James Randi – a career built on deceit + ‘false memory’

James Randi, the illusionist and magician turned paranormal sceptic, has died aged 92. He made a media career out of debunking healers, psychics, spoon benders, mind readers, fortune tellers, water dowsers, faith healers, lumping them altogether as fakes, frauds and cons.  He was co-founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which despite its title was not a scientific organization. More of a propaganda movement, it had a damaging effect on parapsychology and retarded its development. Likewise astrology, which it attempted to blow out of the water by repeating Michel Gauquelin’s study showing that champion athletes are more likely to be born with Mars in certain positions in the sky. When the results of their study appeared to back up Gauquelin’s results, they fiddled their conclusions to prove the opposite.

  Randi was born 7 August 1928 in Toronto, Canada with an unverified time of 1.20 am. He had an entrepreneurial, attention-demanding Fire Grand Trine of a Leo Sun and Mercury trine Saturn in Sagittarius trine Uranus in Aries. A bulldozer Mars in Taurus (conjunct Algol) was square Venus Neptune in Leo. His Mercury was in an over-confident square to Jupiter in indulgent Taurus, so he’d over-promise. Not a subtle temperament.

   He made his name on television attacking and undermining spoon-bender Uri Geller, 20 December 1946 2.30 am Tel Aviv, Israel. Though Geller said he always regarded Randi as good publicity and it didn’t dent his career. It was more of a symbiotic relationship with Randi needing a windmill to tilt at. Protagonist and antagonist, one needs the other.

  Randi’s Sun was conjunct Geller’s 10th house Pluto for an endless tussle.

   I would have to admit to a personal bias since I deeply disliked Randi. Not that there aren’t charlatans out there in the psychic field but in many ways he was as big a chancer as any of the flakes he puffed up his career exposing. I was in a TV chat show with him many years ago and sharply attacked his blanket denials of all matters paranormal and he completely deflated to the extent the show was never transmitted. I also tripped across him in the 1990s during a child sexual abuse campaign where he was on the ‘scientific’ board of the False Memory Movement, whose raison d’etre was to write off allegations of abuse as fantasy. The Memory Wars of the 1990s pitted dinosaurs whose careers were built on outdated theories of how the mind and memory work against trauma specialists generating a flood of new research. Randi was, for sure, not on an open-minded voyage of discovery about new evidence in science and did considerable damage.

ADD ON: The Sun, Baltimore on Saturday June 5, 1993 reported that a US Federal jury ruled that the “Amazing Randi”, a magician, defamed a Finksburg scientist by calling him a child molester and caused him to suffer humiliation, mental anguish, suffering and damage to his reputation because of the false statements.

 “The scientist’s lawyers sought to discredit Mr Randi by playing taped conversations of teen-age boys who called the magician’s home allegedly for sex.”      A copy of that tape is part of the court record. [ Byrd v Randi (Civil Action No. MJG-89-636 in the United States District for the Court for the District of Maryland.] Transcripts of the tape are also part of the court record in Geller v Randi, (Civil Action No 91-1014-SSH in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The transcripts are contained in Exhibit 40 to Exhibit U]. James Randi claimed that this tape sought to “blackmail” him.

25 thoughts on “James Randi – a career built on deceit + ‘false memory’

  1. I approved of Randi’s debunking of charlatans, but disapproved of his blanket dismissal of any and all psychic phenomenon. That could have been the fixed Sun Leo energy and his Mars in Taurus. Interesting that his Saturn is exactly conjunct the U.S. Ascendant. Curious as to what his soul is going through now. I wonder if he was overjoyed to find that after death he was still conscious? Or, if he still doesn’t know his body is dead.

  2. With Randi’s death I am reminded of my old friend Robert Anton Wilson. His opinion of Randi was similar to yours, Marjorie. In one of his books Bob portrayed Randi as a pig-headed man with his head in the sand. Shame Randi lasted so long while Bob shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007.

  3. I made a tv documentary series on the paranormal years back – clairvoyance, healers, spiritualists, ghost sightings etc – and said at the time we had met every nut in the UK. One listened to static on the radio and swore it was alien communication. Some were obviously deluded, others may well have been cons. But there was about 10% (approx.) that really couldn’t be explained away.
    Odd examples that stick in mind. Bruce McManaway, a Scottish healer, who discovered quite by chance during WW11 that he had the power to slow bleeding just by putting his hands on injured soldiers. He worked later with Maxwell Cade, a Zen master, on biofeedback experiments, and found that healers had an unconscious ability to put patients’ brains into relaxing alpha (I think) waves, thereby helping them to heal themselves.
    The other was Don Robbins, who held a PhD in solid state Chemistry, who was working with a mixed scientists-psychics research group at Neolithic/Bronze Age Rollright standing stones in Oxfordshire. He posited a theory that the deep structures of stone and crystal are not lifeless and inert, but solidified energy and they may hold the answer to psychic phenomena which happen in certain locations. The molecular structure of quartz in particular could, under certain conditions, act like a tape recorder or camera and capture images or even sounds. ‘Stone memory’ was in vogue and much discussed for a while but as per usual after initial interest it all disappeared into the ether. But it did seem to point to a perhaps explanation, much like the one finally worked out for spontaneous combustion, which could give a solid underpinning to certain psychic sightings.
    Professors in my experience – as many scientists – tend to have A4 minds and are incapable of thinking outside what they’ve been taught.
    “Science is still only a candle glimmering in a great pitch-dark cavern.” Mario Vargas Llosa
    . . . if scientists could get rid of the mental block which prevents them investigating a vast subject right under their noses, they could soon learn a great deal more than my wife and I are capable of doing. TC Lethbridge.

  4. interesting post! it’s so diificult to find the proper balance between healthy skepticism (esp in these days of ‘fake news’) and open-mindedness. One key is keeping personal and emotional interests as distant as possible, however difficult, by always asking: is this what I wish to believe, or what the evidence suggests? the other is having sufficient evidence, which is not always trivial and sometimes impossible. This is true not just for the paranormal but for the ‘sciences’ as well – as we’ve seen all kinds of studies that can contradict each other, depending on what the author is inclined to prove. And scientists can easily fall in the trap of believing that everything that is knowable is measurable, and vice-versa.

  5. Chris Carter mentioned him in books about psychic phenomena and afterlife evidence. He too mentioned him tampering around with the astrology results, and while working for CSICOP he constantly manipulated evidence to suit his own agenda. Chris said in the books that if it were not for the likes of Randi, psychic phenomena, astrology, and proof of the afterlife would be taken far more seriously and seen legitimately and not something only tree-hugging hippies get involved in. I saw him on a tv show a couple of decades ago and obnoxious was too mild a description for him. I found him deeply unpleasant and he just would not even listen to any view unless it aligned with his own. Awful man.

    I’m all for exposing charlatans, but to go way out to destroy these much-needed kinds of evidence is disgraceful. Also, the fact you mention he was on the science board during the child sex abuse campaign actually sends chills through me. Why would he protect the predators and believe all those coming forward were just ‘lying’? Something not right there.

    I like to think since he has passed over he is blowing around in the ether, utterly alarmed that his consciousness is still aware long after his body stopped working! What a waste of a life that would have been! Mohammed Ali said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I think Randi falls under this description.

    • I never knew he was gay or had a husband. That snippet actually makes him mildly interesting. Shame he wasn’t able to project his human-ness on the public platform.

  6. “I was in a TV chat show with him many years ago and sharply attacked his blanket denials of all matters paranormal and he completely deflated to the extent the show was never transmitted.”

    OMG. I never met him, but for some reason, he was sort of a regular at talk show circuit here in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. And while I found his mission in general resonating – we were targeted by all sorts of cults in those years, especially Scientology – my teenage self found him personally obnoxious. It may have been that so many of his male interviewers were obviously “fanboying” over him. My question was, why would people priding themselves for their skepticism be so unskeptical of a person and his methods? With a little more life experience, I’ve learned that being intelligent and educated doesn’t shelter one from being “conned”, even relatively benevolantly. Randi himself admitted to same when he said it’s hardest to fool children with magic tricks, because they miss certain body cues used by illusionists to convince adults. I think Randi was using this “magic” with his fans, too. He expertly used cues associated with authority to become one for people who probably were more qualified in many senses than him.

    • Also, might add, being able “to pass” for an authority is probably due to all that Leo giving confidence, confidence and confidence. If the birthtime is right, Saturn on Desc as well.

      That said, he probably might have found it harder to succeed at this age and day, when authority doesn’t come exclusively in older white (tall?) male form. You already see how Penn&Teller are mostly treated as entertainment, even with their political aspirations.

  7. The funny thing about the CSICOP is that its stuffed with professors and yet they needed/relied on Randi’s description of magic trickery in order to carry out their “debunking”. The false memory people had him there because he claimed to show that Freud was a trickster, a magician just like he was. For academics its harder to skip the fact that psychotherapy has developed somewhat since Freud – but Randi could just come in and do his magic tricks and show everybody that Freud was a con man. In Sweden the equivalent of CSICOP have waged a ferocious battle against all psychodynamic therapies using the same tactics as Randi although they don’t have a magician on board. Which is a pity, because Randi did make their methods of the skeptics more transparent.

    • ” The hostility to psycho-analysis in the past, today and in the future, will always be a hostility against admitting that man lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world……. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives.” Ernest Becker.

      The academic high IQs tend to be staggeringly arrogant and seriously dislike, indeed are terrified by, the prospect that there’s more going on than they have a handle on.

      • Well, I live in TC Lethbridge country so to speak, just up the road you can see the rising slopes of the Gog Magog hills – Lethbridge loved and did much research on these ancient hills and they were the subject of his book ‘The Buried Gods’. Both Lethbridge and Sheldrake are ridiculed by the academic establishment here and you cannot mention them without making yourself an object of pity. They even called Sheldrake a heretic and called for his book on Morphic fields to be burned in public, such is the sacredness of the holy canon which cannot be questioned.

        • So interesting to see TC Lethbridge mentioned here. His work is fascinating, and thought provoking – as is the work of Rupert Sheldrake, and the earlier work of Lyall Watson.

          I studied dowsing with an ex military man, who could not have been more “proper” and down to earth. It is an effective way to find hidden water, that’s for sure. And was certainly used by farmers and councils to detect buried water courses and pipes – I believe it still is in use for this purpose. Indeed, in 2017 the redoubtable, very un-hippyish John Humphrys argued on BBC Radio 4 with a scientist about this very thing – saying he had found it useful, while the scientist asserted that it was “magical” and deluded in some way. Such binary arguments are common in all of this, from astrology to healing and everything in between. Ultimately, they are futile for we don’t live in a simple, binary universe.
          “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson

          • I can dowse for water and so can my mother who taught me. We both have quite a bit of water in our charts and and very active Neptunes, maybe that helps!

            I remember that news item back in 2017, Jane. Iirc it was to do with the fact that British water companies had great success using dowsers to find broken pipes and leaks. It was most amusing to read comments under the news item in The Guardian. Someone had written to the effect of “Why should I pay good money to a company which deals in Mumbai-jumbo? I shall be writing to the head honcho to complain!”

          • I used to know a horse dealer whose father made his living as a water dowser – and farmers certainly wouldn’t be paying him if he didn’t have the ability.

          • VF – I am laughing at that Mumbai-jumbo comment you posted! I wonder if water in the chart does help? I have watery ascendant and MC, plus Mars in Scorpio. I’ve used dowsing to find mislaid objects for others too, it is usually very successful. I think it may be a way for humans to tune into a deeper place, one that many animals seem to use naturally.

          • Marjorie – yes exactly! It is a useful skill, and personally I regard it as an entirely practical one. I once found some long ago buried water pipes on a building site. That was very useful for the builders. The curious thing about it is that you can feel it in your hands and forearms, as well as watching for the dowsing rods to do their thing. There’s a faint tingling sensation when you hit the spot. Hence my “animal instincts” theory.

          • That predictive text gets me every time!

            Yes, I too have Mars in Scorpio and with Pluto Rising, am never going to be content with just the surface of things. Marjorie, there were the highly regarded ‘horse whisperers’ here and in Suffolk and Norfolk which are still operating today. I believe the Queen has been known to use their skills.

          • Oh no, keep the Mumbai Jumbo VF! I had lovely silly pictures of elephants dowsing using their trunks…..Regarding horse whisperers I watched one at work once, in Canada. He was a Native Canadian man. The horse was a wild and nervous young stallion, and it really was magical to see how calm and peaceful the animal became – very rapid as well. I was even able to stroke it’s velvety nose.

  8. Thanks Marjorie. I was interested in your take on this man and in what the astrology would reveal. He was always feted as The Sceptic Extraordinaire by the mainstream media and I never quite bought into his ‘act’. Some years ago I read George P Hanson’s ‘The Trickster and the Paranormal’ and Hansen’s investigations into Randi’s methods as well as some of his more nefarious activities did not endear me to Randi’s approach.

    If his birth time is correct, then that packed 12th house with the belligerent and stubborn Mars in Taurus and over emphasis in fixed signs doesn’t surprise me at all.

    • Hideous man – it’ll be worth watching out for the obits in two or three days time. Usually the initial ones are laudatory and then the murk comes out – and there’s a good deal of it!

    • Thanks very much Marjorie. James Randi was quite a showman – and the Leo Sun and Mercury were certainly evident during his career. The Neptune-Mars square is such a classic for a stage magician I think. Uri Geller seems to have a wide one too. I looked at the chart for Harry Houdini (24 March 1874), and if that’s right then he had Mars in Taurus conjunct Neptune in late Aries, plus a Mercury opposition to Jupiter. Houdini spent a lot of time discrediting dubious mediums and spiritualists.

      Otherwise, I thought James Randi was frequently quite infuriating, and unpleasant. One of the many who develop theories, and then drive everything towards proving those theories whilst ignoring any anomalous phenomena. Confirmation bias run amok! That’s not being sceptical, or scientific.

      I suspect much of the research into what’s labelled paranormal is flawed because of people like Randi. Plus, it is in the nature of paranormal phenomena to be elusive or baffling, like rare weather phenomena. Of course there’s fraud, but we could also look at any subject and find fraudulent scams being perpetrated, including the worlds of medicine and science. It is almost impossible to consistently reproduce paranormal things in a laboratory-style setting. Research really needs to come at it from a whole other perspective, but what that might be I have no idea!

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: