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Remembering James Randi, 1928-2020

by Brian Dunning

October 22, 2020

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This dedication opened the October 27, 2020 episode of the Skeptoid podcast.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of James "The Amazing" Randi, 1928 to 2020. Mentor, hero, and friend.

It may sound cliche but it's absolutely true: Skeptoid and your other favorite skeptical podcasts and programming would not be here if it wasn't for Randi. He was the onetime professional magician, but later full-time exposer of charlatans and frauds, who made such an impact on so many of us. In 2006 I started Skeptoid, and there's one reason. Randi was the compass that pointed the direction I took my life.

As a magician he toured the world, escaping from straitjackets while hanging upside down from helicopters, and all manner of defiances of death. But he was also a great defender of the downtrodden. At times he risked life and limb for real in his refusal to perform for segregated audiences in the American south. He became known to most people for his many appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, where he dramatically laid bare the failures of hucksters like Uri Geller, whose powers suddenly vanished when Randi applied even the most basic scientific controls, on live television.

He was a founding member of CSICOP along with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and many other scientific luminaries. CSICOP did great things, revealing the scams employed by fraudsters like televangelist Peter Popov. But lawsuits, mostly from Uri Geller, and their inevitable fallout, caused Randi to split from CSICOP and face Geller and his enormous financial resources alone. The wisdom and merits of that decision are a valid debate, but what's not debatable is that it showed nobody was more personally committed, and willing to risk more, for the cause of protecting the public from fakers.

Randi continued his work as the JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation, most famous for its Million Dollar Challenge for anyone who could prove any sort of paranormal abilities. Many tried, all failed miserably, simply due to basic scientific controls.

It was this commitment to protecting victims, and placing himself in harm's way to protect them, that struck me most about Randi and that I try to always keep in mind. Among the many marginalized groups he defended are LGBTQ people. Randi himself came out as gay, but very late in life. I still remember his appearances at his earlier Amazing Meeting conferences where he perennially quipped that if there were any wealthy old ladies in the audience, to please give him a call. Then at the age of 81, the lies stopped, and he publicly introduced his husband Deyvi, a Florida artist whom I am also proud to call a friend. Randi knew as well as anyone how hard life can be for any member of any group marginalized by the mainstream. And that is, perhaps, as a good a reason as any for his fierce, lifelong commitment to defending victims against bullies: whether they are customers of a fraudulent product, grieving victims of a predatory psychic, Black Americans in the south, or hopeful parishioners of a radio-headset wearing televangelist.

I will share one small personal story. A group of us were at the JREF headquarters in Florida a few years ago for a reception the night before embarking on The Amazing Cruise, a skeptic-themed shipboard cruise in the Caribbean. Out of the blue, Randi tapped me on the shoulder and had me follow him. A few people tried to tag along but he shooed them away. He led me through the office and then into a private office beyond, and I started to wonder if I was in some kind of trouble. Then he closed the door and sat me down. The next thing I knew he was holding a die. I called it a dice, and he abruptly corrected me. "Die!" Evidently magicians are sticklers for precision in terminology. And then he taught me how to do a trick. It's a simple little sleight of hand trick, where you rub the die on a person's palm and it changes its sides. He had me perform it a dozen times, carefully correcting the way I was holding it to not give anything away. I'm not a magician by any stretch, in fact before that day I only knew one trick. And after that day, I still only knew one trick. It was the same one. Randi took it upon himself to personally teach me a magic trick, and it was the only trick I already knew. If you're going to have a private moment with Randi, you're all the more fortunate if that moment is cloaked with some inexplicable dark mystique — and for me, the memory is infinitely richer for it. I've always wondered if bringing people into his private office and teaching them a trick was some kind of rare honor, or something he did with everyone. Whatever it was, I choose to always feel honored.

It just so happens that today's episode is not a deep and profound one, worthy of a dedication of such gravitas, but rather it's the one that just happened to be the next one in the queue, and it's a lighthearted pop quiz episode. Is that an appropriate way to remember Randi? I thought about that question for about five seconds. The answer is yes. Randi was not one given over to superstitions and religious notions of reverence. If I'd told him I was going to rearrange the show to pair his dedication with a somber subject, he'd have wrinkled up his face and given me a look of grave disappointment bordering on anger. Those of you who knew him know exactly the look I mean.

And so, enjoy this episode of Skeptoid. It may have been written and recorded by me, but the human most responsible for it is James "The Amazing" Randi. He may be gone, but you haven't lost him: his mission lives on in the ongoing work of all of us whom he inspired.

by Brian Dunning

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