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The 'quack' hunter

By JEANNE MALMGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 1998


FORT LAUDERDALE -- The Thai curry dishes have been cleared away. Time for a little magic.

James Randi takes a quarter out of his pocket and lays it on the table.

"It's heads, right?" he asks his dinner companion. "Now, watch closely."

He sets a salt shaker on top of the coin and drapes a white napkin over it. His hands wave in the air like a pair of doves.

"Abracadabra," Randi says, grinning slyly.

He whisks away the napkin. The quarter is still heads up -- but the salt shaker has disappeared.

"See how easily you were deceived?" he says. "I simply directed your attention to the wrong thing. You were wondering how I would turn that quarter over, and I took the salt shaker out from under your nose."

The art of illusion was Randi's livelihood before David Copperfield was born. As "The Amazing Randi," he swung from cranes wearing a straitjacket. He had himself frozen inside huge blocks of ice. He levitated women. He appeared on The Tonight Show 32 times.

Today Randi's performances are about unmasking secrets. He demonstrates how a psychic seems to guess someone's Social Security number. He reveals the trick used by mentalists to bend spoons. He even performs so-called psychic surgery, showing how sleight of hand can make it appear as if someone's fingers are plunging into a patient's abdomen.

Such feats aren't magic, Randi says. They're deception. Magic is a venerable art in which performer and audience have an agreement; both understand that what's happening on stage is illusion. The scam artists, he says, are different. They would have you believe what they're doing is real.

That's why Randi made a midcareer switch to what he calls "debunking." Now nearing 70, he's a full-time watchdog who goes after fraud like a Rottweiler after a kitten. This month he made the front page of the New York Times, quoted in an article about the controversy over a healing method called therapeutic touch.

Randi's targets are those who say they possess paranormal powers: channelers, psychic surgeons, dowsers, vibrational healers and the like. He believes they prey on gullible people, often using standard magic tricks to deceive. Media attention has made it worse, he says.

"Even the Learning Channel has stuff on homeopathy and acupuncture. Quackery!"

Quackery. Codswallop. Flummery. The words roll off his lips with urbane ease. Randi knows the impact of a quotable insult. He has razor-sharp opinions on most every New Age guru.

"I canceled my membership in PBS because they were putting that villain on television, Deepak Chopra," he says. "He's the most dangerous man in America today." (Chopra is scheduled to speak Monday in St. Petersburg at the Bayfront Center's Mahaffey Theater.)

Bernie Siegel, cancer doctor and author of Love, Medicine and Miracles? "He's a mystic with a lot of medical training. That's like saying he's a fireman who doesn't believe in water."

Andrew Weil, he of the eight-week natural health plan (and another PBS regular)? "An innocent goof," Randi says.

He pronounces New Age, by the way, as one word.

"Rhymes with sewage," he says, a devilish grin playing above his full white beard.

Randi sees his work as public service.

"Why people are drawn to the irrational is something that has always puzzled me," he says. "I guess they're looking for comfort, some sort of control over their lives. Science can't always give us complete answers, but the occultists do. They always have a very simple, positive answer."

What we need, according to Randi, is a healthy dose of skepticism. He wants people to examine unexplained phenomena more carefully, more rationally. His goal is to "create a whole new generation of critical thinkers."

But first, there are shortbread cookies to enjoy.

A rational staff meeting

Tuesday morning is staff meeting time at the James Randi Educational Foundation, a tile-roofed Spanish building three blocks from U.S. 1.

Randi settles into a tufted chair at the head of a long conference table in the library. Behind him, a framed portrait of Isaac Asimov hangs above a brick fireplace.

The walls are lined floor to ceiling with books, 1,800 volumes on subjects repugnant to Randi's heart. Vampires. Witchcraft. Palmistry. Poltergeists. The Bermuda triangle. Atlantis. Bigfoot. Alien abductions. There are books by spiritualist Edgar Cayce and astrologer Jeane Dixon. Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb. Linda Goodman's Sun Signs. Stonehenge Decoded. I am Ramtha. What Color Is Your Aura?

The non-profit foundation began in 1996 with a $2-million donation from a computer magnate Randi won't name. It has an annual budget of $600,000, 330 members and a staff of five. Randi's heir apparent is Andrew Harter, 24, a former cruise ship magician.

"He's being groomed to succeed me," Randi says. "I need someone to carry on this work."

Staff members joke about a seance as they take their places around the table. In front of Randi is a plate of cookies and a cup of coffee just the way he likes it -- lots of cream, lots of sugar.

"Mmm, shortbread," he exclaims. "Best feature of these meetings."

Item No. 1 is Randi's trip to Cincinnati for two lectures.

"We've got to take a lot of publicity up there. I want a suitcase full of it," he says. "And I'd better load up on books, too. These people will buy books."

Randi is the author of 10 books, everything from a history of conjuring to an expose of his longtime nemesis Uri Geller, the Israeli psychic famous for bending spoons.

Geller is perhaps the most famous victim of Randi's penetrating eye. In the late '70s, Randi helped Johnny Carson unmask Geller. Already a regular on The Tonight Show, Geller was to use his mental powers that night to discern which of several metal film canisters on a table was filled with water. Before the show, Randi painted rubber cement on the bottom of each canister.

Geller bumped the table several times, supposedly by mistake, to see which canister wouldn't slide because of the weight of the water. None of them budged, of course. After an embarrassing 22 minutes, Geller said he wasn't feeling good and couldn't perform that night.

In 1986 Randi scored another hit. While investigating televangelist Peter Popoff, he found that the faith healer's amazing ability to "see" people's ailments was nothing more than electronic trickery. Popoff's wife circulated through the audience before the show, collecting bits of personal information. Later she fed the details to her husband through a hidden earpiece as he worked the floor. Popoff's ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987 but now is back on the air.

The staff meeting continues.

They chew over the latest lawsuit, filed by a 14-year-old Japanese psychic Randi upstaged on Tokyo television. (It had to do with mirrors hidden in her sleeves.)

Randi says he has been sued a dozen times, six by Geller. Often the lawsuits include personal attacks on Randi's character. He lost only once, but he says legal fees have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, including much of a Genius Grant he was awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in 1986.

There is a steady stream of hate mail, usually from devotees of people defrocked by Randi.

"It's a funny thing," he says, sighing. "They know the truth but they don't want to face it. I expose one faith healer and they just look for someone else to spend their money on."

Other letters come from people claiming extraordinary powers.

"Like one guy who makes the sun rise every morning," Randi says. "Boy, I'm glad he's around! But I worry about what happens if he gets sick."

Since 1968, Randi has challenged those with paranormal powers to demonstrate their talents in controlled experiments. A Lotto-size wad of cash awaits anyone who can pass the test. The foundation has $1-million in negotiable bonds on deposit, much of it financed by pledges from 2,000 supporters. Randi kicked in $10,000 of his money.

To date no one has won the challenge. Most contestants back out when they hear about the rigorous scientific controls Randi requires.

"They tend to disappear," he says. "It's like trying to nail a handful of grape jelly to the wall."

According to Randi, 77 have submitted to the test. One woman claimed she could change the colors in magazine photos. Another aspirant was sure he could make people on television say anything he wanted them to.

"We had one gentleman from Oklahoma who said he could read minds," Harter says. "But it turned out it only worked with his daughter."

They treat every applicant with courtesy, Harter insists.

"We don't want to embarrass them. These are honest, well-meaning people. They just happen to be deluded."

Wonder plus skepticism

After the staff meeting, Randi takes calls in his office, at a U-shaped desk piled high with papers. Behind him is an aquarium display of mosses and lichens. One wall sports a gallery of photos: Randi with Johnny Carson; Randi with magicians Penn & Teller; Randi with the late astronomer Carl Sagan and Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan. Randi and Sagan were close friends for decades.

"I think what attracted them to each other was that both men had a great sense of wonder tempered by a rigorous skepticism," Druyan says. "They both believed that nature as revealed by science is so much more inspiring, more goosebump-producing than any flim-flam."

Randi calls a Boca Raton businessman who is worried about his wife's fascination with a psychic adviser.

"This has nothing to do with education or intelligence," Randi tells him. "Your wife is not a sloppy thinker."

Randi agrees to meet with the man and his wife at no charge.

"I'll be as gentle as I can because I understand how well-meaning, well-educated, very sincere people can fool themselves."

A shy young genius

Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in 1928 in Toronto. A shy child who blushed and stammered around strangers, he was also brilliant, scoring 168 on IQ tests.

He often skipped school. One day he wandered into a performance by legendary magician Harry Blackstone Sr. The boy was hooked, and Blackstone took him on as an apprentice.

Randi placed out of sixth through eighth grades, but because there were no gifted programs then, he was given a pass to the reference room at the Toronto Public Library. On his own, Randi studied everything from calculus to Egyptian hieroglyphics. At 17 he dropped out of high school and joined a carnival road show as Prince Ibis, the all-knowing wizard in a turban.

"I had to face the roughest audience in the world, people who had paid 25 cents to see miracles."

On the Canadian nightclub circuit, he was billed as the Great Randall and, after he pulled off an escape from a padlocked jail cell, as the Amazing Randi. (He legally changed his name to James Randi.)

Meanwhile, Randi was collecting friends in the world of science and journalism, people who shared his suspicions of paranormal phenomena. In 1972 they founded CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The group included Nobel laureates, researchers and such luminaries as Sagan.

Leon Jaroff, former sciences editor of Time magazine, met Randi when he sat in on a demonstration by Uri Geller for Time editors.

"After Geller left, Randi stood up and did everything Geller had done, only he did it better," Jaroff recalls.

When Jaroff founded Discover magazine, Randi worked on debunking projects for him.

"He's very smart," Jaroff says. "He has set up better double-blind experiments than scientists can. And he's meticulously honest."

Randi's critics often attack his lack of scientific training.

"But he's a magician. He's trained in the art of deception," Jaroff points out. "He knows what to look for when he's investigating a fraud."

Stanley Krippner, a California parapsychologist, is often on the opposite side of the fence from Randi.

"He draws conclusions much more quickly than I do. He will often dismiss a phenomenon as fraud when I would say I don't have enough information to make a judgment," Krippner says. "But his intentions are good as to educating the public in the need for critical thinking."

Gary Posner, founder and executive director of Tampa Bay Skeptics, met Randi several years ago.

"He's an entertainer by trade," Posner says. "He has a very exuberant, outgoing personality. Even while he is poking holes in people's cherished beliefs, he comes across as entertaining."

After 30 years of chasing fraud and flummery, Randi shows no signs of slowing down.

"He's a dynamo," says Harter, his assistant. "There's never a dull moment. Vaudeville lives on in Randi."

The battle against the scam artists and their believers is endless, but Randi is a perennial optimist.

"To me, science describes a world far more interesting than any psychic fantasies," he says. "It's a good world and we ought to learn to accept it as it is."

Times researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.


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