Television

Documentary Highlights James Randi's War on Fake Psychics

Where magic meets the scientific method.

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James Randi
"An Honest Liar"

Independent Lens: An Honest Liar. PBS. Monday, March 28, 10 p.m.

There's something bewitchingly charming—not to mention bold as brass—about a documentary that starts off a montage of its hero introducing himself to various TV audiences as "a liar, cheat, charlatan and fake." And neither An Honest Liar (airing as an episode of the PBS documentary series Independent Lens) nor its subject, magician-turned-debunker James Randi, will let you down.

Randi, once a master mind reader and escape artist, has for the past four decades mostly concentrated on exposing charlatan psychics and faith healers, including an epic scorched-earth campaign against Israeli mentalist Uri Geller. (Randi even refused to shake Geller's hand: "Do you really suppose Churchill and Hitler would shake hands?")

In An Honest Liar (which had a brief theatrical run in 2014 but remains mostly unseen outside the festival circuit), veteran documentarians Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom follow the 88-year-old Randi through his multiple careers, starting with his schoolboy fascination with magician The Great Blackstone, who levitated his pretty assistant. (The zenith of Blackstone's career was in the 1940s, and he died 50 years ago, but Weinstein and Measom, who've done a masterful job of assembling archival footage, actually found an old film clip of the act.) It wasn't long before the teenaged Randi ran off with a traveling carnival and started his own magic act.

Yet Randall Zwinge, as he was still billed in those days, found success, a growing disquietude came along with it. Strangers stopped him on the street asking for tips on stocks or the fidelity of their fiances, even offering him money for his psychic counsel. Randi thought he was doing parlor tricks; the realization that "people really do believe in this nonsense" stunned and then appalled him.

He began centering his act more around his uncanny talents as an escape artist. Highlight: Slipping out of a straitjacket while dangling from a chain over Niagara Falls. But when he had to be hospitalized with two fractured vertebrae after a botched version of his trademark escape from a sealed milkcan filled with water (though he briefly returned from the hospital to advise the audience that "it's not something I would recommend you undertake as a hobby"), Randi became a fulltime debunker of psychic swindlers and frauds.

An Honest Liar includes a dizzying and hilarious array of Randi's TV appearances over the years, using magician stagecraft to expose psychokinetics and psychic surgery. He even downed a week's supply of homeopathic sleeping pills without cracking a yawn. The most heroic took place on The Tonight Show, whose host Johnny Carson—an amateur magician himself—was a Randi admirer.

Carson had consulted Randi in preparation for a visit from Uri Geller, whose ability to tell which one of 10 sealed film canisters contained a steel ball-bearing had wowed the Pentagon, wracked as it was with Strangelovian fears of a growing Ball-Bearing-Film-Canister Gap with the Soviets. Randi, who noted that Geller was always presented the canisters on a tray, which he slightly turned this way and that in apparent contemplation, advised Carson to glue the cans down: Geller was watching the tray for subtle movements that gave away which canister contained the ball-bearing.

The result: 20 minutes of dead air that ended in the frustrated Geller declaring that "I don't feel strong tonight." As marvelous as that was, it probably doesn't match Randi's Tonight Show appearance in which he played secret radio transmissions to a Los Angeles faith-healer's hidden earphone that enabled him to diagnose and then "cure" illnesses. Carson's blurted on-air reaction: "Oh, shit!" 

Randi didn't hustle all those years in the carnival without developing killer showmanship chops. (When I visited his home for a newspaper interview a couple of years ago, he randomly tossed off a little mind-reading trick—he somehow divined a word I picked out from the middle of a book that I chose from 4,000 or so possibilities—that left me utterly bedazzled.) And one of the things that makes An Honest Liar so entertaining is that it never loses sight of that fact. The film is full of endearingly cheesy stuff like footage from the 1950s TV show Cross-Canada Hit Parade, where the hostess sang "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" while Randi extricated himself from a straitjacket while hanging head-down over the stage. 

But, fun though Randi may be, he's got a serious purpose. As a fellow magician observes in An Honest Liar, he's suggesting that life is best lived as an extension of the scientific method—that while people may not always be rational, the world is, and anything that seems to run contrary to that principal should be challenged and questioned. And the corollary is those who seek to promulgate the irrational are charlatans and mountebanks. "It's okay to fool people as long as you're doing that to teach them a lesson, which will better their knowledge of how the real world works," argues Randi.

Sadly, for all the battles Randi has won in that campaign, he may be losing the war. Uri Geller, who in a sensible world would have vanished forever after the debacle on The Tonight Show, scarcely missed a beat in his career and even now can be found on the home-shopping channels, making a small mint off selling psychic-powering crystal jewelry. "Pick up the National Enquirer or any other paper and you'll find a billion psychics," he brags in An Honest Liar. "It's much bigger than ever." And you thought the presidential election was depressing.

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54 responses to “Documentary Highlights James Randi's War on Fake Psychics

  1. I watched it on Netflix a few months ago. I don’t believe in having an idol, but if I were to have one, it would be The Amazing Randi.

    1. So, how about his political views….

      1. The documentary does not go into his political views at all. I would not be surprised if he leans libertarian. He is an AGW skeptic and he is gay. The only way that combination works is if he leans libertarian.

        1. Randi’s only political donation in the past 24 years is to the DNC, and his foundation’s only donation is to a Democratic candidate

        2. …or isn’t a brainwashed mystic…

  2. http://archive.randi.org/site/…..thing.html

    I would go one step farther and say that if something quacks…it’s a duck.

    1. Or a person with a very good duck call.

  3. As opposed to war on “real” psychics?

    1. When such creatures are revealed to exist, we can decide whether a war on them is warranted. Until then, stick to the charlatans who claim to be psychics.

  4. Randi is a hero of mine. I used to spend a bit of time at randi.org. I think there is one heck of an overlap of the skeptic and libertarian venn diagrams.

    1. Agreed. Which is why I am always saddened and a bit dismayed at the predominance of northeastern progressives in the leadership of the skeptic movement.

    2. Libertarian|3.25.16 @ 4:17PM|#
      “…I think there is one heck of an overlap of the skeptic and libertarian venn diagrams.”

      There is, but there’s also a sizeable overlap between the skeptics and the lefties.
      I used to get Skeptical Inquirer as a stapled, mimeographed rag (yep, till have some), and I quit sending subscription/donations after it turned into a glossy, 4-color book, with Paul Kurtz whining that ‘KORPARASHUNS have taken over the media!!!!!!!!!’, without a hint of irony.
      It dawned on me sometime near then that those who thought the world was 5,000 years old are not nearly as dangerous as those who presume to own what I earn.

    3. Um, not really. From my listening to a wide variety of skeptic podcasts, skeptics lean strongly Democrat/progressive. The reason is simple, they love science and government funding science, and therefore they love government. They also tend to love macro-economists, whom they assume are scientists because of all the numbers they use, but have never stopped to wonder at the non-predictability of macro-economics.

      1. There’s also the association of the Republican party with Evangelicals and thus with religiousity. That’s probably the biggest reason for the skeptic/Democrat correlation.

        Which is not to suggest most Democrats really know or care that much about logic or reason, but you knew that already.

  5. What a shame that his legacy is marred by his high-profile submission to climate activist charlatans.

  6. “Fake Psychics” is redundant.

  7. “Fake Psychics.” As opposed to?

    1. Ones legitimized with a business license from the state?

  8. scripture warns of these mediums

    1. Are they all mediums? Psychics don’t come in large and small?

  9. James Randi: “The Man no Jail Can Hold” = “An Atomic Hell and John” (anagram)
    http://i.imgur.com/0jDMLmu.jpg

    Uri Geller: CIA / Mossad Agent (this came to light after “An Honest Liar” was first released)

    Flim Flam book cover deconstructed: http://imgur.com/ylUcTvl

    Was Nostradamus a Russian spy? (James Randi thinks he’s just “woo woo”, according to his book “The Mask of Nostradamus” yeah right) : Google “Tsar Domanus”

    Are we sure that the “deception” in Randi’s life is limited to just his husband’s identity? It seems to me that the work he does benefits a country that is not USA.

    1. Mitchell Hedges|3.26.16 @ 4:55AM|#
      “…Are we sure that the “deception” in Randi’s life is limited to just his husband’s identity? It seems to me that the work he does benefits a country that is not USA.”

      Next up: Mitchell tells us the Holocaust is a myth!
      Take it away, Mitchell!

      1. Here goes nothing Sevo!

        No, in fact, I very much believe the Holocaust happened, asshole. In fact, if you had looked at what I posted, you will see that it is James Randi who has worked with anti-semitic messages in the past. Someone who points out someone is anti-semitic is certainly not a holocaust denier. In fact, I think the holocaust WAS WORSE than described; mainly because Russia has never been honest about how many Jews it killed (and how many it kept as Gulag slaves).

        What is ironic and perhaps confusing to me though, is why Israel would want any alliance whatsoever with Russia when Russia under Stalin and Beria was arguably worse than Hitler; who was rightfully demonized — but Stalin WAS NOT DEMONIZED ENOUGH. America was foolish for partnering with Stalin and should have nuked him IMHO at the war’s end.

        You would have been better off to call me obsessive, or insane for my quest against James Randi, Russian Spy and Architect of 9/11: http://i.imgur.com/WUitcr9.jpg

        So, ultimately, I am a bit unimpressed/insulted you suggested I am a Holocaust denier since it is clearly wrong. However you might be right if you said I have an unhealthy agenda against Mr. Randi. However, I hate America and Israel’s enemies and I think that James Randi is one of those enemies. So sue me. I’d love to explain.

        1. Holy Cow! I admit I studied Scarne and Houdini closely, Randi not as much, but I never find favorable mention of him (as I do of Henry Ford) mining the works of Hitler or Goebbels for awkward questions and embarrassing quotes. I must be missing something, like a useful citation…

          1. Houdini I have not studied, and I didn’t study Randi closely either in fact. It is alleged though that Houdini did receive a job offer from the Tsar of Russia and was in fact, a spy. Like many magicians who were courted with large sums of money by the Russian court in the past (John Dee, Original 007 for one). While there was no Tsar in Randi’s era, the fact that Russian secret police have continued in a somewhat contiguous line since the time of Ivan IV (The Terrible) and that they have used/recruited top magicians regularly in that approach at least in the Tsar’s time is not really arguable.

            1. However, while researching the huge spike in Nostradamus following 9/11 , In my paper “Tsar Domanus” (google it); I came to the conclusion Nostradamus could only have been a spy for Russia (suggesting he was a prophet or complete BS is BS; as Randi took pains to do in his book “The Mask of Nostradamus”.)

              It was then derivative from that and noting the recent disclosure by Uri Geller that he was in fact a CIA/Mossad spy and you can easily put it into perspective that Randi could plausibly have been the Russian counterpoint to the CIA’s MK-Ultra program (ie using his skills as a magician to prove the USA did not in fact have an edge in psychic warfare).

              Given the implausibility of one man staking his career on outing a spy (Geller = benefits Russia), covering up the career of another (Nostradamus; = if my theory is true, keeping a secret benefits Russia); it seems strange to me one man could be involved in both of those things.

              1. Finally, watch “An Honest Liar” tomorrow. In the opening scenes, while Randi alludes to his life of lies and deception, the camera will linger on a poster of Randi. It shows him next to the milk cannister he would lock himself in and escape from, as well as the words “The Man no Jail Can Hold”. Like Nostradamus, which is an anagram of “Satan Mordus”, “Tsar Domanus”, and “Tsar Moundas”; “The Man No Jail Can Hold” anagrams as “An Atomic Hell and John”.

                http://i.imgur.com/0jDMLmu.jpg (Watch for it.)

                Perhaps that is just a coincidence. Maybe that is just a weird anagram coincidence in a life of coincidences by Randi. But however, consider this last set of coincidences in this poster.

                1. 1.) James Randi is from Toronto. Toronto is on 45 degrees latitude.
                  2.) In the Penn and Teller Episode Season 1: “The End of the World”, Penn, Teller (in his way), and Randi all discuss Nostradamus. Penn talks about ANAGRAMS and RUSSIA.
                  3.) In that same episode, Randi makes fun of Nostradamus interpreter “John Hogue” for his argument that the “King of Terror” “coming from the sky at 45 degrees” as described in Nostradamus’ prophecy represents the Twin Towers Attack. New York is not near 45 degrees latitude. Randi says “He is up in Canada somewhere!”, referring to Hogue.
                  4.) Randi wrote a book on Nostradamus called “the mask of Nostradamus”. He exposes Nostradamus as nothing more than a fraud and people who believe in him as fools.
                  5.) Randi has Toronto on 45 degrees in his poster linked above, and lingered on in the intro scenes of “An Honest Liar”.You can see “Toronto” on an approximately 45 degree angle below Randi’s arm.
                  6.) Randi clearly knows that Toronto is on 45 degrees because he is from Toronto. He clearly knows it as it is on 45 degrees on the poster.
                  7.) The conclusion is that Randi knows the Nostradamus mystery, believes he is the third king of terror (see the “3” between his feet in the “decoded” picture).

                  You can call it a coincidence, but for a man to write such books and have such imagery, and such activities to benefit an anti-American source seems like it cannot be a coincidence, especially when Russia has a history of recruiting magicians.

        2. http://i.imgur.com/WUitcr9.jpg

          Oh wow!

          I didn’t realize this, but you are absolutely right and that web site proves it.

          All you have to do is take the cover illustration of his book “The Mask of Nostradamus”, rotate it 180?, take a mirror image of that and then randomly scribble some letters and you get the word “eye”. Unbelievable.

          But, if that’s not proof enough, if you take his book “Flim-Flam!”, flip the cover title vertically, rearrange the letters, edit the letters so that they look different, then you get something that looks sort of like it says “VI = JEW”. What sort of monster would write such a book?

          This is very convincing proof that should convince any reasonable person and is not insane at all.

          1. Hey, I never thought it was exactly a common thing though. I agree that the premise that a little old pedophile with such a charming vocabulary could be a Russian “superspy” is implausible. For the record, I don’t go around accusing people of this kind of thing. Randi is the only one.

            So put the images aside. I was well suspicious of Randi before I started looking at his book covers, let’s just focus on analytical thinking then and forget the images.

            But can you deny:
            1.) The paper on Nostradamus. Read it and tell me that is insane. The conclusions MAY be wrong, but this is fully researched and makes minimum assumptions. https://redd.it/43dv8s

            2.) The fact that Uri Geller was such a target for Randi and that Randi made his life mission to go after Geller. In 1970’s this wasn’t weird, and even came across as an anti-conman PSA if you will. Today, with Geller admitting to being a Mossad/CIA spy, it is more suspicious.

            3.) That “The Man no Jail Can Hold” is an anagram of “An Atomic Hell and John”

            Just forget the images then. They are the icing on the cake. Randi is still highly suspicious and if you are willing to look at the book covers, he becomes even more so.

            You can prove Russia has attempted to recruit many folks who fit this model such as John Dee, and Houdini over the years. Nostradamus and Randi (as a magician) would also fit that model.

            Call me crazy, but your avoidance of analytical discussion and ad hominems just make me think you’re a troll.

            1. Gagster, I know you don’t have time in all likelihood posting to so many accounts simultaneously, but if you can spare some time and want me to feel stupid, the best thing you could do is find some “virgin Mary’s” or “Christ on the Cross” or “Star of David” hidden in those images so I could know that the Satanic and ant-Jew images I was seeing are just figments of my imagination. Point them out and I will withdraw my argument and apologize personally to Randi.

              Or make a plausible argument why Nostradamus was actually working for the Pope and not the Tsar, etc.

              Or make a plausible argument why Alman Ay-Zawahiri was not KGB trained and therefore why Russia is not behind Al-Qaeda and therefore indirectly responsible for 9/11?

              1. Gagster, here are some more images for you to make fun of. These are comparisons of “Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot” book cover up against the “An Honest Liar” movie poster, The Sigil of Lucifer is overlaid on both images. My hypothesis is that the Sigil of Lucifer is like a “decoder ring” for illuminated images (it points to the genitals of Adam and Eve (tee hee) on the Biblia Pauperum for example). It first officially appeared in the Grimorium Verum in the 16th-18th centuries and I think the GV is an anti-Catholic manuscript most likely put out by an English/Russian or Russian spy network. (Motivation includes Anglicanism and Orthodox Christianity being outside of Catholicism, and this aligning with the contrasting imperial ambitions of Russian and English monarchs compared to Rome — just like Nostradamus)

                Anyway, not even people who agree with me see the “Syrias” clearly, but I do. And since this is a fertile ground for me to spread my theory (and I love arguing) I’ll post it. http://i.imgur.com/Xvc6Ldk.jpg

              2. posting to so many accounts simultaneously

                This is funny. How many accounts do you think I am using on this site? Or do you mean I have many accounts across many sites?

                Just to let you know, I only have this one account on this site and this site is the only one that I read on a regular basis. I only post here occasionally, so there are no sites that I post to on a regular basis.

                the best thing you could do is find some “virgin Mary’s” or “Christ on the Cross” or “Star of David” hidden in those images

                No, that would not be the best thing I could do. It would be a waste of time. The hidden images you are seeing are just your imagination. They have no significance.

                I’m being serious here, if this is the way you live your life, you probably have trouble seeing the difference between fantasy and reality. You should seek professional help.

            2. the premise that a little old pedophile [James Randi] with such a charming vocabulary could be a Russian “superspy” is implausible

              Randi’s a pedophile too now? Do you have any actual evidence of that claim?

              1.) The paper on Nostradamus

              I read a little bit of that paper and it has the same flaw as most of your other “evidence”. The facts presented don’t support the conclusion. Taking anagrams of people’s names, proves nothing.

              Anagrams of Nostradamus’ name may be some of the best clues … and simultaneously make a case for Nostradamus’ identity as a spy in a secret anti-Catholic (“anti-Christian”) sect.

              If Nostradamus really were a Russian spy, it seems unlikely that he would want to put clues to that fact in his name. In fact, it would be impossible since people don’t generally get to choose their names. Your parents decide your first name and you just automatically get your father’s last name.

              I’m sorry, but this is just not the sort of thing any rational person would give any weight to.

            3. 2.) The fact that Uri Geller was such a target for Randi … with Geller admitting to being a Mossad/CIA spy

              The reason Randi attacked Geller is well known. Randi likes to out frauds and charlatans. Geller was one of the most prominent so he received alot of attention from Randi. Also, to the best of my knowledge, no one, other than Geller, has claimed that Geller worked as a spy. Since the guy’s a liar and con man, I see no reason to believe that claim.

              3.) That “The Man no Jail Can Hold” is an anagram of “An Atomic Hell and John”

              No, I won’t deny that. But, who cares? Anagrams are not evidence of anything. And even if they were, I see no significance to the phrase “An Atomic Hell and John”.

              your avoidance of analytical discussion and ad hominems

              I didn’t avoid analytical discussion. I analyzed some of the evidence you presented (the rearranged, flipped, mirror imaged and edited letters) and showed that it was just nonsense. As for ad hominems, yes I avoid them. They are logical fallacies, so why wouldn’t I?

              1. Well let me be the first to say, my hat is off to you comrade.

                You have taken some significant time to respond, so I know this must be somehow worthwhile to you. It is a true service to the internet that you provide psychological and analytical writing counseling to misguided folks like me.

                In fact, you really haven’t done anything but dismiss me out of hand. The paper is not just about anagrams. The anagrams support an overall pattern; when fit into historical precedence suggest that Nostradamus was a Russian spy. Addisionally such as the evidence that the very man who took up Nostradamus’ job after his death was a well-known British spy and that in fact the Tsar of Russia offered him the equivalent of $200 million USD a year to work for him.

                I know you’re just going to come back with some canned garbage that just dissmisses me as crazy or stupid or wrong (that is an ad hominem, or an attack on me vs my argument)

                In fact I think anagrams do prove something even Randi does. Watch “Penn and Teller Bullshit Season 1 Episode “End of the World” ” Where Randi, and Penn talk about anagrams. They are clearly significant to Randi on some level and particularly for some odd reason, around his discussion about Nostradamus.

                You know Gagster, let me be the first to be officially “ad hominem”. You are pathetic troll.

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  13. Randi keeps alive a scientific tradition pioneered by Harry Houdini (killed by a Christian), John Scarne (made an unperson by the faithful), Ayn Rand, and Petr Beckmann. Thank the stars young Richard Dawkins is taking up slack for the tradition of knowing the gulls.

  14. This is a must watch. I loved it.

  15. Thank You for posting this, on a very interesting subject (at least more interesting than Trump’s high brow witticisms). I am curious how many magicians lean libertarian. I assume that there are likely to be more, percentage-wise, than in other professions, because of a few reasons:
    – overwhelmingly male
    – overwhelmingly self employed, part of the much despised “gig economy”
    – much more skeptical than the general population, since they are well versed in the techniques of manipulating perceptions
    – smarter than average (?); if not, at least more creative and “free” in outlook on life
    – they interact with a diverse pool of people, not insulated to one demographic or groupthink

    Penn & Teller come to mind as prominent libertarians, as do I. But I am merely an amateur. And not so prominent. But I am trying to comment more on this site.

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  22. Don’t listen to this board troll Gagster folks, James Randi knows that Nostradamus was a Russian spy and he has built a career on covering up Russian spy operations and exposing CIA ones.

    His work to expose Uri Geller falls into this category in light of the remaining portfolio of his work and background.

    1. http://i.imgur.com/0jDMLmu.jpg

      1.) James Randi is from Toronto. Toronto is on 45 degrees latitude.
      2.) In the Penn and Teller Bullshit Episode Season 1: “The End of the World”, Penn, Teller (in his way), and Randi all discuss Nostradamus. Penn talks about ANAGRAMS and RUSSIA.
      3.) In that same episode, Randi makes fun of Nostradamus interpreter “John Hogue” for his argument that the “King of Terror” “coming from the sky at 45 degrees” as described in Nostradamus’ prophecy represents the Twin Towers Attack. New York is not near 45 degrees latitude. Randi says “He is up in Canada somewhere!”, referring to Hogue.
      4.) Randi wrote a book on Nostradamus called “the mask of Nostradamus”. He exposes Nostradamus as nothing more than a fraud and people who believe in him as fools.
      5.) Randi has Toronto on 45 degrees in his poster linked above, and lingered on in the intro scenes of “An Honest Liar”.You can see “Toronto” on an approximately 45 degree angle below Randi’s arm.
      6.) Randi clearly knows that Toronto is on 45 degrees because he is from Toronto. He clearly knows it as it is on 45 degrees on the poster.
      7.) The conclusion is that Randi knows the Nostradamus mystery, believes he is the third king of terror (see the “3” between his feet in the “decoded” picture).

      1. An Atomic Hell and John is a threat of likely a terrorist atomic bomb attack which was plotted by the soviets and never executed / postponed (plausible deniability) as well as may be telling to some connection to the John F. Kennedy Assassination.

        I don’t have proof of that so I didn’t bring it up before but it would fit in context. A lot of magicians are also trick shots. Look at Adam Savage’s work to reconstruct the JFK magic bullet. He’s well connected to Randi I might add BTW.

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  24. James Randi wins own $1,000,000 prize for predicting 9/11! : http://i.imgur.com/Q7Ueldu.jpg

    Reference 1: Long form Nostradamus Paper : https://redd.it/43dv8s
    Reference 2: http://www.trilulilu.ro/video-…..-the-world (This is an online video to the Penn and Teller Bullshit episode referenced several times below. I believe this link is a copyright violation, but it is also available on Amazon Prime for example for free now. “An Honest Liar” also aired on 3/28 on PBS and may be available online for free.)

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