Michael Usher, just did an scathing investigative report of John of God on 10/26/2014, prior to his arrival to Australia in Nov 2014. Calling John of God’s pretend medical treatment horrendous and barbaric! And grilling him about his sexual molestation charges and the great deal of money he makes(in the millions) by fooling sick and desperate people with absolutely no creditable records of healing treatments! A must see for all who consider going.

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