R.I.P. James Randi (1928-2020)

Yesterday I heard the sad news of the death, at the age of 92, of stage conjuror, humanist and famous debunker of charlatans, James Randi.  I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he was a really interesting character. His real name was Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He was a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) with the stage name “The Amazing Randi” who spent most of the last four decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people: this is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that…

I wrote a blog post about James Randi about a decade ago because it was not until then, when he had reached the age of 81 that he revealed to the public that he was gay. I feel a bit sad that took him so long to step out of the closet, but I’m sure he was glad he made the decision. From wikipedia I learn that he married his partner José Alvarez in 2013. I hope their time together was happy, and send my condolences to José  on his loss.

Rest in peace, James Randi (1928-2020).

10 Responses to “R.I.P. James Randi (1928-2020)”

  1. I’m very sad to learn about this. He was in many ways an inspiring person.

  2. Nigel Foot Says:

    Interesting piece Telescoper. I am reminded of the great early physicists and mathematicians of the 17th Century (Isaac Newton et al) who were regarded at the time as astrologers, prophets and magicians often actively engaged in such “magical” pursuits as alchemy.
    What goes around comes around!
    RIP Mr Randi.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      The difference, of course, is that Newton and others actually believed in alchemy or whatever. Randi never claimed to have true magical powers.

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    My favourite Randi story is about a woman who claimed psychic powers, could converse with the dead, and so on, who had applied for his 1-million-dollar prize offered to anyone who can demonstrate psychic phenomena. She then backed down before the actual test. Randi later spoke to her again and asked why she didn’t say that she was pulling out. “I didn’t know how to contact you” was her reply. 😀

    Randi did some interesting stuff and was a noted sceptic. Sadly, in his later years he became a global-warming “sceptic” as well. Tricksters might be best at spotting fraud on the part of charlatans, but scientists are still best at doing science.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    That’s a major loss. I sat next to Randi at a dinner once and found him formidable. A real activist for honesty.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Was JG Taylor humble enough to say “I was wrong” or did he just write books at one time saying paranormal phenomena were real and later books saying they weren’t and never be explicit that he had reversed his position?

  6. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Great beard as well!

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