JAMES RANDI EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
JAMES RANDI EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION TIMELINE
1928: Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto, Canada.
1950s: Randi wrote an astrological column for a Montreal newspaper under the name “Zo-ran.”
1956: Randi performed a magic act on The Today Show .
1960s: Randi performed in night clubs in Japan and the Philippines.
1970s: Randi helped to found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
1972: Randi exposed Uri Geller on The Tonight Show .
1986: Randi exposed televangelist Peter Popoff’s healing performance on The Tonight Show .
1986: Randi was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant.
1991: Uri Geller filed lawsuit against Randi and the CSICOP.
1993: Eldon Byrd filed lawsuit against Randi.
1995: Randi was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Indianapolis.
1996: Randi founded the James Randi Educational Foundation.
1996: Randi was awarded the CSICOP’s Distinguished Skeptic Award.
2003: The first Amaz!ng Meeting was held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
2007: Randi received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
2011: Randi conducted a speaking tour across Canada.
2012: Randi conducted a speaking tour throughout Europe.
On August 7, 1928, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto, Canada. The oldest of three children born to Randall and Marie Alice Zwinge, he weighed a mere two pounds and three ounces at birth. Growing up in the Leaside neighborhood of Toronto, Zwinge was a reportedly a shy, but very curious and intelligent child, scoring 168 on IQ tests and inventing a pop-up toaster at the age of nine. Having placed out of the sixth through eighth grades in a time prior to “gifted” educational programs, he was given admission to the reference room of the local library. There he educated himself on a number of subjects, such as mathematics and hieroglyphics (Malmgren 1998:5; Orwen 1986). Randall skipped school frequently and, one on such afternoon, he attended a performance by the magician Harry Blackstone Sr. at the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto, which proved to be a life-changing event for the young boy. Shortly thereafter, at the age of thirteen, Zwinge was hit by a car while riding his bicycle, breaking his back and forcing him to spend thirteen months in a body cast. During that time, he immersed himself in magic books and practiced simple tricks of illusion and lock picking (Orwen 1986). He has reflected upon this period of his life, stating that “What I have recognized…is that it is the kids who don’t quite fit the social picture who go into magic” (Jaroff 2001:2).
Zwinge developed his apparent interest in both magic and skepticism at an early age. When he was fifteen, having heard of miraculous healings taking place at a local church, he decided to attend a service. During the procession he recognized deceptive tricks employed by the preacher who, with the aid of assistants, obtained information regarding attendees’ ailments prior to the “healings.” They merely read the ailments from a slip of paper to the unsuspecting audience. Outraged at the idea of using magic to deceive people into believing they have been divinely healed, Zwinge climbed on the stage and confronted the preacher. He was promptly arrested on the charge of disturbing a religious meeting and taken to the police station where “he vowed that he would someday fight back against those who defiled his art” (Jaroff 2001:2). Shortly after this incident, Zwinge moved with his family to Montreal where he secured a job in a test tube factory; however, the family returned to Toronto the following year. He attended high school at Oakwood Collegiate Institute, but he dropped out at the age of seventeen, reportedly after refusing to complete a final examination because he “didn’t like one of the questions” (Orwen 1986). After his departure from high school, Zwinge joined a small carnival with which he toured Ontario and Quebec for two summers as Prince Ibis, a mind-reader. From there Zwinge performed in various nightclubs across Canada under the stage name “The Great Randall.” It was during this time that Randall received his “break.” After a performance in Quebec City, two policemen approached him and, jokingly, put handcuffs on him and challenged him to free himself. Dramatizing the dare, Randall stepped into one side of police car and emerged from the other side with the handcuffs unlocked. The officers then upped the ante by taking him to the police station and challenging him to escape from a locked jail cell, which he did. A local newspaper ran a story the following day titled “The Amazing Randi Escapes from Quebec Prison,” thus earning him a degree of notoriety as well as the title he would carry with him for the next several decades: “The Amazing Randi.” Zwinge would legally change his name to James Randi shortly thereafter (Orwen 1986; Jaroff 2001:2).
Randi established great renown as an escape artist in the decade following his stint in the Quebec prison. In the mid-1950s he appeared on the CBS television program “It’s Magic,” during which he escaped from a straightjacket while suspended upside down 110 feet above Broadway (Jaroff 2001). The press coverage surrounding his CBS performance propelled him to high levels of visibility unprecedented in his career. He performed on The Today Show on February 7, 1956, remaining submerged in a swimming pool in a sealed coffin for 104 minutes, thus breaking the record of 94 minutes previously set by Harry Houdini (“James Randi” n.d.). Randi went on to make dozens of similar television appearances throughout the decade, in addition to writing an astrological column in a Montreal tabloid under the nom de plume “Zo-ran.” According to Randi, the weekly horoscopes were simply clippings from similar columns published years before that he pieced together. He became astonished at the number of readers who wrote to the newspaper in response to his forecasts, claiming that they had been perfectly accurate. It was these reactions which led Randi to, as he remarked, “‘hang up the scissors [and] put away the paste pot, ‘” having decided that believers will adopt any prediction made by a person claiming to be endowed with supernatural abilities (Dawkins 1998:123).
Randi began touring the Philippines and Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, performing in various nightclubs before again
settling in the United States. He hosted a number of radio and television programs throughout the remainder of the decade, including “The Amazing Randi Show” on a New York radio station and the children’s television program “Wonderama” (“James Randi” n.d.). In the early 1970s Randi’s career took a sharp turn when he began investigating the paranormal claims of the world-renowned Israeli psychic Uri Geller. Geller mesmerized large crowds of people by bending spoons and making various objects levitate, claiming a supernatural origin for effects that Randi considered simple magic tricks. Randi, along with several prominent scientists and skeptics, founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in response to the widespread acceptance of Uri Geller’s claims (CSICOP was renamed the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in 2006). Randi began appearing on television talk shows, showing how the psychokinetic effects for which Geller had become famous could be replicated by a magician using simple optical illusions. These various public appearances gave much greater visibility and legitimacy to skepticism. A major breakthrough came in 1972 when Randi teamed up with talk show host Johnny Carson to expose Uri Geller publicly. Geller was scheduled to appear and demonstrate his psychic abilities on The Tonight Show by correctly selecting from several metal containers one whichwas filled with water. Randi speculated that Geller would discreetly bump the table with his leg a few times, making all of the canisters but the one weighed down with water move. Therefore, he visited the set prior to Geller’s arrival and painted a substance on the bottoms of the cans which would render them unaffected by slight movements of the table. Appearing as though by accident, Geller did knock the table a few times and twenty-two minutes into his performance, announced that he was feeling ill and was unable to continue with his demonstration (Malmgren 1998). Geller’s career went into decline thereafter, and Randi began authoring a book titled The Truth About Uri Geller . The 1982 biography contests Geller’s claims regarding his self-proclaimed psychic abilities. Geller filed a fifteen-million dollar lawsuit against Randi and the CSICOP in 1991; however, the charges against the organization were dismissed when Geller’s claims were found to be frivolous, and he was ordered to pay a substantial fine (“James Randi” n.d.).
In the decade following the Uri Geller exposé, Randi continued to debunk paranormal claims and the individuals behind them, while also continuing to perform as “The Amazing Randi,” enjoying celebrity status both as a magician and paranormal skeptic. His fame was elevated even further in 1986 when he exposed televangelist Peter Popoff’s claims of channeling God’s power to heal theill. Randi, recognizing the same one-ahead deceptive methods used by the preacher he had challenged at age fifteen, but on a larger scale, set up an elaborate plan in which several volunteers acted as ailment-stricken audience members. Randi soon discovered that Popoff’s wife, Elizabeth, carrying a transmitter device in her purse, would approach members of the audience prior to the service and strike up seemingly casual conversation. As she spoke to the attendees, obtaining their names, home addresses, and various reasons for attending the service, Peter sat backstage and transcribed the information. Throughout the show, Elizabeth would guide Peter, who wore a hidden receiver in his ear, to the audience members with whom she had spoken. Randi’s team, equipped with surveillance and radio frequency devices, were able to record these conversations between Elizabeth and her husband throughout the show. Randi made the findings public on April 22, 1986 on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, during which he played a segment of one of Popoff’s services alongside the corresponding segment of audio recording, revealing how Peter’s words and movements matched Elizabeth’s instructions. Following the exposé, Popoff disputed Randi’s findings, claiming them to be entirely fabricated. However, donations to his ministry dropped severely, and it subsequently declared bankruptcy (Dart 1986; Malmgren 1998; Jaroff 2001).
As the careers of the psychics, astrologers, faith healers, and numerous others with self-proclaimed paranormal abilities exposed by Randi went into decline, his own career and fame soared. In the same years as his exposé of Peter Popoff, Randi was awarded a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for his feats in debunking claims of the paranormal. He received a grant of $272,000 to assist in further work. However, he has on several occasions noted that the majority of his grant money was spent defending himself against a number of lawsuits, including that filed by Uri Geller (“About James Randi” n.d.; Jaroff 2001). Nonetheless, Randi received numerous other awards and honors throughout the latter half of the 1980s and the 1990s, including a fellowship created in his name by the Academy of Magical Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles for preserving magic as a form of entertainment rather than deception. In 1995, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Indianapolis. Although he had since become estranged from the group that he had helped to found, in 1996 the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal awarded Randi their Distinguished Skeptic Award. That same year, he founded a new organization through which he could continue his work, which he called the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) through which he has continued to work (“About James Randi” n.d.; “James Randi” n.d.).
Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Randi authored several books, traveled extensively, appearing on talk shows and speaking at conferences, and received a number of prestigious awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. While little of his personal life beyond that pertaining to his career has been recorded, questions regarding Randi’s marital status have been raised repeatedly throughout his career. He announced his homosexuality in 2010, at the age of 81, on a posting titled “How To Say It?” on his blog, Swift , attributing his delayed “coming out” to having grown up in a culture opposed to homosexuality. Furthermore, he credited his decision to make his sexuality public to having recently seen a biographical film based on the life of Harvey Milk (Randi 2010). Randi married his long-time partner, artist Devyi Pena, in 2013 (“Randi Got Married” 2013).
James Randi’s mission of debunking claims of the paranormal rests largely on his belief that magic should be utilized as a form of entertainment, rather than a means for personal gain or deception. Randi has defined magic as an art form in which an understanding is established between the magician and audience members that the effects performed by the magician are tricks, or illusions, and that nothing supernatural is occurring on stage (Malmgren 1997). He has dedicated a large portion of his life to fulfilling the vow he made at age fifteen to refute those who tarnished his art by using it to back what he believes are baseless paranormal claims. However, he draws a distinction between two types of people claiming to possess paranormal abilities: those who knowingly do so and are therefore guilty of overt deception, and people who truly believe they possess a gift, or “innocents.” Randi has expressed his unwillingness to challenge this latter classification, stating “give me a faker, give me someone who appears before and is lying, who is attempting to fool me, to deceive me, or to deceive anyone else…Please don’t give me the innocent who really believe they have the powers. They’re the difficult ones to handle; a true believer is a terrible enemy, but the fakers I can handle” (Randi 2005).
Randi has not only expanded upon his views and attitudes regarding the persons whom he seeks to expose, but also his beliefs in reference to those who trust in the psychics, astrologers, spoon benders, and faith healers he investigates. He claims that certain people are simply attracted to the unexplainable and looking for answers which science is unable to deliver to provide a sense of security and command over the uncertainties of life. Furthermore, he states that those who use magic to deceive cater to these insecurities and fears in people, and some are more susceptible than others. Randi notes that even when a psychics predictions are incorrect the vast majority of the time and there is overwhelming evidence against his or her legitimacy, a susceptible person will be likely to overlook the mistakes and elevate the few correct statements or forecasts. He attributes some of the vulnerability in people today toward belief in paranormal claims to the expansion of technology and the “‘easy access to nonsense,’” proposing that with so much material of this nature readily available, people are able to tease out what they find preposterous and plausible (Cohen 2001). Even so, Randi ties every explanation back to the need for most people to believe in something supernatural, a category in which he includes religion, stating that “its embrace is of the same nature as acceptance of astrology, ESP, prophecy, dowsing, and the other myriad of strange beliefs we handle here every day” (Randi 2003).
ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP AND PRACTICES
In the mid-1970s, James Randi aided in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
(CSICOP), an organization designed to scientifically investigate claims of the paranormal and increase awareness and skepticism of such claims. The CSICOP, later renamed the Committee for Scientific Inquiry, has included members of various fields of expertise, including astronomer Carl Sagan, the well-known educator Bill Nye, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, and skeptic and secular humanist Paul Kurtz (“About CSI” n.d.). Although a founding figure, Randi distanced from the organization after a disagreement with the leadership. Following his exposé of Uri Geller and the resulting lawsuit against Randi, he was advised to refrain from commenting upon Geller as the leaders of the organization sought to avoid a second suit being filed against the CSICOP, as well as Randi personally. Randi refused and resigned his position; however, he still maintained an congenial relationship with the organization (“James Randi” n.d.).
Randi worked independently until 1996 when he established the James Randi Educational Foundation after receiving a donation of two million dollars from a computer firm executive who Randi has declined to identify. The Foundation reportedly consists of over three hundred members and a five-person staff who aim “to help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims” (Malmgren 1998; “About the Foundation” n.d.). The JREF fulfills its mission in several different ways, most notably by challenging claims on an individual basis, famously offering a one-million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under conditions agreed to by both parties. The JREF’s website offers a detailed list of eight rules for application (“Applicant Rules” n.d.):
- This is the primary and most important of these rules: The Applicant must state clearly, in advance, and the Applicant and the JREF must agree upon, what powers or abilities will be demonstrated, the limits of the proposed demonstration so far as time, location and other variables are concerned, and what will constitute both a positive and a negative result.
- Only an actual performance of the stated nature and scope, within the agreed-upon limits, will be accepted. Anecdotal accounts or records of previous events are not acceptable.
- The Applicant agrees that all materials and peripheral properties (photographic, recorded, written, etc.) gathered as a result of the test procedure, the protocol, and the actual testing, may be used freely by the JREF.
- In all cases, the Applicant will be required to perform a Preliminary Test in a location where a properly authorized representative of the JREF can attend. This Preliminary Test is intended to determine if the Applicant is likely to perform as promised during the Formal Test, using the agreed-upon protocol. To date, no applicant has passed the Preliminary Test, and therefore no Formal Test has yet been conducted. At any time prior to the Formal Test, the JREF reserves the right to re-negotiate the protocol if issues are discovered that would prevent a fair and unbiased test. After an agreement is reached on the protocol, no part of the testing procedure may be changed in any way without an amended agreement, signed by all parties concerned.
- All of the Applicant’s expenses such as transportation, accommodation, materials, assistants, and all other costs for any persons or procedures incurred in pursuit of the Challenge, are the sole responsibility of the Applicant. Neither the JREF nor any representative of the JREF will bear any of the costs.
- All applications and other correspondence must be typewritten or printed by computer and in English. Any English translations must be accompanied by certification of qualifications of the translator.
- Following an unsuccessful test or the rejection of their application, the Applicant must wait 12 months before applying again. The Applicant may not apply more than twice.
- By accepting this Challenge, the Applicant waives any and all claims against James Randi, the JREF, the JREF’s employees, officers, directors, and any other person. This waiver includes, but is not limited to, injury, accident, and damage of any kind, including damage and/or loss of a physical, emotional, financial, and/or professional nature. Notwithstanding anything else in this paragraph, should the Claimant pass the Formal Test, the Claimant does not waive any claims against the JREF that might be necessary to enforce payment of the Prize.
In addition to the Million-Dollar Prize, the organization continues to challenge paranormal claims in much the same way that Randi has throughout his career as a scientific investigator, specifically targeting individuals and claims supported by media organizations. Randi and members of the JREF share the findings of investigations and research and generally promote awareness of scientific skepticism by speaking at conferences across the globe. In 2011, Randi embarked on a cross-country speaking tour of Canada and followed up with a tour throughout Europe the following year.
The JREF further supports the “skeptical community” by coordinating its own conferences, most notably The Amaz!ng Meeting, a three-day “ celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking” (“About the Foundation” n.d.) First held in 2003 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the conference attracted a much larger crowd than had been expected and has since been held annually or bi-annually in locations varying from Los Vegas, to London, to Sydney, Australia. In 2006, in response to the popularity of the four previous Amaz!ing Meetings, the JREF held its first Amaz!ing Adventure, a weeklong assembly of skeptics which took place on a cruise liner through the Bermuda Triangle. The JREF has organized four subsequent Amaz!ng Adventures to Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico, and the Caribbean (“The Amaz!ng Meeting” n.d.).
Finally, the James Randi Educational Foundation lends support to educators, students, and up-and-coming skeptical organizations by providing grants, scholarships, and teaching modules designed to bolster critical and skeptical thought among interested parties. Members and non-members alike are encouraged to participate in the Foundation’s forum, a host for the online discussion of topics varying in nature from religion, philosophy, and the paranormal to art, literature, and current events.
James Randi has faced opposition from both those who he has exposed and from the ranks of skeptics. He has on numerous occasions had lawsuits brought against him throughout his lengthy career. Uri Geller alone has challenged Randi with six lawsuits, accusing him of committing libel. In only one of the cases was Randi actually convicted; however, the trial took place in Japan and he was convicted of a lesser charge of “insult,” which is not recognized in courts outside of Japan and China. Randi was thus ordered by the court to pay only a fraction of one percent of the amount for which Geller had sued, and the two eventually reached a settlement outside of court (Randi 2007). In 1991, Geller simultaneously attempted to sue Randi and the CSICOP after Randi had purportedly compared Geller’s paranormal abilities to magic tricks printed on cereal boxes. The CSICOP maintained that while Randi was highly involved in the organization as a founding member, it was not responsible for his statement. The court ultimately agreed with the CSICOP and ordered Geller to pay damages to the organization. Randi and Geller settled their dispute outside of court, reaching an agreement that neither party has disclosed (“Uri Geller Libel Suit Dismissed” 1994).
Randi and the JREF consistently receive hate mail, the majority of which is from followers of the individuals they target. Following his exposé of Peter Popoff, Popoff aptly denied the allegations, accusing Randi of attacking God’s work. However, he eventually admitted that he had communicated with his wife throughout the show and used prayer cards and other means of gathering information about audience members beforehand, but he nonetheless maintained his ability to deliver divine messages and channel God’s healing capabilities (Dart 1986).
Furthermore, Randi has been criticized for his lack of scientific training and, therefore, the validity of his claims. He and others
have combatted these allegations by pointing out that while he has not undergone any formal scientific training, he is not acting as a scientist. Rather, he has an extensive understanding of magic and how magic is performed, which forms the basis for a large number of his investigations. As Leon Jaroff, a personal friend of Randi’s and a former CSICOP member, remarked, Randi has been “trained in the art of deception…He knows what to look for when he’s investigating a fraud” (Malmgren 1998). Randi has also acknowledged his inability to definitively investigate all paranormal claims that lie outside of his realm of expertise, stating that throughout investigations of the paranormal, “JREF may consult with experts, including statisticians, magicians, and others with specialized knowledge relevant to the claim” (“Conditions of the One Million Dollar Challenge” n.d.).
However, not all of the charges have involved Randi’s work directly. In fact, many of the allegations brought against Randi have involved “personal attacks on [his] character” (Malmgren 1998). In 1993, Eldon Byrd, a scientist and friend of Uri Geller, pressed libel, slander, and invasion of privacy charges against Randi for calling him a “child molester” in a magazine article. Byrd, who claimed to have suffered psychological distress from the comment, had been arrested a decade earlier for possession of child pornography, but was never charged with or convicted of child molestation. The jury sided with Byrd; however, Randi was not ordered to pay any damages.
Randi’s character, remarks, and personal beliefs have come under scrutiny both within and beyond the courtroom. A proclaimed atheist, Randi has on numerous occasions made remarks demonstrating his disbelief in specific religious, particularly Biblical, claims, which have been criticized for being overly abrasive. In his 2003 essay “ Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright,” for example, he commented that he considers the impregnation of “a mid-East virgin…by a ghost of some sort” which resulted in the birth of “ a son who could walk on water, raise the dead, turn water into wine, and multiply loaves of bread and fishes” to be farfetched beyond the capacity of belief. He goes on to state in the essay that his personal faith rests in “the basic goodness” of humanity rather than religion and, further, that his own religious beliefs should be considered separate from his work, denying that the James Randi Educational Foundation is an atheistic/agnostic organization (Randi 2003).
Finally, Randi has endured criticism even from with the skeptic community. His debunking agenda has put off some skeptics who simply demanded that those purporting to possess paranormal or spiritual powers simply had not made their case. For this group Randi was a “pseudo-skeptic,” for whom debunking was more important than dispassionate assessment (Truzzi 1987). As one critic put the matter: “Randi comes across as a bullying figure, eager to attack and ridicule, willing to distort and even invent evidence – in short, the sort of person who will do anything to prevail in a debate, whether by fair means or foul” (Goodspeed 2004).
James Randi and his foundation occupy a complicated, self-constructed niche that inherently involves role conflict. He is a professional magician and, particularly during the early part of his career, he worked as a very successful stage magician. Throughout his life he has been opposed to the use of performance magic as the basis for claims to magical (paranormal, supernatural powers). Personally, he is an avowed atheist who has little use for organized religion. Randi also identifies himself as a skeptic, particularly with respect to religious claims based on performance magic. He adheres to the principle, often cited by skeptics, “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof” (Truzzi 1978:11). However, he has gone beyond skepticism to an active role as a debunker of paranormal/supernatural claims. It is this assemblage of positions that has resulted in his being criticized by religious healers and their followers for maligning their spiritual leaders, by skeptics for being an ideologue masquerading as a skeptic, and by scientists for pseudo-scientific methodologies. Despite these numerous and varying criticisms and controversies, Randi soldiers on. As he stated in an interview with TIME magazine, “no blackmail, no threats, can cause me to back away from my chosen work” (Jaroff 2001).
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