Psychics and those who claim to have supernatural powers are the most dismal form of deluded or just desperate bull-shitters, right? Right. So why do so many millions of people still pour their faith and money into psychics, channelers, faith healers and astrologers when it's all so transparently a ruse to extort money out of the most depressingly gullible members of our society? Paranormal spectacles in the UK are usually confined to Channel 5 and segments on This Morning, but it’s a multi-million dollar business in the US – a business based entirely on the deception of vulnerable people. So like fraud and extortion on a massive scale, but with advertising.
James Randi – a retired magician who worked with everyone from Penn & Teller to Alice Cooper (cutting his head off every night on tour) – has spent the last 20 years trying to call out those who masquerade as psychics with his James Randi Educational Foundation. He's already broken Houdini’s record for the longest time submerged in a coffin underwater and has escaped from a straightjacket while suspended, upside-down, over the Niagara Falls, so I guess that was the next logical step.
His foundation's most notable action so far has been offering $1 million (£638,439) to anyone who can demonstrate a genuine supernatural ability under mutually agreed testing conditions. James is currently in the middle of having a documentary made about him, but I called him up to talk about magic, the million dollar challenge and Uri Geller.
“I cut Alice’s head off almost every night for two years, but he kept coming back.”
VICE: So Randi, you’re a magician but you’ve dedicated you’re life to disproving the paranormal?
James Randi: Yes, but I find nothing strange in the fact that I’m trying to expose claims of the so-called paranormal, because as a professional entertainer, I’m an actor playing the part of a magician; I don’t have supernatural or paranormal powers. For some reason, people don’t get offended when asked to believe that someone can tell the future from the stars – a highly spurious claim, considering the study of astronomy has been totally fruitless.
You actually wrote an astrological column to prove that, right?
Yes, years ago. I carried on with it for about eight months, or until I had enough evidence to show that people would believe anything that was written in these astrological columns. People lapped it up. They would write in about how accurate and astonishing it was, and all I was doing was clipping up astrological predictions from old newspapers and pasting them together at random.
Why are people so desperate to believe in the paranormal?
They want an advantage. If somebody offers them some added knowledge about how the world works and it sounds reasonably plausible, they’ll entertain the idea and put their money and their future into it. They want that advantage, so they convince themselves that somebody can give them that knowledge.
Was there any particular reason why you started on this path?
I dabbled in mentalism – which appears to be done with the mind but is actually a trick – when I was working as a magician. I would constantly get people asking me about other tricks they’d seen on television or in theatres and would try to explain it to them. I realised there was a hunger for this – that people wanted to know the truth. So I took the hint, and I think that my work with the James Randi Educational Foundation has served a lot of people well.
A “The Amazing Randi” poster from James's escapologist years.
Tell me about the foundation's The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.
First of all, there are two stages to the challenge. Generally speaking, there’s the preliminary, which is a very simple and rather informal test of whether or not these people might have supernatural powers. Then they have to take a formal test, but nobody has ever got to the formal stage. There are all sorts of rules to the test. They’re not complicated, but they’re very well stated and carefully worded. We had lawyers draw it up so it’s legally binding.
So the basic idea is to get people to perform their "supernatural powers" under scientific conditions?
When you say scientific conditions, it sounds very rigorous. It’s not complicated, but yes, any decent test is a scientific test. All they have to do is state what they can do and agree to perform it under reasonable conditions of observation. The vast majority of people who send in applications don’t go any further when they find out that they're actually going to be tested. They think they're just being invited to perform some cornball trick and, if they get away with it, will get a million dollars.
What are the applicants like? Are they just people looking to make a quick buck or are they completely deluded?
They are totally self-deluded. Anyone who knows me will understand that I know what I’m talking about. I’m a good observer, so they’re not going to get past me by bending spoons, or whatever. I always seem to get the most basic tricks. People have been asking me how Uri Gellar bends spoons for years, which I don't get because it’s so obvious.
Okay, now I have to ask – how does he bend spoons?
He sits at a table with a number of spoons in front of him and he’ll grab one spoon and hold it in both hands. He stands up, turns his back to the camera and walks away, then he turns back with the spoon concealed under both hands. It’s so obvious that’s when he bends the spoon. So the simple rule of spoon bending is to do it when no one is looking, and he always makes sure there’s a moment when nobody is looking.
You’ve had a lot of clashes with Uri in the past – what is it about him that you dislike so much?
I have no feud with Uri Gellar – I won that a long time ago. He’s known now as a magician, as a fake, as a man who has deceived the public for decades with the same four tricks. Although, I do have to congratulate him on going such a long distance on four rather un-sensational tricks. I mean, bending a spoon isn't going to be remembered as one of the major illusions of all time.
He’s brought a lot of lawsuits against you in the past.
Yeah, he's sued me many times. He’s never won anything, although it has cost me a lot of money because I’ve had to defend myself.
Getting back to the million dollar challenge – strangely enough, no big names have agreed to your test.
Oh, no, no. The big names simply ignore it. They won’t answer any questions about it. It’s a thorn in their sides. The challenge hasn’t made our cause all that famous, to be honest. I rather expected bigger things from it. I thought offering a million dollars would get a lot of media attention. It’s not worked that way, unfortunately.
I was surprised that it had been going on for so long and I’d only just heard about it.
Yeah, you’d think there’d be a line outside my door. If I'd said, "If you can come and show that you can play the violin, I’ll give you a million dollars,” I’d have hundreds of violinists outside my door. It’s a simple thing: if you can do what you say you can do, I’ll give you a million dollars. That’s what I’m saying to these so-called psychics, and where are they?
Has The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge ever made it on to TV?
I did a series for Granada in the UK that was widely watched, but we found out that sponsors didn’t want to buy advertising time during the show because nobody won the prize. Each and every one of the people who came in agreed to the terms of the test and were tested fairly, but – of course – after they’d failed the test, they were claiming we were putting out negative vibrations or energies to put them off.
Maybe you’re just the world's most powerful psychic masquerading as the world's biggest sceptic?
Oh yeah, I get that all the time. Apparently I’m very gifted at sending out negative vibrations.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey