Future Tense

How James “the Amazing” Randi Hindered His Own Movement

James Randi with his head resting on his hand
James Randi James Randi Educational Foundation/Wikipedia

James “the Amazing” Randi was a magician, an atheist, a showman, a skeptic, a mentor, a curmudgeon, a teacher, and a friend, and now he is dead. No one needs to wish him a peaceful rest. He’s not in heaven, or hell, or anywhere in between. The spark that made him amazing is gone, and now the atoms that constituted him will go back into the universe whence they came. All that is left of him resides in the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands of people who have been irrevocably changed by their relationship with him. I’m lucky enough to count myself in that number.

I first heard of Randi, who died at the age of 92 on Oct. 20, when I was working in a magic shop while attending college in the late ’90s. I was a fan of Penn & Teller and they were fans of his, so I learned all about him: a magician who had once escaped from a straitjacket while dangling over Niagara Falls and had entertained Johnny Carson. By the time I learned about him, Randi had already retired, turning his talents instead to exposing frauds who took advantage of a gullible, uneducated, or simply unsuspecting public. He offered a million-dollar check to anyone who could scientifically prove they had paranormal abilities, and he became the bane of people like the spoon-bending Uri Geller or the gravel-voiced Sylvia Browne, who would confidently and dispassionately tell the parents of missing children that their kids were dead (when occasionally they would turn up very much alive).

Even during the time I was a working magician, I was one of the gullible people. I turned on cable TV one night to see John Edward claiming to be able to speak to the dead. I had just unexpectedly lost someone I loved and was nearly convinced that this was proof my loved one was still out there somewhere. A co-worker had to point out to me that Edward was just employing “cold-reading,” a technique I myself used occasionally in magic tricks in which the performer makes vague statements like “I’m seeing an older man” and lets the audience fill in the details. Later on, they’ll forget how much they helped the performer, believing that the “psychic” actually said, “I’m seeing your dead grandfather, Peter.” But I had wanted to believe, and so I did. Once I realized Edward was just lying, just doing a magic trick without warning anyone that it was fake, I had to grieve for my friend a second time. I went back to read more about Randi, and I got it—I understood his anger and his drive to stop liars from taking advantage of vulnerable people. I wanted to help.

Randi had an online radio show (back before they called them “podcasts”), and I listened, well, religiously. But I wanted more, so I joined his online forum, where people like me formed a community of skeptics who talked about investigations of psychics, cryptozoological creatures, free energy machines, cult leaders, and 9/11 truthers. I attended Randi’s annual conference in Las Vegas, the Amazing Meeting, or TAM, where magicians, scientists, and other critical thinkers gathered to talk, learn, and drink. (Randi would often joke that a conference full of statistics nerds was the only gathering in which Las Vegas casinos lost money, because we took advantage of all the free drinks and cheap hotel rooms without bothering to lose money on games with terrible odds.) I formed Skepchick, a site focused on the skeptical topics that specifically targeted women, and we raised money to send more women to TAM and get more women speaking onstage. I became a presenter there and then at more and more skeptic events as both me and skepticism exploded in popularity. I quit my job as a copywriter and became a full-time skeptic.

I didn’t believe in much, but I did believe in the skeptic movement. In the first decade of the 21st century, tens of thousands of people were coming together from all around the world to fight often-dangerous misinformation and pseudoscience. There was Leo Igwe, who protected children and elderly women from being murdered for being witches in Nigeria, and Narendra Dabholkar, who challenged the “miracle cures” of gurus in India (and was later murdered for his activism).* Here in the United States, we fought against anti-vaccination misinformation that was leading to an uptick in preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough, and on Skepchick we pushed for a rational response to Christian fundamentalists attempting to prevent women from accessing birth control and other medical services.

I spent more time with Randi at TAM, at his home in Florida, on a cruise around Alaska, and at events across Europe and Australia, and I got to know him as a sweet, kind, and complicated person. He treated everyone he met as the most important audience he’d ever have. He would randomly perform sleight of hand to the delight of everyone around him and needed no encouragement to launch into fascinating stories from his long and weird life. I saw him perform the same magic tricks dozens of times, and even well into his 80s I never saw his wrinkled hands slip up. I heard him tell the same stories dozens of times, and, as a true performer does, he only made the details more interesting and engaging each time.

Randi always insisted he wasn’t a “debunker,” because that assumed he came from a perspective of disbelief and not scientific objectivity. But he was a debunker in that very sense. Despite striving to correct for his own biases in investigations, he was a fervent disbeliever of pretty much everything. He even doubted climate change at first, and it took a lot of convincing to bring him around.

Perhaps it was that stubborn disbelief that led to our eventual falling-out nearly a decade ago. As one of the more prominent female skeptics, I began campaigning for the male majority in the movement to be more accepting of (or to at least to stop randomly groping and awkwardly propositioning) women. Many men pushed back, sending me rape and death threats. When a man announced on Twitter a few days prior to 2011’s TAM that he planned to “cop a feel” if he saw me, Randi refused to even bar the man from attending. I felt like it was too late to drop out, so I attended and felt awful the entire time. I didn’t go anywhere alone. It was the last time I spoke at TAM.

Privately, Randi apparently complained to mutual friends about me pushing feminism, trying to change the culture of the movement that he had fostered for the past few decades. He thought that by asking skeptics to be better, I was making the movement look worse. I suppose I was, and in the years that followed the attendance at his conference dropped and Randi’s organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation, officially blamed me for scaring women away. Randi retired from JREF later, and though there were people involved who wanted it to go on as a charitable organization, it quietly disappeared.

We went years without speaking. The last time I saw him was at a mutual friend’s New Year’s party to ring in 2018. I was nervous but decided to say hello. He gave me a big hug and a smile. I don’t know if it was genuine or if it was simply Randi’s incredibly well-honed ability to make everyone feel seen and appreciated in his presence.

Back when things were good between us, I was so proud to be a part of what I thought was a movement with truly unlimited growth. The job of skepticism is never done, a fact that has never been clearer. Getting people to think critically about Bigfoot may be fun, but getting them to think critically about politicians, or prejudice, or pandemics, is absolutely necessary.

I mourn for Randi, but I also mourn for what could have become of the movement he fathered. His undeniable charisma and showmanship motivated thousands to care about skepticism, but his stubbornness and inability to adapt may have doomed the skeptic movement to extinction. My hope for his legacy is that someone can pick up the good that he taught, discard the bad, and continue to inspire people to be better critical thinkers. It’s the only afterlife he has.

Correction, Nov. 9, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Narendra Dabholkar’s last name.

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