Yesterday, the magician turned fraud debunker and scientific skeptic James Randi passed away aged 92. The announcement was made by the James Randi Educational Foundation, who wrote "we are very sad to say that James Randi passed away yesterday, due to age-related causes. He had an amazing life. We will miss him."
Randi leaves behind his long-time partner Deyvi Peña.
Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge on August 7, 1928, Randi first became a magician under the name The Amazing Randi. He performed stage magic as well as escape acts around the world, notably breaking one of Harry Houdini's records on live TV by remaining in a sealed metal coffin submerged in a swimming pool for 104 minutes.
After a long career as a magician, Randi turned his attention to what would become his life legacy of debunking fraudsters, be they psychics, faith healers, or just people who claimed they could bend spoons with their mind when really they were doing so with their thumbs.
His first big foray into this field came in 1972 when he aimed to debunk well-known "psychic" Uri Geller. Geller is best known for bending spoons and claiming the magic tricks he performs are actually the result of paranormal and psychic powers.
James Randi accused Geller of being a fraud publicly, using magic tricks that he could easily replicate, which he did on many occasions. When Geller was due to appear on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked for Randi's help to "prevent any trickery", being a skeptic himself. Randi snapped up the chance and advised Carson on how to prepare props, and to keep the props away from Geller and his team.
The result, for Geller, was an absolute car crash from start to finish. After arriving on stage and being presented with props he hadn't had access to, he began making excuses for why he couldn't perform that night, including that he "didn't feel strong".
Randi went on to debunk many other people that called themselves psychics, offering $10,000 to anybody who could demonstrate under controlled conditions that they have the ability they said they do. One such person was James Hydrick, who claimed to be able to move paper with his telekinetic abilities but was actually merely blowing the pages of a phone book with his mouth.
Randi was able to expose this by merely placing lightweight packaging around the phone book, which would move if Hydrick was blowing rather than using supernatural powers. Of course, Hydrick was unable to perform his trick and blamed a lapse in his abilities.
"I've gone through many hundreds of these tests with many hundreds of people who claim to have psychic powers," Randi said during the show. "And quite frankly it's more or less the same story every time: When a simple, direct, very uncomplicated protocol is used, and the control is applied, the psychic forces don't seem to be present, if indeed they are ever present at all."
Randi wasn't just a debunker of magicians, but also people pretending to be psychics. In one famous case, he allowed "faith healer" Peter Popoff to perform his psychic act, before playing back an audio recording of Popoff's wife feeding him information through an earpiece, which Randi had obtained using a radio scanner.
Randi always put his money where his mouth is and offered a prize through his foundation of $1,000,000 to anyone who could prove a supernatural ability under scientific testing. Not one person has made it through Randi's first round of tests.
Later on in life, he turned his eye to homeopathy, again offering $1,000,000 to anybody who could prove it is effective and to "win back your reputation" while you're at it. To win the money, all they had to do is prove that drugs that have been diluted until they have no trace of the active ingredient are in any way more effective than just plain water. As Randi stated, no homeopathic medicine has been shown to be effective, and his money remains safe.
Always the showman, he would regularly take massive overdoses of homeopathic sleeping pills, before explaining why homeopathic medicine doesn't do a thing.
We'll leave you with a key quote from his talk, showcasing his funny, performative side, as well as his natural ability to teach us all to be a little more skeptical, for which he'll be remembered for many years to come.
"I forgot to tell you that. I just ingested six and a half days worth of sleeping pills," he told the audience to nervous laughter. "Keep your seats – it's going to be okay. I don't really need [medical attention] because I've been doing this stunt for audiences all over the world for the last eight or 10 years, taking fatal doses of homeopathic sleeping pills."
"What is homeopathy?" he explains to his audience. "It's taking a medicine that really works and diluting it down well beyond Avogadro's limit. Diluting it down to the point where there's none of it left.
"Now folks, this is not just a metaphor I'm going to give you now, it's true. It's exactly equivalent to taking one 325 milligram aspirin tablet, throwing it into the middle of Lake Tahoe, and then stirring it up, obviously with a very big stick, and waiting two years or so until the solution is homogeneous. Then, when you get a headache, you take a sip of this water, and – voila! – it is gone. Now that is true. That is what homeopathy is all about."
"And another claim that they make – you'll love this one – the more dilute the medicine is, they say, the more powerful it is. Now wait a minute, we heard about a guy in Florida. The poor man, he was on homeopathic medicine. He died of an overdose. He forgot to take his pill."