James Randi (1928-2020)


"If you want to know how Geller bends spoons, don't ask a physicist, even if he won a Nobel Prize. Ask me or Randi." Martin Gardner (from page 158 of his memoirs, in reference to his closest friend)

The terrific image on the left (who by? It's not Crispian Jago. Maybe somebody at ExagerArt?) was one Randi sometimes liked to append to his emails in later years.

Here is Randi writing about Martin, following the latter's death in May 2010:

First Reaction to hearing of Randi's death

(This section is similar to what I submitted to G4G's Remembering James Randi page.)

I first met Randi in the spring of 1987, when he gave a public talk in Honolulu, on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus, where I worked at the time. I was so impressed that I bought over a dozen copies of his classic Flim-Flam! book and shipped them to surprised friends around the world. This was soon after Randi busted televangelist Peter Popoff, who was hugely popular nationwide, and had recently scammed gullible Hawaiian audiences out of a reputed $1 million (which Randi sait left the islands in cash in a suitcase with Popoff and his wife).

While chatting after his talk, Randi mentioned that a few months before he ran into Andy Warhol in NY, who bragged that some charm he was wearing around his neck was protecting him from serious health issues; Warhol had died shortly thereafter, Randi added.

Flash forward to the final Amaz!ng Meeting, in Vegas in 2015, where Randi’s extraordinarily well-organised conference paid special tribute to the role Martin Gardner played in the skeptical movement for half a century.

Randi had everyone start their presentation by revealing some "woo" they once believed in. I fessed up that as a teenager in Dublin I’d dabbled in ouija board nonsense, though I didn’t have the courage to tell that august audience the full story. I’ll say it now for the first time ever: it was me moving the ouija board decades earlier in Sunday evenings with my mother and her friends (and I wasn't the only one gaming the system). There, he’s finally made an honest liar of me!

Thank you James, for your relentless and patient championing of rationalism, and for all the good you did for the world.

The Amaz!ng Meeting 2015 (Las Vegas)

21 Oct 2014 was the centenary of Martin Gardner's birth, and a flurry of tributes appeared in and around that week. There were discussions with the folks at JREF about how they could acknowledge Martin's key role in the skeptical movement going back to the early 1959s, and Randi ended up posting a fun blog (I'm not convinced the featured article goes back as early as is claimed). In January 2015, Raymond Hall emailed me, to say:


"I write on behalf of the James Randi Education Foundation to invite your participation at our 13th annual conference on science and skepticism to be held in Las Vegas on the strip at the Tropicana on July 16-19, 2015. Our annual meeting is called “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) in honor of James “The Amazing” Randi, longtime foe of scam artists who claim paranormal abilities in order to gain fame and fortune at the expense of others (often the bereaved and the terminally ill). Mr. Randi was a huge fan and personal friend of Martin Gardner, and we were hoping to honor Martin with a half day segment at the upcoming TAM. Chip Denman, member of the JREF board recommended that I contact you to inquire if you would participate in helping us with a Gardner celebration. I understand that you play a significant role in the annual Gathering for Gardner, and we would like to imbue a part of this conference with the flavor of that gathering as much as would be appropriate. One aspect the proposed Gardner program is to show segments of a video tape of Randi and Martin taken about 10 years ago by Randi’s partner Deyvi. Although I have not yet seen any part of the video, we hope that there are segments that might be worthy of comment and sharing at the conference. In addition, we have confirmed that John Allen Paulos, Simon Singh, and a few other folks that love and have written about math for the wider audience will join us so far."

Of course I accepted, and the proposed session soon blossomed to include Martin's son Jim, and Martin's bibliographer and biographer Dana Richards.

Speaking for myself, TAM13 that July was without doubt the most professionally run meeting I have ever participated in. Not only were we speakers treated like royalty, being pampered with unnecessary frills like strecth limo service from and to the airport (a 10 minute walk), but the tech staff could have handled a major political convention with multiple live-to-TV sessions. They were courteous, friendly, accommodating and flawlessly competent. Everything worked perfectly, the first time. Kudos to Chip Denman & Ray Hall who oversaw that operation!

The conference was enjoyable, educational and stimulating. A little DragonCon vibe, a little G4G, a little rock and roll. My memory is that the bulk of the attendees and speaker were geeky, largely white, techy males, which is hardly surprising.

I recalled Randi himself appearing on stage a few times, but being generally hard to spot between sessions. There was an event near the end and at which he made a grand entrance, and while the resulting "adoration of the imperial wizzard" himself was impressive, it made me a little uncomfortable. Like Bill Clinton (and dare I say it, Peter Popoff), James Randi he sure knew how to work a room! He was not adverse to a little attention...

True, he announced his retirement, on the cusp of turning 87, and it was clear to many that this was the final TAM.

I decided to try to do a Huffington Post piece on it, featuring a mix of my own reactions and quotes from some of the big wigs who had been there.

Randi on skepticism and TAMs

About a week later, on Saturday 25 July 2015, I emailed Randi as follows:

I'm working on a Huff Post piece on TAM13. I'll survey some of what I saw, and include some photos and hopefully video links. I also want to include some brief "big picture" discussion. Do you have answers to any/all of these please:

1. TAM unites "skeptical" people who like to question, and prefer evidence-based decision making. What do you say to those who claim adherents and attendees are mostly smug, self-congratulatory atheists? I know "we all" find it difficult to reconcile Martin's philosophical theist beliefs with the rest of him. Many attendees do things we all know are harmful, such as smoke. While at least one speaker mentioned how dumb that is, nobody was personally challenged. How inclusive is TAM13 as regards religion? Is it possible to be a "religious person" and a TAMmer?

2. What if I said TAMmers all had (or felt pressured to have) the same views on.... fad diets, GM foods, sugar/corn industries, etc. We may all agree that UFOs, astrology, dowsing, etc, are crap. But many other "social" topics were covered by speakers with passion and a message of "this is how it is, you're either with us or against us." The Food Babe, for instance. The Science Babe was convincing in rebutting her, but her own credentials are not overwhelmingly academic.

3. How can one be effective in allowing people space and time to question their own beliefs, since we know that "confronting people with facts" (aka what WE think of as facts) often results in them just digging their heels in?

4. Martin once worried that the kind of outreach you do (and he did) is really doomed as it's just preaching to the choir. Do you worry that he may have been right? If not, what gives you hope?

He promptly responded most helpfully:

These are all excellent questions. Unfortunately I could easily write several thousand words in response, if only I had the time. If you'd like to have a phone conversation in the next few days, perhaps we could arrange that.

There is a substantial body of work out there about the "skeptic mission." Here's a useful document from Daniel Loxton.

A couple of years ago I took part in a panel at TAM about the scope and definition of the skeptic mission along with several other key voices in this arena.

And this is a widely referenced talk I gave in 2012 about the overlaps and distinctions between the skeptic, atheist, and humanist movements, which particularly speaks to your first question (and partly your last).

I hope you find these resources of use and would be glad to speak with you further. best, Jamy

For reasons I can no longer recall, that offer of a phone chat was not followed up on.

However, Randi did agree to address shorter versions of my questions in email. Here is the results of those exchanges.

CM: What do you say to those who claim adherents and attendees are mostly smug, self-congratulatory atheists?

JR: I say that not all are atheists, at all, and though I don’t understand how specific religious beliefs can be-–and are--exempted by these folks from inclusion in a skeptical point of view (flying horses, talking bushes, etc.) I recognize that fear of death is strong, with some folks. I do not share that fear. Martin told me that he simply “felt more comfortable” with a deist philosophy, and yet had no evidence at all to support it. That was fine with me, since-–to me-–his comfort outweighed anything else. I loved him without question. And "smug"? I sincerely hope not...

CM: How inclusive is TAM13 as regards religion? Is it possible to be a "religious person" and a TAMmer?

JR: Yes, though I hope they’ll come all the way around, eventually… I regret that I was absent for “The Food Babe” and “The Science Babe” confrontation…

CM: How can one be effective in allowing people space and time to question their own beliefs, since we know that "confronting people with facts" (aka what WE think of as facts) often results in them just digging their heels in?

JR: If that “space and time” and the accompanying “confronting” process is not a part of every TAM, I believe we’ve failed… And, facts are the sort of things that don’t go away when simply ignored or denied. They’re supported by hard evidence-–and there’s no other kind. Examine: s=ut+½at². It works – within the limits prescribed, of course-–perfectly. It’s a true statement, a fact, testable and dependable.

CM: Martin once worried that the kind of outreach you do (and he did) is really doomed as it's just preaching to the choir… Do you worry that he may have been right? If not, what gives you hope?

JR: I take hope-–as I said at TAM-–from those who come to me-–often from that choir-–with tears in their eyes-–as some 20 or so just did at TAM13-–and tell me that the JREF has made a big difference in their lives… And as I said at this-–and at other TAMs-–you can’t buy that; it has to be a gift. Yes, I-–and the JREF–-win a few… And that makes it all worth while.

Alas, the proposed Huffington Post piece never got written, but at least Randi's thoughtful insights from July 2015 are finally seeing the light of day.

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