NEW YORK CITY—No matter how smart you are, or how educated you are, you can be deceived. That’s the wisdom from—and what I gather is the driving force behind--James “The Amazing” Randi, the renowned illusionist, escape artist and debunker of psychics, spoon benders, faith healers and other charlatans willing to prey on others.
The admonition repeatedly echoes in the new documentary about him, An Honest Liar, which was released in theaters March 6. The directors, Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom, filmed Randi for three years. They detail how Randi followed in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, going beyond stage magic to debunking claims of the paranormal. His obsession with confronting purveyors of nonsense, incidentally, led to what I believe is the first profanity published in Scientific American, in my 1995 profile of him (see the clip of it at right if you're curious).
The directors also feature some of Randi’s biggest wins. One was against Peter Popoff, a faith healer who used a hidden radio to convince his flock that Jesus was revealing their personal information to him. It was really his wife passing the data on to him after she had pre-interviewed the attendees. Another was against his most famous nemesis, Uri Geller, who claimed to be able to bend spoons with the power of his mind. If you’ve never heard of these and similar cases, you’re in for a real treat (and some moral outrage).
You might feel a little uneasy, though, with the elaborate “Project Alpha” stunt Randi pulled at the expense of the Stanford Research Institute in 1979. To show the pro-psychic bias in that lab, he planted two young men there to fool investigators into thinking they had paranormal powers. They could, for instance, seemingly move objects under a glass dome telekinetically. The men began feeling guilty about toying with these researchers’ careers, but Randi pushed them on for months, until the pair revealed themselves to be frauds at a press conference. (In keeping with the magician’s code, the film does not reveal how they did their tricks.)
The stunt also showed the difficulty of penetrating hoaxes, a point Randi made to me when I interviewed him 20 years ago for the profile. During our breakfast back then, he bent two spoons by apparently just gently stroking them, similar to how Geller did his spoon bending. Two decades of time hasn’t seemed to dim his intensity and passion for debunking pseudoscience, although now, at age 86, he looks more like Gandalf the Grey than Santa Claus.
Although many academics think they are too smart to be fooled, “there are things beyond their expertise,” Randi had said during our 1995 interview. “Physicists are most easily deceived, because they deal in a real world of objects,” and their natural inclination is to take anomalies as discoveries rather than as hoaxes, he noted.
About two-thirds of the way in, An Honest Liar takes a very personal turn. One day during the making of the film, the police surrounded Randi’s home in Florida. That’s when we learn of a deception involving Randi’s partner, whose legal status in the U.S. came into question. The duplicity has potentially serious ramifications, even though it was done with good intentions.
Ultimately, the film—like Randi’s career—is a plea for us to take a more rational, scientific view of the world. That’s easier said than done. It hasn’t been enough just to present evidence to persuade the public’s mind. People often find ways to ignore or explain away the facts. A generation ago, this approach propped up faith healing and energy crystals; today, it fuels climate-change denialism and the anti-vaccination movement.
In the face of the continual tides of irrationality, Randi has nonetheless left indelible marks. During a post-screening Q&A on March 7 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York City’s East Village, co-director Justin Weinstein described how so many people said they were changed by Randi’s work (in the video below—apologies for the poor lighting). With luck, this informative and entertaining documentary should leave lasting impressions of its own.
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