James Randi (born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Ontario),
more often known as The Amazing Randi, is a stage magician, a
skeptic, best known as a debunker of pseudoscience. He is perhaps
most known for the One Million Dollar Challenge, in which his
James Randi Educational Foundation will award a prize of one million
USD to anyone who is able to demonstrate any paranormal, supernatural,
or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both
parties. He has appeared on the television programs The Tonight
Show and Bullshit!, which is hosted by fellow skeptics and magicians
Penn & Teller.
interest in debunking the paranormal started when he was in his
early teens. He has also been credited with exposing Reverend
Peter Popoff's fraudulent faith healing schemes in 1987.
He was present at a magic show when a magician asked for someone
from the audience to help him with his performance. Randi, having
experimented with magic tricks himself, raised his hand. The magician
responded, "Ah, young man, you're a magician yourself, aren't
you?", much to Randi's amazement. After the show, Randi approached
the man and asked how he knew this. The man told Randi he did
not. It was simply part of his routine and whenever he turned
out to be right, he would credit his "magical powers"
and whenever he was wrong, he would turn it into a standard quip
(an example of Cold reading).
subsequently witnessed many tricks that were presented as being
supernatural. One of his earliest reported experiences is that
of seeing an evangelist using the "one-ahead" routine
to convince churchgoers of his divine powers.
Randi has worked as a professional stage magician and escapologist
since 1946. In 1955, he broke Houdini's record for survival in
a sealed coffin (1 hour, 33 minutes) by 11 minutes. In his early
career, Randi was part of numerous stunts involving his escape
from jail cells and safes.
was the host of The Amazing Randi Show on WOR radio in New York
City from 1964 to January 1966. He took over the late night slot
that had been vacated by Long John Nebel. He also hosted numerous
television specials and went on several world tours. Randi is
noted for escaping from a straitjacket while suspended upside
down over Niagara Falls on the Canadian TV program World of Wizards.
appeared as "The Amazing Randi" on a television show
entitled Wonderama from 1967 to 1972. In the February 2, 1974
issue of Abracadabra (a British conjuring magazine) Randi defined
the magic community saying, "I know of no calling which depends
so much upon mutual trust and faith as does ours."
Alice Cooper's 1974 tour, Randi performed as the dentist and executioner
on stage. He also designed and built several of the stage props,
including the guillotine. An incident where the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police searched the band's lockers during a performance
has been cited by Randi as leading him to apply for American citizenship.
is author of Conjuring (1991), 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,
as a skeptic
Randi entered the international spotlight in 1972 when he challenged
the public claims of Uri Geller. Randi accused Geller of being
nothing more than a charlatan using standard "magic"
tricks to accomplish his allegedly paranormal feats, and he backed
up his claims in the book The Magic of Uri Geller. The original
edition contained a number of factual errors, including the claim
that Geller had been convicted of fraud in a criminal trial, and
misstatements about whether there was a clear view of the window
in the room where Geller did his work, a place Randi admitted
he had never been. Randi's critics have seized on these statements,
claiming that they are deliberate and that they undermine Randi's
credibility. Several publications that reprinted Randi's allegations
were successfully sued by Geller, or they settled with him. Randi
has since produced a new edition of the book with extensive corrections
and revisions, and renamed it The Truth About Uri Geller.
was a founding fellow and prominent member of CSICOP, the Committee
for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Randi
later resigned from CSICOP during the period when Uri Geller was
filing numerous civil suits against him. 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. He still maintains a respectful relationship with the
group and frequently writes articles for its magazine.
has gone on to write several books analyzing and criticizing beliefs
and claims regarding the paranormal. He has also been instrumental
in exposing frauds and charlatans who exploit this field for personal
gain. In one example, his Project Alpha hoax, Randi revealed that
he had been able to orchestrate a years-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. Some said that the hoax was unethical, while others claimed
his actions were a legitimate exercise in debunking poor research
techniques. Later, his "Carlos" hoax, in which he hired
performance artist Josè Louis Alvarez to act as a psychic,
pointed out the gullibility of New Age believers. "Carlos"
performances began in Australia in 1988 as a story for an Australian
newsmagazine show, and continued to take place for many years
even after the hoax was voluntarily exposed.
was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award in
1986, drawing upon his conjuring skills to write and educate the
public on superstition and pseudo-scientific matters.
comprehensive exposé of faith healer Peter Popoff in 1987
resulted in a sharp decline in Popoff's influence and popularity.
the same year, Randi became a naturalized citizen of the United
States. In 1996, Randi established the James Randi Educational
Foundation (JREF). Randi updates the JREF's website on Fridays
with a written commentary titled Swift: Online Newsletter of the
JREF. Randi also contributes a regular column, titled "'Twas
Brillig", to The Skeptics Society's Skeptic magazine.
Thursday 2 February 2006, Randi underwent emergency coronary artery
bypass surgery. While he was recovering from surgery, Hal Bidlack
took over writing the weekly commentaries for his website. Randi
himself resumed writing the weekly commentaries on April 14, 2006.
3163 Randi was named after him.
The rivalry between Randi and his opponents has ended up in court
on several occasions. These episodes include the following.
an interview with Twilight Zone Magazine, Randi accused Uri Geller
and Eldon Byrd of being the ringleaders in a criminal blackmail
plot aimed at destroying Randi, and that Byrd was a convicted
child molester. Byrd sued Randi; the jury found that Randi's claim
regarding Byrd was defamatory, but awarded Byrd $0 in damages
(thus preventing further appeals by Byrd) apparently based on
their rather low opinion of him (see news story).
an interview with a Japanese newspaper, Randi was presented as
saying that Uri Geller had driven a close friend to "shoot
himself in the head", which Randi afterwards claimed was
a metaphor lost in translation. However, Randi made a similar
statement ("The scientist shot himself after I showed him
how the key bending trick was done.") in the August 23, 1986
Toronto Star that seemed to validate Geller's charge. Since the
referenced suicide victim died of natural causes, Geller successfully
sued both the newspaper and Randi in the Japanese courts. Randi
could not participate in the trial, did not recognize the court's
authority (since "insult", as opposed to "libel",
is not a legally cognizable basis for a civil action in the U.S.),
and refused to pay the $2,000 judgement that was awarded.
once commented that Uri Geller's tricks are of the same quality
as those Randi read on the backs of cereal packets as a child.
Geller sued both Randi and CSICOP. CSICOP disavowed Randi, pleading
that the organization was not responsible for Randi's statements.
The court agreed that including CSICOP was frivolous, and they
were dropped from the action. Geller was ordered to pay substantial
damages to CSICOP. The order specifically excluded Randi from
receiving any of the damages. At this time, Randi and Geller had
both run up huge legal bills amounting to hundreds of thousands
of U.S. dollars. In a private meeting they achieved an out-of-court
settlement, the details of which have been kept private. This
case, as noted above, was directly responsible for the decision
of Randi to part company with CSICOP.
psychic Allison DuBois, on whose life the television series Medium
was based, and whose alleged abilities and other claims Randi
has questioned, 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.
in 1996 Randi launched a libel suit against a Toronto-area psychic/self-published
author/entry-level web developer named Earl Gordon Curley. Curley
had made a number of objectionable comments about Randi on Usenet.
Despite constantly prodding Randi via Usenet to sue (Curley's
implication being if Randi didn't 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, allegedly drinking himself to death.
$1 million challenge
The JREF currently offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars
to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon
scientific testing criteria. In 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his
own money payable to the first person who could provide objective
proof of the paranormal. Since then, the prize money has grown
to the current $1,000,000, and the rules that surround claiming
the prize are official and legal. No one has gotten past the preliminary
test which is set up and has to be agreed upon by both Randi and
the conditions and rules governing his one million U.S. dollar
challenge, Randi plainly states that both parties (himself and
the party accepting the challenge) must agree in advance as to
what conditions of the test constitute a "success" and
what constitutes a "failure". He also refuses to accept
any challengers who might suffer serious injury or death as a
result of the test they intend to undergo.
Randi has accused Sylvia Browne - a well-known, self-proclaimed
psychic medium and author of numerous books on spirituality, who
has performed thousands of one-on-one readings and assignments
with a wide variety of groups and individuals - of avoiding the
$1,000,000 challenge despite agreeing on Larry King Live in September
2001 to accept it.
keeps a clock on his website recording the number of weeks that
have passed since Sylvia accepted the challenge without following
Some critics see Randi's contempt for many applicants and outright
dismissal of some applications as evidence of insincerity of the
million dollar challenge. For example, one applicant, Rico Kolodzey,
applied by claiming he is able to live only on water (breatharianism).
Randi didn't answer at first and, when pressed, he answered in
a June 18, 1999 email:
don't treat us like children. We only respond to responsible claims.
Are you actually claiming that you have not consumed any food
products except water, since the end of 1998? If this is what
you are saying, did you think for one moment that we would believe
it? If this is actually your claim, you're a liar and a fraud.
We are not interested in pursuing this further, nor will we exchange
correspondence with you on the matter. “
questions raised on the JREF Forum, Randi himself confirmed the
authenticity of this letter, elucidating on why he stopped accepting
these kinds of claims:
this matter of living-without-eating is just such nonsense, that
I find it hard to believe it's earned such a large amount of attention.
That letter is quite real, not faked, I meant it and I still mean
it. Many years ago, we tested a chap in San Francisco who'd made
the same claim. We camped outside the Holiday Inn where we'd placed
him, and at about 2 in the morning, he left for the local all-night
MacDonald's and returned with a huge bag of cheeseburgers. He
said he only intended to inhale them, not eat them. Now, that
makes him look silly, of course, but it also makes us look silly,
for having organized a test in the first place!
and living-without-eating are off the JREF list, because they're
just so damn silly and juvenile.
the JREF application makes this rejection of some claims explicit:
Only claims that can be verified by evidence under proper observing
conditions will be accepted. JREF will NOT accept claims of the
existence of deities or demons/angels, the validity of exorcism,
religious claims, cloudbusting, causing the Sun to rise or the
stars to move, etc. JREF will also NOT test claims that are likely
to cause injury of any sort, such as those involving the withholding
of air, food or water, or the use of illicit materials, drugs,
or dangerous devices.
dismissals make it possible for critics to complain of Randi "running
away" from claim tests.
has also been criticized for inconsistencies in his statements.
In a July 2005 Swift commentary, despite the earlier dismissal
of such claims, he offered to test Ellen Greve, aka "Jasmuheen",
another breatharian, three of whose followers had died following
her practices. Randi said of his decision:
won't allow the test to be terminated unless Jasmuheen herself
says she wants it to be stopped! Jasmuheen said of one of those
dupes who died, that she was "not coming from a place of
integrity and did not have the right motivation." I believe
that Jasmuheen should be allowed — even encouraged —
to demonstrate that she herself has both the required integrity
and the correct motivation.
apparent inconsistency actually is consistent with another principle
— concern for the lives harmed by claimants — that
he states in an earlier commentary about Kolodzey:
are often criticized for going after only the silly people, the
"easy" targets: dowsers, homeopaths, "applied kinesiology"
practitioners, magnet gurus, etc. But these claims cost lives
and tax dollars, so must be dealt with.
criticism levelled at Randi has been that he "rigs"
the tests so that he knows the results ahead of time. This assertion
actually confounds two separate issues: that he somehow controls
the tests, and that he freely admits that he knows the results
ahead of time. His response to this recurring criticism is that
he uses scientific, double-blind tests and states, "...my
tests are designed and approved independently from me, and are,
and must be, accepted without reservation by the applicant, after
which the tests are carried out by an independent party, I remove
myself entirely from any part of the process... The test protocol
is satisfactorily developed and agreed upon by JREF, Randi and
the testee. Here's an example of how the initial application process
might take place: . It is then judged and binding by an independent
"test rigging" criticism is based upon a quote by Randi
that is often taken out of context: "I always have an out."
According to Randi, the full quote "I always have an out
— I'm right!" refers to the fact that his tests are
always designed to be cheat-proof. He's also said it in reference
to his magic show.
The issue of "controlling" the tests is often expressed
by criticizing Randi's insistence that each test must be customized
for each applicant, leading to the charge of "changing the
rules." Randi counters that a test for someone who dowses
for gold or water cannot be anything like a test for living without
food, seeing while blindfolded, or reading people's minds. In
JREF's words "Applicant must state clearly in advance, and
applicant and JREF will agree upon, what powers or abilities will
be demonstrated, the limits of the proposed demonstration (so
far as time, location and other variables are concerned) and what
will constitute both a positive and a negative result.
Randi has received awards in recognition of his efforts to promote
skepticism and humanism, including:
Foundation fellowship award, 1986
Richard Dawkins Award, 2003 (inaugural award)
The American Humanist Association gave Mr. Randi their Humanist
Distinguished Service Award in 1990
He has also been handing out his own annual "Pigasus Awards"
(originally known as "Uri Awards") to mock parapsychological
frauds and credulous acceptance or promotion of pseudoscience.
amount of belief makes something a fact."
recognize that nature has neither a preference for our species
nor a bias against it takes only a little courage."
am in a very peculiar business: I travel all over the world telling
people what they should already know."
is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for
knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained
by examination of the best available evidence and always subject
to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence.
What's left is magic. And it doesn't work."
is based upon blind faith supported by no evidence. Science is
based upon confidence that results from evidence -- and that confidence
can be modified and/or reversed by further observations and experimentation.
Science approaches truth, closer and closer, by hard dedicated
work. Religion already has it all decided, and it's "in the
book. It's dogma, unchangeable, and unaffected by reality and
whatever facts we come upon in the real world."
was a small boy on crutches. I do not know his name, and I suspect
I never will. But I will never forget his face, his smile, his
sorrow. He is one of the millions robbed of hope and dignity by
charlatans discussed in this book. Wherever and whoever he is,
I apologize to him for not having been able to protect him from
such an experience. I humbly dedicate this book to him and to
the many others who have suffered because the rest of us began
caring too late."