The God of Skeptics
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.
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.
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."
Magician Penn Jillette and his usually quiet partner, Teller, have known Randi for nearly 35 years. "Make no mistake," Teller says. "Randi is the reason everybody's here." Regulars at the Amazing Meeting, Penn and Teller often cite Randi during their nightly show at the Rio and on their Showtime show Bullshit! "He means everything to us," Penn says. "It's hard to think of something he doesn't influence that we do. There certainly wouldn't be a Penn & Teller as it is now if not for Randi."
Penn puts Randi in the same category as innovators such as Bob Dylan and Pablo Picasso — people who moved the world through their life's work. Penn first visited Randi's house in New Jersey in 1975, and it gave him an idea of how he wanted to live his life: "The door opened the wrong way, and there were talking birds and Alice Cooper heads," he says. "It was, for me, the first sense that you could be artistically crazy and flamboyant and still grounded in reality."
Randi's debunking work over the past 40 years has earned him fame, powerful friendships, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and a spot on Esquire's 1997 list of the Best 100 People in the World.
Hard-core skeptics see their work as a moral imperative. Randi points to the millions of dollars wasted every year on astrology or phony faith healers and psychics who profit from people in pain. "Someone who lies to strangers for money is just as amoral as someone who robs a 7-Eleven," Penn tells the audience at one point.
The emotional tolls of charlatanism are as real as the financial ones: In 2003, on the Montel Williams Show, psychic Sylvia Browne — who charges upward of $700 for personal sessions — told the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck that their son "is no longer with us" and that his body would be found in "a wooded area." The news devastated his family, until four years later, when Shawn was discovered alive, living in an apartment with his kidnapper.
Randi has confronted Browne on several talk shows. On Larry King Live in 2001, she agreed to take his challenge, but he is still waiting for her to show up.
Randi wasn't the first to dream up financial rewards for people who could prove their paranormal skills. Harry Houdini offered $10,000 of his own money in 1923 to any psychic who could show that his or her gifts were genuine. The master magician said he felt compelled to draw a distinction between entertainers and criminally minded grifters preying upon a gullible public. "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer," Houdini would say. Nobody passed his challenge.
Following Houdini's model, Randi began offering his own money in 1964 for proof of supernatural powers. First the reward was $1,000 and then $10,000. One of Randi's friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams, put up $1 million in 1996. The fact that nobody has won the challenge in 40 years doesn't stop a regular stream of applicants: a woman who claimed to cry tears of glass, the man who said he could detect buried water with two bent coat hangers, the lady who could supposedly make strangers urinate using only the power of her mind.
"I never claim they don't have these powers," Randi says. "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."
It's unclear how long the foundation would survive or who would carry on the challenge if Randi can't beat his cancer. The first morning of the conference, Randi, looking more slouched and frail than most of his fans have seen him, rises slowly from his wheelchair and walks up the steps of the stage. He tells the crowd of dedicated faces peering back at him about his coming chemotherapy. Two weeks earlier, doctors had removed a Ping-Pong-ball-size tumor from his intestines.
"We'll fight it," he says. "And we'll beat this. We still have a lot of work to do." He reassures the audience, but many men and women can't fight back tears.
Randi's voice is scratchy and strained from the tubes down his throat during the surgery. Hangover from the anesthesia has caused occasional blurry spots in his otherwise remarkable memory. The procedure has left him weak and begrudgingly confined most of the time to a wheelchair. "It's not a matter of pride," he explains. "It's a matter of the impression you make on people. You want to appear to be empowered. It's the show business in me."
When Randi was 15, he heard of a preacher in his hometown of Toronto who claimed he could read minds. Randi had been reading every book he could find about magic and illusions, so he believed he could figure out what trick the preacher was using on his flock.
One Sunday morning, Randi watched the preacher use a classic "one ahead" scam. The preacher used information obtained ahead of time to trick the crowd into believing he could read minds. Randi took the stage as he imagined his hero Harry Houdini might have done and preached to the congregation about being duped, explaining the trick the preacher had used. He was immediately run out of the church.
Dissidence would become a regular reaction to Randi, who was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928. He describes himself as a quick learner but a bit of a rabble-rouser — he was once kicked out of his Sunday school class for heresy.
When he was 12, he stumbled into a matinee performance by famed magician Harry Blackstone Sr., who made a lady float in the air just feet from the stunned boy. "That got me," Randi says. "That grabbed me, and it never let go. It's still got a hold of my head right now."
A year after the church incident, Randi was in a bicycle accident that left him in a full-body cast for 13 months. Randi figured that even confined to the cast, he could still perform at nightclubs as a mentalist. "In those days, they were paying me 70 bucks a week," he says. "Now that was a lot of Canadian dollars, I can tell you." He decided he would make it clear at the end of every show that he was simply using illusions. But he was disturbed when audience members would insist he had paranormal powers — ironically ignoring the only bit of truth he'd spat out all night. People seemed to want to believe in the supernatural.
Before he graduated high school, Randi left town with the carnival, performing as "Prince Ibis." At age 22, he pulled off a highly publicized escape from a Quebec City jail cell, a trick Houdini used to perform. A local newspaper dubbed him "L'etonnant Randi," the Amazing Randi, "with an i at the end," he says, "like Houdini." For three decades, Randi toured the world by train, plane, and ship, headlining marquees from the Deep South to the Far East. He was bound in straitjackets, dangled over waterfalls, buried alive, handcuffed, and locked in an oversize milk jug.
But Randi could never shake the need to educate the naive. Working at nightclubs in East Asia, he learned new con-man techniques, and when he returned, he had a bug for debunking. In the '60s, he hosted a radio show in New York in which he would, among other things, argue with astrologers ("complete woo-woo," he says) and confront chiropractors ("three chiropractors, three completely different diagnoses").
The height of his fame came when Johnny Carson invited him to the Tonight Show. Carson had him back 37 times, and the two became good friends. "Johnny was a very skilled magician, very accomplished," Randi says.
Living in northern New Jersey, Randi befriended other great American thinkers, such as astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Randi and Asimov would sing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes deep into the night. "He had such a wonderful voice," Randi remembers. Randi and Sagan would discuss their shared love of astronomy. Sagan helped name a comet after Randi.
Randi even played himself on an episode of Happy Days — he levitates Mrs. Cunningham, and in the final shot of the episode, Randi steals Fonzi's patented "Ehhh." At one point, Randi toured with Alice Cooper, cutting the rock god's head off with a trick guillotine at the end of every show.
In the '70s, America developed a new fascination with all things paranormal — crystals, tarot cards, astrology parties. Randi found the trends disturbing, and he was particularly irked by a young Israeli named Uri Geller, who said he could bend spoons with his mind and read the thoughts of total strangers. He appeared on countless television shows and was featured in magazines in dozens of languages.
The degree to which people took Geller seriously bothered Randi. Reputable scientists from several labs studied "the Geller effect," how brainwaves affect pliable metal. Those scientists no longer discuss the experiments. Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invited Geller to the floor of Congress to send positive brain waves to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The senator and the psychic later claimed at least partial success.
Randi tried to spread the message that Geller's techniques were simple charlatan tricks, old Israeli shtick masked by a trustworthy voice and a warm smile. Randi performed Geller's tricks himself for Barbara Walters. He arranged for Johnny Carson's staff to foil Geller on the Tonight Show. "I'm just feeling very weak tonight," Geller explained to Carson when he couldn't perform anything supernatural.
In 1975, Randi published his first book: The Magic of Uri Geller, later retitled The Truth About Uri Geller. A series of lawsuits and countersuits between Randi and Geller ensued. Geller won a suit against Randi in a Japanese court, claiming Randi had defamed him, but the judge awarded Geller 500,000 yen, or just $2,000. Randi boasts he has "never paid a dime" to anyone who has sued him.
"Randi is my best unpaid publicist," Geller now says in a phone call from his home in London. "If I had to get a calculator and see how much a high-priced Madison Avenue entertainment publicist would cost, I'd have to say that I got around $10 million worth of free publicity from skeptics."
Geller speaks with an old-world show-business charisma not unlike Randi's. Under other circumstances, the two might have even become friends, but to Randi, Geller has crossed an ethical line — he never came clean about his tricks.
Geller doesn't see it that way. "Without the skeptics, I wouldn't be Uri Geller," he says. "They made me. They created me. They kept the aura, the legend, the mystery, the mysticism around Uri Geller. I owe them bouquets of flowers for keeping my career alive. If they wanted to finish me off over three decades ago, all they had to do is not talk about me. They should have shut up."
Randi, of course, has offered to test Geller, to give him $1 million if he can prove his claims. But Geller always declines, saying anything that would quiet skeptics — and by extension make him less controversial — would hurt his career. "If someone wants to stay in the business of being a psychic," he says, "they should simply ignore the skeptics."
Enticed by the warm weather, Randi moved to Florida in 1985, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. He wanted an organization of his own from which he could launch his lengthy investigations of paranormal claims. He established the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation out of a split-level white Fort Lauderdale building with Spanish tile, stained glass over the entrance, and peacocks frolicking in the yard. Images of flying pigs hang on the walls next to old posters, magazine clips, and a letter from Johnny Carson (it accompanied a $100,000 donation). In the "Isaac Asimov Library" are shelves of books about all things paranormal, from phrenology to faith healing, and a portrait of the writer friend for whom the room is named.
The truth is, Randi's obsessions with incredulity and prestidigitation flowered from the same seed. He has always delighted in watching the stunned faces of audiences as he makes them believe — perhaps only for a moment — they've witnessed something impossible. At lunch, for instance, he makes the saltshaker vanish under a napkin, and when his tablemates finish applauding, he says, "Yes, yes, great dinner entertainment, horrible table manners. Now, has anyone seen the salt?" He gets the same giddy satisfaction making the careers of psychics disappear.
But even before the cancer diagnosis, Randi had faced recent challenges. Like many nonprofits, the James Randi Educational Foundation has taken a severe financial hit over the past year. The foundation is funded through sales of books and DVDs, grants, conferences, donations from wealthy friends, and Randi's speaking engagements, which command as much as $30,000.
According to tax records, Randi's organization lost nearly a quarter of its $2 million overall worth last year. (The $1 million for the challenge is held in a separate, Goldman Sachs account.) Randi takes an annual salary of about $200,000, which he justifies by saying it's in line with what he was making as an entertainer and hasn't been adjusted much in the 13 years since the foundation was started.
Critics of Randi — and he admits there are hundreds who write to him every month — call him the charlatan. "Mr. Randi, admit you're a fraud, that your offer's a fraud," demanded Greg Price, a Minnesota man who claimed he could dowse, in a video he sent to Randi. "Your foundation should be disbanded immediately!"
In the 40 years Randi has been putting up money to test paranormal ability, nobody has made it past the initial testing stage. The vast majority of failed or debunked applicants complain Randi surreptitiously affects the outcome in his favor. He has been accused of both having paranormal powers and violating the showbiz brotherhood by trying to expose a lack of paranormal powers in others.
He has also been accused of having inappropriate relationships with his apprentices. The accusation went public on an episode of Oprah in which Randi was asked to debunk psychics. One of the psychics accused him of improper relationships with young boys. Randi denies the allegations. "She was referring, of course, to my apprentices," Randi says. "I've had many fantastic apprentices over the years."
Those closest to Randi are fiercely loyal. His longtime companion, Jose Alvarez, met Randi 20 years ago, not long after Alvarez was involved in a cult. "Randi showed me that reality — the real world — has a very special kind of beauty," says Jose, now 41 years old.
The other frequent criticism of Randi is that he's just wrong. Like many of the psychics Randi encounters, Geller says reality is composed of paranormal events every day, though science can't yet understand or quantify them. Geller contends that everyone, Randi included, has some psychic powers. "It's simply not developed in everyone," Geller says. "We all have a sixth sense, because we are animals. It's a part of our chromosome buildup. It's a part of our DNA. There are too many synchronicities in your life to ignore it as coincidence."
The critical-thinking movement is all about examining explanations to the paranormal from multiple angles, questioning the accepted reasoning. That's also why the movement is made up mostly of atheists. "Religion is the biggest scam of them all," Randi says. "You go into the voting booth and you're going to depend on a spirit in the sky, some old guy with a beard, a jealous, vindictive, very-uncertain-of-himself, provocative, angry god? No, I don't think that should be your driving force."
Says Geller: "Most people are believers. Most people are religious. Most people want to believe there's a creator. Most people want to believe in spirituality. Most people want to believe there is something out there. Seven billion people can't be wrong. Whether you call it a god or Buddha or religion, there is some kind of spirituality out there. The skeptics are a tiny, tiny minority. They're insignificant. They are molecular nothings."
To illustrate how easily spiritual leaders can garner followers, Randi and Alvarez, a visual artist, perpetuated a hoax on Australian national television in 1988. Alvarez pretended his body was inhabited by "Carlos," a 1,500-year-old fortuneteller. Within days, Alvarez had thousands of followers. "It was just so easy," Alvarez says. "It's sad and remarkable."
During most of the Amazing Meeting in July, Alvarez pushes Randi's wheelchair around the expansive Las Vegas resort. Some days, Randi feels great. Some days, he can't lift the phone to his ear. Doctors have put his five-year prognosis at 50-50. Medical science, though, is the one thing this old skeptic actually has faith in. Two weeks after the conference, Randi will begin a regular routine of chemotherapy. He will lose the soft white hair around his head; his bushy, expressive eyebrows; and the beard he hasn't shaved in more than 25 years. "That's fine," he says. "Growing hair is something I'm good at."
Still, the cancer hasn't changed his views on death: "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it," he says matter-of-factly. "Hey, it's too bad, but I've got to make room. I'm using a lot of oxygen and such — I think it's good use of oxygen myself, but of course I'm a little prejudiced on the matter."
Up in his hotel room at the conference, he's asked about whether nearing death will make him recant his lifelong atheism. "I've been wrong about things in the past," he says, "but not anything this big."
It's the skeptics' willingness to say "I don't know" that makes them a mostly libertarian bunch. "We don't trust anything or anyone," a science teacher from Texas explains, "least of all the government."
Dr. Yaron Brook, president of the think tank Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California, says Randi has been a prominent promoter of reason and scientific method. "Part of his legacy will be the resurgence in atheism and all the debunking he's done, but one of his greatest achievements has been the reassertion of one objective truth," Brook says. "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."
When Randi does go over to the great big nothing, it's unclear what will become of his foundation or the million-dollar challenge. The foundation's board of directors recently installed astronomer Plait as president of the foundation. But Randi is the face of the organization, and he knows that fundraising and organizing conferences could suffer if he's not there to put his name on the place.
Things are still bright, though. The second morning of the conference, two skeptics get married onstage. The bride, Rebecca Watson of Boston, and the groom, Sid Rodriguez of London, met in Las Vegas at the Amazing Meeting three years ago. MythBusters' Adam Savage is the ring bearer. After the wedding cake is cut, in front of about 1,000 of the most dedicated atheists on Earth, the lucky couple takes to the floor for the first dance — to a cover of the Beach Boys' hit "God Only Knows." Everyone in the room giggles at the ironic refrain. For the last two lines, the lyrics are changed to "Randi only knows what I'd be without you..."
Back in the dark banquet hall, everyone is ready for the results of Connie Sonne's dowsing test.
"This has to be a three," Banachek reminds the room. He flexes the envelope and pours out the playing card.
Sonne takes a deep breath.
"Connie, that is a two. You've failed."
To be thorough, Banachek asks Sonne to cut open the other two envelopes she chose. Both are wrong. Then she cuts open the remaining envelopes to prove all the cards are present. By the time she's finished, the patient audience has grown restless.
Although she failed today, she asserts she has psychic powers. "I just know," she repeats. Then she says the voices she hears have simply chosen another time to unveil her skills to the world. "They haven't allowed it today. But you wait. You remember me. You will see."
Outside the banquet room, Randi feigns relief, giving his brow an exaggerated, sarcastic wipe. "Thank God the money is safe!"
He says that when people lose the challenge, they all react the same way: "Without fail, they always have an excuse for why they couldn't do what they claimed they could."
Sure enough, once Sonne returns to Denmark, she claims Banachek used sleight of hand to move the cards and protect the money.
After the test, most conferees head to the airport or begin long road trips home. A handful of skeptics lingers at the bar. "The TAM parties are something of a legend," a tall, pale, bearded conferee from Seattle confesses after his third vodka, amid a string of Simpsons quotes. (Asked for his name, he spits out two that end up not being his.) "Skeptics understand the chemistry of inebriation. And we're good people to have deep, meaningful conversations with. All the people here are based in reality. That's really refreshing." To punctuate his sentiments, he stands up: "Who wants another round?"
Although the future is up in the air for the Amazing Randi, what keeps him going are the men and women who approach him every day with stories of their skeptical conversions. "That means I've changed someone's life," he says. "I get emotional. I say to myself: 'Damn! That's why I'm in business.' The people here, they're going to follow me. The movement's going to go on."
Randi jokes that after he passes, his fans need not bother with grandiose gestures such as establishing a museum of magic or burying him in an elaborate tomb. He has something more Amazing in mind. "I want to be cremated," he says with his signature dry, knowing charm. "And I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller's eyes."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.