The title says “conjurer” and not “magician” because that’s what James “The Amazing” Randi preferred. To the mentalist, escape artist, and sleight-of-hand practitioner, a conjurer was someone who used deception to create the appearance of the impossible, while magicians claim they can do it for real.
That distinction was an important one for Randi, who practiced skepticism in his work even as a teenager, like when he exposed a Toronto pastor who claimed to read minds. In his 20s, Randi wrote horoscopes for a local tabloid that consisted of old entries, mixed up and placed under random astrological signs, to show the power of subjective validation and the Barnum effect. No one noticed the difference.
In 1972, the year before he performed on the “Billion Dollar Babies” tour (as Alice Cooper’s executioner), Randi first publicly called out self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. Geller, Randi asserted, was doing the same kind of tricks he did, but bilked sincere people out of their money by claiming he really had supernatural powers. Bending spoons seemingly without touching them was one of Geller’s staple acts, a fairly simple trick for most conjurers, as Randi demonstrated on one of his staggering 32 appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Concerned with what he saw as a growing irrationality in the American public, philosopher Paul Kurtz founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now just the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, or CSI) in 1976, along with Randi, Isaac Asimov, legendary science communicator Carl Sagan, and more. CSI’s flagship Skeptical Inquirer magazine is still published today, and the group annually holds its CSICon event in Las Vegas during October, and drew more than 600 people in 2019.
The birth of CSI marked the start of the U.S. “organized skepticism” movement, a grassroots effort by enthusiasts and interested scientists to educate the public about science, and to teach the use of critical thinking to avoid being fooled. Since then, dozens (if not hundreds) of skeptical organizations have sprung up worldwide, many with their own journals and outreach efforts.
That’s why James Randi’s life matters. Here’s why his death matters.
I moved to the New York City suburbs in 2006 to concentrate on my career and to build a life on my own. I still subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer and the Skeptics Society’s Skeptic magazine, but had pretty much given up any ambition of contributing to the movement I might have ever had.
I don’t remember how, in 2012, I found out that Randi was appearing in Manhattan at something called NECSS, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. He regularly wrote for both of the big magazines, and I had read one of his classic books in college, so I figured I should go see him. I mean, the guy was 84; it would probably be my only chance (little did I know).
By the time I got there, the conference was well underway, so I decided to just stand in the back by the entrance (go ahead and take another look at my profile pic, and you can Waldo me in the below image). Randi talked about lots of things, mostly in his usual, jovial manner, but got very somber when speaking of Peter Popoff.
Popoff was a so-called faith-healer, who claimed God worked through him to cure the sick and the injured whom medical science couldn’t help. He dazzled the crowds at his revivals by guessing what plagued each person, and then dramatically “healing” them, to thunderous cheers. At one such gathering, Randi was able to tune it to the frequency Popoff’s wife was sending to his earpiece, relaying that information to him in a very earthly, non-miraculous way, and he played those tapes on The Tonight Show.
It was a victory for truth and justice, but it didn’t help the victims any. The normally boisterous Randi spoke very softly when recounting how Popoff’s wife told him to keep his hands off the tits of the “big black nigger in the wheelchair,” and how the families of desperate children on crutches followed Popoff around the country, always hoping they’d be healed next, not realizing that Popoff deliberately steered clear, because he knew he couldn’t do anything to help them.
“What kind of people are these?!” Randi would eventually yell, breaking the quiet with righteous rage.
That day I decided — I didn’t know how, but one way or another — I had to get involved. Eight years later, I’m a regular online columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, president of the New York City Skeptics (one of the co-presenters of NECSS), and I’ve published over 350 articles about science and skepticism in pop culture, by more than 60 authors, for AIPT.
I don’t tell this story because I think I’m special; just the opposite. In almost 50 years of activism, Randi inspired innumerable people to get off their asses and work toward making a difference.
And now, sadly yet inevitably, he’s gone. But the work isn’t over.
Randi was a rallying point for all of us, someone we felt a connection with and knew we could always depend on. It might be easy to say the “skeptical movement” is now rudderless, but to be quite frank, it was in disarray long before October 20. The stakes are too high for this to continue.
As a culture and a people, we’re continually beset by conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine nonsense, climate change denial, and, God help us all, Tom DeLonge’s UFO insanity. Geller and even Popoff rebounded from Randi’s exposés, though thankfully not to the degrees of success they once enjoyed. Nevertheless, the fact that some still follow them, despite their tricks having been so thoroughly and decisively revealed, shows how motivated people can be to believe what they sincerely want to be true.
There aren’t many elder statesmen of organized skepticism left, so if we’re to continue providing this special service, kind of a Consumer Reports of the mind, in a time when it’s perhaps more needed than ever, we can’t rely on the old guard to lead us and inspire others to join.
And we can’t rely on the old methods, either. More than 45 years in, they clearly haven’t been sufficient, and there doesn’t seem to be much desire in adapting to new media environments, or changing how we speak to the public. I’m not claiming to have all the answers (or maybe even any), but these are discussions that need to be had on high levels of the fractured skeptical community.
Asimov’s colleague in both science fiction and weird interests, Arthur C. Clarke, wrote a book called Childhood’s End, about a time when humanity would have to give up its young view of the world and transform into something different. Organized skepticism may have reached this point, with the loss of one of its last parental figures.
Now’s the time to use what they’ve taught us to forge our own, 21st century identity. It’s time to do more inspiring than being inspired.
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