The Faces of Miracles

James Randi: the face of expert skeptics

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Table of Contents

James Randi resists being labeled a “debunker.” The legendary magician prefers “scientific investigator.” As he explains, “If I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance.” Instead, he tries to start from a neutral position with an open mind toward the claims being made: “I just don’t know what I’m going to find out. That may end up — and it usually does — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”[1]

On top of the world-wide fame that comes after more than seventy years as a magician (including escaping from a straightjacket suspended upside down over Niagara Falls), The Amazing Randi is also famous for his cash offer to anyone who can demonstrate supernatural powers. He raised his original award of $1,000 to $10,000 in 1964, matching the prize (which was never won) established by the legendary Harry Houdini in 1923. In the 1990s Randi raised his offer to $1 million.[2]

Randi emphasizes that he watches every attempt to win his jackpot with an open mind. “I never claim they don’t have these powers,” he explains. “I just say there is no evidence to support these claims. I say, ‘If it’s so, I’ll give you a million dollars.’ That’s a pretty big carrot.”[3] Not a single applicant has even made it past the initial testing stage. There’s always some some story about why their normally reliable powers desert them at that particular moment. As Randi notes, “They’re always rationalizing. There are always reasons prevailing why they can’t do it… It’s with intense regret that you watch them go down the tubes.”[4]

Randi sees an important difference between a failed attempt at psychic power and positive proof that it exists. It’s the difference between a skeptic and a scientific investigator. To explain the difference, Randi uses the example of Santa and his reindeer. A skeptic says reindeer can’t fly.  “We may assemble one thousand reindeer atop the tallest building in the world and push them off, one at a time, to prove they cannot fly… Based upon my good common sense, I strongly suspect that we would end up with a large pile of very unhappy reindeer in very poor condition. But what have we proven? We have only shown that these particular subjects either could not fly, chose not to fly, or perhaps could not fly on this occasion. We have not shown that there are not eight tiny reindeer at the North Pole who, on one night of the year, can and do fly.” Rather than having to prove a negative, people who believe in flying reindeer have to prove the positive. Believers in psychic powers have to do the same.[5]

Fooling the Audience

James Randi, born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, was fascinated with magic as a boy in Canada. At age twelve he watched in amazement when a magician seemed to make a lady float in the air. He was spellbound by the magic of Harry Blackstone, Sr., and started studying it seriously while recovering from a bicycle accident that left him in a body cast for more than a year. He first questioned claims of miraculous power at fifteen when he saw a preacher collecting information ahead of time to make his congregation think he could read minds. When Randi took the stage and explained the trick, the pastor angrily told him to get out.

Randi left high school to join a carnival, performing as Prince Ibis. He made headlines a few years later by escaping from Quebec City jail. He worked in nightclubs as a paranormalist, always telling the audience he was actually an illusionist with no paranormal powers and was only tricking them to entertain. To his surprise, they didn’t want the truth. They insisted he had paranormal powers. People came up after the show and asked for stock tips. He later explained that if the magician does his job well, the audience wants to be fooled.[6]

What happens, though, when the audience wants to be miraculously healed? What if they take what’s happening too seriously? What happens when faith healers use the same tricks and techniques that magicians use to entertain, and use them instead to deceive, raise false hopes, and dupe the public out of their money?

Miracles and Magic

James Randi is as famous today for unmasking fakers as for his skills as a magician. Though he calls himself a lifelong atheist, Randi has especially little patience with preachers who claim miraculous healing powers. Their abilities are, in Randi’s view, nothing but magic tricks — the power of suggestion, directing an audience’s attention, sleight-of-hand, hidden electronics or other helps — called by another name.

In the case of evangelist W. V. Grant, Randi discovered a deceptively simple technique. Grant collected information about his audience before the service from cards they filled out beforehand or from casual comments with the ushers, then jotted it on slips of paper that looked like bookmarks in his Bible. Seeming to look through his Bible for inspiration, he was actually reading his notes.[7]

Another of Grant’s techniques was that seriously ill people, especially people with obvious organic problems like broken bones, were kept away from the stage and out of sight by ushers. Instead ushers brought up attendees with no obvious physical problems. Ill attendees strong enough to walk in under their own power would be offered wheelchairs for their comfort. When they stood onstage and the preacher dramatically asked, “You don’t need that wheelchair any more, do you?” the answer would be, “No,” because the person hadn’t needed it in the first place.

Even for the disabled who came in their own wheelchairs, Randi questions whether their wheelchairs were necessary. Watching one woman stand and take a few triumphant steps across the floor he asks, “Where’s the evidence she could not walk” before she went up front? Was it a case of not being able to walk or of not walking because it was painful, inconvenient, or slow? Getting up out of a wheelchair was no proof that she walked any better on stage than she had at home the day before.

Randi followed up on a man supposedly healed by W. V. Grant in Atlanta. During the service the man said he was scheduled for heart surgery at a certain time under the care of six doctors. Grant assured the man that “Dr. Jesus” had given him a new heart and he wouldn’t need the operation.  When Randi researched the man’s case a month later, none of the six doctors was in the state medical registry, and the hospital he’d named not only had never scheduled his surgery but didn’t do heart surgery at all. Other “healings” by Grant produced similar results. Not a single person was shown to be actually healed.

“Petie Can You Hear Me?”

In one of his most celebrated cases, Randi uncovered the source of evangelist Peter Popoff’s miraculous ability to know not only a person’s name and illness, but also their address. Popoff seemed to have supernatural powers of discernment in addition to supernatural healing powers. Randi saw through the ruse.[8]

With the help of a colleague, Randi set up a radio receiver in the auditorium where Popoff was holding a service. On the receiver he heard Popoff’s wife giving him cues from backstage through a wireless earpiece. “Petie can you hear me?” she began. “If you can’t, you’re in trouble.” She fed him names, illnesses, and other details, reading information collected from the audience earlier. As she spoke, he repeated her words to the crowd, apparently receiving the information as miraculous messages from a supernatural force.

Randi videotaped the service, added the secret radio messages, and shared the results with a nationwide television audience on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Popoff insisted that the earpiece was to keep in touch with the broadcast technicians, though he later admitted his wife fed him “about half the names.” With his credibility in jeopardy, Popoff appealed to his television followers to send in testimonies about being healed by him. He claimed to receive more than 200,000 replies. Randi wrote to him requesting the best five for independent medical evaluation. Popoff never answered.

Randi’s experiences convinced him that the world of faith healing was “a world filled with fantasy and rife with abuse.” In the 1980s Peter Popoff, though not nearly the most popular or successful healer of his time, took in $4 million per year. After Randi unmasked his scheme, Popoff’s ministry gradually collapsed and he declared bankruptcy in 1987.

Yet like zombies that can’t be killed off, Popoff eventually returned to television with late-night commercials for Miracle Spring Water, which he described as a “biblical tool.” Exuberant customers claimed they had received thousands of dollars in cash, a new Lincoln Navigator, and other miraculous blessings. One claimed that her doctor said she didn’t need any medication; all she needed was Miracle Spring Water.

The water came with a note explaining that “it’s not the water that releases the power, it’s your obedience to the instructions of the prophet of God.” This obedience required seed faith, which is “a purchase order in God’s Storehouse of Plenty… [T]he angels wait to see your SEED FAITH WORK before they can meet your needs. You see, nothing LEAVES HEAVEN until SOMETHING LEAVES YOUR HAND.” That something, Popoff suggests, should be a check for $27 representing faith seed sown in Jesus’s name — returned within 48 hours if at all possible.[9]

Telltale Peanuts

Psychokinesis, the psychic ability to move objects using thought alone, is another kind of miracle claim that James Randi has investigated. Randi doesn’t say psychokinesis is impossible, but he does say he has never seen it done.

He brought his challenge check (then $10,000) to the set of the TV show That’s My Line for an appearance by a 21-year-old psychic named James Hydrick, who said he could move objects without touching them. Hydrick agreed to demonstrate his skill under controlled conditions. If he could make good on his claims, Randi would hand him the check on the air.

Hydrick appeared dressed in a black and white oriental style outfit. He explained to the program host that all people had the power to move objects with their thoughts and only need training to develop it. Then he demonstrated his power by causing a pencil placed on a table to pivot, and by turning pages in a telephone book. In each case he waved his hands around the object, never touching it, until it moved as promised.

After watching Hydrick, Randi said that Hydrick had distracted the audience and then blown on the items to make them move. Randi then took the $10,000 check out of his pocket. A panel of three judges, all scientists, came in and sat nearby. Randi then demonstrated how he could move the pencil exactly as Hydrick had done by blowing on it.

He told Hydrick if he could turn the page in the phone book without blowing on it he would win the $10,000. To test him, Randi scattered Styrofoam peanuts on the table around the phone book. The least breeze or breath would disturb the Styrofoam and reveal any trick. After a minute or two of crouching, weaving, and waving his hands, Hydrick gave up. The page didn’t move.

Hydrick explained that the Styrofoam and the bright lights on the TV stage set up a field of static electricity that interfered with his powers. A scientist on the judging panel explained that there could be no static field as Hydrick described. The psychic walked off in defeat and Randi re-pocketed his check.[10]

Willingness to Believe

In 1986 James Randi won a MacArthur Genius Grant amounting to $272,000. Unfortunately for him, he had to spend most of it defending a liable suit against Uri Geller, an Israeli psychic that Randi sparred with in the media off and on for decades. Geller claimed to have supernatural powers, allowing him to bend metal and perform other feats simply through the power of his mind. His signature demonstration was bending spoons, making them droop just by holding them between his fingers. Geller explained that he “melted the metal down” using only his thoughts. When he wanted the spoon to bend he said, “I just say ‘bend!’”

Randi doubted Geller’s claims. Randi showed how he himself could bend spoons, keys, and other objects with simple sleight-of-hand techniques and advance planning. To “melt” a spoon, he bent it back and forth beforehand, making a weak place in the metal. Then by holding and manipulating the spoon the right way in front of an audience, he could create the illusion that he was bending it.

When Geller was booked to appear on The Tonight Show, host Johnny Carson called Randi for advice on how to make sure there was no cheating. (Carson, an experienced magician himself, had great respect for Randi and invited him on the show more than 30 times.) “I felt that claim had to be challenged,” Randi recalls.

Randi’s advice was for Johnny’s staff to supply all the props used in the demonstration and not to let Uri or his assistants get near them before the broadcast. Geller and Carson agreed on a series of demonstrations including identifying items sealed in an envelope and detecting which of seven closed containers was filled with water. As Geller began, the studio audience sat silently in anticipation.

After several long, increasingly uncomfortable minutes, the show took a commercial break while Geller “rested” and refocused his powers. Finally, after another few minutes Geller admitted, “I’m not feeling strong tonight.” He said he was “feeling pressed” by the situation. During his television appearance on Johnny Carson’s program, Geller could demonstrate absolutely nothing.

Neither this high-profile failure nor Randi’s exposé about Geller’s claims in a book titled The Truth About Uri Geller seemed to affect Geller’s career at the time. Randi was disturbed by America’s interest in the paranormal in the 1970s, concerned about the public’s willingness to believe in the supernatural and psychic explanations even when they defied logic and common sense. “Needless to say,” Randi admits, “my message isn’t always popular.” Uri Geller sued Randi over his accusations and the two fought an expensive legal battle. In the end, Geller won a lawsuit in Japan and was awarded 500,000 yen or about $2,000 in damages.

Randi invited Geller to compete for his $1 million prize, but Geller refused. Years later Geller explained that he declined the invitation because anything that would quiet his critics and make him less controversial would damage his career. He reasserted his belief that reality was “composed of paranormal events every day” even though science could not quantify them. Geller later claimed that he used his career for paranormal study to help Israeli and U.S. intelligence services.[11]

Russian Powers

During the Cold War, while Russia was locked behind the Iron Curtain, James Randi heard tantalizing reports of psychic experiments at the Institute of the Brain in Moscow. Video demonstrations showed Russian psychics turning lights on and off and moving small objects across a table without touching them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Randi went to Moscow to see these miracles for himself – and find out if any of the psychics could prove their powers were real.[12]

One of the first demonstrations he saw was of a psychic who could supposedly change a subject’s brain waves and blood pressure. Randi tested the claim by sitting with the psychic in a room at the far end of a hospital while the subject was monitored by Russian scientists. The scientists didn’t know what the psychic was trying to do while the experiment was under way. The results matched the psychic’s stated objective — blood pressure change, brain wave change, or no change — in one case out of four, which Randi considered the same as blind chance.

Randi believed that the reason for past claims of success was that scientists had been primed to look for a specific result, say lower blood pressure, and found it. The technical term for this is confirmation bias. Previous testing had therefore not been objective. Randi concluded that scientists as well as the rest of us “have an uncanny ability to find what we’re looking for, whether it’s there or not.”

Randi added, “Healing claims are difficult to test. Suggestion alone is psychologically powerful and the body’s immune system can cure most disease without any help whatsoever.”

Another Russian clinic promoted bottles of water with healing properties. Patients flocked to the facility to sit in rooms in front of water bottles to be exposed to their healing energy. When Randi designed a test to see how the water was different from the local tap water, the psychic who “charged” the bottles claimed that they couldn’t be tested because they had been in a room with other bottles that absorbed some of the charge. Then he said that the thinking of scientists in the room affected the charges. No circumstances, therefore, allowed these extremely popular bottles to be scientifically tested. How convenient!

In another case, two women in a Moscow suburb could supposedly derive a detailed biography of someone from only a photograph. They had helped the police solve difficult cases and become local celebrities. To test them, Randi let them choose the subject for their analysis from a box of photos. They picked a black and white picture of a handsome dark-haired man in his thirties. They said he was educated, athletic, and married with a son. Randi expected that their technique was the same as used by palm readers and fortune tellers: carefully observe the subject, start with some general statements, and watch for any reaction that indicates a connection they can build on. Randi resolved to stay as quiet and unresponsive as possible.

After a few minutes the women stalled, saying Randi wasn’t responding to their statements and wasn’t asking questions. Two-thirds of their statements were wrong. The rest were very general and could have been true of almost anyone. The main point they failed to capture was that the man in the photo was Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who murdered more than thirty women and had been executed nearly four years earlier. When they heard the truth, they backpedaled and tried to justify their previous answers: “What I meant was…  That’s almost the same as when I said… The information doesn’t come…” Randi thanked them politely but concluded that they had no paranormal power of any kind.

The Fiction of Faith Healing

Three-fourths of Americans say they’ve had a psychic experience. Despite his reputation as a skeptic and the lack of controlled scientific proof that psychic power exists, Randi doesn’t discount the possibility. Perhaps miracles happen at the discretion of supernatural influences that act only when they are not being scrutinized by a jaundiced scientific eye. Randi does, however, think people should look to the most reasonable explanation first, and for him belief in psychic phenomena is unreasonable. “Why people are so drawn to the irrational is something that has always puzzled me.”[13]

Randi believes people keep coming back to faith healing and psychic power because they want to think they have control over their lives. Astrology, for example, offers advice on the conflicts and challenges of life, though Randi considers it absolute fiction. To prove his point, he got the birthdates of all the students in a college class where he was speaking. At the beginning of his talk, he passed out individual horoscopes to each student and asked how many thought their horoscope was accurate. Almost all the students raised their hands. Then Randi asked them to pass their horoscopes to the student behind them. That’s when the class realized that all the horoscopes were identical[14] — more evidence that astrology, according to James Randi, is “complete woo-woo.”[15]

Randi’s friend and colleague Ray Hyman agrees that the promise of psychic solutions satisfies a deep-seated longing, making it hard for even rational people to let go of irrational beliefs. “We seem to be taking something away and not giving something in return,” he says. “These people want something. They’re looking for something, and I think we have to understand what it is we’re searching for.”[16]

Ray put himself through college as a professional palm reader. He didn’t believe he had any special powers, but to his surprise, he had many happy and satisfied customers. A college friend bet him he would be just as successful if he told people the exact opposite of what he actually “read” in their palms. The first client he treated that way was quiet for so long that he thought the switch was discovered. Then he realized the client “was stunned that I was so accurate.” The lesson Ray learned — and that mind readers, faith healers, palm readers, and all the rest have learned — is that it doesn’t matter what you tell people; what matters is what you can convince them to believe. “If you set people up right, you can tell them almost anything… They can find a way of reinterpreting it so it fits like a glove.”

In the end, clients want psychics to succeed; they want to believe because they want to be better, or in control, or reassured, so they’ll work out some kind of accommodation. The brain is constantly assessing cause and effect so we can know what to expect in our lives.

Defender Against Falsehood

Now in his nineties, James Randi has been slowed in recent years by intestinal cancer but shows no signs that his interest in the world is diminished. In 1996 the James Randi Educational Foundation was established in part to administer Randi’s $1 million prize (in a separate account and backed with bonds). It remains unclaimed. The foundation’s YouTube channel is the tenth most subscribed nonprofit channel of all time, with nearly 40,000 subscribers and more than 5 million views.[17] Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, says of Randi, “So many of those influenced by him just want to debunk for the sake of debunking, but Randi is better. He is a defender of the truth.”[18]

In 2003 Randi held the first annual Amazing Meeting, a weekend to celebrate skepticism, mingle with his admirers from around the world, and give challengers a platform to compete for the $1 million award. That year he was also the recipient of the first annual Richard Dawkins Prize from the Atheist Alliance. His citation read in part, “Demonstrating a nontheist world view in a straightforward manner, Randi has combined entertainment and education while debunking charlatans who would encourage human ignorance.”[19]

Randi purports to be an equal opportunity skeptic. He claims no specific animus toward Christianity. To him, Christian belief is no more realistic or defensible than any other supernatural claim. “Religion is the biggest scam of them all,” Randi says. “I have always been an atheist. I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.” Other people, he says, need religion “because they’re weak. And they fall for authority. They choose to believe because it’s easy.”[20]

After Randi retired from his foundation in 2015, the foundation issued a statement saying it will be converted into a grant-making body supporting non-profits “that we believe are promoting activities that encourage critical thinking and a fact-based world view.” Though it no longer accepts memberships, donations, applications, or grant proposals, it will still award several small grants totaling about $100,000 per year and provide “teachers, parents, and students with the resources they need to promote critical thinking, science appreciation, and information literacy, while raising awareness about the need to critically examine unproven claims.”[21]

That year the foundation also announced that it would continue the million-dollar challenge “but the process for consideration of claims has changed.” A subsequent website update states that the million dollar challenge “has been terminated.”[22]

“A lot of people hate my skepticism,” Randi admits, “and I think I understand why. The psychics offer wonder and endless possibilities in a world that often seems difficult and mundane. They promise health, wealth, wisdom, eternal life.” Randi confidently asserts that it’s not the psychics but the hard-nosed scientists who have come up with the things that improve human life.

“To me science describes a world far more interesting than any psychic fancies. It’s a good world. Not perfect, but it’s ours. So we better learn to live with it the way it is.”[23]

Randi’s colleague and fellow magician André Kole is likewise skeptical of miracle workers. The difference, as we’ll see, is that Kole sees his skepticism as compatible with his Christian faith.

Chapter Notes

[1] Higgenbotham, Adam, “The Disillusionist,” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The God of Skeptics…” Miami News Times, August 27, 2009.

[4] Higgenbotham, op. cit.

[5] Kole, André, and Jerry MacGregor, Mind Games: Exposing Today’s Psychics, Frauds, and False Spiritual Phenomena (Nashville: ACW Press), 2002, pp. 44-45; see Randi tell the story on YouTube.

[6] Biographical background at “The God of Skeptics…” op. cit.

[7] Kole and MacGregor, op. cit., pp. 215-217.

[8] Randi explains his exposure of Peter Popoff in “Secrets of the Psychics with James Randi,” NOVA, 1989 at YouTube; see also Randi’s appearance on The Tonight Show at YouTube.

[9] The website with this information has since been modified; see peterpopoff.org/miraclewater; for a more recent video appeal see www.ispot.tv/ad/IUXl/peter-popoff-ministries-miracle-spring-water.

[10] YouTube video clip.

[11] Ibid. Randi discusses his feud with Uri Geller and shows clips of Geller in action in “Secrets of the Psychics with James Randi,” op. cit. Also click here for YouTube video clip of Geller on The Tonight Show.

[12] All quotations and details of Russian psychics (lab experiments, charged water, photo identification) are from “Secrets of the Psychics with James Randi,” op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “The God of Skeptics…” op. cit.

[16] All quotations and details of Ray Hyman’s palm reading career from “Secrets of the Psychics with James Randi,” op. cit.

[17] James Randi Educational Foundation website at youtube/user/JamesRandiFoundation.

[18] “The God of Skeptics…” op. cit.

[19] James Randi Educational Foundation website web.randi.org/about-james-randi.html.

[20] Higgenbotham, op. cit.

[21] James Randi Educational Foundation website web.randi.org/home/jref-status.

[22] James Randi Educational Foundation website web.randi.org/the-million-dollar-challenge.html.

[23] “Secrets of the Psychics with James Randi,” op. cit.