Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you could actually meet a character from fiction and chat with him over dinner? Who would you choose? One character I would enjoy meeting is Dumbledore, the kindly wizard who is the headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. Here are some of his characteristics, culled from the books themselves and from descriptions by fans: tall and thin; white beard; aura of power; wears glasses; benevolent and wise; aura of serenity and composure; rarely displays intense emotions; eccentric and even slightly effeminate; sometimes wears flamboyant clothes; whimsical; uses humor to make people feel comfortable in his presence; has extraordinary powers, and his abilities as a wizard are combined with cunning, subtlety of mind, and understanding of human nature; never arrogant or pompous; deep capacity for love; immense brainpower, although it doesn’t protect him from emotional mistakes; has a pet phoenix named Fawkes; carries a wand; a late disclosure by the author reveals that he is gay.
Fortunately, there is something far better than meeting Dumbledore in person: meeting someone who is very much like Dumbledore but better because he has the advantage of being real. I’m talking about James (“The Amazing”) Randi.
Like Dumbledore, Randi is thin and has a long white beard. His stature is also noteworthy, although for shortness rather than tallness. He wears glasses, although he has been known to wear frames with no lenses in them to show people how readily they make false assumptions based on expectations. He too has an aura of power that can be seen in some of his iconic photos where he stares at the camera with hypnotic intensity. He is also benevolent and wise, maintains his composure, and is eccentric. Sometimes when traveling he wears a flamboyant wizard’s cape and hat. His sense of humor is notorious; he will tell funny stories at the drop of a hat. In fact, he even laughs at my lame jokes and puns, which says a lot. Like Dumbledore, he makes everyone feel comfortable in his presence; at conferences he tries to meet everyone present, shake their hand, and make them feel welcome. He is genuinely friendly, looks you in the eye, and gives you the kind of full attention that makes you feel that he really cares about you, whether you are a VIP or a young child. He is never arrogant or pompous. Like Dumbledore, he carries a stick—Dumbledore’s is a wand; Randi’s is a cane with a skull on the handle. Randi’s is bigger, in case you want to read something into that. Like Dumbledore, Randi is gay. Like Dumbledore, his homosexuality was revealed late in the game; unlike Dumbledore, he had the courage and honesty to reveal it himself rather than waiting for someone else to reveal it after his death. He, too, has an animal associated with him, but instead of a mythical bird, his is a symbolic flying pig. Just as Dumbledore sincerely cares about his students at Hogwarts, Randi sincerely cares about the people who are harmed by trickery. I have seen him fighting tears as he described the disappointment of a child who left a faith healing session uncured.
Like Dumbledore, Randi clearly has immense brainpower. He won a MacArthur genius grant. With no formal education beyond high school, he educated himself about science to a point that he understands it better than many scientists. His background in magic gives him invaluable insights into the psychology of how people can be fooled and how scientists can go wrong and fool themselves. He is almost always the smartest person in the room and the hardest to fool.
And like Dumbledore, Randi can perform impressive feats of magic, although he makes it clear that he uses the methods of stage magicians rather than any supernatural powers. His magic doesn’t even require a wand! One of his best tricks is the one where his hands are securely tied and yet he is immediately able to reach over the drape with a freed hand to point as he gives instructions to his assistants. It’s not just the escape that impresses; it’s the style, pacing, and humor of the whole consummate performance.
It has been my great privilege to know Randi and call him a friend. At first I was excited just to hear him speak. I was so proud when he began to recognize me and remember my name and even more proud when he asked me for a hug. I have shared a dinner table with him many times now and have had many opportunities for one-on-one conversations. I have been on three Amazing Adventure cruises with him and have fond memories of Randi on the beach in the Galápagos, on Mount Juneau in Alaska, and at the Mayan pyramids.
He is a world-class raconteur, and I never tire of his stories even when I’ve heard them before. Among my favorites are the ones about the matchbox trick that fooled the scientists, the story of Project Alpha where two young magicians convinced scientists they had psychic powers, the Carlos hoax in Australia, the stories about his tour with Alice Cooper, and his explanation of why PhDs are incapable of saying these two sentences: “I was wrong” and “I don’t know.”
Who could ever forget his demonstration of psychic surgery and his exposé of Peter Popoff on the Tonight Show? Who could forget the quip that followed his replication of Uri Geller’s tricks: “If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way”?
As a doctor, I particularly appreciate Randi’s work in the areas of quackery and faith healing. His work on homeopathy is particularly noteworthy; for instance, his investigation of Jacques Benveniste’s lab with the team from Nature, the failed replication of a homeopathy study during an unsuccessful attempt to win the million dollars on British TV, his lectures explaining how ridiculous homeopathy is, and his public demonstrations of “overdose” with homeopathic remedies. After his health crises with coronary bypass and intestinal cancer, he also spoke out in praise of science-based medicine, saying that it had saved his life and that chemotherapy was nowhere near as bad as advertised.
Randi has worked vigorously and incessantly to promote critical thinking and to expose charlatans. His work serves as an example to all skeptics. Through its blogs, forums, meetings, and other efforts, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) reached people who might not otherwise have joined the skeptical community, especially some of the younger folks, women, and minorities. Thanks to the JREF, skeptics can no longer be stereotyped as grumpy old upper middle class heterosexual white men.
The very existence of Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge was of immense use to skeptics. We could tell psychics and charlatans to put up or shut up. All we asked is that they simply demonstrate that they could do what they claimed, and they would get a million bucks. Sylvia Browne agreed on national TV to take the challenge but later changed her mind. One might ask why her psychic powers didn’t predict that she would change her mind. (Of course, if I had a mind like hers, I’d want to change it too!)
It was with good reason that Randi was voted the most prominent skeptic of the twentieth century. He has accomplished so much! His special magic has changed the world for the better. He is a treasure. He has been one of the major inspirations for the skeptical work I do. I respect him. I admire him. I love him. He’s way better than Dumbledore!