Fighting Against Flimflam

  • The studio audience at the Tonight show in Burbank is strangely silent, staring intently at the proceedings on the stage. A shirtless volunteer lies face up on a table, behind which stands a short, balding man with a fringe of white hair, a bushy beard and piercing green eyes. He kneads the exposed abdomen with both hands, presses one thumb down and draws it across the skin. A trickle, then a stream of blood appears. The audience gasps. Now his hand thrusts into the abdomen and, accompanied by a sickening squishing sound, pulls up a clump of bloody tissue. Host Johnny Carson grimaces. A groan of revulsion sweeps the crowded studio; one woman faints.

    Again the hands plunge down, bringing up more gore and then a tubular organ, which the bearded man stares at momentarily. "Oh, no! That doesn't come out," he apologizes, his eyes suddenly twinkling, and pushes it back into the body. The spell is broken and the audience roars, then titters nervously as he proceeds to remove additional gore. Finally he wipes away the blood, revealing an expanse of unbroken, unscarred skin.

    What millions of people have just seen is a demonstration of "psychic surgery." The blood had been donated by a volunteer before the show; the "diseased tissue" consisted of shreds of lamb heart, hidden in a tray behind the table and manipulated by the facile hands of a master magician: James ("the Amazing") Randi, 59, conjurer, showman, crusader and America's most implacable foe of flummery. The props and the techniques are those used by the so-called psychic surgeons of the Philippines, who promise miraculous, painless, lifesaving surgery to lure desperately ill people to their clinics. But what the sufferers get is sleight of hand, not surgery, and Randi's goal is to spread that message. "These people go to the Philippines," he explains, "they spend their money, and they return home, in most cases to die."

    It was for his exposes of faith healers, channelers, spoon benders, assorted psychics and others who prey on the gullible that Randi in 1986 became the first magician to receive a prestigious "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. The $272,000 that came with the honor has enabled Randi to step up his travels. He has logged 45,000 miles in the past few months alone, traveling far from his home in Plantation, Fla. In March he was in Australia, demonstrating the fraudulence of channeling, which involves a supposedly long- dead sage uttering words of wisdom through the mouth of a modern-day proxy. April found him in China, invited by a science journal to help stem what the editor called "growing confusion between science and superstition." In San Francisco and Des Moines, Dallas and New York City, Randi spoke out for rationality in what he sees as an increasingly irrational world. "It's like shoveling water uphill, but it's got to be done," he says with missionary zeal.

    Everywhere the irrepressible Randi goes, usually in a flowing tweed cape and a brown, broad-brimmed hat, bewildering events occur: spoons bend, watches stop, wallets disappear, pencils move mysteriously, minds are read. And everywhere, Randi's message is the same: the remarkable happenings are simply magic tricks, not psychic or out-of-this-world phenomena.

    James Randi barely made it into this world. Born prematurely in Toronto in 1928, he weighed only 2 lbs. 3 oz. Despite that precarious debut, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge soon took center stage. At nine, he invented a pop-up toaster; by his early teens he had taught himself trigonometry, calculus and hieroglyphics.

    Disenchanted with school, Randi often played hooky and one afternoon found himself in Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theater, where Magician Harry Blackstone Sr. was performing. For Randi, it was instant addiction. "What I've since recognized," he says, "is that it is the kids who don't quite fit the social picture who go into magic."

    What Randi recognized much earlier was that magic was sometimes misused. Hearing about miraculous happenings in local spiritualist churches, he decided to see for himself. Disaster. Watching the preacher divine the contents of sealed envelopes handed him by his parishioners, Randi, then 15, was outraged. "He was using the old 'one-ahead' method," Randi explains, still indignant. Striding to the pulpit, he fished one of the opened envelopes out of a wastebasket and accused the preacher of cheating. An uproar followed, and Randi was arrested for disturbing a religious meeting. At the police station, he vowed that he would someday fight back against those who defiled his art.

    After dropping out of high school at 17, Randi joined a traveling carnival. On tour, he wore a turban and a beard, was billed as Prince Ibis, did a mind- reading act and supervised a "ten-in-one," carny talk for ten attractions under one tent. Among the features, Randi recalls, were Kong Lee, the electric boy, and the 10-ft. indigo snake ("It was only six feet, but who counts?").

    He soon graduated to the Canadian nightclub circuit, where as the Great Randall he performed routine acts of legerdemain. One night after his show, a policeman jokingly clapped a pair of cuffs on him and dared him to escape. Piece of cake. "I walked into the open door of a squad car and got out the other side with the cuffs off." Chagrined, the police challenged him to break out of a locked jail cell. He did, easily, and the next day a local newspaper carried a story headlined THE AMAZING RANDI ESCAPES FROM QUEBEC PRISON. "From that moment on," he says, "I was 'the Amazing Randi.' " He has since legally changed his name to James Randi.

    Building his reputation as an escape artist, he wiggled out of ropes and straitjackets, as well as handcuffs, sometimes while in a coffin submerged in water. At 27 he was invited to appear on a CBS television show, It's Magic. "They hauled me 110 ft. above Broadway with a crane, hanging me upside down at the end of a cable in a straitjacket -- and I escaped from the jacket. It got me on the front page of the Herald Tribune." It also launched his television career, which has included 32 appearances on the Tonight show alone. Randi's formula was simple. He would walk into the Manhattan office of the Tonight writers an hour or so before airtime, when they were still desperately scrambling for ideas. "I'd say, 'Would you like to freeze me in a block of ice and see me escape?' They'd say 'Great!' and gag it up somehow, freezing me with a halibut on my chest, or whatnot."

    While eking out a living performing magic and escape acts, Randi kept an eye on the world of the paranormal, which had boomed during the years of the flower children and the counterculture. Then in 1972, two scientists at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) announced that they were testing an Israeli psychic who could apparently cause objects to levitate, spoons to bend and electron beams to change direction. Their subject, Uri Geller, quickly became a celebrity, but Randi, watching him perform, was < unimpressed. "The tricks were very simple," he says. "There was nothing you couldn't get off the back of a cornflakes box, so to speak." Randi decided it was time to act.

    With a handful of scientists and journalists who were also appalled at the easy acceptance of Geller's claims, Randi founded CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which today includes such luminaries as Astronomer Carl Sagan, Nobel Laureate Physicist Murray Gell-Mann and Psychologist B.F. Skinner. As CSICOP's point man, Randi sought out TV producers and editors and demonstrated that he could duplicate Geller's feats simply by using distraction and sleight of hand. Geller soon came a cropper. During a disastrous 22-minute appearance on the Tonight show, he failed to perform a single feat; Carson's staff, consulting with Randi, had set up safeguards against cheating.

    Rocketed into fame by the Geller affair, Randi has gone on to expose psychics, dowsers, levitators, astrologers and other naive or fraudulent stars of the paranormal world. For example, after a St. Louis parapsychology laboratory claimed to have discovered two boys who could mentally bend spoons, create images on unexposed photographic film and change the position of clock hands, Randi pounced. The precocious wizards, he declared, were in fact skilled amateur magicians. With Randi's connivance, they had been planted in the lab -- which soon lost its funding and closed down. And when a psychic demonstrated on a TV show that he could mentally cause pages of a book to flip, Randi sprinkled bits of Styrofoam around the opened book and asked for a repeat performance. The psychic, who had been unobtrusively exhaling through his lips to turn the pages, balked, all too aware that flying Styrofoam would literally blow his act.

    None of Randi's exploits better illustrates his ingenuity than his 1986 exposure of Peter Popoff, the TV evangelist who claimed to be guided by God's voice. Popoff would race around an auditorium, striding up to dozens of people he had never met, greeting them by name, reciting their addresses, diagnosing their illnesses and then pretending to heal them with a laying on of hands. With the help of several volunteers, a video camera and a radio frequency scanner, Randi discovered that Popoff's wife Elizabeth toured the audience before the service began and engaged in seemingly casual chitchat. In her oversize purse was a radio transmitter that carried the conversations backstage, where Popoff transcribed them. When the evangelist later made his rounds of the audience, he had in his left ear a hidden miniature receiver that enabled Elizabeth, now backstage, to direct him to those members of the audience she had already pumped for information.

    "Popoff says that God speaks directly to him because he's an anointed minister," said Randi afterward. "Three things amaze me about that. First of all, it turns out that God's frequency -- I didn't know that he used radio -- is 39.170 MHz, and that God is a woman, and sounds exactly like Popoff's wife Elizabeth." Last year, shortly after Randi published his book The Faith Healers, which included a chapter on the Popoff investigation, donations to Popoff's TV ministry dropped so sharply that he declared bankruptcy.

    "We may disagree with Randi on specific points," says Carl Sagan, "but we ignore him at our peril." "He's a national treasure," says Author Isaac Asimov. Randi's targets are less enthusiastic. A Popoff staff member calls him "the devil" and an atheist. He has been the object of hate-mail campaigns by some of his foes. All to no avail. Says Randi: "No blackmail, no threats, can cause me to back away from my chosen work."

    Randi has never married. "I was too good an escape artist," he explains. Over the years, however, he has given shelter to young aspiring magicians, taking them in as apprentices and serving as a foster parent. "Kids keep showing up at my door with knapsacks on their backs," Randi says, "offering to work for nothing if I help train them." Today he shares his secluded, cluttered Florida house with his cat Charlie and Jose Alvarez, 20, his latest protege. It was Alvarez who, in a dramatic appearance at the Opera House in Sydney last March, convinced many Australians that he was a channeler for a 35,000-year-old man named Carlos ("Named after my cat," says Randi). One of Channeler Jose's most significant quotes: "All answers are yes, and all questions can be answered thus." Then, on national television, Randi disclosed that he had orchestrated the entire performance as a scam designed to enhance skepticism Down Under. Most Australians were amused, but channeling devotees petulantly insisted that the episode proved nothing.

    Randi is philosophical about these and other diehards, recognizing that their need to believe in the supernatural overwhelms their common sense. No matter what evidence of deception or fraud is presented, he concludes, "there will always be people who really don't want to know that there is no tooth fairy."