A Lifetime Fighting Pseudoscience

James Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi began his career as a magician, but when he retired at age 60, he switched to investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, which he collectively calls "woo-woo." Although often referred to as a "debunker," Randi rejects that title owing to its perceived bias, instead describing himself as an "investigator". He has written about the paranormal, skepticism, and the history of magic. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and is occasionally featured on the television program Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
  • Transcript


Question: What first prompted your crusade against pseudoscience?

James Randi: Well, for one thing.  As a magician—someone who professionally deceives people, but does it for entertainment purposes—I know two things with great certainty.  First, how people can be fooled.  And second, and that’s more important, how they can fool themselves.  And they do. 

Now magicians know this and they allow people to fool themselves, but for purposes of entertainment.  But I see the charlatans out there, the people on television who say they can talk with dead people.  I too can talk to dead people, but do they answer?  I think Shakespeare asked a question like that one time in Henry the something or other.  The point is, people can be misled into believing there is a supernatural world out there.  Now, there may be.  I can’t say that there isn’t.  But certainly what is being shown us on television and through the media in general by people like John Edward, for instance, and Sylvia Browne and other performers like this who say they have these supernatural powers.  That is nothing like supernatural powers.  There is nothing happening there that the magician can’t explain.  And that’s what got me so angry about it because I saw lives being destroyed, I saw money being taken.  I saw emotional security being damaged desperately. 

I had people coming to the James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida, they sit in my library, and the sit down, they say, “But our mother has control of the book.  She has the power of attorney and she’s given all the money away to the faith healer, or to the fortune teller, the gypsy, or whatever, and what can we do?  And the answer is, you can’t do anything.  If she’s got legal control of it, she has a right to do what she thinks is right with it.  Now, she’s wrong in that supposition. That is not what should be happening, in my estimation.  People should be told the truth.  They should be allowed to know that they can be deceived.  And the average person out there doesn’t realize how easily they can be deceived by a clever operator.

What prompted your crusade against Uri Geller in particular?

James Randi: Well for one thing, he obtained a very high profile back in the ‘70s, when he was [...], that’s Uri Geller, we’re talking about—who says that he can bend spoons with his mind.  Duh, every fool can bend a spoon, but with his mind?  That might be a different thing.  He attained a reputation because he was tested at Stanford Research Institute.  Now, after hours, it was informal, the institute had nothing to do with actually testing him, but he was tested on the premises, and that’s where that impression was given rise to. 

Eventually, a scientific paper was written up for Nature magazine by the two rather naïve scientists who fell for the simple tricks that Geller did.  He only has four tricks in his whole repertoire for the last 35 years that I know of.  And yet he’s done very well on them.  He’s obviously made money in the trade over those years.  And that’s okay, hey making money as an entertainer... but he tried to tell people that he really had supernatural powers.  That he came from, of all things—and this is his words and not mine—he came from a planet called Hoova, which apparently is a place where they get vacuum cleanas.  I’m not sure.  But he said this planet is way out there in the solar system, or beyond the solar system, and that he came from that planet. 

No he wasn’t.  He was born in Israel just like everybody else was in Israel.  They are born the same way, of a mother and a father.  He didn’t come from any mystical planet.  Nothing like that whatsoever.  But these scientists who saw him and who apparently tested him.  They actually didn’t test him, what they did was they allowed him to do demonstrations of what he did best.  They wrote a whole book on him, and they reported to Nature magazine that it was the real thing. 

Well, I objected to that and ever since then I have been pursuing Mr. Geller.  Now, he has changed his tune.  He doesn’t want to be known as a "psychic," he wants to be known as a "mystifier."  Ho, ho, ho.  What does that mean?  Well, it doesn’t fool too many people.  You see, Mr. Geller has a problem; his problem is that he cost tens of billions of dollars in research funds all over the world, from countries, from companies, from various corporations, and individuals and universities who spent all kinds of money testing what they called “The Geller Effect.”  And they wasted all that research money, and time, and careers as well.  So, if Geller now comes out and says, "Oh, I was only fooling.  Yeah, that was a fib that I told you.  I didn’t really come from the planet Hoova, and I can’t really bend spoons with my mind, I just simply do it when nobody’s looking, you see."  But if he were to admit that, I think that the law would probably come down on him pretty heavily.  Certainly some people out there would like some recompense for their loss of time and effort.

What pseudoscientific beliefs do you observe within the scientific community?

James Randi: Oh, well, such things as free energy for example.  Zero-point energy.  Getting energy from no place.  That’s... we used to call those perpetual motion machines, but now they’re given much more highfalutin terms.  But a lot of money is wasted on that.  See, we have a million-dollar challenge with the James Randi Educational Foundation, and that challenge says, “Do something that is paranormal, supernatural, or occult and you win the millions dollars.”  The million dollars is there, it’s with an investment house in New York City.  All you do is perform as you say you can perform and you collect the million dollars.  Now, Mr. Geller has never applied, for one thing.  Sylvia Browne did apply.  She was forced into it on a major television show some years ago, and she’s been looking for me ever since.  She apparently can’t find me.  She talks to dead people, and I’m alive, and she can’t find me.  I’m in the phone book Sylvia, what’s wrong?  But she says also that I’m not a godly person. 

Now, I would think that Sylvia would think, maybe I’ll take this godly person to the cleaners and take his million dollars.  Now, it’s not my million dollars, it belongs to the foundation, but it is a million dollars.  It’s in investable bonds that is cashable, negotiable bonds.  You can change it into a million dollars overnight simply by selling the shares.  That’s all, and so it is there.  It’s a million dollar prize and it’s a big carrot to wave in front of these people.  Where are they?  They should be knocking at that door right now, as a matter of fact, I would think.

Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen