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James 'The Amazing' Randi

Hoaxing the Hoaxer: That Time James Randi Was Tricked Into Lying About Psi Research

Dredging through some old notes on the weekend, and ran across this fun story that I thought would be worth sharing (for those who don’t already know about it): In 1983 James ‘The Amazing Randi’ had one of his greatest publicity coups, when he unveiled the results of Project Alpha. Randi had ’embedded’ two young magicians into a parapsychology lab research program, trying to fool the scientists into thinking they had genuine paranormal powers. To a certain extent Alpha did succeed, though Randi also overstated the degree of his success somewhat (quelle surprise!). CSICOP co-founder, the late Marcello Truzzi, wrote up an excellent overview in Zetetic Scholar 12/13 which is well worth reading (downloadable as a free PDF from George Hansen’s website), as Truzzi is one of the more trustworthy observers of parapsychology in recent decades, and Alpha is one of the more interesting episodes in its history.

An interesting sideline to the Project Alpha hoax, as recounted by Truzzi, was that in the wake of his triumph Randi got hoaxed right back by a peeved psi researcher – and one of the unexpected outcomes was that Randi was exposed as telling outright lies. See this excerpt from Truzzi’s article:

Not all psi researchers were put on the defensive by Alpha. Dennis Stillings, director of a Minneapolis group called the Archaeus Project, which puts out a newsletter by that name, was outraged and initiated a retaliatory hoax which started as a small joke but escalated into something more significant. Stillings felt that Randi was trying to reap advantage from lies told to the psi researchers and was, in effect, blaming the victims. Stillings believed that any person could be deceived by lies and that Randi was just as susceptible to such human error as anyone. So, Stillings (1983a) issued a phony, one page, special issue of his group’s newsletter (of which only two copies were mailed out and these to Edwards and Shaw with the expectation that they would show it to Randi). The ersatz issue contained a short, two paragraph, fraudulent announcement that the Archaeus Project had just been given “a fund of $217,00O…as seed money for a program in PK research and education” It said the funds were for “grant money to PK investigators, especially those interested in ‘metal bending”‘ and for “developing a program of educating children in the range and nature of parapsychological phenomena.” Finally, it said that “Those applying for grants, as well as those gifted with paranormal abilities” should write to Stillings. Stillings also separately wrote a letter to Shaw telling him that since Shaw was a fraud, he should not apply for any of the money.To stretch the joke even further, Stillings also published a warning “Advisory Notice” (Krueger, 1983) – to parallel Randi’s similar advisory notes – in a previous real issue of his group’s newsletter.

Though Stillings’ original prank struck me as being a bit silly (after all, Randi never claimed to be immune to trickery, and conjurors fool one another all the time), what happened next went far beyond Stillings’ expectations and turned the matter into a significant episode. Upon seeing the phony announcement, and apparently without properly checking things out, Randi decided to give one of his annual psi-mocking “Uri Awards” to this receipt of a phony grant. Thus, on April 1, 1983, Randi’s Discover news release gave a “Uri” in the funding category: ‘To the Medtronics Corporation of Minneapolis, who gave $250,000 to a Mr. Stillings of that city to fund the Archaeus Project, devoted to observing people who bend spoons at parties. Mr. Stillings then offered financial assistance to a prominent young spoon-bender who turned out to be one of the masquerading magicians of Project Alpha — a confessed fake.” In this incredible award statement, Randi managed to falsely identify a major corporation as the funding source (when no source was ever mentioned in the original announcement), escalated the award from $217,000 to $250,000, misdescribed the purpose of the phony award, and falsely claimed one of his associates had been offered funds!

Sad to say, but almost three decades later little seems to have changed in the way Randi operates.

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