James Randi is the sort of guy who has to have the biggest asteroid in the room. Without him, we might do something ridiculous like walk into Sharper Image and buy a laundry ball, a great leap forward in alchemy that purports to eliminate the need for Tide. Without him, we might buy Natural Nytol to help us sleep. Without him, we're all just suckers.
"I know how to fool people because I know how people fool themselves," Randi says. He prefers to enlighten rather than trick, except when he's exhibiting his prodigious legerdemain as the Amazing Randi. He made his bones with magic before following that greatest of magicians, Harry Houdini, down the path of exposing "paranormal" fraud.
From his home in Plantation Acres, where he is preparing for the four-day Media, Myth, and Magic conference in Fort Lauderdale (he will be joined by MIT professor and futurist Marvin Minsky, illusionist Jerry Andrus, astronomer Jack Horkheimer, and others) Randi struggles to name the biggest con currently being perpetrated on gullible Americans. "A difficult choice," he says, "like choosing the prettiest sunset."
Randi rose to prominence in the Seventies when he exposed psychic spoon bender Uri Geller as a phony. Geller, somewhat remarkably, is still around, operating a Website and planning a "prayer day" in mid-August. "Homer Simpson has a Website, too," scoffs the skeptic extraordinaire. "The problem is that we try to explain the human mind by using the human mind. It's like using a typewriter to type the instructions on how to use the typewriter. We think all opinions are valid."
His sarcasm and skepticism are not to be construed as negative. "I'm an investigator, not a debunker," explains Randi. "I like to kick the tires before I buy the car. You have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I've thrown out a lot of bathwater over the years and haven't found a single baby yet."
Alternative healing, he notes, is dangerous and wildly prevalent in Florida. And scams abound: Copper bracelets do not cure cancer. The laundry ball is just acrylic and water -- you could use a golf ball, a tennis ball, or no ball at all and get the same results.
Always willing to demonstrate his findings, Randi recently gulped down a whole bottle of Natural Nytol in front of the Broward Medical Association. He did not feel the urge to nap.
Meanwhile, an asteroid was recently named after Randi. "It's bigger than Arthur C. Clarke's," he says. "Of course, I pointed that out to him. On August 15 I'll be sending out negative vibrations. I'll have my asteroid drop in Uri Geller's back yard!"