People have a tendency to view the world in dichotomous ways – left and right in politics, people being simply either bad or good, etc. – often based on how they sit in relation to their own beliefs – rather than in the way the world actually is, a spectrum of positions that are sometimes contradictory and often confusing. And this is certainly the case when viewing the tributes – or alternately, the condemnations – that have been posted since the passing of James ‘The Amazing’ Randi on the 20th of October at age 92.
For skeptics, Randi was a defender of truth and honesty, a cold-blooded mercenary wielding the sword of the scientific method against paranormal hucksters and New Age gurus. To his opposition, he was just an angry, hate-filled publicity whore with a closed mind.
The reality of Randi, though, was far more complicated. His long history suggests something else: less a skeptic or believer, more a showman in the tradition of the great magicians who he grew up idolising, who searched for quite a while to find his ‘gig’ before finding it with the skeptical movement. And while he ‘played for his audience’ – and well and truly made them an adoring fan-base who believed in the persona of Randi the uber-skeptic – the truth behind his famous career is far more interesting.
For most skeptics, Randi’s life story begins in the second half of his life, as he came to fame in the 1970s debunking Uri Geller on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and made headlines with the infamous CSICOP. But the first half of his life tells a different tale. Despite Randi’s account of his youth – pure myth-making in which he is a child prodigy with an IQ of 168 who by his mid-teens was leaping on stage to debunk Spiritualists – there is documentary evidence that he himself worked as a ‘woo merchant’ well into his 20s, telling fortunes and writing an astrology column for a newspaper (see Tim Cridland’s “The Real James Randi”, in The Anomalist 14 for more details).
After moving to the States, in the 1950s his star as a stage magician/escapologist began to shine, gaining more and more renown. At the same time, he became a regular guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show – a lightly more skeptical 1950s equivalent of Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM – before taking over his spot when Nebel left. According to Tim Cridland:
Randi’s show would sometimes cover the “way out” topics that Nebel was known for. Jim Moseley, publisher of Saucer News, was a regular guest on Randi’s show and a friend during the mid-1960s. Moseley wrote: “At the time, Randi was relatively open-minded about saucers and other weirdness.” Randi would eventually buy a house in Rumson, NJ, with profits from the radio show.
In fact Randi was also a regular at Moseley’s flying saucer meetings and conventions. He made an appearance at Moseley’s most infamous flying saucer convention in June of 1967. Randi was on the bill with people like Rev. Frank Stranges, “The Flying Saucer Evangelist” who claimed to know a man from Venus. In his lecture Randi was quoted as saying “Let’s not fool ourselves. There are some garden variety liars involved in all this. But in among all the trash and nonsense perpetrated in the name of ufology, I think there is a small grain of truth.”
At this point we see both sides of Randi – the magician with a bullshit detector, but someone also happily at home in the woo camp (how much it was just lip service for his audience of the time, to promote himself, is difficult to say). But then in the ’70s, in his mid-40s, Randi found his niche with his Geller debunking and CSICOP attack dog personality, shifting quickly to the role of the vociferous skeptic employing a scorched earth strategy to lay waste to anything with a whiff of the paranormal.
Where Randi shone and did ‘good work’ in this role was in showing up con-men and snake oil salesmen who used tricks to fool, defraud and sometimes cause outright harm to their audiences – his exposé of Peter Popoff stands out in particular as an excellent piece of work that showed the value in having a professional magician/mentalist/trickster involved in evaluating these sorts of claims, rather than a scientist lacking the mindset for knowing, and detecting, deception. And his takedown of the ‘miracle bomb detector’ is the sort of thing that could have quite literally saved lives.
But Randi’s skeptical reputation was built as much on his showmanship and publicity strategies than on the effectiveness of his debunkings or on their scientific basis. Many of his celebrated stings were far less impressive than most people realise. A mythology has grown around much of Randi’s work – or more accurately, has been built up by Randi and the skeptical movement – that does not stand up to close inspection. One such example is the ‘Carlos Hoax’, perpetrated on the Australian public and media in 1988, which has assumed legendary status among self-described skeptics in the intervening decades, despite it not really fooling media or the public at the time.
The exemplar of Randi’s ability to promote himself was his famous ‘Million Dollar Challenge’ – in which Randi offered to pay anybody that could prove psychic abilities $1,000,000. The MDC became a cudgel used by skeptics and scientists to quickly beat down any discussion of paranormal or psi claims – “if telepathy is real, why don’t parapsychologists just take Randi’s million dollars” – despite it being largely without scientific value, given its one-off nature and correspondingly steep p-value requirement (scientists often talk of 0.05 being a p-value that is suggestive of something worth further investigation; the MDC required an ‘entry’ test surpassing 0.001, and then the ‘real’ test requiring 0.000001).
Instead, the Million Dollar Challenge was a magician’s sleight; the huge financial bounty was the hand flourish that grabbed skeptics’ and the general public’s attention, distracting them from the almost complete lack of scientific merit to the test, hiding the fact that it was instead simply a publicity tool to sell them brand Randi.
And even when parapsychologists did the maths, as Professor Dick Bierman did, and worked out a way to construct a series of tests that could possibly satisfy the stringent p-value requirement, Randi simply ignored those genuine applications, while remaining happy to exploit the vulnerable in a dog-and-pony show for the faithful if it helped to promulgate the myth of the Million Dollar Challenge.
A Dishonest Liar
Furthermore, despite his reputation as a defender of truth, Randi was actually a habitual liar – and not of the ‘honest’ type, as the title of the documentary about him would have it. For example, when Randi contacted the University of Arizona about having an ‘Independently Qualified Panel’ review the raw data of Dr Gary Schwartz’s investigations of mediumship, he said parapsychologist Dr Stanley Krippner was one of the panelists (along with a number of high-profile skeptics). But when Dr Schwartz was informed of this and contacted Dr Krippner to check, Krippner said he had not agreed to be on the panel.
Another scientist who caught Randi out in a lie was Dr Rupert Sheldrake. When Sheldrake’s research into a possible ‘sixth sense’ in dogs gained widespread publicity, Randi was asked his opinion and replied “We at the JREF have tested these claims. They fail.” When Sheldrake emailed Randi to ask for details of this JREF research, he didn’t reply, so Sheldrake went straight to the Scientific Advisory Board of Randi’s foundation, who advised Randi to reply.
Randi told Sheldrake that the tests with dogs he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal”. He said they involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost. Given the flimsiness of his ‘experiments’, Randi wrote: “I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained.” Furthermore, despite previously having commented on a video tape of one of Sheldrake’s experiments, Randi admitted that he had never seen the video.
I became aware of Randi’s penchant for “overstating” things in a personal email conversation. In a post criticising my article on his Million Dollar Challenge, Randi apparently mistakenly put some of my words into the mouth of a paranormal researcher who he proceeded to attack. When I emailed Randi to inform him that the words were mine, Randi wrote back that he knew that, but had a grudge against that particular researcher so wasn’t go to correct it.
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!
When journalist Will Storr confronted Randi about the numerous times he appears to have lied, Randi quite candidly admitted that was the case: “Oh I agree. No question of that. I don’t know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time. But there can be untruths.”
Nastiness Before Science
Randi found his niche in not just being a leading skeptic, but being a nasty skeptic. He was part of an era where skeptics who were nasty gained many followers. He and others of his ilk, typified by CSICOP – created an organised skepticism that was defined more by mockery and an appeal to intellectual superiority than in properly following the science. Just as Donald Trump appeals to many people’s baser emotions and instincts, so too did Randi supply fuel to the fires of intellectual ego burning within many, by leading ad hominem attacks on targets for their stupidity or penchant for ‘woo’. This extended to credentialed scientists, just for the simple crime of investigating paranormal or fringe topics.
Take for example the respected academic Professor Daryl Bem, who conducted some provocative experiments exploring the case for a precognitive ability in humans. The experiments gained widespread publicity based on their apparent positive results in quite rigorous scientific design. Randi’s response: not to try and replicate the experiments, but instead to award Bem his 2012 ‘Pigasus Award’, which Randi reserved for “the most deserving charlatans, swindlers, psychics, pseudo-scientists, and faith healers”.
This was a regular activity for Randi. On the plus side, he no doubt kept psi researchers honest, to the point of terror, in designing experiments that could not be exposed by a Randi sting or criticism. On the negative side, his mockery and viciousness probably stopped a lot of scientists from engaging with psi research – or even discussing the topic publicly – for fear of being put on Randi’s ‘woo’ list and the likely hit on their scientific reputation.
The nasty side of Randi’s personality is perhaps most visible in his tendency toward a Social Darwinist philosophy. Many years ago I pointed out that in one of his newsletters Randi had made some particularly abhorrent comments about the legalisation of drugs, saying he was all for it because it would kill off drug addicts: “the principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself for a couple of years, after which Natural Selection would weed out those for whom there is no hope except through our forbearance.”
I was perhaps even more stunned that these comments barely raised a ripple in skeptical circles – a testament to the strength of the cult of Randi by that stage, as well as to that urge to ‘intellectual superiority’ I previously noted among his followers. It wasn’t until Will Storr questioned Randi about these comments (for his book The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science) – and Randi actually doubled down on his opinion – that there was some pushback from skeptics. Randi told Storr:
I’m a believer in Social Darwinism… These are stupid people. And if they can’t survive, they don’t have the IQ, don’t have the thinking power to be able to survive, it’s unfortunate; I would hate to see it happen, but at the same time, it would clear the air.
I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race.
How Do We Solve a Problem Like Randi?
Let’s be clear: this article is slanted against Randi. I do that not to dance on his grave, but to add some balance and try and demythologise his life and skepticism at a time when many obituaries will act as hagiographies.
I actually kind of liked him. He was certainly a raconteur, a character that brought colour and attention to the topics he engaged with, who lived a fascinating life even once you strip away all the fairy tales he made up about it. But it’s easy for me to say that, when I’m a fairly easy going person without a reputation to protect (Randi once called me an “anti-scientific grubbie”, which just made me laugh a bit). Those scientists who attempted to honestly investigate paranormal and psi topics, and copped the public vitriol of Randi and his minions, and corresponding effects on their reputation, funding or other aspects of their professional life, no doubt have far less charitable thoughts about him.
Randi likely had a positive influence upon the world by instilling critical thinking in many people – or at least acting as a gateway drug toward that mindset – something that is sorely needed in our current age. However, his manner also inspired a lot of those newly-minted skeptics to actually just be insulting trolls who cared more for thinking they were right, rather than following the scientific evidence – something that we really need less of these days.
If you’re a servant to the cult of Randi, then spread the myths. If you’re a servant to the truth, then acknowledge he was a flawed man who did some good.