The Amazing James Randi

Famed sceptic James Randi will be in Adelaide for a special screening of the documentary about his life, An Honest Liar.

Randi used to be a successful magician known as The Amazing Randi. The former Canadian would break Houdini’s world records and was a TV star in the United States. Then he retired from magic. But his career since then has been even more fantastic than his initial vocation. Randi is the paranormal conman’s greatest enemy, a debunker of pseudoscience and of psychics and of magicians who claim they aren’t using tricks. He stands up for reason, for logic. Now 86, the founder of the James Randi Educational Fund (which is responsible for the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge – an unclaimed prize offered to applicants who can demonstrate supernatural abilities under scientific observation) will be back in Australia to accompany the documentary, An Honest Liar. Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, An Honest Liar is a warts-and-all look at the life of the famous sceptic with Randi partaking in fireside chats after the film, which includes a screening at RiAus in Adelaide. The film shows some of Randi’s infamous investigations that publicly exposed faith healers and magicians such as Peter Popoff and Randi’s nemesis, the magician Uri Geller, who surprisingly makes an appearance in the documentary. “When they [the filmmakers] told me, ‘Should we invite Uri Geller?’ I said absolutely, get him to sit down in front of your cameras and if it helps the film, do it,” Randi tells The Adelaide Review via Skype. “What I found out though, was that, and this is a warning to the wise, one of the most dangerous places on earth is the space between Uri Geller and a TV camera because once the TV camera is on it’s so fast. It’s a blur. You don’t see him coming. He sticks his face right into the lens immediately with a big smile.” Randi, who exposed Geller on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, believes the public is always anxious for magic of some kind. “We’re talking about conjuring tricks now, I’m talking about what a magician would do if he really had magic powers and they want to believe it is real. As a matter of fact, I run into a lot of arguments with people following my lectures, and I lecture all over the world. People come to me after the show congratulating me. They say that was very good when you did such and such, that’s a very good trick that you did. I use tricks during my lectures to demonstrate that they to can be fooled. “The tricks are mentalism tricks, then they’ll say something like, ‘When you told that woman her phone number and you had never met her before, now that was the real thing, right?’ No, no, no – there are ways of doing it. Then they get insulted. They will walk away because they can’t believe what I did was actually done by trickery. They think I’m lying to them and refusing to be level with them, which is never the case. In question periods like that, that’s when I’m reduced to the truth. And I insist on representing it correctly.” The book Randi is currently working on is A Magician in the Laboratory, where he investigates laboratories around the world that have announced supernatural and paranormal findings. “In many cases they will look at the evidence [that Randi presents them], shake their head and say, ‘I never thought of that before but I still believe our solution is correct’. They will not change it because they are looking at a person with no academic standing, this little fella right here [Randi]. They seem to think, ‘Do you have a PhD? No, well we don’t have to listen to you then.’” Are these organisations mainly church-based laboratories? “Not necessarily; they’re church-based people. I fear for them, of course, because I’m a rabid atheist by the way, I don’t press it on other people. No, not at all. Everybody can have their own belief system. But I don’t see any evidence for deities or angels. Witches? Well, yes, maybe because I’ve got a woman down the street who I swear is a witch, no question,” he jokes. Randi says one of his greatest achievements was to expose Peter Popoff as a fraud with his book Faith Healers and a television special. Randi’s team detected a radio frequency, which proved that the televangelist was not getting information from God to heal his flock but rather his wife via a mini radio receiver hidden in his ear. “He knows very well what he’s doing. It’s a total fake and we exposed him on NBC Television here in the United States thoroughly in such a way that Johnny Carson, after his retirement, would call me about once every two weeks and would say, ‘Randi what’s going on, Popoff is back on television?’ I kept on telling him, ‘John, he’s an unsinkable rubber duck. People will not listen to what we told them and what we proved to them. That he was using a radio transmitter to get this information.’ And we proved it beyond any shadow of a doubt but people don’t want to know that. And so many people will turn away from me and say, ‘That may be true Mr Randi but I still believe’. They walk away; turn their back on me and walk away with a half-smile on their face because they need to believe. It’s not that they want to believe. In many cases they need to have this sort of bizarre belief.” Why do they need to have this belief? Is it simply because they are afraid of death and the unknown? “Yes. They don’t want death to happen. They want the angels to carry them away to some strange place. I have no interest in it whatsoever. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not going there. I may go down rather than up.” An Evening With James Randi The Science Exchange (RiAus) Monday, December 1 thinkinc.org.au/jamesrandi

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