A Lifetime Fighting Pseudoscience

Question: What first prompted your crusade against \r\npseudoscience?
\r\n

\r\nJames Randi: Well, for one thing.  As a magician—someone who \r\nprofessionally deceives people, but does it for entertainment purposes—I\r\n know two things with great certainty.  First, how people can be \r\nfooled.  And second, and that’s more important, how they can fool \r\nthemselves.  And they do. 
\r\n
\r\nNow magicians know this and they allow people to fool themselves, but \r\nfor purposes of entertainment.  But I see the charlatans out there, the \r\npeople on television who say they can talk with dead people.  I too can \r\ntalk to dead people, but do they answer?  I think Shakespeare asked a \r\nquestion like that one time in Henry the something or other.  The point \r\nis, people can be misled into believing there is a supernatural world \r\nout there.  Now, there may be.  I can’t say that there isn’t.  But \r\ncertainly what is being shown us on television and through the media in \r\ngeneral by people like John Edward, for instance, and Sylvia Browne and \r\nother performers like this who say they have these supernatural powers. \r\n That is nothing like supernatural powers.  There is nothing happening \r\nthere that the magician can’t explain.  And that’s what got me so angry \r\nabout it because I saw lives being destroyed, I saw money being taken.  I\r\n saw emotional security being damaged desperately. 
\r\n
\r\nI had people coming to the James Randi Educational Foundation in \r\nFlorida, they sit in my library, and the sit down, they say, “But our \r\nmother has control of the book.  She has the power of attorney and she’s\r\n given all the money away to the faith healer, or to the fortune teller,\r\n the gypsy, or whatever, and what can we do?  And the answer is, you \r\ncan’t do anything.  If she’s got legal control of it, she has a right to\r\n do what she thinks is right with it.  Now, she’s wrong in that \r\nsupposition. That is not what should be happening, in my estimation.  \r\nPeople should be told the truth.  They should be allowed to know that \r\nthey can be deceived.  And the average person out there doesn’t realize \r\nhow easily they can be deceived by a clever operator.
\r\n
\r\nQuestion:
What prompted your crusade against Uri Geller in \r\nparticular?
\r\n

\r\nJames Randi: Well for one thing, he obtained a very high profile \r\nback in the ‘70s, when he was [...], that’s Uri Geller, we’re talking \r\nabout—who says that he can bend spoons with his mind.  Duh, every fool \r\ncan bend a spoon, but with his mind?  That might be a different thing.  \r\nHe attained a reputation because he was tested at Stanford Research \r\nInstitute.  Now, after hours, it was informal, the institute had nothing\r\n to do with actually testing him, but he was tested on the premises, and\r\n that’s where that impression was given rise to. 
\r\n
\r\nEventually, a scientific paper was written up for Nature magazine by the\r\n two rather naïve scientists who fell for the simple tricks that Geller \r\ndid.  He only has four tricks in his whole repertoire for the last 35 \r\nyears that I know of.  And yet he’s done very well on them.  He’s \r\nobviously made money in the trade over those years.  And that’s okay, \r\nhey making money as an entertainer... but he tried to tell people that \r\nhe really had supernatural powers.  That he came from, of all things—and\r\n this is his words and not mine—he came from a planet called Hoova, \r\nwhich apparently is a place where they get vacuum cleanas.  I’m not \r\nsure.  But he said this planet is way out there in the solar system, or \r\nbeyond the solar system, and that he came from that planet. 
\r\n
\r\nNo he wasn’t.  He was born in Israel just like everybody else was in \r\nIsrael.  They are born the same way, of a mother and a father.  He \r\ndidn’t come from any mystical planet.  Nothing like that whatsoever.  \r\nBut these scientists who saw him and who apparently tested him.  They \r\nactually didn’t test him, what they did was they allowed him to do \r\ndemonstrations of what he did best.  They wrote a whole book on him, and\r\n they reported to Nature magazine that it was the real thing. 
\r\n
\r\nWell, I objected to that and ever since then I have been pursuing Mr. \r\nGeller.  Now, he has changed his tune.  He doesn’t want to be known as a\r\n "psychic," he wants to be known as a "mystifier."  Ho, ho, ho.  What \r\ndoes that mean?  Well, it doesn’t fool too many people.  You see, Mr. \r\nGeller has a problem; his problem is that he cost tens of billions of \r\ndollars in research funds all over the world, from countries, from \r\ncompanies, from various corporations, and individuals and universities \r\nwho spent all kinds of money testing what they called “The Geller \r\nEffect.”  And they wasted all that research money, and time, and careers\r\n as well.  So, if Geller now comes out and says, "Oh, I was only \r\nfooling.  Yeah, that was a fib that I told you.  I didn’t really come \r\nfrom the planet Hoova, and I can’t really bend spoons with my mind, I \r\njust simply do it when nobody’s looking, you see."  But if he were to \r\nadmit that, I think that the law would probably come down on him pretty \r\nheavily.  Certainly some people out there would like some recompense for\r\n their loss of time and effort.
\r\n
\r\nQuestion:
What pseudoscientific beliefs do you observe within the \r\nscientific community?
\r\n

\r\nJames Randi: Oh, well, such things as free energy for example.  \r\nZero-point energy.  Getting energy from no place.  That’s... we used to \r\ncall those perpetual motion machines, but now they’re given much more \r\nhighfalutin terms.  But a lot of money is wasted on that.  See, we have a\r\n million-dollar challenge with the James Randi Educational Foundation, \r\nand that challenge says, “Do something that is paranormal, supernatural,\r\n or occult and you win the millions dollars.”  The million dollars is \r\nthere, it’s with an investment house in New York City.  All you do is \r\nperform as you say you can perform and you collect the million dollars. \r\n Now, Mr. Geller has never applied, for one thing.  Sylvia Browne did \r\napply.  She was forced into it on a major television show some years \r\nago, and she’s been looking for me ever since.  She apparently can’t \r\nfind me.  She talks to dead people, and I’m alive, and she can’t find \r\nme.  I’m in the phone book Sylvia, what’s wrong?  But she says also that\r\n I’m not a godly person. 
\r\n
\r\nNow, I would think that Sylvia would think, maybe I’ll take this godly \r\nperson to the cleaners and take his million dollars.  Now, it’s not my \r\nmillion dollars, it belongs to the foundation, but it is a million \r\ndollars.  It’s in investable bonds that is cashable, negotiable bonds.  \r\nYou can change it into a million dollars overnight simply by selling the\r\n shares.  That’s all, and so it is there.  It’s a million dollar prize \r\nand it’s a big carrot to wave in front of these people.  Where are \r\nthey?  They should be knocking at that door right now, as a matter of \r\nfact, I would think.

Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

What prompted the skeptic’s public crusades against Uri Geller, Sylvia Browne, and other self-proclaimed mystics?

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less