09 Dec 2014
James Randi, star sceptic and subject of the documentary An Honest Liar, is dedicated to exposing magicians and spoonbenders. Is he guilty of a little sleight of hand himself?
Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
There are few public figures who’ve had decades of an almost perfectly positive press, as James Randi has. The 87-year-old debunker of the paranormal was Richard Dawkins before God invented Richard Dawkins – angry, verbally aggressive, a hero to the kinds of people who don’t believe in Big Foot and are rational enough to become sleepless with fury at the brainlessness of the idiots who do.
Author and thinker Isaac Asimov once claimed Randi’s “qualifications as a rational human being are unparalleled”, whilst the New York Times has called him our “most celebrated living debunker”. More recently he’s been the star of an award winning documentary film telling his incredible story.
Originally a magician and escapologist known as The Amazing Randi he graduated, as a young man, to the more serious business of exposing con-men and the self-deluded who claim supernatural powers. His long life and career has been devoted to the pursuit of truth above all else. The film An Honest Liar dramatically recounts his brilliant exposés of celebrity spoon-benders and faith healers. Along the way we’re told Randi is on a “crusade to try to change the world” and that he is “in love with the truth.”
The man himself explains “magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re going to fool you and they do it.” But there’s another side to the legend that will be rather less apparent to the average viewer. James Randi, the honest liar, has been caught being anything but.
This became apparent to me over the course of a few months as I researched his life for a book about irrational beliefs. Having spent time with creationists, homeopaths and people who swore that wig wearing aliens could be found playing the roulette wheel in Las Vegas casinos, I began to notice there also were plenty of people in the sceptical-atheist movement who seemed to suffer from the same biases and accidents of reasoning as the eccentrics.
I decided to take the story of the movement’s pioneer as a kind of case study. Could it be true that the icon of the truth-fetishising sceptic movement was, himself, a liar?
Randi has certainly been a controversial figurehead. I’d heard rumours he’d once declared himself doubtful of the science behind climate change, which seemed to me a sceptical step too far. And then there were his startlingly intolerant comments about drug users. Writing on his blog, Randi announced himself to be pro-legalisation, because “the principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself.” Those who decided to use them, he wrote, “would simply do so and die” and “any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish” were “crocodile tears, in my opinion.”
But the first thing I discovered about The Amazing Randi is that he certainly has been amazing. Born in Toronto in 1928, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge’s life changed aged 12 when he saw a magician named Harry Blackstone Snr. He was electrified. But it was Harry Houdini that really lit his competitive fire.
As an escapologist Randi escaped from a straight-jacket dangling over Niagara Falls, phoned his mother from inside a coffin in Halifax harbour and, in 1974, won a Guinness World Record for lying naked in a slab of ice for 43 minutes and eight seconds. As his celebrity grew, he toured with Alice Cooper and made a guest appearance with The Fonz on Happy Days.
Randi’s guest appearance on Happy Days (screen shot taken from An Honest Liar)
But his true fame came, not as the talented magician he undoubtedly was, but as a debunker. His involvement with Uri Geller’s 1973 appearance on The Tonite Show Starring Johnny Carson was typical in its brutal effectiveness. Geller was perhaps the most famous magician in the world, at that time, known for bending spoons and fixing watches with the powers of his mind which he repeatedly insisted were real. Randi was invited to advise programme’s staff in advance of Geller’s stunt, which involved moving his hand over an array of seven metal canisters and sensing which one contained water.
Randi told the team they should supply their own props and guard them absolutely from Geller and his people. Gellar began his trick as Carson leaned over his desk, fascinated. Nothing happened. “I’m having a hard time with you,” said Geller. He continued trying. A dark look fell across his face. “Let me rest a minute.” He leaned his chin in his hands and glowered at the canisters. They cut to an ad break. When they returned, in front of millions of viewers, Geller had given up.