A while ago you had the chance to ask James Randi, the founder of The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), about exposing hucksters, frauds, and fakers. Below you'll find his answers to your questions. In addition to his writings below, Randi was nice enough to sit down and talk to us about his life and his foundation. Keep an eye out for those videos coming soon.Human Progress?
Sometimes when I see tabloids and crap at grocery stores I wonder if humanity is really making progress in the skepticism department. I think there are more people today that are skeptical of all things paranormal than there were years ago but I believe that only because the population has been increasing. Percentage-wise, I fear we may still be at the level humanity has been at throughout history. You can find writings dating way back of people who were "in the know" about what was fake and what was real. As science has increased our realm of knowledge, it seems that paranormal seekers have just found it in other mediums. So what is your opinion on humanity's track record for belief in the paranormal versus skepticism? Have we made progress? Are we forever doomed to deal with a percentage of the population who want to believe?
Randi: It's hard to say, but I think that yes, we're always going to have irrational attitudes to deal with. It is what I’ve called the whack-a-mole problem of skepticism. You have to keep fighting back the nonsense every time it pokes its head out. Judging by the mail and email we receive, I believe we're making substantial progress, however.
What's the most dangerous lie perpetuated by the people you bust?
Randi: Spurious claims of healing, which directly misdirect and misinform those who are most vulnerable. This is why we support the important work of the Science Based Medicine project and Dr. Steve Novella and the rest of the doctors. The JREF just came out with books on pseudoscientific medical claims, so-called “complementary and alternative medicine,” or CAM, in coordination with them. These are topics like homeopathy and naturopothy. Many other titles on other CAM topics are forthcoming in the months ahead.
Mr. Amazing, Of the various people who've tried for the prize, which one do you think would have made the best entertainer / carnie / whatever had he or she not been so serious about the reality of the trick?
Randi: None of them have been very entertaining except Uri Geller, who has gone a long way on a 4-trick repertoire...
risks of cash rewards?
When offering a $1 million reward to anyone who successfully demonstrates proof of the paranormal you risk failing to debunk some paranormal claims, not because paranormal activity actually exists, but because the ruse is either so technologically advanced or clever that investigators fail to identify the means of deception. How concerned were you about this possibility and have you ever had any "close calls" where you almost failed to discover the trick?
Randi: I have never been very concerned about that. The "means of deception" have never been especially difficult to solve, though I rather wish that a really clever operator would come my way just to provide a bit of a challenge.
Placebo Effectiveness of faith healing
Through your years of research on faith healing, homeopathy and other "magical" cures...have you found some of them more "effective" than others due to the Placebo Effect? Many people have superstitions, charms and other things they personally believe bring them good luck...and I wonder how much of this magical healing and luck bringing is real due to the Placebo Effect. Of course it is not "magic", but the power of a Placebo is still statistically valid in certain cases it seems.
Randi: Re the placebo effect, it only makes you feel better momentarily. The question I ask: "do you want to actually BE better, or only FEEL better?"
Can a Christian or theist be a skeptic?
I ask this because I used to regard myself as a Christian skeptic. While I support what you do and much of the work of the skeptical movement, I now no longer make that claim because current skepticism seems joined at the hip with atheism. I am sure you know, one of the early leaders of the skeptic movement, Martin Gardner, was a theist and a self professed liberal Christian. Are people like Martin Gardner welcome in the movement today. And, as a Christian I thank you for exposing the televangelist faith healing frauds.
Randi: First, I never knew of Martin as a Christian, though he was a theist. He told me that he had no evidence at all for his theism, but it simply made him feel better - which I granted him, easily. You certainly do not need to be an atheist to be a good skeptic, as JREF president D.J. Grothe has argued before on randi.org.
Is it true
by Intrepid imaginaut
Is it true that your organisation is a front to attract the mystically endowed and drain them of their powers to feed the unholy appetites of a cabal of dark theurgists and further their quest to challenge the illuminati for control of the mortal world, leading ultimately to human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, and mass hysteria?
Randi: How did you ever figure that out? I thought we were doing such an effective job at the cover-up.
Have you ever had significant repercussions from debunking what is essentially garbage? Have people ever actually threatened you for supposedly crushing any livelihoods, which were then based on fraud?
Randi: No, and yes. Lots of threats over the years, but no action...
Is it possible to eliminate magical thinking?
Have you ever succeeded in changing someone's beliefs in pseudoscience? Do you think that it is possible to do so in a large scale, to move humanity towards a more rational way of thinking? Sorry for the down tone, but I have plenty of experience in failing to convince people of the falsehood in astrology, homeopathy, acupunture, etc., and very little in succeeding.
Randi: 3 questions... #1, no, it will always be with us to a greater or lesser extent. But so will many other problems, and that doesn’t mean we just give up and ignore them. Firefighters never give up because there will always be a new fire to put out. #2, yes, frequently, judging from the responses we receive. #3, eventually, and that is why I started The James Randi Educational Foundation, in order to continue and expand on the work I have been doing for decades...
I've always wondered
What's your favorite magic trick?
Randi: This is one of those "what's your favorite color" questions... Or "favorite movie, favorite country, favorite song..." If I answered it, would you know what I was talking about? I guess my answer would be “the next trick that would work!” Seriously though, it is probably a mindreading trick I invented involving any book randomly chosen from a bookshelf, and that could be at a bookstore, a library or someone’s home. I have been performing it for many decades.
Your best performance?
Most people know you for your work laying bare the schemes of fraudsters, and not enough people realize that you really are as good as your stage name. What's the best show you've ever performed that's been recorded and how can we see it?
Randi: I've no idea, really. I've been performing for more than 75 years, and I've done thousands of performances, of which only a very small fraction were recorded. I guess that favorites would include my appearance on Happy Days, or performing the first card trick from outer space with astronaut Ed Lu. But again, there were so many that it is hard to say.
Tell a good anecdote
I ask all the "computer programmer" interview types for their proudest chunk of code, in your case I'm just asking for the coolest anecdote / story / bust / event. Not a one liner and not a novel, just a paragraph or so about the coolest most interesting single incident / anecdote you were involved in. Here's one paragraph on your coolest/favorite single incident.
Randi: I am happy to say that I share a number of such anecdotes in the new feature length documentary being made about me called An Honest Liar. Take a look!
While we all hope you will live as long as possible and continue your work, do you think that somebody will pick up your legacy and continue to debunk the fraudsters when you are not longer able to? Do you have trusted people to whom you are willing to hand over the responsibility, both financially and skill-wise?
Randi: I'll depend on my team at the JREF continuing after I'm no longer here, and I trust that it will. (It needs your support to do so, and I’m unapologetic saying so.) The JREF is a great group of people who are in line with my way of thinking, and care about continuing the unique work, including JREF president D.J. Grothe who is helping take the organization to new heights; my longtime friend the magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, who is a JREF Senior Fellow; Banachek who runs our Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge (video), and the rest of our wonderful staff, volunteers and supporters. And there are many others, like the great Penn and Teller, skeptic Michael Shermer, and the people who come to The Amaz!ng Meeting each year.