Despite having apparently retired from the magical game for a number of years, James Randi was keen to showcase an audience a few tricks at his recent Sydney appearance. He also espoused some thoughts on being a skeptic and theories behind clear, rational thinking for what he says is his last time in Australia. He gave a bit of time to us at The Au Review to answer some questions on his ideas.
How did you get involved in the field of investigation and debunking false claims?
As a magician I know how the so called psychics do their tricks, their routines, their various methods of deceiving the public, and that expertise led to questions from people very frequently following these performances. They’d come over and say ‘but the fellow who’s on television right now, certainly he wouldn’t be a fake would he?’
I would try and explain to them how it was done. In many cases I didn’t have time enough to make the explanation because many of them were complicated answers but it got me interested in the fact that it was becoming evident that people were honestly fooled by these people and their tricks and I thought something should be done about it.
What should people expect from your upcoming show?
Well, charm, a certain amount of arrogance, lots of deception and things like that. My job is to get the idea of critical thinking across and I have to use many different means to do it. It will be in the actual words that are spoken, it will be in the film, certainly, it will be in the questions and answers that will follow the showing of the film and whatever else we choose to do to convey the message. But I do think it will be mostly painless.
What is the strangest claim you debunked?
Oh that’s like asking me what my favourite colour is or my favourite actress is, something like that! There are no favourites of course, but I must say that generally speaking the debunking of the faith healer’s claims, the preachers on the television that infest the airwaves all across the world now, that battle has occupied much of my attention and I think rightly so. These people are very cruel in their approach, they take money from people under false pretenses, and they have no consideration for people’s feelings. They just cheat people, lie to them, take their money and leave them emotionally bereft. They can harm people and can harm their futures – I think that’s important to know.
There have literally been hundreds [of claims] over the years. Most of them are pretty mundane. There have been some that, well, one gentleman said he could dowse only for lost pets [laughs]. I mean really, how does a pet know when it’s lost! I mean the owner probably knows, but is there a vibration that a lost cat puts out? I really don’t know.
But maybe he just once had a success with waving a stick around or a coat hanger wire pointed towards a cat that he found and thought, ‘I guess that’s my specialty, finding lost cats!’ It’s bizarre, its really bizarre but most of my life its been that way since, lets see, I’m 86 now so about 80 years.
Can you tell us a little bit about your biographical documentary, An Honest Liar?
I think it’s a very well done documentary. At certain stages of the formation of the film I had arguments and differences with the producers, but I had made an arrangement at the beginning saying ‘warts and all’. Oliver Cromwell was supposed to have said that to his official portraitist because he had a very warty face. I’m not casting aspersions on Oliver Cromwell of course; I think he’s dead isn’t he?
I think I’m safe I won’t get sued. But yes, that expression says it all because I wanted the story told truthfully, frankly, very openly and it was told that way.
Is there anything people can do to stop them from following prey to well-established charlatans? What should people look out for?
Well it’s an old saying, I know, and we’ve all heard it and it’s maybe a tired old quip but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. That’s something I’ve gone with ever since I was a kid and I think we should all heed that old saying.
When you’re promised something for very little or apparently for very little, and it seems just too good to be true and so beneficial to you, that they’re going to bring you happiness, money, peace and serenity – I think there’s a term that applies to that and its starts with a B and an S.
You’re being brought to Sydney in order to promote rational thought and discussion. Are there things people can do to practice this?
Yeah, you can read my books for one thing, that’s a good idea [chuckles].
There are so many good books out there by people like Richard Dawkins and if I had a god it would be Richard Dawkins. I think he’s a little embarrassed by hearing me say that but we’ve had a good long term relationship, the two of us.
I think there are other writers out there as well like the late Hitchens of course. Wonderful, wonderful man and unfortunately he came away from us far too early. But there are writers out there and skeptical organisations all around the world on the Internet – the Internet is a wonderful tool in that respect. And yes, look up your local skeptical organisations, find out what they’re all about and attend a meeting. I think that that could be an eye opener and a mind opener for anyone.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your show, your film or your work?
Do come early and often!
Originally published on 18 December 2014 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/arts/interviews/james-randi-on-debunking-rational-thought-and-biopic-an-honest-liar
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