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Video Magician & Investigator James Randi Talks Directly to You (Video) 259

Last week James Randi answered your questions. But that was text, and he's a performer ("The Amazing Randi"), so you need to hear the man talk to get his full flavor. He's a good talker, too. So Rob Rozeboom (samzenpus) got on Skype with The Amazing Randi to talk about his exploits, including his debunking of a whole bunch of (alleged) frauds, ranging from Uri Geller to Sylvia Browne. The resulting interview was so long and so strong that we cut it in half. Today you see Part One. Tomorrow you'll see Part Two. (The video's here now; sorry about the delay.)

Rozeboom: For the few people who don’t know who you are, could you just give me a little background as to who you are and what you do?

Randi: When I was born at a very early age in a log cabin I helped my dad build, because we were poor and couldn’t afford to have children, so the people next door had me. This is an old routine I used to do. So we won’t bother with that.

My name is James Randi, and I am a magician by trade. At the moment, since the age of 60, I am now 84, going on 100 as I like to say. I have dedicated my existence to the James Randi Educational Foundation. This foundation started up quite some years ago, now in order to provide an alternative explanation of what people in the general public all over the world were considering to be paranormal events. And since this is very popular with the media, who generally speaking, don’t care whether or not what they report is true or not, they only want to know if it is going to give them enough time, 14 seconds or so on the evening newscast or on radio or whatever other medium they are involved with.

So we’ve had an uphill battle of it and we’re now well-funded, because of the fact that we hold a conference every year at Las Vegas called The Amazing Meeting. My title incidentally as a magician is the Amazing Randi, though I don’t use that anymore because I am not performing as a conjuror or a magician. I have dedicated my existence for what that’s worth to explaining to people when they ask or if they have any curiosity in that regard as to whether or not these things are genuine. And my conclusion so far has been, and as I say, I’m 85, that is a long time, a lot of experience in this field, I have never found any so-called paranormal event or ability or performance to be the real thing.

That doesn’t mean there won’t. I can’t prove a negative. I can prove some negatives. For example, I am not a giraffe. Because if you look up a definition of a giraffe, and you won’t do that in a dictionary, you should do that in a zoological source, because dictionaries don’t define, they only give common usage. I find that I have a much more attractive neck, I believe, although the giraffe has certain advantages over me. And I won’t get into all of those. But by definition, I am not a giraffe. So some negatives can be proven.

But to prove there is no God, that there is no telepathy, there is no ESP, there are no clairvoyant powers, or whatever is impossible to prove that there aren’t. So we offer our $1 billion prize which has been on offer for quite some years now. We offer that prize for evidence that there is such a thing, because we are not claiming there isn’t. We merely say if you say there is, establish the proof for it.

We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of applications for it over the years; no one has come anywhere near to winning it. And I must add that you can’t really come close to winning it; you have to win it or not win it. Because we design all the tests that we use for these people. We design them in a such a way that the conclusion is obvious. In other words, I can try by jumping out this window, go right ahead, oops you lose and all this kind of thing. We want it to be evident, self evident, without having to have any jury or panel or a set of judges. It doesn’t have to be any decision made, they either have done it, or they have not done it. So we design our tests that way.

Rozeboom: No problem, no problem.

Randi: I have a recording in the other room. I had to turn that off.

Rozeboom: So how many years did you work as a magician before you started the foundation?

Randi: Well, I started as a magician at the age of about 14 or so, I guess doing casual shows, nothing serious, and continued until the age of 60. And at that point, I decided it was time to hang up the straitjackets, so to speak, because I was doing an escape act largely. And I’ve been doing that ever since. So you can subtract 60 from 84, I will let you do the mathematics.

Rozeboom: So Houdini was pretty famous for exposing spiritualists back in the day as well. Do you think that magicians have a better chance or are better at finding fraud than most people?

Randi: Well, yes, because they know how it is done you see. Not only that, the magician has a very specific turn of mind. There are many magicians who don’t care about the work that I do at all, they think that it is negative, that they should be able to keep people ____6:45 and fake their results and say they are just the real thing, and they are the people that don’t associate with me, and I don’t associate with them. They are not very much in favor. Many of them are not very much in favor of what I do. But others are enthusiastic supporters, of course. So I’ve been at this for many years and I’ve sorted them out into the shut-eyes and the open-eyes and we won’t get into all the definitions of it.

Rob Rozeboom: Uri Geller was probably the one that’s most famous for you getting started; you talk to him anymore?

Randi: I haven’t spoken to him in quite some time. Though through intermediaries we have been in touch. He is not a psychic any more. I don’t know whether you knew that or not, he is now a mystifier.

Rozeboom: What is the difference?

Randi: You tell me. The point is that I suspect strongly that he is trying to get off the hook that he impaled himself on at the very beginning of his career. He told everybody that it is absolutely genuine. I’ve got about 60 examples of it in my forthcoming book which is A Magician In The Laboratory. And I just got to show that Uri Geller is still claiming that he doesn’t know how to do tricks and doesn’t do tricks. He simply has these wonderful paranormal powers. But he is trying to get off the hook. And he can’t do that. If he actually were ever to come out and admit that he is just doing tricks, and has always just done tricks, he would be sued by the populace of the world.

Countries, organizations, institutions, schools, colleges, universities, what not and private individuals have spent literally millions of dollars investigating what became known as the Geller Effect. And he has said consistently that he doesn’t do tricks, doesn’t know to how do tricks. That means that he has taken money under false pretexts because most of these people, in one way or the other have paid him for his services. Now there is nothing wrong with paying someone for his or her services. Of course, that is what is called business. I am all in favor of it. People do it with me as well. So that is all very fair and good, but swindling people by fakery, by lying to them, and blatantly saying this is real when it is not real, that is reprehensible to me, and I fought that for many years.

Now because he did cause a lot of grief. A lot of grief for individuals who put money out with psychics and such because they saw his example and said, oh well he is only ____9:44 advertising and they will go for their fake ministers, preachers out there who say they can heal people by touching them on the forehead or gesturing at them or saying be healed or some such thing. They go for all that sort of thing. And largely because he has created an atmosphere in which people have him as an example of something that they believe to be genuine. And scientific organizations have spent a lot of money on this sort of thing too. I think they would be in their lawyers’ offices within 20 minutes.

Rozeboom: Besides Uri, have you dealt with other sort of famous psychics?

Randi: Don’t call him Yu ri, that is the Russian version, his name is Oori.

Rozeboom: Oori. How about Mr. Geller?

Randi: Okay.

Rozeboom: Besides him have you dealt with other famous psychics?

Randi: Oh yes. John Edward, Sylvia Browne. The whole gamut of them. It is a vast spectrum of these people who like to pretend that they have psychic powers, and people like to believe that they have. And Sylvia Browne is, by her own admission she is booked up until the middle of next year. Next year. 2014. As she can’t accept any more claims on her talent. She gets $800 to talk to someone over the telephone for 20 minutes, and she does a reading so called over the telephone. Now most of that reading consists of giving them things like, we should take less of ____11:26 I can sense from the vibrations that you need this. This is not only improper in several aspects; legally you can’t prescribe things to people who are paying a sum of money for it, unless you have a medical degree, and I don’t believe that Sylvia Browne has a medical degree. Or a degree of any kind as a matter of fact. But she does see things, she makes a great deal of money in it, at $800 a pop, and she is on the phone with you for 20 minutes, and she has got all day to do it, except when she is out lecturing some place and making hard cash; she doesn’t have to wait for the credit card to come through. You can imagine the money that she has amassed over the years, and continues to amass because she is giving people the impression that it is the real thing.

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Magician & Investigator James Randi Talks Directly to You (Video)

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  • What you see today (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @03:06PM (#43340735)

    Is nothing because Slashdot keeps using technology from two decades ago.


  • ... is not altogether unlike one character in a book asking another one to prove they are characters in a book.

    Kind of pointless, since the events that happen in the book are taken for granted as "natural", and so anything which the author writes about would not be seen as anything other than normal to those characters, even though the author still actually wrote it.

  • Oh Slashdot (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dingen ( 958134 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @03:27PM (#43341013)

    You claim the interview is "too long" to post in one go, so you cut in half (it's not even half an hour, but ok). Yet you didn't use these cutting abilities to edit out the bit where Randi had to go turn off his TV in the other room, making us watch at his empty chair for over a minute.

  • by KingSkippus ( 799657 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @03:51PM (#43341299) Homepage Journal

    If you watched the video, he specifically addressed this. He says that he's not claiming that supernatural events don't occur. His prize is up for grabs to someone who can prove that they do.

    "I don't know" is, in fact a perfectly good answer, but it's not a valid explanation. It's certainly not proof of the contrary. More often than not, it is a cop-out to use "I don't know" as an excuse to not believe what evidence there is or do further research into the matter. This is where religion gets into trouble a lot. I've seen it a lot in the form of statements like, "Scientists don't know such-and-such, therefore God did it."

    If you have what seemed to be supernatural occurrences happening in a house you lived in, the scientifically "correct" course of action isn't to simply chalk it up to ghosts and be done with it, it is to try to come up with plausible explanations for what was happening and testing them. Even if you settle on the ghosts answer, you need some way to prove that that's what it is. Who knows? Maybe you could have won Randi's prize.

    And I'm not being facetious when I say that. A lot of advancements in science have happened when people didn't just accept seemingly supernatural phenomena at face value, but investigated it. Sometimes you even get really lucky and the actual explanation is more fantastical than any supernatural explanation.

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @04:46PM (#43341899) Homepage Journal

    And, that, is completely indistinguishable from an atheistic opinion. Atheism just means not actively supporting bad hypotheses on religious grounds.

  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @04:57PM (#43342025) Homepage Journal

    The problem with your statement is that militant theists don't recognize the existence of any other type of non-believer than atheists. That view is an epic fail.

    Hell, most militant theists don't recognize the existence of other types of theists! For example, I submit Jihadist Muslims and the WBC - according to both groups, if you're not among their ranks, you're a filthy non-believer.

    I do not believe in God. I am not an atheist though,

    If the first part of that statement is true, then yes, you are an atheist by definition. However, the rest of that paragraph makes me think what you meant to say is something to the effect of, "I do not necessarily believe in a God, but I will not acknowledge nor deny the existence of such," which would technically make you an "agnostic atheist." At least, according to Wikipedia; personally, I hate labels.

    Right now though it's a waste of time. God, existence or not, is not a useful concept.

    Fuckin' A, man. We, as a species, have more important shit to do than waste our lives arguing about an unknowable.

  • by deoxyribonucleose ( 993319 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @05:05PM (#43342113)

    /.../, atheism is also a faith-based belief structure.

    In exactly the same way that avoiding playing football is a sport.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @05:43PM (#43342491) Journal

    So, in other words, your qualifications are no more "science" than a baker's or a doctor's.

    And the reason these phenomenon are frequently discounted is because they almost inevitably do not stand up to scrutiny. How many times do researchers have to waste their time on claims of spirits moving dishes before finally researchers throw up their hands and decide their time would be much better spent in areas where fruitful results are likely,.

    I'll be blunt, the paranormal "field of research" is populated by a long list of quacks and frauds, with maybe a very very very very very small number of researchers who actually are willing to apply appropriate methodologies. The reason that guys like James Randi, Penn and Teller and the Mythbusters are so successful at what they do is because they are experts in what one might call the illusionary arts, and thus are uniquely qualified to recognize when some spoon bender type is playing a con.

    And as a final note, it amazes me how, after a century and a half of pretty deep research into how the human mind functions, and all too often malfunctions, that people are so willing to absolutely trust their senses when objects or environment seem to function in a counter-intuitive fashion. There have been no lack of studies that demonstrate just how fallible our senses and our cognitive abilities can be under extreme and sometimes even normal circumstances, and yet those rational explanations are rejected out of hand in favor of wild ass claims of ghosts, spirits, UFOs, the Hand of God, the Holy Spirit, mystery electro-magnetic (or insert your favorite quasi-scientific phrase; quantum seems quite popular these days) and yes, sometimes just being plain conned.

  • No... under any objective burden of legal proof, even under the notion of "beyond a reasonable doubt", there is no assessment made about whether or not god exists one way or the other, any more than under a notion of legal proof, you could somehow come to any conclusion about whether or not the events of today either would or would not ever actually happen.

      There simply is no data... either way.

    Yes there is. There is a tremendous amount of data supporting the fact that gods (where properly defined so as to be a coherent concept) are made up by humans. There is especially more evidence when a god is spoken of in an incoherent manner that it is simply imagination. There is no evidence of the existence of these god-concepts -- either coherent or incoherent -- outside of imagination.

    This isn't a 50-50 kinda deal and it's a mistake to think it is.

  • by Seumas ( 6865 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @11:38PM (#43344689)

    Sorry, but you are confusing two things.

    In a world where the religious have seeped into every aspect of politics, life, government, and law and where people who do not believe in a religion (or, sometimes, just believe in a different one) are persecuted and mistreated (death threats, problems at work if someone discovers you don't believe, problems if your significant other's family finds out you don't believe, etc) and religious beliefs and assertions are imposed upon everyone else in the form of laws and policies (hello, gay marriage rights like any other "all men are created equal" fairness?). . . . do you really think that the side that is guilty of nothing more than simply not believing should just shut the fuck up and eat it?

    Your comment sounds an awfully lot like when people used to refer to "uppity negroes" or talk about how women asserting their rights and marching and boycotting and organizing were so "militant" and "aggressive". It's the same kind of shit we hear all the time when someone calls a group on their intolerance and their response is "oh ho ho ho! so the one complaining about intolerance is intolerance of intolerance! How ironic durp durp durp!".

    There really are not a lot of people out there trying to convince you that there is no god. Guess what? Nobody really cares. However, there are a lot of angry and "militant" people out there who are pissed off that they have to walk on egg-shells and worry that someone might discover that they're an atheist, because it will be held against them in potential relationships, friendships, employment, community standing, and so forth. I know that religious people think those people should just "shut up and not care", but that's bullshit. When there are people going around wishing that people would be killed for simply not having a believe that they have, I'm pretty god damn glad there are some guys out there who make it their living to be "militant" about combating that.

    Guess what? I don't believe in anything. I don't care if you do or not. I only care that you not impose your shit on me. I don't mean "don't show up at my door and give me a Watch Tower magazine", because I don't mind that and am kind tot hose people. I mean, don't make me worry about how I'm going to be treated in various aspects of life simply because I don't share some weird subscription to various mythologies and don't make the rest of the world who doesn't agree with you submit to your narrow views, despite their protection as an equal by our constitution. Everyone should be allowed to believe (or not believe) in whatever the fuck they like. They also should not have to be subjected to the results of other people's beliefs.

  • by Seumas ( 6865 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @11:49PM (#43344747)

    By definition, you are an atheist if you do not believe in a god or a religion. I used to be an agnostic, because "I can't prove anything and don't care", but then I realized an "agnostic" is just what you call yourself when you want other people to be less judgmental of you. I've had people wish me dead, simply because they found out I don't believe. I've been harangued by family. I've been judged by parents of girlfriends. This is why I keep that shit close to the vest as much as possible in real life. But I'm not going to call myself an agnostic, anymore, because that's just sort of catering to people who are so angry and obsessed with what I do or do not think.

    I spend about 0.0000000001% of my life giving the slightest fuck about religion or lack thereof, except when it is foisted upon me. The fact that I'm not out there telling other people "you should stop believing in crazy shit!" doesn't mean I'm not an atheist. You know, that's the whole "a" part of the word. I'm also not an astronomer or a race-car driver, but I guess they don't have a word for not being one of those things.

    I do, however, find it kind of pathetic how religious people often act like you should keep being poked with the stick of religion and then act like you're somehow "militant" when you finally get tired of that stick and turn around and knock the person holding it across the head. As if not believing in their religion means you should not care about anything ever involving it, even when it directly impacts you. It's about as transparent and disingenuous as you can get.

    If standing up for things like, you know, not being discriminated based on lack of religion or standing up for the right of people to be married since "all men are created equal" under our form of government and the only reason we disallow it is on the grounds of "the bible durp durp!" makes one "militant", then I guess I'm militant. I would just suggest that I'm a human being that doesn't believe in a thing and also doesn't stand by and let that thing disrupt other people's lives.

  • by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Wednesday April 03, 2013 @06:17AM (#43346071) Journal

    I do not believe in God. I am not an atheist though

    Yes, you are.

    An agnostic could say "I am unable to decide whether God exists or not" but it is illogical to say "I do not believe in God even though He exists".

  • by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Wednesday April 03, 2013 @06:41AM (#43346159) Journal

    Of course, the whole conversation ends up being kind of dumb, because who gives a fuck?

    As an atheist, I give a fuck for the very simple reason that theists do not simply sit in their rooms reading their holy books and being nice and cool.

    They influence laws and wars in places like the USA, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan. Their representatives appear on TV criticising couples who want to have sex without producing babies, women who want to control their own bodies, people who want to have relationships outside marriage, gay people and so on. Here in the UK, Bishops get a place in the House of Lords and I am restricted from doing certain things on a Sunday.

    Their authority comes from the fact that they are taken seriously as somehow representing the word of god, so it is a pretty big deal if their whole house of cards is built on sand (as it were).

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