The honest deceiver: the life and times of The Amazing Randi

My post this week will be about one of the people I admire the most – James Randi. Indeed, his photo appears at the top of my blog on the left. Who is James Randi? Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born on August 7, 1928 in Canada. He has had two careers – fist as a magician –The Amazing Randi and then as a debunker. As I have pointed out before, these two activities are in fact related. I looked at the relationship between magic and scepticism in a previous post, Smoke and mirrors. Their training in deception enables magicians to see through the tricks employed by those engaged in the paranormal. These charlatans are often able to fool professional scientists, but find magicians much harder to fool.

Randi’s career as a professional stage magician and escapologist began just after WWII. Initially, he used his real name, Randall Zwinge. But he later dropped this in favour of “The Amazing Randi.” Early in his career, he specialised in escapology. On February 7, 1956, he appeared live on NBC’s Today show, where he remained for 104 minutes in a sealed metal coffin that had been submerged in a hotel swimming pool, breaking Harry Houdini’s record of 93 minutes. He also hosted numerous television specials and went on several world tours. He worked with Alice Cooper on his 1973–1974 Billion Dollar Babies tour, designing and building a number of several of the stage props, including the guillotine. He also played a mad scientist and Cooper’s executioner. And in a 1976 Canadian TV special, Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls.

Randi eventually decided that he was too old for this malarkey and began his second career as a debunker. He is the co-founder of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi is a sceptic who puts his money where his mouth is – since 1964 he has been offering a prize anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls. It currently stands at one million dollars. Unsurprisingly, nobody has claimed the prize yet. In this video you can see Randi in action debunking Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff, an American telepreacher. It’s well worth watching.

There are a number of interesting themes raised by Randi’s work. The case of Popoff is illustrative. After being exposed by Randi Popoff went into bankruptcy. You would have thought that his career would have been over. Alas, that is not the case. He has recovered from the scandal and he continues to preach. His website sells holy water. I know that the USA is the land of second chances and reinventing yourself, but this is ridiculous. What fascinates me is the mindset of those who follow him now. What more evidence do they require that he is charlatan? I would like to know how Popoff was able to stage such a comeback. That would make an excellent topic for another post.

The other funny thing is that many of his opponents actually accuse Randi of actually having psychic powers, and using them to perform acts such as spoon bending. One believer in psychic phenomena thought that Randi may be a psychic without realising it. And a professor charged that he was intentionally fooling the public:

“You’re a fraud because you’re pretending to do these things through trickery, but you’re actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.”

One of Randi’s most famous stunts was in 1988, when he coached stage performer José Alvarez to pretend he was channelling a two-thousand-year-old spirit named “Carlos”. Even after being shown that it was a hoax, many believers refused to accept that “Carlos” was not real. Such is the power of cognitive dissonance, the way we try to justify or rationalise ideas that have been proved wrong. This seems to be less painful than admitting that we were mistaken.

There is an interesting backstory to “Carlos”. José Alvarez was at that time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and Randi’s assistant. He was also Randi’s boyfriend. Randi did not come out until 2010, in a blog post. On September 8, 2011 José Alvarez was arrested by United States Department of State agents. He confessed that his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, and that he had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa after fleeing persecution in Venezuela for his homosexuality. After a complex legal process Peña has been allowed to stay in the country. He is in a kind of limbo. He still has his Venezuelan passport with his birth name, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States. The immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him, but if leaves the country, he will not be allowed to return. Like everything else in Randi’s life, nothing is what it appears. How much he knew about the real identity of his partner is unclear. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington on July 2, 2013.

James Randi is a national treasure. The BBC recently broadcast a Storyville documentary about him, Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, which shows Randi debunking faith healers, fortune tellers and psychics. I strongly recommend you check it out.



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