Tuesday, September 6, 2011

James Randi

James Randi is a Canadian-American magician and sceptic. He is best known as a challenger of paranormal claims and pseudoscience. He began his magic career as "The Amazing Randi", but after retiring from the stage at age 60, he began investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, and has become best known as a "debunker" (He prefers not to use this term, and instead calls himself an "investigator"). He has written numerous books about pseudoscience, so-called psychics and those he regards as frauds and hoaxers.

Since the 1970s he has offered the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize" (now standing at 1 million US dollars) to anyone who can prove they possess psychic powers under controlled testing. To date, nobody has been able to claim this reward. He has been the defendant in a number of high profile court cases (particularly involving Uri Geller), where various self-proclaimed psychics have claimed that he has defamed them (similarly to Simon Singh's case). He claims never to have paid any money in damages, although he does admit that defending himself has cost him a considerable sum of money over the years.

In this clip he talks about his writing, his TV appearances, his battles with Uri Geller and (particularly interestingly, I thought) his exposure as a fraud of American faith healer Peter Popoff.

It strikes me watching this that if people truly believe something, then very often, no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them (belief can be stronger than knowledge). This is obvious when you consider that despite having had to admit his fraud and subsequently declaring bankruptcy, Peter Popoff is rebuilding his career, and judging by his new and flashy website, has rebuilt his following. Of course, it could be argued that Popoff is targeting a vulnerable section of society - and he is a powerful speaker in some ways. It has also been suggested to me that perhaps his "act" helped some people, confirmed their faith, and maybe in some ways healed them (sometimes physically). After all, the placebo effect is a powerful phenomena and not well understood. [Admittedly, I wrote this last part before I saw footage of one of Popoff's shows in which he encouraged members of his audience to come up to the stage and throw away their medication!]

It is interesting to watch some of Randi's earlier appearances on TV. In the following clip he meets psychic performer James Hydrick in what appears to be an 1980s version of the X-factor. Hydrick attempted to claim the Randi Foundation Prize, but mysteriously under controlled conditions his powers deserted him (as they often seem to do with psychic performers). Hydrick later admitted that his act was a simple trick that he learned in prison:

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