A magician by trade and debunker of woo-woo by reputation, the Amazing James Randi provided last night’s audience with plenty of laughs and thoughtful moments as he explained why critical thinking and skepticism are so crucial to getting to the truth of a thing and why it’s so easy to fool everyone, whether they claim they think critically or not.
Some examples he provided that I still remember well enough to paraphrase:
You’re a stranger sitting on a park bench in a small town you’ve never been in before and spot a sign advertising a riding academy with an arrow pointing in the direction it lies. A local’s seated on the bench as well and after a little while you hear the “clippity clop” of hoof beats coming from somewhere behind you. “Must be someone riding their horse to the Academy.” The local laughs at you and says, “That might not be a horse. It could be a zebra!” I forget exactly what the terminology was, but Randi pointed out that there are varying levels of deception. Another person may have believed the hoofbeats were evidence of unicorns, for example. It’s simple enough to debunk the zebra claim: there’s no zoo around for them to break out of, no circus in town, and the town isn’t smack dab in the middle of typical zebra country. While it’s certainly possible, the probability of the hooves belonging to a zebra is ridiculously minute. (And a walk in the direction of the sound would provide visual confirmation of either theory soon enough anyway.) Unicorns, though — Randi reminded people that we can’t prove negatives. You can scour South Africa for proof of unicorns. If you don’t find any, it’s not proof of non-existence. They just don’t appear to exist in South Africa…
He receives hundreds of queries every day from people who’d like to pick his brain and use his expertise. He also promotes the James Randi Educational Foundation and their million dollar “prove it” challenge where he encourages anyone who claims to be psychic or capable of other supernatural tricks to put their reputation where their mouth is. A reputable educational facility jam-packed with intelligent degree-owners contacted him once offering up some guy from Israel who could do this amazing thing with his mind that baffled everyone in the building. He’d asked these scientists to provide him with a random matchbox (hilariously described by Randi as being rigorously and ridiculously over-tested by said scientists beforehand to make sure “no trick” was going on with it) and he could make it rise and fall on the back of his hand without physically touching it. Randi sent them a fax of a copy of page of an old magic trick book he had on hand that outlined just how simple the gag was to perform. Those clever people had been completely fleeced by a foreign charlatan. They also hung up the phone in a hurry.
He played a couple of videos from his days on the Johnny Carson show. In one, he performed the psychic operation trick that thousands of people have spent serious money on because they believe it to be a real cure for what ails them. In another, he had absolute proof a faith healer named Peter Popoff was scamming his audiences. He’d hired a private detective with a decent radio receiver of some sort who recorded clear evidence that Popoff’s wife was feeding the man information about audience members through an ear piece: names, home towns and what ailed them. With this secret stash of facts, he’d claim (and still does claim) that God himself gives him the clues for who’ll be cured next. With just a few minutes of research, anyone can easily find out he’s a huckster, yet the man continues to get rich off this scam ministry. Randi said he’s making more now than he did when he was revealed on television as a fraud.
Randi pointed out the difference between himself as a magician and these other guys. Randi tells you flat out that he’s going to deceive you and then does just what he said he’d do. These other folks tell you flat out that they can cure you, or read your mind, or sell your house or whatever the hell their ruse might be and then go through with their deceptions and rip you off. Randi is honest about his intent to trick you. The rest are not.
So, all in all, that was a very fun evening. The questions at the end got a little less fun, unfortunately, when a local author tried to shill his kooky tripe and hoped to denounce what he thought were Randi’s claims that the supernatural doesn’t exist. It was a bit of a challenge to get the man to relinquish the microphone so someone with an actual question could have a turn. Randi handled the situation with aplomb; no doubt it’s a common type of audience member, the one who thinks he can prove Randi wrong. Randi admitted that he’d love to have someone approach him with that one thing he can’t explain… but it doesn’t happen. He knows the tricks. He’s done the research. He’s immune to the typical tomfoolery that tends to throw people, be they doofuses or geniuses. He even sounded kind of bummed about that, poor guy.
The key point he wanted to drive home with all this was the need to be aware of just how easy it is to be tricked — but also how easy (relatively speaking) it can be to protect ourselves from the worst of it. We all need to educate and train ourselves to look for the real truth, not just the (possibly dubious) truth someone else claims is there.