‘The Amazing Randi’ is by anyone’s measure quite a remarkable chap. His real name – Randall James Hamilton Zwinge – is pretty remarkable on its own, but over nearly ninety years James Randi has dedicated his life to challenging a whole host of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. From faith healers to fortune-tellers, psychics to charlatans, and through to swindlers and conmen, the ‘Amazing Randi’ has debunked them all.
To understand what drives this little old man with a long white beard, a black cane, and twinkling eyes it is necessary to understand his life and how it has shaped him. Born in Ontario in 1928 James Randi dropped out of college and ran away with the circus after being amazed by a film featuring the famous magician Harry Blackstone. What followed was a life as a professional magician and escape artist who travelled the world in order to be locked in sealed boxes, hung over waterfalls, or trapped under water. In 1972 (incidentally the year of my birth but as far as I know there is no connection to ‘The Amazing Randi’) Randi entered the international spotlight when he publicly challenged the claims of a young man by the name of Uri Geller.
Now, I have no idea about whether Uri Geller has special powers or not. I don’t care. I am a simple man who can appreciate the bending of a metal spoon without asking too many questions. Apart from the fact, that is, that the spat between James Randi and Uri Geller really is something else. Randi’s position is that he has no problem with magicians fooling the public as long as it is for entertainment and fun; what he dislikes is when conmen and fakes use trickery to exploit the public. (Legal note: I am in no way linking Uri Geller with conmen or fakery. In fact I am rubbing a spoon while writing this blog.) What’s amazing is the lengths that James Randi has gone to in order to expose not only frauds, but gullible scientists who have too easily tended to corroborate supposedly special psychological powers. From the ‘Carlos Hoax’ in which Randi’s young partner pretended to be a ‘channeller’ who could provide a voice for souls from the past, through to the MacLab project in which he sent two young men to a university unit that had received funding to explore para-psychology. After months of detailed investigative scientific experiments the young men were hailed as possessing special powers only for James Randi to reveal in front of the world’s media that it was all a hoax. A film about his life and work – An Honest Liar – reveals just how cool James Randi is. He’s rocked with Alice Cooper and even appeared on Happy Days with the Fonze.
(Note to reader: metal bending skills improving – four forks and three knives now ruined.)
And yet in all the commentary and approbation regarding Randi’s unquestionably amazing life it strikes me that arguably the most important issue about the public’s relationship with charlatans and liars is over-looked: the public often don’t care!
Take the faith healer Peter Popoff as a case in point. This was the chap that filled auditoriums across America on the basis of a claimed ability to be able to heal the ill through some form of Godly connection. As if by a miracle Popoff would be able to name members of the audience, identify their illness, and then strike them down with the touch of a finger as part of what can only be described as an orgy of mass hysteria. Massive buckets, larger than modern wheelie bins, would then be distributed around the auditorium for the collection not of holy water but hard, cold, cash to allow the good work to continue. What James Randi revealed was the manner in which Popoff was less connected to God and more connected to his wife through an earpiece. The information Popoff used had not come from divine inspiration but from ‘prayer cards’ distributed to members of the audience by his staff before the show in order to collect the information he would need to pray for them. The ‘alleged’ scam was exposed to a mass American audience live on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and within months Popoff had filed for bankruptcy.
(Note to reader: metal bending skills going into overdrive– have sculpted my car into a rabbit.)
But for me the most amazing part of the Popoff phenomenon was not poor Peter’s decline, but the manner in which he was able to resurrect (an apt word if ever there was one) his career as a faith healer and television evangelist. It was as if large sections of the public were so vulnerable or desperate that they were willing to ignore the evidence of trickery that Randi had provided. It was a blind faith that did not want to see the light. Now I have no truck with Peter Popoff or anyone who might sell Russian ‘miracle cure water’ – I can lay claim to a family visit in the 1950s by my grandfather to a faith healer who worked out of a sweet shop in Doncaster – but I am interested in the simple craving that humans have to believe in someone, in something. There is arguably a certain rationality in believing in certain things or people no matter how irrational such beliefs might be – if they allow you to retain a sense of hope that your life could improve in the future. ‘Popoff the Placebo’ might not make for an attractive stage name but it might help explain his apparent enduring attraction.
The reason the life of ‘The Amazing Randi’ made me stop and think? Because I saw in the interactions between his charlatans and swindlers and the people they duped is the same connection that I see between large sections of the public and the populist politicians who are emerging across Europe, offering a combination of nationalism, xenophobia, and snake oil. Their promises make very little sense; they feed off the vulnerable; and they garner support through a mixture of charm, menace, charisma, and guile.
‘Truth-o-Meters’ or ‘fact-checkers’ – the political equivalent of James Randi – have little purchase in an irrational world of ‘post-truth’, fake news, and all alternative facts. And that is my concern…when facts cannot be distinguished from fiction and large sections of the public feel trapped in a world they no longer understand, then the power of a political placebo may become an attractive, if irrational, option for more people.
Beware, I said before that 2017 would be the year of living dangerously, the stage is set for the sharks and charlatans, the tricksters and treats to assume control.
Featured image credit: letters deck magic by jlaso. Public domain via Pixabay.