The God of Skeptics

Heretics, nonbelievers, and doubters worship the Amazing Randi. So what will free thinkers do when he's gone?

Onstage in a spacious Las Vegas banquet hall sits a nervous-looking, dark-haired Danish woman named Connie Sonne. The 46-year-old retired police officer, a well-known psychic in Europe, says she can read playing cards through sealed envelopes. If she can successfully demonstrate her skills in this controlled experiment at the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa, she'll receive $1 million.

A broad-shouldered security guard walks toward the stage, carrying a large manila envelope sealed with duct tape.

Across from Sonne on the stage is a magician named Banachek. Back in 1980, he tricked scientists at Washington University in St. Louis into believing he had supernatural powers — and then admitted he had performed an elaborate hoax. Today, Banachek is administering Sonne's test.

James Randi
C. Stiles
James Randi
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.
Bill Hughes
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.

The guard hands the envelope to Banachek. Inside are a ten-sided die and 40 envelopes that each contains a playing card. Sonne rolls the die. It stops on three. Sonne now must find the envelope containing the three of hearts, plus two other cards.

If she can do it, the $1 million is hers.

Sonne glances at the audience and then back at the envelopes spread before her. With her right hand, she dangles a crystal amulet over the table.

For four minutes, the room is motionless. Sonne's charm sways like a pendulum over the envelopes. No one speaks — nobody wants to be her excuse if she later says she was distracted.

At the end of the first row, with a bald head and a beard as long and white as Darwin's, 81-year-old James Randi watches closely, his bushy eyebrows cocked. His foundation, the Fort Lauderdale-based James Randi Educational Foundation, has placed the million bucks on the line.

For more than 60 years, "the Amazing Randi" has performed magic, debunked psychics, and discussed the perils of all things paranormal. He has debunked more than 100 psychics and faith healers in a quest to rid the world of hucksters. It has also made him the subject of scorn among purveyors of the paranormal, true believers who say Randi has made himself rich, pulling in nearly $200,000 a year from his foundation, at the expense of others' careers.

Now, however, Randi's work might be in jeopardy. His foundation has been hemorrhaging money, and Randi, who has spent his career challenging the notion of an afterlife, now faces his own mortality. He has intestinal cancer and might not have long to live. Randi has been a commanding presence for four decades, but it's unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community.

But Randi still has loyal followers who revere him like a religious leader. Many of them come to Las Vegas every year for his conference, the Amazing Meeting. This past July, the weekend of critical thinking culminated in Sonne's dowsing demonstration — the first public attempt at the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

When Sonne indicates she has found the three of hearts, Banachek writes "3" on the sealed envelope. Sonne rolls the die twice more and then searches for a seven and an ace. For the final card, the awkward silence lasts nearly five tedious minutes before Sonne chooses the envelope farthest to the left.

After nearly 20 minutes, it's time to see how she fared. Banachek asks her to cut open the envelope marked "3." She does, and Banachek peeks inside.

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The James Randi Foundation put together its first skeptics' conference in 2003. That first year in Fort Lauderdale, the event drew only 150 attendees. In the years since, it has grown to become the largest gathering of critical thinkers, doubters, heretics, and nonbelievers in the world. More than 1,100 conferees paid about $300 each for admission this year. They come to hear some of the most famous voices in critical thinking — Adam Savage, cohost of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters; Bill Prady, co-creator of CBS's The Big Bang Theory — and to discuss Randi's favorite topic, skeptical inquiry, a discipline devoted to debunking psychics, faith healers, con artists, and ghost whisperers through the holy miracle of old-fashioned science.

The Amazing Meeting attendees are mostly white men with glasses, facial hair, and a healthy appreciation of physics and Monty Python. They come from as far away as Australia and Japan. There are college students, bloggers, and rambunctious computer scientists. In the halls of the conference, they banter about the psychological phenomenon known as "the ideomotor effect," the pseudoscience behind the instant sommelier (a contraption that supposedly can age wine to perfection in 30 minutes), and — a favorite conversation topic — getting wasted at the hotel bar.

The highlight of the weekend for most of the skeptics here is the chance to meet the man dubbed "The King of Debunking." Randi is a five-and-a-half-foot-tall command performance, with his characteristic white beard, brow, and penchant for zingers. Each morning of the conference, Randi is brought into the main lecture hall in a wheelchair. A slow-moving pack of swooning disciples gathers around him. Pictures are taken. Hands are shaken. A girl asks him to sign her straitjacket. A booth sells little James Randi dolls with glasses, bushy white beards, and tiny handcuffs. Some conferees come with questions they've been dying to ask for years ("Mr. Randi, when you flew in upside down over Japan, did you have any plan in the event of an auto-rotation ditch?"). But most want to give thanks to the man who got them sober to the ways of the world: "Hi, I saw you speak in Toronto, and you changed my life." "You let me know it was OK to question my own beliefs."

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