Still ‘Amazing’: A Conversation with James Randi
The famous conjuror, investigator, and author—and founding fellow of CSICOP—sat down with Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier at CSICon 2016 Las Vegas for a live, ninety-minute onstage conversation. Here are excerpts.
Kendrick Frazier: It’s such a delight for me to be here with you. Our pasts have happily intersected a number of times over these four decades.
Before CSICOP was founded, you and Martin Gardner and Ray Hyman were trying to come up with some organized enterprise to deal with paranormal nonsense and flim-flam in society.
James Randi: Yes, the folks you mentioned were very instrumental in promoting the idea of getting a foundation ready to handle the so-called paranormal. I’d known Martin Gardner for many decades of course. I miss him more than most people who have passed on, I can tell you. Martin was an astonishing man.
Martin Gardner often spoke to me by telephone when I lived in New Jersey, and he lived in Croton on the Hudson. Even later when I moved off to Florida, I’d get calls from him every now and then.
He called me one day, we were chatting away, and there was a pause on the other end of the line when he said, “Randi, I have to tell you something.” I said, “Yes?” and I thought, “What can this be?” He told me, “I’m a deist.” A deist is someone who has a basic belief in a god of any shape or form, someone who has an interest in a superior power of some kind.
He said, “I have no evidence whatsoever to support my belief in a god. None.” He said, “You have all the evidence to the contrary. I’ve read it, I’ve read what you’ve said, I’ve heard what you’ve said, I’ve read books and books and books on it. They have all the reason on their side, the people who say there is no god.” I interrupted, I said, “Martin, I’ve never claimed there’s no god because I can’t prove that.” He said, “No, I know that’s your stance,” and it always has been my stance. I don’t say there is no god because I can’t prove there is no god. I barely say, “I don’t see enough evidence in nature to believe in a deity.”
He said, “I’ll tell you again, you have the whole case in the bag. I have no evidence to support my view at all.” That’s the kind of guy that Martin Gardner was. He would state the whole case. I said, “Martin, if that makes you comfortable,” and he said, “Yes, it does.” He said, “That’s why I have that belief; it makes me a little more comfortable about my life.”
I said, “That’s all I need. You’re a good friend. You’re an excellent friend, long time friend. All I need to do is hear you say that, and I accept that that is your conviction and I won’t argue with you about it.” He just said, “Thank you.” That’s how Martin was. If it gave him comfort, I was all for it.
Kendrick Frazier: In later years, I heard some criticism of him from fellow skeptics about that, but I think the skeptic community can certainly deal with a deist in the house, can we not?
James Randi: Kendrick, I might as well get this off my chest, at the very beginning. I think that the belief in a deity is such an, first of all, unprovable claim and such a rather ridiculous claim. I really look at it as ridiculous. I think it’s an easy way out to explain things to which we have no answer. There are many things, folks, to which we have no answers, no question of that.
I just think that a belief in a god is one of the most damaging things that infests humanity at this particular moment in history. It may improve. I see signs that it may be improving. I’ll leave it at that.
Kendrick Frazier: I was delighted when in 1976 I heard from Paul Kurtz that they were founding an organization that turned out to become CSICOP. You were a founding fellow, and Ray Hyman was and Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, and Jim Alcock came along very soon and many others. What did the founding of that organization in 1976 mean?
James Randi: Yes, that’s very true. We had to get an organization going. During one of the first meetings they said, “Of course, you’ll be the head of it, the main figure.” I said, “No, I’m in show biz. I’m a magician, ho, ho, ho. I’m a theatrical character. I work on TV and in theaters and I go out and entertain kids and adults. An entertainer should not be the head of an organization like that.”
I said, “However, I do know of this gentleman. . . ” It was Paul Kurtz of whom I was speaking. I said, “He has made a lot of good statements about the problem of believing in the paranormal and the supernatural.” I said, “We should approach him.” We did approach him, and Paul graciously agreed to accept the position. That’s the way it turned out. You have to have an academic. You have to have somebody who has some standing at a decent desk. Let’s put it that way.
Kendrick Frazier: Paul Kurtz was a different kind of person, but the combination of all these perspectives and backgrounds helped bring some solidity to the organization, CSICOP, would you say?
James Randi: Paul was very good. First of all an excellent academic in so many ways. He proved that many, many times with all his books, beautiful books that he wrote. Very concise and very factual and very convincing. Don’t ever hesitate to open up a Paul Kurtz book and read a chapter out of it; it’s always inspiring.
The fact that he was an academic, at a university, and he had the time, he had the interest. That was very important. Paul Kurtz worked out very, very well I must say.
Kendrick Frazier: There was another important figure at the time who turned out later to be a bit of a burr under our saddle. That was Marcello Truzzi.
James Randi: You just said a dirty word.
Kendrick Frazier: He was actually the first co-chairman of CSICOP, with Paul Kurtz, and the first editor of The Zetetic, which a year later when I became editor (1977), we renamed the Skeptical Inquirer. He was a sociologist of science at Eastern Michigan University.
James Randi: Yes, Marcello was a strange guy in many ways. We had to take him off the job simply because he insisted that we should have an equal number of pages from the pro-paranormal people and an equal of the anti-paranormal people. You can’t do a magazine like that. That’s ridiculous. You’ll have two completely different philosophies in the same book and opposing one another. No, that was not doable.
Kendrick Frazier: I want to ask you about one other key figure in the skeptical movement, less well known and appreciated today but very much in the public eye back then: Isaac Asimov. He wrote the foreword to your book Flim-Flam!
James Randi: Yes, he wrote the foreword to a couple of my books as a matter of fact. Isaac Asimov, that’s a name to conjure with, there’s no question about it. Isaac Asimov.
Kendrick Frazier: How would you describe CSICOP in those early years?
James Randi: We had a lot of exchanges of information with the press and with the media in general. This is before television was really the big thing that it is now of course. I think we had a very substantial influence on the printed media, particularly the printed media, in those days. There was so much nonsense and there’s even more today.
That’s what we were concerned with. We had to get into the media. I know that I exchanged a great number of personal letters with individual columnists. I found that was the way to go. I made contact with Johnny Carson, and I found out immediately that he was on our side, very much on our side. He wasn’t only a comedian, ladies and gentlemen. He was a great thinker.
Before the taping of my appearances on his Tonight Show, John would knock on my dressing room door. He just wanted to come around; he was so thoughtful and kind to me. He’d just simply ask, “What should I mention? What do you want me to plug? What do you want me to emphasize? What do I say if I’m asked so and so?” He wanted to be aware of how he could help me. He liked me and he liked what I did. We got to be very close.
The night that we exposed Peter Popoff—we got him and we got him good.
Kendrick Frazier: What made you a skeptic?
James Randi: Since I was a kid I’d been very skeptical. I got my introduction to religion. . . I went off to Sunday school. Then they started to read to me from the Bible and
I interrupted and said, “Excuse me, how do you know that’s true? It sounds strange.” “It’s in the Bible. It’s in the holy book of God.” Okay. I’d look around, they were all staring at me as if, “What kind of a critter is this?”
At the end of the class, they questioned me before I left and they said, “Why are you asking all these questions?” I said, “It’s a classroom and I thought I could ask questions. How do you know that’s true?” Never mind. They gave me a note to take to my parents and it simply said something to the effect that your boy Randi—that’s my real first name—is not necessarily welcome here at St. Cuthbert’s because he asked too many questions and he interrupts the teachers.
Kendrick Frazier: You were a skeptic of religion before being a skeptic of the paranormal?
James Randi: Yes, but with the same flavor.
Kendrick Frazier: What role did Houdini play as a role model in your life of magician, escape artist, illusionist, becoming an educator to the public about paranormal claims, and a debunker?
James Randi: When I first found out about Houdini, of course I read several books on him and some of his autobiographical material as well. I saw that he was against all paranormal beliefs. “Fooling With the Spirits” was a program he did on vaudeville with his wife Beatrice where they did a fake mind reading act that exposed the whole thing. That went on for some time on the Orpheum Circuit.
He died two years before my birthday, as a matter of fact. I thought that would be a good example. I took up being Harry Houdini, though I never claimed to be him. As a matter of fact, during my career I broke a couple of his records.
I must add very quickly that when I broke the records that Houdini had established, such as being sealed in a coffin underwater with no additional oxygen, etc., I broke it by a very slight margin purposely, because I didn’t want to outdo it, because I was a good twenty years younger than he was when he did it. He did some of these records shortly before he died. He didn’t die as a result of any of the experiments or stunts. I thought that was not fair to say that I had broken his record, because I was simply younger at the time.
Kendrick Frazier: Let’s jump ahead to one of the investigations that you and I and Paul Kurtz, Phil Klass, Jim Alcock, and Barry Karr went on. Our trip to Beijing, China, in 1988 to investigate a whole variety of paranormal claims. We were invited by the editor of a science daily newspaper to bring particularly Randi’s expertise to examine these claims that were getting publicity all over the world.
I want to set the scene for what it was like in China with Randi there in 1988. This was not the modern commercial China we have today. They were just coming out of the Maoist period. A lot of people on the streets were still dressed in very gray drab clothes. There were tens of thousands of bicycles, very few cars. Here we were with the great Randi, the Amazing Randi, with his cape and beard and black hat on the streets of Beijing. It was quite a sight.
James Randi: Yes, it was indeed, and it was a great adventure.
Kendrick Frazier: It was indeed. At this conference, we’ve seen a film clip that Phil Klass took during our China investigations of this woman writhing on a table while the Qigong master is in the other room doing his thing, and she is supposedly responding to it. But you set up the controlled conditions where she didn’t know when he was doing his thing and vice versa. I was the record keeper. It was a fairly astonishing thing for us to see. Describe what you remember about that.
James Randi: I remember that the Qigong master wasn’t very happy about that when we suggested the protocol for it. The woman on the table, she must have been very embarrassed because he would be going through his things like this and we put up the screen, the whole business, and she would suddenly start kicking like crazy, as you see in the film.
Then she would open her eyes and look around as if to get a hint as to whether she should have done that. She was rather disconcerted to say the least. I was embarrassed because it caught them out that it just didn’t work, because she didn’t move when he signaled her to move.
The parapsychologist who ran these tests with [“psychic”] kids was named Mr. Ding. The kids got such lax conditions, it was just ridiculous. They were supposed to tell how many matches were in a box with a certain color on them or what the colors were. Mr. Ding ran the tests.
They were always right, except one of the little flaws in his experimental protocol in my mind was that they were allowed to go into the school yard and play around with the boxes and maybe even peek into them, as you could imagine.
We suspected them of that, but of course Chinese children wouldn’t do a thing like that, would they? And they were always right—until we taped up the boxes. They didn’t understand why we would tape up the boxes. Maybe because you’re peeking, I don’t know. The experiment rather failed at that point.
This Mr. Ding, you’ve heard he went to prison. The government actually caught on to this and they decided this was a disgrace to the Republic of China.
Kendrick Frazier: Back then sometimes people would say, about you, “You’re just a magician. What do you know about scientific investigation?”... In other words that you’re biased or closed minded. How do you respond to that?
James Randi: If you want to take a look at it, I think my mind is pretty open. You can see right here. I show my head really freely, and you could almost read right through it. I don’t have scientific training. I learned in high school in Canada; I must say I learned much more physics and chemistry than the average American child. At that time, we learned. What we got out of high school in Canada, we were one year ahead of New York schools in the learning spectrum. We were much better informed. We were pretty well ready to go into first year of college.
Kendrick Frazier: I was going to ask you how you became so knowledgeable about science and the processes of science to impress the worldwide scientific community. That’s where it was, in high school?
James Randi: I must say,I owed a lot of it to Mr. Tovell, our physics teacher. He was a brilliant man. I only found out, about three years ago, he was much more qualified than for just a high school teacher. I don’t know why he took that position, but he was brilliant. Mr. Tovell would do wonderful things.
When he heard the two-minute bell to mark the change of class he would go to the blackboard and he would uncover something he’d written on the blackboard the previous day or night, and it would often be something like a perpetual motion machine. He would say, “This doesn’t work. Tomorrow I’m going to ask you a few pertinent questions about whether it does work or not. If you think it does work we’ll build it and we’ll see whether it works.” That was the kind of teacher he was. This was off the books. This was way off the books.
Kendrick Frazier: This goes to show you what a really great science teacher can be.
James Randi: Yes, any teacher of any kind, but particularly of science. He was a great teacher in that way. Good teachers. Mr. Chrysler, my English teacher, and Mr. Henderson, my mathematics teacher, who I bothered for endless days I’m sure, after hours, asking him to tell me what integral calculus was all about because we didn’t take calculus at that time. Today I can do a dy over a dx rather swiftly I think. I actually got to use calculus. I was interested, and I did this at home.
Kendrick Frazier: Obviously you could have become a PhD if you cared to go that route.
James Randi: A real FUD? I didn’t want to go that way. It came about at the Casino Theater. It’s now only a pile of dust someplace on Queen Street, but I saw the great Harry Blackstone. If any of you are amateur magicians, you will know right away who Harry Blackstone was. Not Harry Blackstone Junior—who I also knew and met of course—but the senior Harry Blackstone. He levitated a living woman on stage. That’s not easy to do. I thought it wasn’t easy to do. It’s actually pretty easy to do.
Part 2 will appear in our next issue.