Randi was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on August 7, 1928, the son of Marie Alice (née Paradis) and George Randall Zwinge. He has a younger brother and sister. He took up magic after seeing Harry Blackstone, Sr. and reading magic books while spending 13 months in a body cast following a bicycle accident. He confounded doctors who expected he would never walk again. Randi often skipped classes, and, at 17, dropped out of high school to perform as a conjurer in a carnival roadshow. He practiced as a mentalist in local nightclubs and at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition, and wrote for Montreal's tabloid press. In his twenties, Randi posed as a psychic to establish that they were actually doing simple tricks, and briefly wrote an astrological column in the Canadian tabloid Midnight under the name "Zo-ran," by simply shuffling up items from newspaper astrology columns and pasting them randomly into a column. In his thirties, Randi worked in Philippine nightclubs and all across Japan. He witnessed many tricks that were presented as being supernatural. One of his earliest reported experiences is that of seeing an evangelist using a version of the "one-ahead" technique to convince churchgoers of his divine powers.
Fork bent by Randi
Though defining himself as a conjuror, Randi's career as a professional stage magician and escapologist began in 1946. Initially, he presented himself under his real name, Randall Zwinge, which he later dropped in favor of "The Amazing Randi." Early in his career, he performed numerous escape acts from jail cells and safes around the world. On February 7, 1956, he appeared live on NBC's Today show, where he remained for 104 minutes in a sealed metal coffin that had been submerged in a hotel swimming pool, breaking what was said to be Harry Houdini's record of 93 minutes.
In the late 1960s, Randi hosted The Amazing Randi Show on New York radio station WOR. This radio show, which filled Long John Nebel's old slot with similar content after Nebel went to WNBC in 1962, often invited guests who defended paranormal claims, among them Randi's then-friend James W. Moseley. Randi, in turn, spoke at Moseley's 1967 Fourth Congress of Scientific Ufologists in New York City, stating, "Let's not fool ourselves. There are some garden variety liars involved in all this. But in among all the trash and nonsense perpetrated in the name of Ufology, I think there is a small grain of truth."
Randi also hosted numerous television specials and went on several world tours. As "The Amazing Randi" he appeared regularly on the New York-based children's television series Wonderama from 1959 to 1967. He also hosted a revival of the 1950s children's show The Magic Clown in 1970, though the program enjoyed only a brief life. In the February 2, 1974, issue of the British conjuring magazine Abracadabra, Randi, defining the community of magicians, stated, "I know of no calling which depends so much upon mutual trust and faith as does ours." In the December 2003 issue of The Linking Ring, the monthly publication of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, it is stated, "Perhaps Randi's ethics are what make him Amazing" and "The Amazing Randi not only talks the talk, he walks the walk."
During Alice Cooper's 1973–1974 tour, Randi performed on stage as a dentist and Alice's executioner. He also designed and built several of the stage props, including the guillotine. Shortly after that, in a 1976 performance for the Canadian TV special World of Wizards, Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls.
Randi has been accused of actually using "psychic powers" to perform acts such as spoon bending. According to James Alcock, at a meeting where Randi was duplicating the performances of Uri Geller, a professor from the University at Buffalo shouted out that Randi was a fraud. Randi said, "Yes, indeed, I'm a trickster, I'm a cheat, I'm a charlatan, that's what I do for a living. Everything I've done here was by trickery." The professor shouted back: "That's not what I mean. You're a fraud because you're pretending to do these things through trickery, but you're actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it." A similar event involved Senator Claiborne Pell, a believer in psychic phenomena. When Randi personally demonstrated to Pell that he could reveal a concealed drawing that had been secretly made by the senator simply by using trickery, Pell refused to believe that it was a trick, saying, "I think Randi may be a psychic and doesn't realize it." Randi has consistently denied having any paranormal powers or abilities.
Randi is author of 10 books, among them Conjuring (1992), a biographical history of noted magicians. The book is subtitled: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, & Chicanery and of the Mountebanks & Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public, in short, MAGIC! The book's cover says that it is by "James Randi, Esq., A Contrite Rascal Once Dedicated to these Wicked Practices but Now Almost Totally Reformed." The book selects the most influential magicians and tells some of their history in the context of strange deaths and careers on the road. This work expanded on Randi's second book which was called Houdini, His Life and Art. This illustrated work was published in 1976 and was co-authored with Bert Sugar. It focuses on the professional and private life of Houdini.
Randi also wrote a children's book in 1989 titled The Magic World of the Amazing Randi, which introduced children to magic tricks. In addition to his magic books, he has written several educational works about the paranormal and pseudoscientific. These include biographies of Uri Geller and Nostradamus as well as reference material on other major paranormal figures. He is currently working on A Magician in the Laboratory, which recounts his application of skepticism to science. He is a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov's fictional group of mystery solvers, the Black Widowers.
Randi entered the international spotlight in 1972 when he publicly challenged the claims of Uri Geller. Randi accused Geller of being nothing more than a charlatan and a fraud who used standard magic tricks to accomplish his allegedly paranormal feats, and he presented his claims in the book The Truth About Uri Geller (1982). Geller sued Randi for $15 million in 1991 and lost. Geller's suit against the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was thrown out in 1995, and he was ordered to pay $120,000 for filing a frivolous lawsuit. Randi also dismissed Uri Geller's claims that he was capable of the kind of psychic photography made famous by the case of Ted Serios. It is a matter, Randi argues, of trick photography using a hand-held optical device. Randi was a founding fellow and prominent member of CSICOP. During the period of Geller's legal dispute, CSICOP's leadership, wanting to avoid becoming a target of Geller's litigation, requested that Randi refrain from commenting on Geller. Randi refused and resigned, though he maintained a respectful relationship with the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. In 2010, Randi was one of 16 new CSI fellows elected by its board.
Randi has gone on to write several books criticizing beliefs and claims regarding the paranormal. He has also demonstrated flaws in studies suggesting the existence of paranormal phenomena; in his Project Alpha hoax, Randi revealed that he had been able to orchestrate a three-year-long compromise of a privately funded psychic research experiment. The hoax became a scandal and demonstrated the shortcomings of many paranormal research projects at the university level.
Randi has appeared on numerous TV shows, sometimes to directly debunk the claimed abilities of fellow guests. In a 1981 appearance on That's My Line, Randi appeared opposite psychic James Hydrick, who said that he could move objects with his mind and appeared to demonstrate this claim on live television by turning a page in a telephone book without touching it. Randi, having determined that Hydrick was surreptitiously blowing on the book, arranged foam packaging peanuts on the table in front of the telephone book for the demonstration. This prevented Hydrick from demonstrating his abilities, which would have been exposed when the blowing moved the packaging. Randi writes that, eventually, Hydrick "confessed everything."
Randi speaks at the 1983 CSICOP Conference in Buffalo, NY
Randi was awarded a MacArthur FoundationFellowship in 1986. The fellowship's 5-year grant helped support Randi's investigations of faith healers, including W. V. Grant, Ernest Angley, and Peter Popoff, whom Randi first exposed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in February 1986. Hearing about his investigation of Popoff, Carson invited Randi onto his late-night TV show without seeing the evidence he was going to reveal. Carson appeared stunned after Randi showed a brief video segment from one of Popoff's broadcasts showing him calling out a woman in the audience, revealing personal information about her that he claims comes from God, and then performing a laying-on-of-hands healing to drive the devil from her body. Randi then replayed the video, but with some of the sound dubbed in that he and his investigating team captured during the event using a radio scanner and recorder. Their scanner detected the radio frequency Popoff's wife Elizabeth was using backstage to broadcast directions and information to a miniature radio receiver hidden in Popoff's left ear. The information had been gathered by Popoff's assistants, who handed out "prayer cards" to the audience before the show, instructing them to write down all the information Popoff would need to pray for them.
The news coverage generated by Randi's exposé on The Tonight Show led to many TV stations dropping Popoff's TV show, eventually forcing him into bankruptcy in September 1987. However, the televangelist returned to the airwaves a decade later with faith healing infomercials that reportedly pulled in more than $23 million in 2005, from viewers sending in money for promised healing and prosperity. The Canadian Centre for Inquiry's Think Again! TV documented one of Popoff's more recent performances before a large audience who gathered in Toronto on May 26, 2011, hoping to be saved from illness and poverty.
In 1988, Randi tested the gullibility of the media by perpetrating a hoax of his own. By teaming up with Australia's 60 Minutes program and by releasing a fake press package, he built up publicity for a spirit channeler named Carlos who was actually artist Jose Alvarez, a friend of Randi's. Randi would tell him what to say through sophisticated radio equipment. According to the 60 Minutes program on the Carlos hoax, "it was claimed that Alvarez would not have had the audience he did at the Opera House (and the potential sales there from) had the media coverage been more aggressive (and factual)," though an analysis by The Skeptic's Tim Mendham concluded that while the media coverage of Alvarez's appearances was not credulous, "it [the hoax] at least showed that they could benefit by being a touch more sceptical." The hoax was exposed on 60 Minutes; Carlos and Randi explained how they pulled it off.
In the book The Faith Healers, Randi wrote that his anger and relentlessness arises out of compassion for the victims of fraud. Randi has also been critical of João de Deus (John of God), a self-proclaimed psychic surgeon who has received international attention. Randi observed, referring to psychic surgery, "To any experienced conjurer, the methods by which these seeming miracles are produced are very obvious."
In 1982, Randi verified the abilities of Arthur Lintgen, a Philadelphia physician who is able to determine the classical music recorded on a vinyl LP solely by examining the groove on the record. However, Lintgen does not claim to have any paranormal ability, merely knowledge of the way that the groove forms patterns on particular recordings.
James Randi stated that Daniel Dunglas Home, who could allegedly play an accordion that was locked in a cage without touching it, was caught cheating on a few occasions, but the incidents were never made public. He also stated that the accordion in question was a one-octave mouth organ concealed under Home's large moustache and that one-octave mouth organs were found in Home's belongings after his death. According to Randi, William Lindsay Gresham told Randi "around 1960" that he had seen these mouth organs in the Home collection at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Eric Dingwall, who catalogued Home's collection on its arrival at the SPR does not record the presence of the mouth organs. According to Peter Lamont, the author of an extensive Home biography, "It is unlikely Dingwall would have missed these or did not make them public."
Randi distinguishes between pseudoscience and crackpot science. He regards most of parapsychology as pseudoscience because of the way in which it is approached, but nonetheless sees it as a legitimate science which "must be pursued," and from which real scientific discoveries may develop. Randi regards crackpot science as being as "equally wrong" as pseudoscience, but with no scientific pretensions.
Exploring Psychic Powers... Live television show
Exploring Psychic Powers... Live was a television show aired live on June 7, 1989, wherein Randi examined several people claiming psychic powers. The show offered $100,000 (Randi's then $10,000 prize plus $90,000 put up by the show's syndicator, LBS Communications, Inc.) to anyone who could demonstrate genuine psychic powers.
An astrologer claimed that he was able to ascertain a person's astrological sign after talking with them for a few minutes. He was presented with twelve people, one at a time, each with a different astrological sign. The people could not tell the astrologer their astrological sign or birth date, nor could they wear anything that would indicate it. After the astrologer talked to the people, he had them sit in front of a sign that the astrologer thought was theirs. By agreement, the astrologer needed to get ten of them correct to win. He got none correct.
The next psychic claimed to be able to read auras around people. The psychic claimed that auras were visible at least five inches from the people. The psychic chose ten people who had a clearly visible aura. The people were to stand behind screens and the psychic agreed that the aura would be visible above the screens. The screens were numbered 1 through 10, and people were selected whether or not to stand behind their screen at random. The psychic was to tell whether or not a person was standing behind each screen, by seeing the aura above. Since random guessing would be expected to get about five correct, the psychic needed to get eight of the ten right. The psychic stated that she saw an aura over all ten screens, but people were behind only four of the screens.
A dowser claimed that he could locate water, even in a bottle inside a sealed cardboard box. He was shown twenty boxes and the dowser was to indicate which boxes contained a water bottle. He indicated that eight of the boxes contained water, but only five did.[clarification needed]
A psychometric psychic claimed to be able to receive personal information about the owner of an object from the object. In order to avoid ambiguous statements, the psychic agreed to be presented with a watch and a key from twelve different people. The psychic was to match keys and watches belonging to the same person. According to the prior agreement, the psychic had to match nine out of the twelve sets, but she succeeded in only two of the cases.
During the program, another psychic was doing a run of 250 Zener cards, guessing which of the five symbols was on each one. Random guessing should result in about fifty correct predictions, so it was agreed in advance that the psychic had to be right on at least eighty-two cards in order to demonstrate an ability greater than chance. However, she was able to get only fifty predictions correct, which is no better than random guessing.
In 1996, Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi and his colleagues update JREF's blog, Swift. Topics have included the mathematics of the one-seventh area triangle. Randi also contributes a regular column, titled "'Twas Brillig," to The Skeptics Society's Skeptic magazine. In his weekly commentary, Randi often gives examples of what he considers the nonsense that he deals with every day.
Randi's parents were members of the Anglican Church, but rarely attended services. He went to Sunday School a few times as a child, but decided to stop going when he was told not to question or doubt the teachings of the church.
In his essay "Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I'm a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright," Randi, who identifies himself as an atheist, has stated that many accounts in religious texts, including the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus Christ, and the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, are not believable. For example, Randi refers to the Virgin Mary as being "impregnated by a ghost of some sort, and as a result produced a son who could walk on water, raise the dead, turn water into wine, and multiply loaves of bread and fishes" and questions how Adam and Eve "could have two sons, one of whom killed the other, and yet managed to populate the earth without committing incest." He writes that, compared to the Bible, "The Wizard of Oz is more believable. And more fun."
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1995), he looks at a variety of spiritual practices skeptically. Of the meditation techniques of Guru Maharaj Ji he writes: "Only the very naive were convinced that they had been let in on some sort of celestial secret." In 2003, he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.
The James Randi Educational Foundation currently offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to eligible applicants who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. Similar to the paranormal challenges of John Nevil Maskelyne and Houdini, in 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his own money payable to anyone who could provide objective proof of the paranormal. Since then, the prize money has grown to the current $1,000,000, and has formal published rules. No one has progressed past the preliminary test, which is set up with parameters agreed to by both Randi and the applicant. He refuses to accept any challengers who might suffer serious injury or death as a result of the testing. As of April 1, 2007, only those with an already existing media profile and the backing of a reputable academic were allowed to apply for the challenge. As a result, resources would not have to be spent testing obscure claimants and could instead focus on prominent alleged psychics and mediums such as Sylvia Browne, Allison DuBois and John Edward with a campaign in the media.
On Larry King Live, March 6, 2001, Larry King asked Sylvia Browne if she would take the challenge and she agreed. Then Randi appeared with Browne on Larry King Live on September 3, 2001, and she again accepted the challenge. However, she has refused to be tested and Randi keeps a clock on his website recording the number of weeks that have passed since Browne accepted the challenge without following through. During Larry King Live on June 5, 2001, Randi challenged Rosemary Altea to undergo testing for the million dollars. However, Altea would not even address the question. Instead Altea, in part, replied "I agree with what he says, that there are many, many people who claim to be spiritual mediums, they claim to talk to the dead. There are many people, we all know this. There are cheats and charlatans everywhere." Then on January 26, 2007, Altea and Randi again appeared on Larry King Live. Once again, she refused to answer whether or not she would take the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. In October 2007, John Edward appeared on Headline Prime, hosted by Glenn Beck; when asked if he would take Randi's challenge, Edward responded, "I made a joke...would I allow myself to be tested by somebody who's got an adjective for a first name?"
Randi asked British businessman Jim McCormick, the inventor of the bogus ADE 651 bomb detector to take the challenge in October 2008. Randi issued a statement calling the ADE 651 "a useless quack device which cannot perform any other function than separating naive persons from their money. It's a fake, a scam, a swindle, and a blatant fraud. Prove me wrong and take the million dollars." There was no response from McCormick. According to Iraqi investigators, the ADE 651, which was corruptly sold to the Baghdad bomb squad, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians who died as a result of terrorist bombs which were not detected at checkpoints. On April 23, 2013, McCormick was convicted of three counts of fraud at the Old Bailey in London, and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his part in the ADE 651 scandal. The ADE 651 was similar to devices exposed by Randi in the USA in the 1990s.
JREF maintains a public log of past participants in the Million Dollar Challenge.
Randi has been involved in a variety of legal disputes but says that he has "never paid even one dollar or even one cent to anyone who ever sued me." However, he says, he has paid out large sums to personally defend himself in these suits.
According to Randi, Geller tried to sue Randi a number of times, accusing him of libel. Geller never won, save for a ruling in a Japanese court that ordered Randi to pay Geller one third of one percent of what Geller had demanded, but this ruling was canceled, and the matter dropped when Geller decided to concentrate on another legal matter.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
In 1991, Randi commented that Uri Geller's public performances were of the same quality as those found on the backs of cereal boxes. Geller sued both Randi and CSICOP. CSICOP argued that the organization was not responsible for Randi's statements. The court agreed that including CSICOP was frivolous and dropped them from the action, leaving Randi to face the action alone. Geller was ordered to pay substantial damages to CSICOP. Randi and Geller subsequently settled their dispute out of court, the details of which have been kept confidential. The settlement also included an agreement that Geller would not pursue Randi for the award in the Japanese case or other outstanding cases.
In 1996, Baltimore District Court found Randi liable for defaming Eldon Byrd for calling him a "convicted child molester" because, although Byrd had been found guilty of child pornography offences and admitted to molestation, the admission was part of a plea bargain so he was not actually convicted. No damages were awarded to Byrd.
Late in 1996, Randi launched a libel suit against a Toronto-area psychic named Earl Gordon Curley. Curley had made multiple objectionable comments about Randi on Usenet. Despite suggesting to Randi on Usenet that Randi should sue – Curley's comments implying that if Randi did not sue, then his allegations must be true – Curley seemed entirely surprised when Randi actually retained Toronto's largest law firm and initiated legal proceedings. The suit was eventually dropped in 1998 when Earl Curley died at the age of 51.
Allison DuBois, on whose life the television series Medium was based, threatened Randi with legal action for using a photo of her from her website in his December 17, 2004, commentary without her permission. Randi removed the photo and now uses a caricature of DuBois when mentioning her on his site, beginning with his December 23, 2005, commentary.
Sniffex, producer of a dowsing bomb detection device, sued Randi and the JREF in 2007 and lost. Sniffex sued Randi for his comments regarding a government test in which the Sniffex device failed. The company was later investigated and charged with fraud.
In February 2006, Randi underwent coronary artery bypass surgery. In early February 2006, he was declared to be in stable condition and "receiving excellent care" with his recovery proceeding well. The weekly commentary updates to his website were made by guests while he was hospitalized. Randi recovered after his surgery and was able to help organize and attend the 2007 Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada (an annual convention of scientists, magicians, skeptics, atheists and freethinkers).
Randi was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in June 2009. He had a ping pong ball-sized tumor removed from his intestines during laparoscopic surgery. He announced the diagnosis a week later at The Amaz!ng Meeting 7 as well as the fact that he was scheduled to begin chemotherapy in the following weeks. He also said at the conference: "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it. 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." Randi also said that after he is gone he does not want his fans to bother with a museum of magic named after him or burying him in a fancy tomb. Instead, he said, "I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller's eyes." Randi underwent his final chemotherapy session on December 31, 2009, as he explained in a January 12, 2010, video in which he related that his chemotherapy experience was not as unpleasant as he had imagined. In a video posted April 12, 2010, Randi stated that he has been given a clean bill of health.
In a March 21, 2010, blog entry, Randi came out as gay, a move he explained was inspired by seeing the 2008 biographical drama film Milk, in which Sean Penn portrayed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. During an appearance at the annual skeptic's convention The Amazing Meeting (TAM) on July 12, 2013, Randi announced that he and his partner of 27 years, artist Deyvi Pena, had been married in Washington, D.C., 10 days previously.
In 2012, magician Penn Jillette announced that he was working on a biography of Randi.
Awards and honors
The James Randi Beard Photo, taken at The JREF Amaz!ng Meeting 9 ("TAM 9 From Outer Space") July 16, 2011
Dilbert – parodied in "The Infomercial" (1999) TV Episode
An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story (2013)
In 2007, Randi delivered a talk at TED in which he discussed psychic fraud, homeopathy, and his foundation's Million Dollar Challenge.
Randi can be heard speaking an introduction on Tommy Finke's song "Poet der Affen/Poet of the Apes," released on the album of the same name in 2010. The message was recorded by Randi and sent to Finke via e-mail.
A tribute to Randi's years of work combating pseudoscience has led to the creation of Eddie and James Horsfall's song, "Go Go Randi" (2012).
^Randi 1982c, pp. 230–231. Randi reprints two newspaper columns from the Toronto Evening Telegram of August 28, 1950, and August 14, 1950, by Wessely Hicks about Randall Zwinge's psychic predictions. The earlier column states that "Mr. Zwinge said he first became aware that he possessed Extra Sensory Perception when he was nine years old."
^Clopton, Willard (June 27, 1967). "Air Force's UFO Expert Meets the Man From S.A.U.C.E.R.S.". The Washington Post.
^Butler, Kevin S.; Ingram, Billy. "Wonderama!". TVparty!. Greensboro, NC: William Ingram. Retrieved April 5, 2007. "Sonny Fox hosted another 'Wonderama Thanksgiving Day Party' on Thursday afternoon, November 23, 1961 with guests ventriloquist and cartoon voice-over performer Paul Winchell, magician/escape artist and magic historian The Amazing James Randi and folk singer Pat Woodell."
Burt, Daniel S. (2001). The Biography Book: A Reader's Guide to Nonfiction, Fictional, and Film Biographies of More Than 500 of the Most Fascinating Individuals of All Time. Westport, CT: Oryx Press. ISBN1-57356-256-4. OCLC44502070.
James Randi interview (May 2009) from the podcast of MagicNewswire.com in which Randi discusses his career in magic, his feud with Uri Geller and more.
James Randi interview (November 2007) from the BSAlert.com radio show where Randi discusses NBC's Phenomenon TV show, the current status of Uri Geller and his thoughts about whether society is becoming more or less superstitious.