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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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  • by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @03:30PM (#43341057)

    One can, however, ask for proof for particular claims about a God who defies the apparent "natural" order. When claims are made that, e.g., God created the world 6,000 years ago, with all species as immutable types --- proof, please? God sent a hurricane New Orleans to punish the gays --- proof, please? God will cure your cancer if you pray hard enough --- proof, please? While a God who acts through creating the entirety of empirical and intelligible reality is an untestable proposition, many more specific claims (in which the "finger of God" comes out of the sky to nudge an off-track cosmos back onto course) are often made. I actually happen to believe in God; but, willingness to ask what is amenable to "hard proof" (and noting its consistent resulting lack) considerably refines/constrains my picture of how God operates in the world.

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @04:28PM (#43341707)

    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.

    That view doesn't cover things, and by a very long distance.

    I do not believe in God. I am not an atheist though, I just don't care about the existence of God, or not. The reason is simple, as my tag line says, I have no need for that hypothesis. Other approaches to the problems posed by reality require simpler hypotheses, and hypothesis that are testable. God is not admissible as a hypothesis under these conditions.

    When somebody is able to pose a problem that I think is reasonable to want an answer for and that answer requires the hypothesis of the existence of God, or alternatively the opposite, the hypothesis that God does not exist then I'll become more interested.

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

  • Re:Damn, I missed it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CODiNE ( 27417 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @06:45PM (#43342977) Homepage

    I've had that happen to me. Think of it this way, if a street light goes out once in a while and takes a few seconds to turn back on, every night a dozen people could pass under it close enough for it to seem like they caused it. Hundreds of other people would just see a normal light.

    Similar to the 9/11/2001 plane crashes, all the sudden hundreds of people claimed to have had premonitions of it. In a country with 300,000,000 people, how many dream of a plane crash on a given night? A few thousand? Now if a plane crash happens in the next week... month? They'll feel like it was connected. Otherwise they'd just forget it as a random dream.

    That is what another poster calls confirmation bias. We tend to remember the times things match up, and not notice the hundreds of other times that they didn't.

    Those particular lights you seem to have an effect on, keep an eye on them. Try watching from a distance, count how often they flicker or turn off. See if you can make some kind of statistics on it... does it change with your distance from the light? If it seems to happen more on a particular night than others... write down your mood. Also write down the temperature and humidity. Sooner or later a clear pattern will emerge. If it's confirmation bias, then things will pretty much seem random or show a direct connection to the weather. If it seems you having an effect on it, what is the factor behind it? Your distance? Your emotional intensity? What you had for breakfast? You need to get it to where it's repeatable and controllable. At that point you call Randi up and perhaps become a millionaire. Well worth the effort either way.

  • by jkyrlach ( 1076609 ) on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @07:23PM (#43343281)
    This is a great guest, especially relevant to the view of the greater Slashdot community. But this is a horrible interview. Please listen to NPR to understand how real interviews are done. A real interviewer knows how draw out the "goods" from their guest. For example, this guy has a pretty even-keeled vocal delivery of information, so a questions that help connect to his passions might be a good idea. "Why are you writing that book", why did you feel debunking was important to do", "what is the most tragic con you know about", etc. I don't wish to be cruel, but this guy asking the questions does not sound like he has a natural gift for talking. Can I do the rest of the interview?
  • Re:Damn, I missed it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 02, 2013 @07:55PM (#43343571)

    Though James Randi is very much against supernatural things, I wonder if he is able to admit that there are things that we do not have the disciplines to explain yet?

    I don't see how you can say a man that has spent the last 25 or so years offering money, publicity, and verification tests to people in an effort to assist them in proving paranormal events is "very much against supernatural things". Quite the opposite, he is probably the greatest advocate anyone with a genuine claim could have - the vast majority of the scientific community would just ignore most of this kind of stuff outright...

    I personally think your story is either a bunch of bullsh*t or is explainable through conventional means, and I suspect most thoughtful science-minded people would think the same thing. But you might be able to talk Randy into going to that house if you have any real evidence beyond anecdotal accounts. Which is why I would say if you think he is "against" this kind of thing you are completely missing the point...

    As for not having the disciplines to explain these events... His testing methods do not require explanation - it they did they would not be able to verify paranormal events since such events are by definition not explainable through current means. The tests are designed to eliminate all possible conventional explanations and have nothing left at the end. As such you dont have to explain the event, you just have to demonstrate it in a way that cannot be explained otherwise.

Pascal is not a high-level language. -- Steven Feiner