Sam Nicholls holds an MSc in Astrophysics from Leeds University.
James Randi - His Amazing Role in the Great Psi Media Circus
by Sam Nicholls (1991)
Of all the powerful establishment mechanisms opposing paranormal phenomena the scientists' case would seem to have the most credence, and it is interesting to study the tactics used in some detail. With the advent of innovative theories from disciplines such as physics, biology and information science, the feasibility of forming a framework for Psi is increasing and thus the main attack has been redirected to 'exposing' sensitives as mere charlatans who use standard conjuring tricks to hoodwink researchers. Thus academic sceptics rely increasingly on professional magicians to do their 'dirty work'. The most prominent of these is the American illusionist, James 'The Amazing' Randi, whose books, articles and TV appearances have earned him much kudos within the scientific community, as well as, presumably, considerable wealth.
A Young Pseudo-Psychic
Born Randall Zwinge in Toronto in 1928, 'Randi' was a child prodigy who devoted his teenage years exclusively to the art of deception. In his early twenties he achieved local celebrity status by posing briefly as a psychic, imitating telepathic, clairvoyant and precognitive abilities; whether he was exposed or not is uncertain, but it is clear that he became a regular magician and within ten years was renowned as one of the best escapologists in the world, following in the footsteps of his idol, Houdini. Like the latter, he developed an unquenchable distrust towards mediums - he has since expended a large part of his energies endeavouring to expose them all as fraudulent.
A Compilation of Con Tricks
Whereas earlier magicians such as Houdini, Maskelyne and Goldstone had reluctantly admitted that some mediumship was indeed genuine, Randi has exhibited an almost fanatical dislike and used unprecedented tactics to deny the existence of any paranormal occurrences. His first book contained an appalling catalogue of misrepresentations, bogus media articles, deceptive accounts of sham duplications and outright fabrications: comparing his accounts with those of the researchers and psychics he maligns, it seems he either quotes fabricated stories from other sources (very often his own friends) or makes them up himself.
Psi-Cops on the Beat
In the 1970's scientists became alarmed at the growth of belief in the occult, particularly with the emergence of TV personalities such as Uri Geller and Doris Stokes. Gradually their colleagues were confirming in laboratory trials that psychic feats were absolutely genuine. In James Randi they found a superb 'hatchet man', capable and eager to destroy performers and their scientific investigators alike. In an interview Randi confessed that he had lost $15,000 in one year alone because colleges openly backed out of contracts when their students preferred to watch Geller. Soon a bizarre organisation had been formed with the unusual mixture of scientists and magicians - it was called the CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and Randi, as one of the ultra hard-liners, was given a place on the Inner Council.
In spite of a whole series of suppressions, distortions and outright cover-ups the organisation remains a real factor to be reckoned with, both in the scientific literature and in media coverage. One of the stated aims was to pressurise producers into allowing at least one of their members to take part in any televised discussion programmes on the paranormal, with the aim of using scientific knowledge to bombard the guest psychic and thus obscure the issues in the public mind - in this they have been outstandingly successful.
According to Keith 'Blue' Harary, who is both a proven psychic and a scientist, their aim is to
'control your access to information and interpretation, to walk a beat upon your mind.'
The conclusion is obvious: CSICOP is controlled by people who regard the issues as political rather than scientific.
Randi himself has enjoyed the widest exposure of them all; so successful has been his bag of tricks that he has even played an indirect role in closing down one parapsychological laboratory (MACLAB). He has frequently boasted that he can copy all psychic abilities and has done so in front of scientists. However, those who have studied his 'duplications' closely have noted that he rarely makes any attempt to do them under the same conditions as the psychic had; furthermore, his 'demonstrations' in front of scientists were done in very relaxed conditions, indeed in front of non-specialists. Worse still, he claims to be a journalist and then performs his rather childish tricks without the scientists even watching - and then claims that he has fooled them!
A Self-Confessed Liar
To be fair, he has never claimed to be anything other than a showman, best expressed by his own remark,
'I am a charlatan, a liar, a thief and a fake altogether.'
However, those he has maligned find it less amusing and persistent rumours of forthcoming libel cases would seem to be entirely justified. Perhaps more importantly still, the mischief caused by his unsupported explanations can be profound; the effect is to cloud the issues as his 'debunkings' become part of the public lore. It is thus particularly unfortunate that so many top-ranking scientists, desperate to ignore evidence to the extent that they will believe almost anyone who opposes the paranormal, still appear to take his views seriously, quoting his research as if it were really credible.
$1O,OOO Psychic Challenge
In 1964 parapsychologists, bored with Randi's denunciations of psychics, challenged him to 'put his money where his mouth was.' There followed his offer of a $10,000 reward to anyone who could succeed in conditions of his choosing - it has become a most effective gimmick. Over the years he has shown some swift footwork in adjusting conditions to hold on to his money. His present offer guarantees this with several special clauses - translated, the psychic must allow Randi to:
selectively report all the results and records in order to ensure that he keeps his money;
seriously harm them emotionally, physically and financially, where necessary, with impunity: when asked recently if he would apologise in the event of a psychic being killed under his control, Randi snarled facetiously, 'I'd say a little more than that (sorry)';
finally, the psychic must 'agree upon what will constitute a conclusion that he/she does not possess the claimed ability or powers. This will be a major consideration in accepting or rejecting claimants.' Does this mean that the performer must agree to being declared fraudulent even if he/she succeeds in the tests? If not, why use such ambiguous wording in a legal document?
It is thus not too surprising that all contenders have failed to obtain Randi's cash over twenty-five years, although a great deal of their own time, money and reputations have been lost.
The 'Open Media' Shambles (1991)
In recent years Randi has found it increasingly hazardous to obtain television airtime, as his methods have become widely known. A couple of years ago, one prime-time British television appearance was abruptly cancelled when knowledgeable paranormal enthusiasts managed to infiltrate the audience. So childishly obvious was his duplication of metal-bending that some of them erupted on to the stage, demanding a right of reply; when this plea was rejected, they stopped the show, causing Randi to beat a humiliating retreat back across the Atlantic.
The return of Randi has been facilitated by the Open Media team, who have produced programmes about magicians recently. They were allowed to film much of the series in the Granada Television studios - what a fabulous setting in which to trap the best of British psychics! The set-up was ideal: he could claim to be the chosen investigator, designing and executing 'scientific' tests. Banking on the general level of disinterest within the psychic community about scientific investigators, he could destroy all the leading British psychics in one fell swoop! As an extra safeguard, the guest psychics would be kept in ignorance about the level of Randi's participation until the last moment: most would be invited by telephone so that no incriminating written evidence would be available - in this way even those aware of his appalling career would be lured into the lion's den.
Film-Flam! Randi's TV Tricks
My opportunity to study the tactics at close quarters occurred during a recorded session of 'James Randi - Psychic Investigator' recently at Granada's Manchester studios, in the excellent company of veteran researcher and healer George Cranley, medium Sandy Thompson and her husband Dennis. Old James did not seem especially pleased to see us, ignoring our greetings before the show; he had obviously tried hard to keep his audience free of real enthusiasts but we were right in on the action. The following lists some of our observations on what Granada say is a series which 'allows psychics to take part in agreed (scientific) tests to test their psychic ability' and in which 'discussion will be properly balanced'.
Studio audience filled with school and college parties, suitably buttered up before and during the show; in this way he gets a grateful reception and keeps out too many knowledgeable enthusiasts who can see through the facade. In addition, a smattering of young cheerleaders (presumably aspiring magicians or hired by Open Media) were placed strategically to ask prepared questions, shout down anyone who disagreed with Randi, applaud as if in ecstasy, etc. Thus the atmosphere was a curious mixture of a children's TV show on the one hand and a perverse religious ceremony on the other, with Randi playing the High Priest of Orthodoxy sacrificing the reputations of his 'guests' one by one.
Ensure that the panel of experts contain his friends, who can be relied upon to supply punchy derogatory quotes, seemingly worked out in advance.
Where pro-paranormal experts are invited, their answers can be limited by asking brief, loaded questions designed to elicit sceptical answers - should this fail there is always the possibility of either ridiculing their answers or leaving them out at the editing stage. Better still, they can simply be misquoted: at a previous session Professor Arthur Ellison had investigated a psycho-surgeon at work and found 'no evidence of trickery'. But with the cameras on, Randi declared that Ellison had found 'evidence of trickery' - by simply omitting the word 'no' from the autocue Randi had utilised a most economical means of rewriting history.
'Everyone looks for complicated explanations and the explanations are always simple. That's why you don't see them.' - James Randi (1975).
Should a psychic succeed partially, Randi presents a series of rapid-fire questions laying emphasis on the poor aspects of the performance. After an aura-reader had scored only slightly above chance levels during a test, he was immediately hustled into answering 'Why do you think you failed?'
Never let the psychic get comfortable enough to feel settled; the guests were more or less dragged on stage with barely an introduction and then expected to exhibit psychic marvels. There was one exception: a man called Norman Knight, who claimed to have developed a device which could detect thought energy. Having some familiarity with George Meck's Spiricom technology, I was suspicious, especially when he nervously refused to reveal details of the circuit design. Was this a send-up of electronic communications work? I'd put money on it.
According to Randi the experiments were designed by Stanley Krippner, Persi Diaconis, Ray Hyman, Sue Blackmore and himself. But when I pointed out that four of these were active CSICOP members with a track record of destroying paranormal claims, Randi was outraged: 'What is wrong with my experiments?' he protested.
Well, nothing really, except that they were under the control of a professed liar.
The tests themselves demanded a level of ability which would astound most researchers, e.g. one aura reader was asked to read the auras of five people from a distance of several metres, behind a screen! In addition, there was also the possibility of making a last-minute switch, unknown to the audience (this would eliminate the possibility of cheating, using a confederate), yet this seemed to be ruled out subsequently; that makes the experiment either flawed or deceitful. So if the performer fails, Randi wins and if he succeeds, Randi also wins.
When Open Media invited a psycho-surgeon onto the show, no mention was made of the rave reviews he had attracted - even their own investigators were impressed. Mr Randi's solution was simple: he effected one of his specious 'duplications', using, animal organs and blood - of course, he conveniently forgot to point out one crucial fact: it actually works.
Living for Applause
James Randi is a skilled and courageous entertainer; if his involvement in the paranormal was billed as comedy, he would be respected by all and sundry. Instead he has chosen to take on the mantle of a scientific investigator for business reasons; in doing so he has ruthlessly damaged the careers of scores of honest psychics and their researchers. He has survived because of the high level of intolerance among the scientific community and other establishment bodies towards these matters (one agency gave him a grant of nearly $300,000 after he had helped to sabotage the MacDonnell Laboratory).
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Open Media performance was just how many of the bright and youthful audience had been taken in by him. After the show (off camera, of course!) Randi agreed to answer some antagonistic questions; he simply repeated the same tired old lines which have long since been exposed - most of the audience gave him a great round of applause.
Targ & Puthoff: Mind-Reach, Jonathon Cape (1977)
Brian Inglis: 'The Hidden Power, Jonathon Cape (1986)
Targ & Harary: The Mind-Race, Villard (1984)
James Randi: The Magic of Uri Geller, Ballantine Books (1975)
James Randi: Flim-Flam!, Prometheus Books (1982)
Victor Stenger: Physics & Psychics, Prometheus Books (1990)
The Skeptical Inquirer Magazine (various issues), private communications.