James Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Formerly a professional stage magician (“The Amazing Randi”), he began to use his considerable experience in illusions and deceptions when studying the techniques, strategies, and tricks used by charlatans who pretend to have real supernatural powers.
An eighty-six-year-old skeptic, secular humanist, and atheist, Randi has investigated paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims for much of his career, including on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the television program Penn & Teller: Bullshit! He is a founding fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) and was a longtime member of the original CSICOP Executive Council.
In 2012, documentary filmmakers Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom began work on An Honest Liar, a profile of the life of The Amazing Randi, as he embarks on a series of public crusades to expose America’s beloved psychics, mentalists, preachers, and faith healers with religious fervor. Along the way, the film shows how easily our perceptions can be fooled by magicians and con artists—and even documentaries. The film toured Australia in December. He was interviewed by csicop.org “Curiouser and Curiouser” columnist Kylie Sturgess. The interview is also available at http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/behind_the_magic_interview_with_james_randi/.
Kylie Sturgess: You’ve led a very fascinating life—one that has resulted in a new documentary, called An Honest Liar. For those unfamiliar with your career, when did you first start as a magician?
James Randi: I started as a liar as a very, very tiny child, I can tell you that! It’s hard to say . . . it’s hard to say. I was one of those child prodigy things, and I didn’t go to much of what we call in this country “grade school,” the lower grades of school, because I was falling asleep all the time.
I was ahead of the class, and there’s no great distinction. It’s just that the educational system in Toronto, Canada—where I was born and almost raised—didn’t have any limitations on whether or not I really had to go to school, because they figured I was getting a better education going to the museums and libraries that I inhabited as a small child.
I have a peculiar character. I’m different from most folks, and I rather treasure that fact, as well. Being a skeptic yourself, I guess you’re looked upon that way by your peers as well?
Sturgess: Well, we get all sorts of fascinating people in skepticism! What led you to start an entire foundation for skeptics?
Randi: I am a magician, you see, that’s my profession. I have made my living up until a few years ago as a magician and did very well at it and got a bit of a reputation. I found that I was being asked questions by my audiences after a show; I would hope they would be more or less impressed with what I did as an entertainer! But they would come to me with questions like, “This gentleman was on television the other day, and he did this, that, and the other thing. But he said that that it was real, what he did.”
It showed me that people were actually falling for fakers out there; people who were lying to them and telling them that they had supernatural powers. They were giving a lot of money to these people. That does happen of course—as you know, all over the world people were giving lots of money to people who’d say that they have psychic or magical or prophetic or whatever powers. They can tell the future, or they can heal the sick by just looking at them or touching them, or whatever.
I found that there was a major racket going on there, a swindle. I determined that when I retired—and I did retire at the age of sixty—I decided that it would be time for me to go into the business of . . . not debunking; I don’t go do it as a debunker because I don’t like that term. If I were a debunker that would mean that I’d go into an investigation with the idea, “This is not true and I’m going to prove that it’s not true.”
I can’t always prove that it’s not true, but I challenge them and offer a $1 million prize as well, to any of them who can prove that they are the real thing. You’d be surprised though. I’m looking out of my window here in Plantation, Florida, and the street is right out there. I don’t see any line up of people who are trying to collect the $1 million prize.
Wouldn’t you think that’s strange, because there are thousands of them all across the world who say they have these mystical powers. Where are they? They should be lined up outside with a number in their hand, like a lottery of some kind, just waiting to get in and show me what they’ve got! But there’s no lineup outside!
Sturgess: What have been some highlights of your career?
Randi: Every day! My life is all highlights, I think!
One of the most recent delights is the film, An Honest Liar, which you mentioned. It’s being met with critical and popular acclaim all across the world. I am very, very pleased to know that and to witness it, and have people come to me saying, “Maybe it has changed my mind.” That’s always a good point when you see somebody saying, “Maybe I have changed my mind.”
It doesn’t happen every time, not by any means. But there are enough people out there who’d say that what I’ve shown them has changed their mind in some way or made them think a little more about some aspect of their lives and how they run it. Maybe it saves them a lot of money in the long run, too.
Sturgess: That’s always a good thing! What was your response when you were first approached by the producers, Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, to do the documentary?
Randi: First of all, I said I might be interested. I’d have to know more. They came to visit me here in Plantation, Florida. They sat down and they made a very good case for their bona fides. After all, both had produced films that were very highly successful documentary films.
When I saw the product that they had turned out, I thought to myself, “These are the guys. These are the guys that I think I can trust with my life story,” and I said, “So, let’s go.” That was like three years ago, and we’ve done very well.
Sturgess: It’s a fascinating movie with lots of footage from the past. Were you surprised even by your own history and what was uncovered for the film?
Randi: In some cases yes, but for a long time now I’ve had a small collection of some stuff that was made. There were some 8mm black and white films made of me when I was only eighteen years of age, doing silly things in the streets of Toronto as a magician. Oh yes, that film comes back to haunt you eventually!
As a matter of fact, with a thing like YouTube—YouTube is in some cases pretty scary—because I don’t think I really do anything in my life that it doesn’t appear on YouTube within twenty minutes and circulated around the world.
If you go to my site, that’s the James Randi Educational Foundation site on YouTube, you’ll find all kinds of wonderful old films that I could hardly believe that somebody still had. My history is there. If you live long enough, your history will be there too, Kylie!
Sturgess: Me and my cat on YouTube! I’m not sure if that’s as historically important as you performing on fantastic TV shows and helping people understand what’s going on in the world of skepticism. It’s a bit different. . . !
The documentary delves into your personal life, and of course there are many challenges that anyone would face if their own personal life was investigated. Did it make it challenging to go on with the documentary at times?
Randi: Yeah, there was a moment there when the security of my partner Devi (José Alvarez) was in some question or such, and you’ll see a confrontation there with the producers of the film. But that didn’t last more than a day.
I had to just sleep on it, and the next day I called him and said, “Go right ahead, warts and all.” You know the expression, “warts and all”? Oliver Cromwell, I believe, was supposed to have said that. I didn’t know him. I’m not that old!
Sturgess: Finally, there’s been lots of changes and developments and conflict in atheism and skepticism over the years. What do you hope for the future of organized skepticism?
Randi: I would hope that it’s going to continue to go the way that it has. The movement is very active within Australia, as I’m sure you know, and around the world. As I say, I’ve been to China and Japan and various other places like that. I find that it’s really active all the way around the world. The mail I get every day—via Skype and other means of course—is always very encouraging.
It’s very encouraging that skepticism has found its place in the world, and it’s having a very active effect, I think, on most people. Particularly young people; it’s very important to get people—as we all know, and always have known—get them while they’re young, and if you can talk some sense into them at that point and get them scared correctly, then they will start to think skeptically. They will think rationally, and they will be happier off for it, I believe.
Sturgess: What do you think is an important overall message that you hope people will get from the documentary An Honest Liar?
Randi: Before you accept it, remember that saying, “Maybe it’s too good to be true.” Think about it carefully, and look up research. You’ve got the Internet in front of you, what a wonderful weapon to have. I mean, this is something you can flourish anywhere at all that you can find an electric plug to fire up your computer with.
You can find information about things that at one time was very difficult to lay your hands on easily unless you went to a huge library and spent a lot of time clambering up and down ladders in the book stacks. Now it’s so easily available to you—but you’ve got to be careful—at the same time some of that information is not information that you should be using, or that you could use, usefully.
It can be incorrect; there are people out there who are trying to take advantage of your ignorance and your lack of perception. Be very, very careful of that; you’re living in a jungle!
Sturgess: Do you think even skepticism and skeptics themselves should be questioned?
Randi: Oh, yes, of course. We need to know their bona fides as well. You have to check on them . . . but, when you’ve got people like Dick Smith and Phil Adams as good friends in another country or around the other side of the world, you could be very, very proud that you know these folks. When I was asked if I would go to Australia to cross the country and drag that film along with me, I accepted with great enthusiasm.
Sturgess: For your own future, after this fantastic travel across Australia, what do you hope to do next?
Randi: Oh, I’ve got an awful lot ahead of me. I’m just finishing up my eleventh book. It’s going to turn into two volumes, because it would probably be my swan song, as they say. But at the same time, I’ve got another one that’s hanging on my consciousness here that I may do as well. But I’ll let you know.