BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 10
Featured in
Issue 134

Escape Artist

One man's crusade against 'woo-woo'

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 10

'The Amazing Randi', 1988. Courtesy: The James Randi Educational Foundation, Fort Lauderdale.

‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’
Bruce Nauman, 1967

In perhaps his most daring escape in a life filled with them, in March, the 82-year-old magician, ‘The Amazing Randi’, stepped out of an unlocked closet and declared that he was gay. His declaration was applauded for its forthrightness, although it was perhaps to be expected from a man who for the last 40 years has insisted on the importance of truth over hokum, phooey and the purveyors of (what he terms) ‘woo-woo’.

Such woo-woo can be found in the most unlikely of places. Recently it was arms manufacturers selling the ade651 ‘remote portable substance detectors’. These devices were meant to be able to detect explosives and be powered by the user’s static electricity. However Randi revealed that the ade651 was little more than a glorified dowsing rod. This did not stop the Iraqi government from spending US$85 million on the devices before the British government finally banned their export earlier this year.

James Randi began working as a conjurer and escapologist in the 1940s. By the 1960s he was a well-known TV magician, and in the 1970s he toured with the Alice Cooper band, chopping the singer’s head off every night to the sound of Cooper’s necrophiliac doo-wop rocker, ‘I Love the Dead’ (1973). However it was in his battles with the Israeli psychic, Uri Geller, in the 1970s and ’80s that Randi took on the mantle of scientific scepticism for which he is now best known.

Geller had claimed that his ability to make watches stop, describe hidden drawings and, most famously, bend spoons, were the result of paranormal powers given to him by extraterrestrials. Randi was infuriated by this and began a campaign to replicate Geller’s illusions, exposing them as simple parlour tricks. This was the beginning of a crusade that led Randi from perplexing the public to enlightening them. Such was his seriousness that he offered one million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate genuine paranormal powers. No one has yet won the prize.

Randi’s work continued throughout the 1980s, his scepticism slowly moving him into ever more serious areas. He began to expose faith healers and psychic surgeons and in 1986 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ award for his concerted efforts against medical humbug. In 1988, Randi contacted the performance artist José Alvarez in an attempt to deflate a channelling craze that was sweeping Australia. Together they created the 2000-year-old spirit shaman, Carlos, whom Alvarez ‘channelled’ live on stage. So convincing was Alvarez’ performance that a credulous media were soon blindly following Carlos’ every word; the debunker had become the bunkum tout. Alvarez would eventually make incantatory loops from the television reports, showing how with repetition and smart editing, magical fakery can quickly become fact. Indeed Randi had himself been accused of having real psychic powers in the past and hiding them beneath a façade of scepticism. This exemplified his Quixotic dilemma: how do you enlighten a public that likes to be fooled?

During the 1990s Randi’s work continued to broaden in scope. He testified in front of a congressional committee about the efficacy of homeopathic remedies by swallowing an entire bottle of ‘natural’ sleeping pills and began looking into the perverse realm of pseudo-security devices such as the ade651. Following Randi’s career one can almost see our present Age of Scepticism coalescing around him. Skeptic magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry are only a few of the multitude of sceptical organizations that have been founded by Randi or directly influenced by his work. In fact there are so many denominations of sceptics that, ironically, our present age seems to mimic the massive pluralism of the religious Great Awakenings of America in the 18th and 19th centuries that saw the creation of the Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons.

Randi himself was one of the earliest members of the Brights movement, which aims to promote a naturalistic worldview. His 2003 essay ‘Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright’ notably preceded larger tomes by the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apostasy – Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007). It might seem odd, even blasphemous, to have a small bearded magician at the head of a worldwide sceptical movement populated by philosophers and evolutionary scientists, but in fact it is entirely fitting. Like conjoined triplets, the performers of magic, the debunkers of magic and the disbelievers of religion have always been tightly linked.

In 1584, Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which aimed ‘to inquire into and write so strongly against witchcraft’. It does so by suggesting that all feats of magic were due to legerdemain, misdirection or misconception. Indeed such was Scot’s fervour to reveal that witches do not exist that he attributed earthly reasons to many of the supernatural events of the Bible. In explaining how demonic possession could be due to mental illness, and disembodied voices due to ventriloquism, Scot not only wrote what is generally deemed the first textbook on conjuring, his inquiry compelled him to lay out a strong case for atheism. Nobody disbelieves quite like the magician.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.