Interview: 'The Amazing' James Randi on his film and dangerous anti-vaxers
The legendary magician and skeptic talks about swindlers and those who deny climate change and even makes a good Teller joke.
James Randi is very happy there’s a career-spanning documentary about him. “I think it’s well-deserved!” he tells us over the phone while in New York, where he’s been attending screenings of the film, “An Honest Liar,” in its theatrical release. The doc covers his days as one of the most successful magicians of the last 60 years, during which he was a regular — billed as “The Amazing Randi” — for the likes of Johnny Carson. He’s also, like Harry Houdini (whose tricks he’d often duplicate), spent his time taking down real charlatans and swindlers, among them self-claimed psychic (now a self-claimed “mystifier”) Uri Geller and evangelical con artist Peter Popoff.
The film often shows you being berated by angry groups on television. It must be nice, at screenings of this film, to have people being nice to you.
I’d say a good third of the people come to the screenings of the film aren’t necessarily skeptical at all. Many of them come in looking a bit grumpy about the whole thing. But you’d be amazed, or I’m amazed — even though I’m amazing as well — I’m amazed to find that they take me by the hand, with tears in their eyes, saying, “You’ve made a great change in my life.” You cannot buy that. But I feel a responsibility to folks who weren’t exposed to the skeptical point of view and realize that not all is as it seems, as it is in the general media, who will almost universally support any paranormal or psychic claim that comes along, because it makes good copy. Many media outlets are only interested in whether it’s sensational copy and if it is then they’ll publish it.
It’s disconcerting to see Popoff still making a living hawking lies even after your legendary takedown.
Popoff is still doing strong. [Laughs] He’s a big on the Internet. All the fakers have taken to the Internet like bucks to water. They’re in there all right. And they’re taking full advantage of it.
Do you get the sense that people like Popoff has some semblance of self-deception and believes his own bulls—?
They’re not self-deceptive at all. Nobody picks up a violin for the first time and plays Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto.” It takes year of practice in self-denial to do that. These people are playing the violin beautifully. The instrument they’re playing is human credulity.
Same with Uri Geller?
No, no, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He can’t bend a spoon consciously between his hands by trickery and misdirection without knowing what he’s doing.
This is a silly question, but I’ve often read of skeptics, like Michael Shermer, saying that they’ll debate someone on intelligent design or climate change, and then he and the person he’s debating go get drinks. I can’t image you’re chummy with Geller, are you?
No! I’ll wrassle him, but I won’t go out for drinks with him. I have no relationship with him like that at all. He’s a crook and a liar and a cheat and a fake. I can’t take that kind of person. As a magician I do that on a stage as a character, an actor playing the part of a magician.
What are the big swindles these days that really get you worked up?
The Internet, of course, can be used for good or for evil, if you will. The thing I’m worried about now is global warming. Global warming is with us. How long it’s going to last and how much damage it’s going to do, those are other matters altogether. But it seems very evident that global warming is here and it’s something that must be dealt with, and everything we can do to decrease the effects that humanity has on producing global warming must be done. Another thing is vaccination denial. The anti-vaxers are the ones that really get to me, because they are killing children. Children are going to die from measles and other diseases we thought we had conquered. Vaccination, all over the earth, has saved millions of life. Now you have celebrities out there, like Jim Carrey — now there’s an expert for you. He obviously knows all the technical terms, I’m sure. Carrey is a great entertainer; I’ve been a fan of his for years. But I don’t listen to him on medical matters.
How can you stop someone like him or Jenny McCarthy?
You can’t do that because once she’s turned on she can’t stop. She’s fully convinced of this. She’ll have to have a realization where she says, “Oops, I was wrong.” A lot of people have to say that. I’ve said that many times during my career, as a skeptic even. I do it plainly and completely. But those people don’t have the nerve to do that.
Some people are reluctant to use the term “skeptic” because it’s been co-opted by unsavory parties — like climate change deniers call themselves “skeptics.”
Well, it’s been incorrectly co-opted. We are skeptics. We are not deniers of anything without good reason. We have thought it out and we’ve considered it carefully. We’re not just against any idea that happens to be in place, and especially not against ideas that have been proven by scientific research.
You still travel a lot. How does America fare in terms of skepticism with other countries? Are we pretty low?
No, it’s about the same. It’s about the same in China as it is in Hawaii. There are deniers of these things and people who embrace reality, and those are the folks I’m going after, to reinforce their faith in genuine research.
There’s a great value in making the preaching of skepticism entertaining. Penn and Teller are good at that too.
Penn and Teller have been great colleagues in this field, of course. They say it in a slightly different language than I can use. As Teller said to me the other day, [silence].
[after a long pause that sounds like a dropped call] Hello? [figures it out eventually]