By Will Storr
James Randi, star sceptic and subject of the documentary An Honest Liar, is dedicated to exposing magicians and spoonbenders. Is he guilty of a little sleight of hand himself?
There are few public figures who’ve had decades of an almost perfectly positive press, as James Randi has. The 87-year-old debunker of the paranormal was Richard Dawkins before God invented Richard Dawkins – angry, verbally aggressive, a hero to the kinds of people who don’t believe in Big Foot and are rational enough to become sleepless with fury at the brainlessness of the idiots who do.
Author and thinker Isaac Asimov once claimed Randi’s “qualifications as a rational human being are unparalleled”, whilst the New York Times has called him our “most celebrated living debunker”. More recently he’s been the star of an award winning documentary film telling his incredible story.
Originally a magician and escapologist known as The Amazing Randi he graduated, as a young man, to the more serious business of exposing con-men and the self-deluded who claim supernatural powers. His long life and career has been devoted to the pursuit of truth above all else. The film An Honest Liar dramatically recounts his brilliant exposés of celebrity spoon-benders and faith healers. Along the way we’re told Randi is on a “crusade to try to change the world” and that he is “in love with the truth.”
The man himself explains “magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re going to fool you and they do it.” But there’s another side to the legend that will be rather less apparent to the average viewer. James Randi, the honest liar, has been caught being anything but.
This became apparent to me over the course of a few months as I researched his life for a book about irrational beliefs. Having spent time with creationists, homeopaths and people who swore that wig wearing aliens could be found playing the roulette wheel in Las Vegas casinos, I began to notice there also were plenty of people in the sceptical-atheist movement who seemed to suffer from the same biases and accidents of reasoning as the eccentrics.
I decided to take the story of the movement’s pioneer as a kind of case study. Could it be true that the icon of the truth-fetishising sceptic movement was, himself, a liar?
Randi has certainly been a controversial figurehead. I’d heard rumours he’d once declared himself doubtful of the science behind climate change, which seemed to me a sceptical step too far. And then there were his startlingly intolerant comments about drug users. Writing on his blog, Randi announced himself to be pro-legalisation, because “the principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself.” Those who decided to use them, he wrote, “would simply do so and die” and “any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish” were “crocodile tears, in my opinion.”
But the first thing I discovered about The Amazing Randi is that he certainly has been amazing. Born in Toronto in 1928, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge’s life changed aged 12 when he saw a magician named Harry Blackstone Snr. He was electrified. But it was Harry Houdini that really lit his competitive fire.
As an escapologist Randi escaped from a straight-jacket dangling over Niagara Falls, phoned his mother from inside a coffin in Halifax harbour and, in 1974, won a Guinness World Record for lying naked in a slab of ice for 43 minutes and eight seconds. As his celebrity grew, he toured with Alice Cooper and made a guest appearance with The Fonz on Happy Days.
Randi’s guest appearance on Happy Days (screen shot taken from An Honest Liar)
But his true fame came, not as the talented magician he undoubtedly was, but as a debunker. His involvement with Uri Geller’s 1973 appearance on The Tonite Show Starring Johnny Carson was typical in its brutal effectiveness. Geller was perhaps the most famous magician in the world, at that time, known for bending spoons and fixing watches with the powers of his mind which he repeatedly insisted were real. Randi was invited to advise programme’s staff in advance of Geller’s stunt, which involved moving his hand over an array of seven metal canisters and sensing which one contained water.
Randi told the team they should supply their own props and guard them absolutely from Geller and his people. Gellar began his trick as Carson leaned over his desk, fascinated. Nothing happened. “I’m having a hard time with you,” said Geller. He continued trying. A dark look fell across his face. “Let me rest a minute.” He leaned his chin in his hands and glowered at the canisters. They cut to an ad break. When they returned, in front of millions of viewers, Geller had given up.
As I read deeper into Randi’s vast cuttings file I began to discover one or two oddnesses. Take, for example, his early life. Randi claims to have been born with an IQ of 168 which would comfortably make him a genius, the generally accepted lower limit being 125. He reckons he was so intelligent that, as a young boy, he was given a special pass by the authorities that said he wasn’t required to attend school. Instead, he educated himself in the Toronto Public Library and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Over the course of many interviews, Randi told journalists that, by the age of 12, he’d taught himself geography, history, astronomy, calculus, psychology, science, mathematics and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I also uncovered a history of complaints of dishonesty by people that Randi, as head of the James Randi Educational Foundation [JREF], had battled with over the years. They included homeopaths, psychic investigators, university professors and an audiophile who was convinced he could tell the difference between some speaker cables that cost $16,000 and a standard set.
Some accused him of making up quotes by them in his best-selling books, some of aggressively mischaracterising them, others of straightforward lying.
One better known complainant was Dr Rupert Sheldrake, the Cambridge biologist whose controversial idea of morphic resonance allows for the theoretical existence of ESP. To test his notion, Sheldrake ran a number of studies on a dog that seemed to know when its owner was coming home.
Following a burst of publicity for Sheldrake, Randi told a journalist, “We at JREF have tested these claims. They fail.” But when I met Sheldrake, at his Hampstead home, he made a serious charge. “Randi’s a liar and a cheat,” he said. “When I asked him for the data, he had to admit he hadn’t done any tests.”
The Amazing Randi performing ‘magic’ in 1974 (The LIFE Images Collection/Getty)
According to Sheldrake, his direct requests for data were twice ignored. After appealing to others at the JREF, Randi eventually wrote back, explaining that he couldn’t supply the data because it got washed away in a flood and that the dogs he tested are now in Mexico and their owner was “tragically killed last year in a dreadful accident.”
Unusually for Randi, he was polite. “I over-stated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained,” he wrote. “It was rash and improper of me to do so. I apologise sincerely.”
But, publicly, Randi then attacked Sheldrake. Of his own failure to provide the data he wrote, “A search of our site would have supplied [Sheldrake] with all the details he could possibly wish. Alternately, I could have supplied them, if only he had issued a request. That’s what we do at the JREF.”
In 2011, I travelled to Las Vegas to Randi’s annual fan convention, The Amaz!ng Meeting, to ask him about several of these claims of dishonesty. He countered most either with denials or appeals to the fact that the events happened a long time ago. When it came to Sheldrake he said, “What specific experiments are you referring to?”
“The ones you told Dog World magazine you’d done,” I said. “In New York. The owner was killed, the dogs are in Mexico and you lost the files in a flood.”
“That was one of the hurricane floods,” he nodded
So what prompted these tests?
“I must admit to you that I don’t recall having said that these tests were even done. But I’m willing to see the evidence for it.”
I handed him the emails Sheldrake provided.
“Oh,” he said.
Pressed about his treatment of Sheldrake, he insisted he didn’t lie because when he made the offer to send the data it hadn’t yet been destroyed by Hurricane Wilma. It was only after our meeting I realised Wilma took place four years before he stated that the data was available. But before we parted, I told him my research painted a picture of a clever man who is often right, but who has a certain element to his personality which leads him to overstate.
“Oh I agree,” he said.
“And sometimes lie. Get carried away.”
“Oh I agree. No question of that. I don’t know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time,” he said. “But there can be untruths.”
It was a brave and surprising moment. Even more surprising, though, was what Randi had to say when challenged about his wish to see survival of the fittest being allowed ‘draconically prove itself’ on drug users. It sounded a lot like Social Darwinism. “The survival of the fittest, yes,” he said. “The strong survive… I think people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race. It would be very harmful.”
More recently I’ve begun to wonder about his educational foundation, the JREF, which claims tax exempt status in the US and is partly dependant on public donations. I wondered what actual educative work the organisation – which between 2011 and 2013 had an average revenue of $1.2 million per year – did. Financial documents reveal just $5,100, on average, being spent on grants.
There are some e-books, videos and lesson plans on subjects such as fairies on their website. They organise an annual fan convention. James Randi, over that period, has been paid an average annual salary of $195,000. My requests for details of the educational foundation’s educational activities, over the last 12 months, were dodged and then ignored.
Nothing of this or of Randi’s extreme views is evident in the movie, An Honest Liar. Whilst his dishonest lying is hinted at, the film also colludes in some of his sleights of hand. One such episode is his “Carlos Hoax”. In 1988, in an effort to expose the gullible the media, Randi persuaded his now-partner Deyvi Pena to pretend he was a medium who could channel a 2,000 year old spirit before promoting him to journalists in Australia. For decades, Randi has claimed the stunt a success, saying it “proved that the media can be willingly seduced so long as they’re convinced that surrender to bunk will increase ratings.”
The documentary, too, presents the hoax as a win for Randi. And yet contemporary accounts have it that, on the contrary, journalists were actually widely sceptical of Carlos. A reporter for The Skeptic said, “None of the media coverage was credulous; all disbelieved that [Pena] was genuine.”
Writing in The Daily Grail, Greg Taylor recounts how when a researcher rang Randi for his opinion on Carlos, he wriggled out of answering. “So when a media channel actually checked with the world’s most prominent skeptic on this topic, he basically scammed them himself – and yet went on to bemoan how the Australian media didn’t include skeptics’ opinions on the matter.”
The film’s director, Justin Weinstein, says he’s aware of this very different perspective on the Carlos Hoax. But, he says, his documentary is not strictly a work of journalism. Rather, like Randi, he’s a storyteller. “Sometimes there are greater truths you can reach when you don’t adhere to the facts.”
When I tell Weinstein that my own research lead me to believe Randi was someone who couldn’t be justly described as “an honest liar” he says, “There’s no doubt he’s made misstatements. Sometimes in order to get to a truth you bend the truth. And in Randi’s case sometimes he bends it too far. The irony is he’s leading a sceptical movement that’s calling it out when other people are lying.”
But for Weinstein, and for Randi’s many thousands of his disciples, the ends justify the means. “Regardless of the facts that may have been bent in the course of Randi’s life,” he says, “the achievements he’s made in terms of changing peoples lives for the better is undeniable.”