James Randi
Magician and Scientific Skeptic
03:21

How to Squash a Paranormal Claim

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The James Randi Educational Foundation has never met a “psychic” it couldn’t discredit—easily. Still, Randi understands why such frauds appeal to people.

James Randi

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 does the JREF consider a legitimate test of paranormal claims?

A test of any specific claim is going to depend entirely upon that claim.  If you say you can speak to dead people, I’ve got a whole load of questions I would like to ask certain dead people.  Answers to which I already have, and the dead people, since they are dead, I don’t believe they’ve got the answers any longer, but if you want to call them up and ask them the questions and come up with the right answer, hey, you could win the million dollars.  Now, many people say they can read minds, they can predict the future, they can interpret dreams and such, well, it all depends on the specific claim they make.  All they have to do is say what they can do, under what circumstances, with what accuracy. 

And some people have taken, literally, years.  One fellow, a PhD in California took four and a half years to answer those three questions, and finally when we got ready to enter into tests with him of "remote viewing," as he called it, and he actually gave courses in this at the university in California, he suddenly changed his email address and his telephone number.  We haven't been able to reach him since. Isn’t that strange?  I guess he doesn’t need the million dollars.

Question:
What has been the most difficult paranormal claim for the JREF to disprove?

James Randi: I’d like to say that there has been one particularly difficult one, but no, they’ve all been so easy.  They’ve been so easy because they’ve been so transparent. I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and I’ve seen everything.  Recently, I got a nice contract to go to South Korea and do a TV series, which I did there, testing South Korean "psychics," so-called.  And they told me before I left, they said, “Oh, Mr. Randi, you signed the contract, so I guess we should tell, we’ve got psychics in South Korea that you’ve never seen before.”  And I went off there with my assistant and we looked at them and turned to one another and said, “Wait a minute. This is the same thing that has been going on since the 1600s. It’s in all the books. It’s exactly the same thing. They’re serving kimchee at lunch instead of macaroni, or whatever, but in any different culture, in any differen... the costume is different, the language is different, but the same stunts are being done again, and again, and again.  They haven’t invented anything new since the early 1600s.
 
Question:
Do you believe supernatural thinking is ingrained in human cognition?

James Randi: Well, you’d have to ask a psychologist, and perhaps a few psychiatrists that question because technically I can’t answer that question.  But I will tell you, I suspect strongly that people need to have some more romance in their lives.  After all, look at the average kid who is male or female who was raised by their parents who believe that he or she will have children and will have a wife or a husband and they will be absolutely ideal people and everything will go... you will be a doctor, or lawyer, or you’ll be very wealthy, have a beautiful home.  It doesn’t work out that way all the time.  In fact, it seldom works out that way.  And so they look around and say, "What have I done wrong?"  And them somebody runs an ad on television saying, “Oh, I can solve your problems.  I can give you guidance to the future, and I can look into the crystal ball, or read the tarot cards,” or whatever.  They may tend to fall for that sort of thing because they say, "They wouldn’t’ say that if it weren’t true."  Oh, yes, they would.  And there’s a huge profit margin in this.  So people do fall for these things very, very easily.

Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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