Formerly a professional stage magician, James Randi has used his skills at deceiving the eye to unmask the techniques, tricks, and strategems of charlatans who pretend to have supernatural powers and thereby cheat people out of their money and self-respect. In this he has done the public enormous service. He is also a noted skeptic and secular humanist, who sees religion as thriving on lack of evidence. And SuperScholar recently named him as one of the 25 most influential living atheists.
The interview below is a transcription of a phone interview that Mr. Randi did with SuperScholar. We are grateful for his time and candor.
Mr. Randi, you’ve lived a colorful life. You’re best known as a stage magician and as an investigator of the paranormal. Could you describe both of those careers and how they fit together?
Well, a magician is someone who plays the part of a magician. Actually a better term is a conjurer. I prefer that term, but we don’t use it in this country; we use it in the UK, but not in the USA. A conjurer is someone who gives the impression of being a magician, who would be someone who can actually control nature. I can’t control nature, I do tricks and so do the other magicians including the so-called psychics out there who pretend they are real magicians. But the fact that I did this all of my life (I’m 82 now and I’ve had a considerable experience in the conjuring trade) means that I have peculiar expertise. I know two things with great certainty: How to fool people, and more importantly, how they fool themselves. That is the by far the more important part of that. So that gives me the expertise to be able to see through the tricks of the so-called psychics.
One of your great triumphs in exposing paranormal fraud was in the case of Peter Popoff. Popoff’s so-called “faith healing ministry” crashed and burned immediately after your exposure; his ministry went bankrupt. Can you review for our readers the highlights of that case?
Well, first of all, he didn’t go bankrupt at all. He said that he went bankrupt, but he had considerable means to survive. He just went out of business temporarily, he changed the name of the ministry from Peter Popoff’s Ministries to People United for Christ, which is just a change of name. But he had the same headquarters, he had the same golden Mercedes and a few things like that. He didn’t slow down very much. As a matter of fact, after we exposed him on the Johnny Carson Show and Johnny eventually retired, he used to call me about every two weeks and say, “I just saw Popoff on TV again.” How come it didn’t work? Well, it didn’t work because people are not very smart out there; they don’t seem to want to learn a lesson. They don’t listen carefully to what they are told. They want to believe in something that has emotional value, and is easy to believe, that is pleasant and that sounds that all they have to do is to give money and they’ll be healed or they’ll be saved or they’ll go to heaven rather than hell. It’s just a matter of contributing to somebody named Peter Popoff.
That answers why Popoff is still doing business.
Oh yes, yes, it’s because people just don’t pay attention. They forget about it or they look at it as the work of the devil and whatnot. Popoff shortly after his exposure on the Carson show issued, in one of his mailed-out tirades, a picture of me with horns on it. And that seemed to carry the message alright.
You’ve also clashed swords with mentalist Uri Geller over a span of years and Geller sees…..
Oh, he’s not a mentalist. He’s a psychic. A mentalist is a magician who appears to be using nothing but mind power to accomplish the feats such as telepathy and such. It’s not really telepathy of course, but these are tricks. Geller has never said that he’s a mentalist; all he says is that he’s a psychic and that means that he has true magical powers and he can’t get away from that claim. He said many many times in interviews and such and also to the press and on television and radio, “I don’t do tricks. I don’t know how to do tricks. What you see is real.” That’s a declaration that he actually has supernatural powers, so we should not refer to him as a mentalist. A mentalist has an honest trade.
Thanks for that clarification. Because of efforts like yours, has the public become less gullible to people like Popoff and Geller?
Oh no. Some people will and some people will not learn the lesson. I get emails and personal letters from people just about every day saying “Thank you for relieving me of this belief.” But half of those will also go on to say, “Now I don’t give my money to Peter Popoff anymore, I give it to Reverend So and So…” Someone else doing exactly the same scheme, though not necessarily exactly the same method, but simply another, a different form of fakery. But they won’t learn. They will give it to somebody else. They want to be suckered, they want to be swindled. They seem to open their arms and their pockets and their wallets. Of course, to each one of these swindlers as they come along, they accept them. They say “Oh Popoff.” They show him on TV and see he’s a fake. Then they say, “Oh Reverend So and So”, and they’ll give their money that way.
Do you see any positive signs of a healthy skepticism gaining ground?
Oh yes, yes, in general skepticism. But not necessarily when it comes to religious tomfoolery, because people who have religious beliefs believe in heaven and hell and goblins and demons, jinns and seraphims and all of this nonsense. They are already prepared to believe anything that comes along if it’s attractive and sounds as if it’s religious, so I don’t think there’s very much help for that. They very, very seldom revert away from that because it’s too comforting and comfortable for them and easy to understand.
So in that respect, do you see signs that skepticism might be losing ground in general?
No, I think it’s gaining. I just came back from Australia where we held the first Amazing Meeting of Oz. They call it Oz, which is the way they affectionately refer to Australia, and it’s easier to spell. That meeting was a huge success. We had an overflow crowd. And in London, a few months ago, we had the same thing. We’re starting to hold international conferences now through the James Randi Educational Foundation and it’s proving that we are getting our point across. In fact, I would say the whole skeptical movement is functioning very well.
Some poll numbers suggest that roughly 80 percent of the US population believes in miracles and about 35 percent think they’ve actually experienced a miracle such as divine healing. What do you make of these numbers? Do they strike you as realistic?
Well, remember, these are not necessarily true representations of what people really think. You can hardly get ahold of a person who has any public profile at all – even if it’s local dog catcher – who says that he or she doesn’t believe in a deity because that could be fatal to their job, to their position in the neighborhood and the community. They just don’t say that. So, I don’t know how accurate any of these polls are. I wouldn’t be surprised that they could be quite accurate. I’m not denying them at all. I think that people say such things because it’s the easier answer to give. They don’t have to think in order to give that answer. They just go along with everybody else: “Oh Yes, I believe in goodness and light, day and night, and the moon and a few things like that.” But what about a deity? “Oh Yes, of course, I accept that, I believe the whole thing.” It’s very much like what I call “the Larry King mentality.” Believe in everything because it makes very good copy and you get attention.
You’ve issued “The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.” What is the history of this challenge and has anyone come close to meeting it?
Well, you can’t come close to meeting it, but we’ll get to that in a moment. As for the history, I was on a radio program way back, when I was around 30 years of age, in New York City. I used to do my own radio show out of New York City. This time I was a guest on another program and one of the parapsychologists that I was debating there said “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?” I thought that’s a good idea, so at that point I offered $1,000 to anyone who could prove their psychic claim. I thought that would get a lot of attention. Well it didn’t get much attention at all. I didn’t get any applicants because, first of all, it was going to take a larger prize, more like $10,000, to get anybody’s attention, and even that wasn’t all that much. So, that didn’t work at first. Now it’s a million dollars. It became a million dollars just overnight when a wealthy gentlemen who believes in our cause actually gave us a million dollars.
The money is in the bank and it’s invested and it’s available and proof can be had of that simply by inquiring by email, by telepathy, tarot cards, any means you want – even by mail and by a phone call if you can believe that. But it is there, because the psychics are all saying, “Oh well, there’s no million dollars, that’s just a fiction.” And they like that because it gets them off the hook right away. The point is that no one, no one at all!, has ever applied to see the proof of it. We have a document prepared, which we renew every three months when we get a statement from the investment house that holds the million dollars. It’s presently at 1.2 something million. We get a statement from them every three months and we’re willing to send that out. But no one has ever asked for a copy of that statement so that those that make the claim that there is no million dollars are certainly barking up a very empty tree.
Of those who have applied, have any come even close to meeting the challenge?
No, you can’t come close to it. It’s like someone says, “I can fly by flapping my arms.” Okay, step over to the window; okay whoops, you lose. It’s very obvious. You don’t have to judge whether or not the person flew. They either did or they didn’t and we always designed the test in such a way that no one has to make a decision as to whether or not they passed the test. All the rules are agreed to in advance, in detail, specifically, as to what the decision will consist of and how it will be decided upon. It’s very evident whether you have to get, say, 12 out of 20 of the guesses correct. So if you get 7, well, you lose; but if you get 14, you win. It’s a very easy decision to make and you either do it or you don’t do it. You can’t come close to winning. It’s like being pregnant. You are pregnant, or you’re not.
That’s right, sure. So, have you had some memorable contestants?
No, not really. I hate to tell you that. I’d like to tell you some colorful tale. You see a good 80 percent of the applicants for the test are applying for the prize because of dousing, which is using a forked stick or a pendulum or bent coat hanger wires or whatever in order to try to find water or gold or missing children or coon dogs or whatever you want to find. That’s their claim and they swear they can do it.
In fact, it’s due to the ideomotor effect. I won’t get into all the details of that – it’s very complicated, but it’s all on our website, and people can look it up very easily and find out why they’re making this error. But a good 80 percent of them are dousing claims. Almost all the rest are healing or diagnostic claims and we got a lot of applicants for that. But, as I say, no one has ever passed the preliminary test. And no one’s ever gotten around to the secondary test, which would be the one that would award or not award the prize. People have tried from all over the world. So far, nothing.
In your book The Faith Healers, you do a marvelous job exposing charlatans who prey on suffering people, offering cures but delivering nothing. Yet in that same book you describe some “spontaneous remissions,” people experiencing remarkable recoveries unaccounted by medical science.
Moreover, you yourself experienced a remarkable recovery from a bicycle accident at age 13 from which doctors thought you would not recover. How do you make sense of such remarkable recoveries?
Oh, I don’t know that the doctors didn’t expect me to recover; they knew that it would take quite a while and it took over two years to recover from a back injury. It was quite serious and it still bothers me to a certain extent. But no, I don’t explain those things. I’m not a medical person. I don’t have any explanation for these things, nor do the medical scientists. But they happen every now and then. Now there was a time when we couldn’t explain any recoveries from things. We didn’t know about the immune system. We didn’t know about the various systems the body has working for it to get rid of diseases and problems or to induce healing. We didn’t know that. And, one by one, these things have been solved, and these spontaneous remissions from things like cancer will be explained eventually. We just don’t have the explanation at this point. But that doesn’t mean they are miraculous. Otherwise, every sort of healing would be miraculous if you went back in time a certain number of years.
You’ve been a prolific author and had an enormous impact on the skeptics community and the culture at large. How did you do it? What motivated you?
As a magician, I realized how people are fooled and how they fool themselves. I got an increasing number of questions over the years. Even when I started back at the age of 17 to do professional conjuring as an act, as a way of making a living, I got questions. People would ask, “Oh, I heard this person on the radio or, later, I saw someone on television, and he did this, that, and the other thing.” And I would try to explain to them what was happening. Sometimes they would believe it and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they wanted the illusion and they wanted to cling to it. Of course, I can’t do anything about that.
It impressed me that people just didn’t know how these things were done and they needed to be shaken up a bit. And I knew that when I retired (which I did at the age of 60, having done very well as a professional magician all over the world), I would pursue these people and challenge them. Eventually we got the million dollar challenge, and so we’ve been doing that ever since.
You’ve received many honors and awards, not least the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the Genius Award. What were the circumstances under which you received the MacArthur? And once you received it, how did you make use of it?
Well, the MacArthur fund is set up in a very precise and very very secure way. Anyone who was eligible for it has no idea that they were ever eligible for it till the moment they get the phone call saying “We’ve granted you X number of dollars over the next 4 or 5 years” ( or whatever the terms are of that particular award). It’s tax free, the whole thing. It’s very important socially, I think, that there are things like the MacArthur Fund prize out there. It was a great honor to win it, and it certainly helped me a great deal. I was just at the point where I was figuring I’d go back out on the road again. I was getting on in years and I figured, geez, it’s going to be a little tougher, but I’ll make it somehow. I’ve always made it. I thought I would. And then this came along, and it permitted me to spend more time writing my books. I got to travel to France, though I’ve been there many times before. I got to travel to France and walk around the places that Nostradamus visited as a boy. I began to realize the meanings of some of the quatrains — where he got his images. It was quite a revelation, and so I turned out my book The Mask of Nostradamus as a result of the MacArthur prize.
Can you describe the work of the James Randi Educational Foundation? How did it get started? What are some of things it has accomplished, and what remain your aspirations for it?
The JREF, as we affectionately refer to it, is set up to serve as an exchange for the media in general, that is, for newspapers and television people, for researchers, for authors, for students, for people who are curious about the subject. We have a library of over 4,000 books and a very big internet presence via our website, which we have titled Swift, after Jonathan Swift, a famous satirist and skeptic. And we often get people from the media, not only calling us, but coming to visit us at the actual foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and confer with us. We cooperate to the fullest. If they need information about what this so-called supernatural, occult, paranormal world is all about, we can provide that. And that’s the work we do.
What can educational sites such as SuperScholar do to promote your foundation’s work?
Well, just direct them to our website, which is www.randi.org, They’ll see a page there that will enable them to search previous issues of Swift down through the years. On any subject at all, they can enter it in there and it will look up the information that we have published on it. It’s a good information source. We get over 9,000 hits a day – that’s internationally from all over the world. Some, most of them, are just curious: “What is this all about?” But in many cases, people stay with us and come back every couple of days, keep boned up on what we’re doing. We’ve got a very large membership from around the world. I don’t know what the figures are right at the moment, but internationally we have a very large membership.
You retired as a stage magician some years back. When you were at the top of your game, how good were you?
That’s a matter of opinion. I thought I was very good. I did well at it. I made money and I was able to buy myself a comfortable home and such. I continued on the lecture field after that, of course, and now all my lecture fees go into the foundation. The foundation pays me a salary which is approximately measured with what I used to make as a traveling magician, so I have no complaints in that respect. But I must say that it has been a big change in my lifestyle to be in an office rather than traveling around the world. There are exceptions: I just came back from Australia, and couple weeks before that I was in the UK, and a few weeks before that I toured Europe, so I’m still traveling. But I’m doing it in a different mode now.
What distinguishes the merely good or so-so magicians from the greats?
Well, it depends on the specialty. People often ask me “Who is your favorite magician?” Well, I have many answers for that because it depends on the specialty. When it comes to comedy magic and team magic it would be Penn & Teller. I introduced Penn to Teller many years ago, so I’m sort of responsible for Penn & Teller. I accept the blame very graciously. But when it comes to stage illusionists, Lance Burton is one of my favorites, but there would be so many of them. Some people only do hand magic or close-up magic at a small table and such.
Those are people that I very very sincerely appreciate because they are specialists. So, to respond to your question, it’s very highly variable, hard to say. The bottom line, I guess, would be, are you well known and have you made a good living doing it; most of us do if we’re good in the profession. Many people never go very far in the profession. They just make a living from day to day, and they have to be honored and celebrated as well because they do nothing, maybe, but birthday parties for kids. That is a specific art I’ve never denigrated in anyway whatsoever. It’s a specific art. Working for kids is not a lot of fun sometimes I can tell you.
What were some of your most notable achievements as a stage magician? I see that you made the Guinness Book of World Records.
Yeah, that was for being/surviving in a coffin, sealed coffin, underwater, the same way Houdini did back in 1926. I had a distinctive advantage over Houdini. I was a few decades younger than he was at the time when I did it so. I had that advantage, so I don’t say that I beat Houdini’s record, though I did technically speaking in time. And I repeated the same stunt several times after that in Canada and England and a few other places. But I don’t take much credit for that because I had the advantage of younger years over Houdini.
You attended the big October conference in Los Angeles about the future of secular humanism. What were your impressions of that conference?
Oh very, very satisfactory, very satisfactory indeed. Now, with secular humanism, we have a bit of a definition problem here, or a situation I would say. I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist of the second kind, that is to say, I don’t say there is no God because I can’t prove a negative, but I do say there’s not enough evidence to convince me of the existence of a deity or of angels or devils and things like this. That’s something that I don’t have in my belief system. I don’t deny that they exist because I can’t prove they don’t exist. I only will make a statement about something for which I have evidence, and I have no evidence whatsoever for the existence of a deity or the nonexistence of a deity, so I’m neutral on that. I don’t believe there is a deity because I don’t see any positive support.
So, when I get into the atheism thing, we have a lot of problems at the foundation, just because many people say, “Oh, but you don’t have to be an atheist to be a skeptic.” Well, I would say that in order to be a skeptic, you really should be an atheist because a skeptic doubts things for which there is no positive evidence in the way of proof. There certainly is no evidence for a deity. It doesn’t mean that anything unexplained, like trees or fish or things like that, necessarily prove the existence of a deity. There are many, many other much more logical explanations than “woo woo explanations,” as I call them, to explain where those things came from. And again, we’re getting very philosophical here. We’re getting into deep waters, which could lead to another two hours of conversation. I don’t think we want that.
What do you see as the future of secular humanism?
I think it’s gaining ground. I certainly hope it does. And I believe that certainly humanism is something I’m in favor of. I’m a humanist pretty well through and through, but that doesn’t mean I agree with every humanist manifesto that I’ve see out there necessarily. But basically I am a humanist. I am also an atheist, as I said, and I believe, in the fact, that we should do everything we can to support humanism. We should be supporting other human beings by just lending them a helping hand every now and then, reaching out whenever we can to help people along the way because they do it for us one way or the other. In many cases, we’re not even aware of the fact that it’s done through organizations and movements and such to help us, but we should be helpful to one another. We should support our species above all.
At the conference there seemed to be some controversy over Paul Kurtz’s continued leadership in the secular humanist community. Some of the controversy was over how to treat religion, with Kurtz taking a less antagonistic approach than others. How do you view this controversy, and what do you see is the proper way to approach religion and religious believers?
Well, the way to approach religion in my estimation is very simple. If it doesn’t have evidence to support it, then you’re skeptical of it. That’s simple. Paul and I had some differences over the years over different matters altogether, but we’ve certainly made up. I was going to say kissed and made up, but I don’t think I have ever kissed Paul Kurtz, nor do I want to frankly. Shaking his hand is okay, maybe a little hug, but no kissing, not on the mouth certainly, no no no, nothing like that. But Paul and I get along fine. We’ve always been good friends, and we’ve always respected one another and one another’s opinions. So, as I say, we are good friends, and we certainly cooperated on a lot of things. I’m in touch with him all the time, and I value him very highly as a close friend. He’s worked hard for what he believes to be the correct way of looking at the world, and I agree with him. There are differences of opinion in the secular humanist movement of course. Differences of opinion don’t mean that we hate one another or we disagree necessarily, but there are nuances that we have to be very careful to take note of. We differ in many respects, but generally speaking we’re after the same thing, I believe.
How would you characterize your worldview, your philosophy of life? What for you makes life worth living?
Well, show me a newborn baby. Show me a sunrise. Show me a nest in a tree that’s got some eggs in it. That’s what I’m interested in. I look at kids, particularly little tiny kids, and I just look into their eyes and think, what is going to become of you? What a thrill that is. That’s a new life, hardly started, and yet it’s so inspiring to think, what can happen to this human being. Think how wonderful. I do it with puppy dogs too, so, I’m not so restrained just to my own species, though I’d rather prefer my own.
Who are some of your best conversation partners? Which authors make you think, “Gee, I wish people would just read their stuff to get their heads screwed on straight?”
Well, there’s a lot of folks out there. Richard Dawkins is one of my heroes. If I had a god, it would be Richard Dawkins I assure you. Not too long ago, a few months ago, I sat at one of the Amazing meetings in Las Vegas. I sat on a stage beside Richard Dawkins, the whole assembly in front of me, and while Richard was pontificating on something or other as he tends to do (we all enjoy it and accept it gladly), I was thinking to myself in the back of my head, “What am I doing sitting here on stage beside Richard Dawkins sharing the limelight with him?”
What a privilege, how rare a joy it is to be able to do something like this. That’s what it’s all about for me. I get to spend more time with people like Richard Dawkins, and so many others, like Christopher Hitchens, for example, another one of my great heroes, undergoing great travails at this very moment. But it’s something that he is handling very well, and I’m very proud to know him as well. There are so many others. I don’t want to start naming people because I would have to leave so many people out. Those are a couple of the giants. Isaac Asimov is one of my giants. I’m sitting right beside the Isaac Asimov library here at the James Randi Educational Foundation. I was very very proud to have known him. Carl Sagan, my goodness, the giants that I have known, it’s just incredible. I feel so fortunate, really.
You’re very concerned about education and rightly so. What 5 or 10 colleges would you recommend to high school seniors? What colleges and universities exemplify your educational ideals?
I don’t have any. The fact is that they change constantly. I’m seeing universities, I won’t name any specific ones, for which I’ve always had great respect and always will have great respect, again unnamed, that every now and then go into the woo woo field. Suddenly, they’ve taken up offering courses in homeopathy or in vibrational something-or-other. These courses sneak into the curriculum somehow or get to be taught in programs that are associated with these various universities. I find that reprehensible. I find it very unfortunate and I find it something that is greatly worrisome to me personally.
We should have much more common sense going for us, and I really hate to see this sort of thing happen, so I can’t really name a college, but I wouldn’t say that it is absolutely blameless. Look at Syracuse University for example. I will name them because they make millions every year promoting this facilitated communication nonsense. It’s a total fraud, and a phony, and a fake, and it does not work. And yet they promote this sort of thing, and they bring in huge amounts of money every year to support it because it’s supposed to be helping autistic children. It doesn’t. It’s a total fake and I’ve been against it for a good 20 years now since I first heard about it. It’s such nonsense and I think that something should be done about that. Certainly federal money is supporting it as well, and I think that’s criminal.
Are there any parting thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers? Is there any one thing you would like our readers to take away from this interview?
Well, I’d like them to take a look at www.randi.org, that’s R-A-N-D-I, please, thank you. I’d like everyone to take a look in there and see what we have to say. It’s all archived so that you can look up any subject that your mind wants to investigate to see what we’ve said on it. I don’t ask you to believe what I say or what the JREF says. I just ask you to consider it. Read it and think about it. I can’t ask you to believe something anymore than I can ask you to believe in some other therapy or some notion or some sort of -ism out there that is currently taking peoples money and their emotional security. I don’t ask you to believe. I simply ask you to read, consider, and get back to me if you have any questions.
Thank you so much Mr. Randi. It’s been a pleasure interviewing you.
Well, thanks so much for your call and for your courtesy.