Still ‘Amazing’: A Conversation with James Randi, Part 2

Kendrick Frazier

Part 2: The famous conjuror, investigator, and author—and founding fellow of CSICOP—sat down with Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier at CSICon Las Vegas 2016 for a live, ninety-minute onstage conversation. Here are excerpts.

Kendrick Frazier: Which of all of your books is your favorite and which is most successful?

James Randi: Flim-Flam! was probably the most successful. Yes, with an exclamation point, please, and a hyphen. It’s very important. Yes, Flim-Flam! really is the most general book on my investigations of the paranormal and the supernatural claims that are still infesting our society today. It sold very, very well. And The Faith Healers was a great success for me too.

Frazier: Tell us about your book that is completed, I understand, but not yet published, A Magician in the Laboratory. What is that about?

Randi: It’s going to deal with my visits to laboratories all over the world in almost every country in the world over these many years that I’ve had traveling. Where these scientists thought they had something discovered, something paranormal, something supernatural, whatever, I would go into the laboratories and show them where their errors were. They were not very happy about it.

Particularly in Russia. They were not happy about it at all, and I came in for all kinds of scolding. I was told by two of the scientists who were present, young fellows, months afterward I got letters from them saying that the man in charge of the whole thing said they would never let a magician in the laboratory again.

I showed them where they were so wrong. A magician showing scientists where they’re wrong? Come on, that’s not very logical at all. But I knew enough about science and about the way it works and doesn’t work. That’s the second thing you’ve got to know, is how it doesn’t work.

Frazier: When Carl Sagan wrote the introduction to Faith Healers, he said many kind things about you, but he also had some criticisms. He referred to you as “crotchety.”

Randi: I certainly am, yes. He couldn’t quite understand that I actually did sometimes get very angry, particularly at so-called faith healers and people who are supposed to be bringing relief to the people.

Frazier: In November 2014, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article about you, “The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi.” It was quite a wonderful, very detailed, revealing article. How did you see it and how has it affected you?

Randi: It was a good article. I liked it very much. At the New York Times, after all, you would expect high standards, and we got them.

My partner, Deyvi, and I, we were very, very happy with the results of it. It was done kindly and decently. I was satisfied with it in most ways, and certainly the illustrations were very good. We were very flattered by it.

Frazier: Let me mention a few things that were said: “For many of his most zealous followers the opportunity to meet Randi at TAM”—your conference—“may be as close as they will ever come to a religious experience.”

Randi: That’s true. Bless you, bless you.

Frazier: [Continuing] “He, Randi, said he disliked being called a debunker. He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. I don’t set out to debunk.” I think that’s fair, right?

Randi: I am a debunker, yes, by definition, but I think scientific investigator covers it better because I try to be scientific. I don’t have the credentials for that at all, but I have met the approval of many leading scientists, including Carl Sagan, and many, many other people around the world in that respect. I accept it. I do try to be as scientific as I possibly can, and I’m not afraid to phone people up and ask them for advice on how I should state something to make sure that I have it as accurately as I can.

Frazier: Then the writer talked about this person we have kept in the background here. “Randi’s campaign against [Uri] Geller helped make them both more famous than ever. Even today Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon. ‘My most influential and important publicist,’ as Geller described him to me.’”

Randi: What do I think of that?

Frazier: Yes.

Randi: I think this is, what do they call it, a delusion on the part of Mr. Geller. Yes, a very dramatic delusion. He likes to think of it that way, that I made him, but he was well famous as a so-called psychic long before I was called by Time magazine to go in and investigate him. That investigation, that was fun . . . you have no idea. Geller, with his great psychic powers, didn’t know that I was a magician and that I knew how he was doing it. How would he not have known that?

At one point Geller bent a spoon and showed it to me. He said, “Did you see that?” I looked at him, I said, “Yes, Mr. Geller, I did see that.” He just looked, hesitating. Then he put the spoon down and went on with something else. I think it tipped to him at that moment. That was a revelation to him because I said it that pleasantly: “I did see that.”

Frazier: A biography of you is being written by Massimo Polidoro. How is that going?

Randi: I’m a very close friend of Massimo’s. I’ve known him since he was about so big and he’s actually lived at my home for some period of time and brushed up on his English while doing that. He’s now a famous writer in Italy, his homeland. He writes in both English and in Italian.

I’m pleased to have it in Massimo’s hands. Massimo has agreed to suspend activity on the book because he has so many other projects going all at the same time. He’s done very well for himself in that respect. He has agreed to suspend action on that until my next book comes out because it’s going to be very much autobiographical as well.

Frazier: Magician in the Laboratory? It’ll be autobiographical about your life as well as about your work in scientific laboratories?

Randi: Yes. I got a chance to express that, but Massimo will come out with his version of course from a different point of view. That’s quite understandable. He already has written a very, very good book on the history of Harry Houdini, among so many other books.

Frazier: In 2015, out came a documentary movie about you, An Honest Liar. Ruth and I were very privileged to be among the audience in Sydney, Australia, when you were on your Australian tour for the movie after the Australian Skeptics convention there two years ago. I found it a powerful and emotionally moving movie. I assume you agree?

Randi: Yes, I do. I must explain, for those who’ve seen it and for those who haven’t, that there was a sequence in there, you’ll all remember this, there is a point in the movie when I told the producers about something that happened in my family that I didn’t wish to be in the movie. I told them that this must not be used. It was less than twenty-four hours later that I came to my senses, the next day after I had a chance to think about it. I phoned them up and I said, “Wait a minute. I’m supposed to be honest about these things. I can’t have it that way. That sequence has got to get back in again, any way you want. Just put it back in again because it’s got to be the true story of my life.”

It turned out to be that, and the reaction we are getting to it, well, it’s now dubbed in eight different languages, subtitles, all over the world. It just showed in Russia I think for the first time, a couple of months ago. It’s on Netflix.

Frazier: How has it changed your life?

Randi: In odd ways that you might not realize. Deyvi and I, if we go out to a department store or something, not in our immediate neighborhood, there’s always somebody way across the store, “Mr. Randi,” and they come running at me. “I saw your movie. I loved it,” the whole thing. They recognize both of us of course. It has made a great deal of difference. I feel good because the true story is out there and it’s available to everybody. The producers of the film did a very, very good job. All with my approval, I assure you.

Frazier: That event in Sydney, Australia, that I mentioned. Toward the end you were asked a question from the audience that I thought was very revealing, something about you. I wrote about it later in my editor’s column in the Skeptical Inquirer. You were asked how to treat a friend who ardently believes in the paranormal. You said, “Be kind. Be kind. They believe because they need to believe. Be compassionate.” Is that a new Randi or is that the Randi of old?

Randi: It’s not a new Randi at all, but since I began these investigations I found that these people, they believed in it so much and they needed it so much that to disabuse them of the notion was often very difficult to do.

At showings of An Honest Liar, we can often drive to them if they’re in Florida and show up for Q&A following the film, to some delight. Those are always rather exciting and very good sessions.

When we do these Q&A things afterwards and the audience leaves, there’s always six or eight people left behind, Ken, that come to the foot of the stage. They look up at us and they’ll come up with the same statement as if it were written out there for them to read. They say, “You made a big change in my life,” often with tears coming down their faces.

Folks, you cannot buy that. That’s the greatest compliment we can possibly have. They will in many cases successfully explain how what we said in that film actually changed their minds in some way or another. As I say, that’s very, very flattering, and we know we made it. The film worked and it worked well. We get letters from all over the world now from people who say exactly the same thing. That’s very flattering.

Frazier: I want to ask you about another experience I recall. It was after a CSICOP Executive Council meeting in London. We were at a restaurant. You were bending the cutlery, surprisingly.

Randi: Me? Would I do a thing like that?

Frazier: A waiter was watching very intently, and it became very clear he was quite emotional about it. He eventually came over, and it was clear something was very strongly affecting him. I don’t recall whether it was that he had seen you debunking the idea that spoon bending is a paranormal phenomenon—I think that’s what it was—or whether he maybe thought you were a paranormal person yourself.

I recall your going over and taking him aside and talking to him privately about that to comfort him. I don’t know what was said, but you did do that, and I don’t know if you remember that experience at all.

Randi: I’ve had to do that occasionally to explain to people there are ways of doing this and then just do it right in front of their eyes. “How did you do that?” they’ll say. “I gestured with the spoon like this and I said to you, ‘Come over here.’ As I turned away and you didn’t notice that then I concealed the bend.” I explained to them how I did the thing.

Then it suddenly dawned on them, “Yes, it’s very easy actually.”

Frazier: None of us are as young as we used to be. You’ve had health challenges, a heart attack I believe, colon cancer, something you and I have shared.

Randi: I had cardiac bypass surgery.

Frazier: Cardiac bypass, aneurisms in your leg, cataracts, I don’t know what else. Yet you have persevered. I think we all want to know how are you doing health wise?

Randi: I’ve recently had a couple of TIAs; those are transient ischemic attacks. That really stands for a minor stroke. I lost the use of my right arm temporarily, for a matter of a few minutes, but it’s back again, yes. As a matter of fact, my hands are exceedingly flexible if you noticed. No, I’m doing very well, doing very well. For eighty-eight I only feel like eighty-six. True.

Frazier: Thank you, dear Randi. We all thank you.

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.