Magician aims to expose frauds

Associated Press/July 9, 2007
By Matt Sedensky

Fort Lauderdale -- James Randi has escaped from a locked coffin submerged in the sea, and from a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls. Choose a word from a 200-page book and he will guess it, pick an object and he will make it fade from sight.

He gave up performing as The Amazing Randi years ago, but his words to the audience at the end of each show gave a preview of his next and longest-running act.

"Everything you have seen here is tricks," he would say. "There is nothing supernatural involved here. I hope you'll accept my word for that. Thank you and good evening."

For more than two decades, Randi has been the country's skeptic-in-chief, aiming his arrow of rationalism at psychics and faith healers, mediums and mentalists. He finds his targets so preposterous and those falling for them so desperate that he has become obsessed.

"It's important because any misinformation like this -- of people claiming they can subvert nature, they can do real miracles and they want to be paid for it," he said. "That's a very negative influence on society."

Toronto-born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge's storied career as a magician and escape artist came after the child prodigy dropped out of high school and left home to join the carnival. His stage routine gave way to a nagging need to speak out against those whose work he regarded as nonsense -- not just those who read palms and minds, but chiropractors, homeopaths and the like.

Randi's "coming out" as a skeptic essentially arrived on a 1972 episode of "The Tonight Show" in which he helped Johnny Carson set up Uri Geller, the Israeli performer who claimed to bend spoons with his mind. Randi ensured the spoons and other props were kept from Geller's hands until showtime to prevent tampering. The result was an agonizing 22 minutes in which Geller was unable to perform any tricks.

In the years since, he has garnered a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, established his namesake James Randi Educational Foundation and become guardian of a $1 million prize earmarked for anyone who can prove supernatural powers. It remains unclaimed.

Randi will go to great lengths to expose -- whether it is years of research for books debunking everything from Nostradamus to extra-sensory perception or the days he spent in his car, eating Twinkies and drinking Pepsi as he waited for the chance to go through the trash of a faith healer. All of it has earned him countless fans, and countless other enemies.

Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, notes Randi took on a role another famous magician, Houdini, previously held.

"It takes a magician to know how people deceive purposely. Scientists are not trained to detect intentional deception," Shermer said. "If you care about reality, Randi is a lens through which to see how these claims are put to the test."

For all the analysis Randi puts into seemingly everything, he still finds delight in observing magic he knows is a stunt or watching a film that is just fantasy. He talks about the crushing feelings of having a dying friend and speaks of the magic of love, though he has always been single.

Randi is 78 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, with gold-rimmed glasses, a bald head and bushy white eyebrows and beard. He drives a light blue Mazda Miata with "Amazing" on the license plate. Peacocks can be heard and seen on the lawn outside the foundation's office, and they leave their droppings on the path to the front door.

Everyone calls him Randi.

He is energetic and lucid, quick with a joke, and looking back on his life he cannot help feeling some frustration. No matter what fraud-busting light he casts on purveyors of the paranormal, they seem to pull off escape acts of their own, continuing to win new followers and to earn checks Randi says are cashed at the expense of realism.

His voice grows as he begins the litany of offenders: television faith healer Peter Popoff and psychic Sylvia Browne, and so on. "I'm very angry," he said. "I should be able to get them brought to justice."

He once showed that the messages Popoff claimed to be getting from God about his audience were actually coming from his wife through an earpiece. Browne once agreed to take his challenge and prove her abilities, but later backed out.

Geller, who remains a target on Randi's Web site, acknowledges his appearance on "The Tonight Show" was a "humiliation" but notes his career has soldiered on.

"I thought, 'This is it. I'm finished.' But exactly the opposite happened," Geller said. "People like Randi -- skeptics -- actually made my career. They did for me what a PR man would have asked a million dollars for."

Geller said he will not take Randi's $1 million challenge because he has no interest in getting involved with someone who hates him. Randi says hate is too strong a word, but there is such vitriol when the men talk of one another it seems their battle could continue into the afterlife, if only Randi had proof such a thing existed.

No fear: Randi has made an arrangement. He says if he dies before Geller, he would like to be cremated and for the ashes to be given to a friend.

"My best friend is instructed to throw them in Uri Geller's eyes," he says, purportedly as a joke. "I'd like him to get an eyeful of my ashes. I think that would be appropriate."

Randi is not the least bit shaken talking about death. He nearly died last year, undergoing double bypass surgery and remaining hospitalized for two months. Some might credit God for their survival, but not Randi. He does not believe in a deity because he has seen no proof.

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