There’s really only one person who qualifies as a living legend in skepticism, and it’s James “The Amazing” Randi. For decades, he’s performed magic and taken the hairbrush to spoon-benders, psychics, and faith healers. A bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with his work.
He’s also behind the “Million Dollar Challenge“, in which anyone can walk off with a million bucks if they can do supernatural feats under controlled conditions.
Last week marked Randi’s first visit to Perth as part of his “An Evening With James Randi” tour with Think Inc. Since the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society was helping with arrangements, five of us took up the invitation to meet Randi at the airport.
Randi is 86 now, but he was in surprisingly good spirits despite what must be a grueling touring schedule. He was wheeled by members of his entourage, which included Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast. With luggage collected, we headed to the nearest airport Dome café for some refreshment.
While we were chatting, Richard Saunders took a banknote (Mongolian, I believe he said) and split it up into two perfect squares. With one, he folded an origami pig with wings. Pigasus is his own creation. I hadn’t realised he was an origami expert. Very cool!
Ever the performer, Randi delighted us with some cigarette magic using the rolled-up other half of Richard’s banknote. Pretending to push the roll into his other hand, he palmed it instead, making it seem to disappear when the expected hand was empty.
This is the general idea:
I’ve always loved magic, but I’ve never done the sleight of hand. What I love is how magicians exploit our expectations, and make us realise how bad our assumptions can be. Important lessons for skeptics, to be sure, and probably the reason that magicians are the greatest skeptics.
There was a question on my mind. I asked Randi, “Have things changed? It used to be that in the 70s, we’d be fighting astrology, pyramid power, and Bigfoot. Now, we fight…”
“…pyramid power!” said Richard.
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “But now we also have homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, and Bigfoot. Are things moving?”
Randi thought not; people still believe a lot of the same nonsense they always have. Trying to quote accurately here: “If you go to some of the most backward places on Earth, you find people believing the same things that have since before I was around.”
It’s true. Psychics today use the same techniques they’ve used for a hundred years. It’s all a bit dispiriting. If we’re just confronted with more new nonsense along with the old nonsense, then what keeps us going?
Perhaps if there’s a bright spot, it’s this: We no longer fight alone. There’s now an organised skeptical movement taking on fakes, fools, and folly. And we have James Randi to thank for that.