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Legendary Skeptic James Randi Talks About Magic and Fraud

He says the most paranormal thing he's witnessed is Sophia Loren: "For someone to look that good at that age, that's almost supernatural."

Psychics, like lots of other forms of paranormal and supernatural nonsense, have a strange foothold in Americana. Because Americans totally believe in magic, and angels, and aliens, and pretty much everything else. James Randi, the 86-year-old magician and skeptic, would change that if he could.

He's been shutting down quacks since the 70s, when bending spoons with your mind was fodder for Johnny Carson. Randi started by emulating Harry Houdini, who died two years before the Amazing Randi was born. But by 60, after sealing himself in a metal coffin in a swimming pool, beheading Alice Cooper every night on tour in 1974, appearing on Happy Days, and writing a bunch of books about magic and fraud, he switched his focus to busting faith healers, psychics, spiritual gurus, and anybody who publicly came out and said they had supernatural powers. He even offered a million actual dollars to "any person who demonstrates any psychic, supernatural, or paranormal ability under satisfactory observation."

This week, a biopic about Randi's life is being released, titled An Honest Liar, with Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Penn and Teller, and, hilariously, one of the disgraced psychics, Uri Geller.

When I spoke with Randi and his husband, Deyvi, over Skype, he had the energy of someone ready to jump up and start doing calisthenics, just to prove he could. He's quick-witted, self-deprecating, and funny. And so old.

VICE: With all the bad people in the world, why devote your energy to psychics and fraudsters?
James Randi: Well, that's my expertise. I am a magician by trade. I should say, more correctly, I conjure. We magicians don't do magic. The word conjurer is much more accurate, which is somebody who gives the illusion of doing magic. So I am a conjurer by trade, have been since I can remember. I think there were a few days there at the beginning of my life when I wasn't one, but they don't count. So 86 years ago I started this business and the experience I gained since has given me, I think, a great deal of insight into how these so called psychics and paranormalists do their thing.

So what is it exactly about them sets you off?
I have sat with many people over all those years who've been absolutely hornswoggled, cheated, swindled, lied to, and taken advantage of by the so-called psychic. Because they are very personable, they are not familiar with the fact that they can be fooled like that and they are easily fooled by experts in the field. People like the late Sylvia Brown and John Edward.
Deyvi: Popoff.
Randi: My partner just said Popoff, who is Reverend Popoff, but it's exactly the same thing. A religious angle. They purport that they have direct contact with spirits and ghosts and such, and they can be believed by naive people.

Who do you think is the most dangerous fraudster out today?
Oh, that's very hard to say. It depends; they have different fields of activity. Popoff is back in business. I remember that when we exposed him on the Johnny Carson show, at the end of the program, when the audience was leaving, I was sitting at the table with Johnny, and his producer came over and looked at him and shook his head and said, "We're gonna get letters." John looked right up at him, and he said, "Yes, and you're gonna answer them." And the letters that came in were just from people saying, "Oh, you're all wrong, and this is a man of God." Of course these are the only people who continue to believe, because they find their illusions shattered and they can't quite make it out, even though the program explained the hearing device that he had and how he got the information from his wife. They don't listen to that. They don't want to know about. They'd rather have the wool up and ignore all the evidence.

Why do you think people are like that? Why are people so willing to believe a lie?
They need magic. That's why. They're taught from the very beginning, when they're taught about Santa Claus, and angels, and devils, and demons out of the earth and into the sky. They're told all this fanciful stuff as small children, and they get to believe that. And they want that to be theirs, that kind of magic to visit them. And they want to—pardon me [ noisily sneezes]. Ah yes, that shows my respect for them, so there.

Your life is obviously, by its nature, entangled in fraud and deceit. What is your most prideful deceit?
That's hard to say. Well, the business that we carried on in Australia. We figured that the only way to prove to people that these folks were fakes was to create a fake, and that's exactly what Deyvi did. We [decided we] would expose the thing immediately after the program, as soon as we could. And we got a lot of very grateful people in Australia after that. We could hardly pay for taxi rides or for coffee.

What was that one? Did Deyvi pretend to be psychic?
Deyvi: No, no, a channel. The Carlos Story.

Oh you're talking about the Carlos Story. I just watched a screener of your movie last night.
Randi: The Carlos Story went down in history for a century. It was very well done. He had never done a thing like that before, but he watched the so-called channelers on video tape and he could pick up those gimmicks rather easily, and he just acted and did very well.

What is the closest thing to paranormal that you've come across?
Sophia Loren. I've never met the lady, but she has a summer home near here in Florida. And for someone to look that good at that age, that's almost supernatural. I may have to give her the prize, I'm not too sure. But no, just joking of course. But I must say it's very hard to give you a specific example of an actual individual or an individual circumstance.

I guess I'm just wondering if anything has caught your attention as something you know is fake but you can't figure out.
Oh, as a magician for 86 years, that's a long time to know about these things and develop your knowledge about it. None of this stuff fools me at all. The only thing that does fool me on occasion is when a master magician like a Lance Burton or Penn and Teller, some of these folks, pull a stunt that suddenly has me saying, "Hold on, I want to see that again." And usually when a magician sees a masterful thing done in the art, they can usually figure it out. But I had a couple of comeuppances like that. And Max Maven, the mentalist, he's done things in front of me that made me gulp a bit. But eventually it gets figured out.

What's the media's part in misinformation?
Well, the media is responsible for a great deal of misinformation because of the system it's based on. You have a newspaper, you have a television program, we go on at six o'clock, we gotta have some stories, get some stories together. And the newspaper is being printed and we need a headline. Anything that comes along that looks attractive, even if it's doubtful. That will go into print or get on the evening news so easily because they need something to scoop somebody else.

Your movie's just coming out. What's the reaction so far?
We've traveled all over the world to publicize it, and in the Q&A that follows the film, the reaction has just been overwhelming. Well, the occasional person will stand up and walk out of the film because I've threatened their favorite religious belief, maybe, the occasional person. But very very seldom. We managed to get them and I get people coming to me, literally looking me straight in the eye, with tears coming down their face, saying, "You've made a big difference in my life, Mr. Randi." And you can't buy that. I've said this many times, to so many interviewers. It's true, though—you can't buy that. And I'm always grateful to hear it because I know that we have had an effect, and that's important for me to know and for us to realize that the work is worth doing.

Do you think that the general population's ability to spot bullshit is changing?
It depends on their education and their preparation in life. It really does. People who have a scientific background, you would think, would not be fooled by that sort of thing, but my experience has shown me, in cases like Uri Geller, for example, there were scientists that actually, and still to this day, believe that when he bends his spoons he does it with his mind. It's hard to believe, but remember, they would have to say, "I was absolutely wrong, and I spent twenty years of my life being wrong." That's difficult for someone to say, particularly in that profession, like science. I can understand their reluctance to do that.

Speaking of Uri Geller, have you ever had a personal, private contact with him?
Oh yes, several times. I simply told him I have nothing to say to him until he starts to be straight with the world and tell people what he's really all about. And he says, "Oh well, people know." No, they don't know, Mr. Geller, and you are giving the impression and you're saying it repeatedly, "I don't know how to do tricks. It's all real, you know?" That's a blatant lie. That's all there is to it.

Have you spoken to him recently?
Oh no, not for quite some time now.

I was curious, because I saw that they got him for the documentary.
They could hardly avoid it, you see. They asked, first of all, for him to be in the film, and his management said, "Oh we have to have a whole list of questions that will be asked in the order that they will be asked with the same wording and the whole thing." And they just said, "OK, well, then we don't need him," and they hung up. It wasn't more than a few minutes before the phone rang, and it was Mr. Geller saying, "Oh, I want to do this film!" The most dangerous place to be on earth at this moment is between Uri Geller and a TV camera. You can get run down so easily, and the velocity at which he travels is just breathtaking.

You mentioned your million-dollar prize. How many people have actually tried to win it?
Randi, to Deyvi: Do you know what the recent count is?
Deyvi: No. I don't. But there have been quite a few where the foundation agrees with the agreement to go ahead with the procedure.
Randi: Oh yes, we have to come to a mutual agreement with the claimant, and that's hard to arrive at in many cases. But once we go ahead with the test, everyone falls on their collective nose. They just can't do it. Many of them are honestly convinced that they have some sort of power. They're honestly puzzled that it didn't work.

Do you think that you have a good sense of when someone genuinely believes that they have powers and when someone is just lying?
Oh yeah, I think I can pretty well tell. I think I can have a good notion of that, and most of them are not lying. They really believe they have these various psychic powers, but they don't test themselves properly. They're keeping all this information in their head and making up a score. They make up exceptions as they go along.

What does it take to fool people? How would I become a better liar?
I don't know. I don't know you that well. That would be almost criminal if I were to give you advice on that. But magicians use misdirection. They use language, and they use gestures and such. For example, if I'm on stage, and I look over to one side of stage, everybody in the audience looks over to that side of the stage too. And they do that because they think that I'm looking at something that they should know about. So it's very easy to misdirect people's attention with "What have I got here? You can see a simple little plastic box, right? This is for a memory chip of some kind. Now watch this, I'm going to cause it to vanish or go some place." This is just misdirecting your attention. I'm getting you to look some other place. [ laughs] That will be $25, please.

You've essentially devoted your life to this cause. What do you think when you look back?
I've had very few regrets—the skeptics, including myself, have accomplished a lot. Skepticism has really spread across the world. There are so many organizations that are devoted to skepticism, and I think that's a very healthy attitude. I'm not talking about—what's the opposite of skepticism?
Deyvi: Cynicism?
Randi: Yeah. You can't be cynical about these things, I'd say, because the world is full of all kinds of wonderful developments. Computers, for example, where would we be without them? Where would we be without the electronics that we're using right at this very moment, for example? Where are you located?

San Francisco.
We're looking at one another, and this is costing us zero. We're not paying for this. This is a free service.
Deyvi: Not quite. That's what they make you believe. [Laughs]
Randi: See? He's learning!

An Honest Liar premieres in theaters on March 6.

Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.