On Wednesday, news broke that James Randi, renowned magician turned debunker of all things psychic and paranormal, had died earlier in the week at the age of 92. A charismatic showman and escapologist in the tradition of Harry Houdini, Randi would remake himself in his post-performance career as a skeptical investigator of the pseudosciences, ultimately launching the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation to support his research.
I was fortunate enough to meet “The Amazing” Randi at his Plantation home in 2013 for the Boca magazine feature “Can You Read My Mind?” about local psychic mediums. I was astonished by his second-story library of books about magic and all things supernatural, and he even performed a little “mind reading” on me. Here is the excerpt from that feature, which went on to win a Florida Magazine Association award the following year.
Of course, there is another side to the “other side”—those who believe it doesn’t exist. They dismiss claims of the afterlife and consider psychic ability to be the pseudoscientific bunk of charlatans and mentalists. One of the country’s most prominent deniers is 85-year-old James Randi, a South Florida resident who has been throwing a wet blanket over the work of popular psychics since 1996 through his nonprofit, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).
Randi knows a thing or two about tricking people. Before retiring at 60, he had spent more than four decades as a magician and escapologist. During his time as “The Amazing Randi,” he accrued two Guinness records: for encasing himself in a block of ice for 55 minutes and for locking himself in an underwater casket for an hour and 44 minutes. He was prompted to start his foundation after being asked to field questions about the validity of popular psychics like John Edward and Uri Geller.
He accuses psychics of three deceptive methods: cold reading (throwing out a random name or initial during gallery readings and seeing where it goes), warm reading (basing a reading on a person’s physical appearance and mannerisms) and hot reading (obtaining information about a person beforehand). He revels in exposing the psychics he believes are frauds; his foundation’s website is updated weekly with videos revealing predictions by Edward or Sylvia Browne that turned out to be false.
A witty, gnomish atheist with a trademark Viking beard and unruly eyebrows, Randi lives in a two-acre property in Plantation that he shares with his partner Deyvi, a modern artist from Venezuela. He led me up his staircase, drinking coffee from a mug that said, “I’m a coffee mug now, but in a previous existence I was a beautiful Ming dynasty vase … yeah, sure.” Upstairs sat his colossal Isaac Asimov Library, a treasure trove of some 4,000 offbeat books, organized by author and topic, from abductions to witchcraft. Some may find compelling evidence in many of these books; for Randi, they’re all fuel for his skeptical fire.
Randi’s strongest defense of his position is the JREF Million-Dollar Challenge, a still-unclaimed monetary prize for anyone that can prove psychic ability under supervised, third-party scientific conditions. There have been hundreds of official, notarized applications, but none have passed the preliminary test to move on to the “official” test.
“We don’t say that anything doesn’t exist,” Randi says. “We simply say, if you say it does exist, prove it. If you were offering a million dollars for somebody to do something like running a sewing machine, something you do every day to make a living, wouldn’t you think you’d have a line outside your door?”
A lot of psychics do not take Randi seriously. In her book Impossible Realities, paranormal advocate Maureen Caudill writes that “I have a friend who is an amazing psychic, and he actually applied for that challenge. Before he could be accepted to go for the million-dollar prize, he had to go through an increasing series of tests, and repeatedly, the criteria for the tests were changed as he accomplished more and more. … Realizing that anyone who demonstrated any real psychic talent would always be weeded out, my friend gave up.”
When asked to respond to this passage, Randi denied the charge, saying, “These people never name anybody. They just say, I have a friend, and they make this kind of description.” (I e-mailed Caudill twice asking for the name of her friend; while she did respond, she never provided the friend’s name.)
At any rate, when Randi’s number is up, he’ll be resting easy and expecting nothing: “I just believe we die, and that’s the end of it.”