James "The Amazing" Randi (1928)
It was on this date, August 7, 1928, that magician, author and paranormal debunker James Randi was born Randall Zwinge in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Educated in Canada, he was naturalized a U.S. citizen in 1987. From the 1950s he toured the world as a magician, stage mentalist and escape artist, like his idol, Houdini, and developed a strong skepticism toward psychics. Randi was a founding fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), based in Buffalo, NY, a non-profit organization devoted to the critical examination of paranormal and supernatural claims.
Randi first got national attention in 1970 when he challenged the spoon-bending of Uri Geller as a trick. Geller sued; Randi won. Since 1996, Randi has posted a $1 million reward (through his James Randi Educational Foundation) for any psychic or paranormalist who can prove his or her powers under controlled conditions. The prize is unclaimed.
Randi is a trenchant skeptical investigator who frequently offends his detractors but also sometimes his allies. Still, his skill at exposing fraud is legendary. Psychics and paranormal practitioners are so fearful of Randi's version of Occam's Razor that they refuse his reward challenge, saying he is biased and will never accept a paranormal claim. Robert Todd Carroll, who writes the Skeptic's Dictionary website, points out, "Randi's rules are little more than what any reasonable scientist would require. If you are a mental spoon bender, you can't use your own spoons. ... If you are going to do some remote viewing, you will not be given credit for coming close in some vague way. If you are going to demonstrate your dowsing powers, be prepared to be tested under controlled conditions. If you are going to do psychic surgery, expect to have cameras watching your every move."*
As for his personal beliefs, in Randi's 1989 book The Faith Healers, he writes (p. 303),
I am frequently approached following lectures and loudly asked if I am a Christian and/or whether I believe in God – the assumption being that I understand what the questioner means by both terms. My answer has always been that I have found no compelling reason to adopt such beliefs. Infuriated by such a response ... [they] usually turn away and leave ringing in the air a declaration that there is just no point in trying to reason with me and that I will be 'prayed for.' I have no need of this patronization, nor of such a condescending attitude, and I resent it. I consider such an action to be a feeble defense for a baseless superstition and a retreat from reality.†
In a 1995 interview in Skeptic magazine, Randi attempted in one statement to break the blasphemy law in every state that still has one:
I hereby state my opinion that the notion of a god is a basic superstition and that there is no evidence for the existence of any god(s). Further, devils, demons, angels and saints are myths; there is no life after death, no heaven or hell; the Pope is a dangerous, bigoted, medieval dinosaur, and the Holy Ghost is a comic-book character worthy of laughter and derision. I accuse the Christian god of murder by allowing the Holocaust to take place – not to mention the 'ethnic cleansing' presently being performed by Christians in our world – and I condemn and vilify this mythical deity for encouraging racial prejudice and commanding the degradation of women.‡
* Robert Todd Carroll, "The Randi Paranormal Challenge" from The Skeptic's Dictionary (website).
† quoted from Celebrity Atheists website.
‡ from Skeptic, 1995, 3:4, p. 11. Randi adds, "This comprehensive statement was arrived at by examining the statutes of those seven states that have remained in the Dark Ages, so that I might satisfy their definitions of blasphemy."
Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Hermann von Helmholtz (1821) It was on this date, August 31, 1821, that German physician and physicist Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz was born in Potsdam, Prussia, in what is now Germany. The son of a classics teacher of small means, Hermann was persuaded to set aside his love of natural science in favor of […]