James Randi, born on August 7th, 1928, celebrates his 91st birthday today. So do we. Although he started out as a magician and escape artist, “The Amazing Randi” has devoted a large part of his life to exposing fraudsters and charlatans who claim psychic or paranormal powers. These include mediums, spiritualists, mind-readers and even a televangelist who used common conjurer’s tricks to convince his audience / congregation that he had divine powers.
Having been a stage magician himself, he can spot fakery more readily than others, and has publicly exposed fraudsters on television by subjecting them to rigorous tests in which he denies them access to the cheap tricks they use to deceive. Performing magicians who do not claim to be more than that are fine in his book. He reserves his skeptical ire for those who pretend real psychic powers and encourage the spread of pseudoscience.
Randi was a co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Enquiry (CSI), whose early members included Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. He has crossed swords with Uri Geller many times, readily performing the spoon-bending trick and even showing how it is done. He sees Geller as a con-man and fraud who dupes people for money and spreads belief in scientific quackery, to the detriment of public education. In 1991 Geller sued Randi and his group for $15 million for slander after Randi told the International Herald tribune that Geller fooled quite reputable people with the sort of cheap tricks that used to be found on the back of cereal boxes. The judge threw the case out when Randi produced in court a cereal box with instructions for performing the spoon-bending trick.
Although sued many times, Randi has "never paid even one dollar or even one cent to anyone who ever sued me," although he has spent large sums on legal fees to defend himself. A Japanese court once found against him on Uri Geller, but awarded him 0.33% of what Geller had requested, and even this was subsequently cancelled. According to James Alcock, a fellow member of CSI, when Randi repeated Geller’s spoon bending, a Buffalo University professor accused him of fraud. Randi replied,
"Yes, indeed, I'm a trickster, I'm a cheat, I'm a charlatan, that's what I do for a living. Everything I've done here was by trickery."
The professor shouted back:
"That's not what I mean. You're a fraud because you're pretending to do these things through trickery, but you're actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.”
In the 1960s, Randi’s New Jersey house had a sign out front that read, “Randi - Charlatan.” He exposed faith healer Peter Popoff live on the Johnny Carson Show in 1986 by playing a recoding he’d made by scanning the radio channel on which Popoff’s wife had sent him information about the audience from backstage to a hidden earpiece. Popoff had claimed the information was from God.
Randi holds two Guinness World Records from his days as an escapologist. He beat Harry Houdini’s record for staying in a sealed underwater casket for 1 hour 33 minutes, by doing it for 11 minutes longer, and he was once encased in a block of ice for 55 minutes.
He has campaigned tirelessly against fakery, trickery and pseudoscience, educating the public about how easy it is to grow rich by faking psychic powers to a public that wants to believe. His own survival to so advanced an age is a tribute to real science, in that he has survived coronary bypass surgery in 2006, colorectal cancer in 2009, and a minor stroke in 2017. Well done, James Randi. You’ve made the world less prone to pseudoscience and less gullible to conspiracists, flat earthers, lunar landing deniers and a host of peddlers of psychic nonsense. Have a great birthday, and hopefully a few more before you leave us.