Futurism logo

James Randi Scientific Skeptic

by Futurism Staff 7 years ago in vintage

James Randi debunks outrageous claims from magic to healing and even inventions.

James Randi is a skeptic, well known for challenges to paranormal claims, false invention, religious claims and the pseudosciences. Randi started as a magician stage named "The Amazing Randi", he retired to devote his time to investigating the occult, and other supernatural claims. Randi became famous in 1972 when he openly questioned the claims of Uri Geller. He said Geller used plain magic tricks to accomplish his allegedly supernatural feats. Randi wrote about his claims in The Truth About Uri Geller one of a number of great books on debunking charlatans.

He has said on the subject of magic, "Magical thinking is a slippery slope. Sometimes it’s harmless enough but other times it’s quite dangerous. Personally I’m opposed to that kind of fakery so I have no reservations at all about exposing these people and their illusions for what they really are.

I have investigated the claims of hundreds of psychics. People aren’t always happy with my conclusions but I do have my supporters. In 1986 I was honored with a McArthur award. Unfortunately most of the prize money went into defending myself against a series of liable suites related to one of my earliest and most controversial investigations. The subject was Uri Geller, a young Israeli who claimed to have supernatural powers. In the early 1970’s, Geller became a superstar, the most famous psychic in the world.

Uri would ask one to hold the tip of this spoon very, very gently. he would say, "What I am doing is I’m trying to melt the metal down. I feel it, it’s getting loose. And it’s not forced at all in my hands."

Uri Geller: Touch it here where I am stroking it, there is absolutely no.

Volunteer: That is eerie. I have a wisdom tooth.

If you can see the metal is beginning to crack here.

Its breaking.

It’s like putty and keep stroking it here. You see the crack is becoming bigger.


I melt the metal down and I want it to bend I just say bend. You see, now wait a minute, wait a minute keep stroking your keys at home. Once you want your watch to start working or it’s a radio that is broken, you want it to start working! Television, all those broken things now…

Randi explains, "What Geller was saying effectively was that wanting things could make them so. I felt that claim had to be challenged. The media even some scientists were taking the Gellar thing seriously. So I decided to show for starters at least duplicate this request with trickery. Now a key can be displayed in such a way that it looks like its bending. For example just by stroking it you would swear that it was bending right up before your eyes. Magicians call this process ‘ratcheting’. But to do this the key has to be bent in advance. The hard part of course is how to go about bending the key without letting them catch you. Now there’s several ways. I could for example take it and press the tip against the top of the table. That would do it. Or in shifting my chair backwards or forwards as I just did, I could have taken it and dropped it below the level of the table and press the tip on the chair I’m sitting on which is exactly what I just did. Did I fool you?"

"Mentalists have been duplicating hidden drawings for years. If Mr. Geller had chosen to use trickery he could have used any of a number of techniques. One favorite is covering your eyes and turning your back as the drawing is being made. Now I’ve always wondered why you would cover your eyes while your back is turned."

He continued, "Melting metal is something else again. It’s done something like this so it gets soft and I say to it bend, bend, bend and it bends. Of course it does take a little preparation. In fact it takes a lot of preparation. Now this is a proof positive that other demonstrations aren’t the result of super natural power but isn’t this a more reasonable explanation."

Uri Gellar and Johnny Carson

And then of course, there was Mr. Geller’s appearance on The Tonight Show. Caron himself, a big fan of magic, seemed somewhat skeptical with Geller

Johnny Carson: Will you welcome please Uri Geller.

Johnny Carson: Nice to see you.

Uri: Thanks, this scares me.

Johnny Carson: This scares you, well we just got some things together here.

James Randi had apparently told Carson's people to provide their own props and not to let Geller or his people anywhere near them

Johnny Carson: one of our staff members did a little drawing which have sealed in an envelope and I’d like you to take your own pace when you feel like you want to try anything. Want to try that particular experiment first?

Uri: Why not wait until I feel for it?

Johnny Carson: Ok great

Uri: We start illuminating the ones that do not have the water.

Johnny Carson: Right without touching them

Uri: He is really suspicious you know. I’m having a hard time with you

Johnny Carson: I don’t mean to be Uri.

Uri: Just keep looking. Ok let me rest a little right.

Johnny Carson: Alright

Uri: You know I’m surprised because before this program and the producer came in and he read me at least forty questions you were going to ask me.

Johnny Carson: Well I can ask you all sorts of questions if you want me to ask questions.

Uri: Yeah but I have to have time.

Johnny Carson: We are back. Uri was telling me you don’t feel what strong tonight?

Uri: I don’t feel strong. It’s not all tonight. Right now I’m feeling being pressed and I cant.

Johnny Carson: I’m not trying to press you I’m really not.

Uri: You’re only telling me, will you try that or that.

Johnny Carson: Well I thought that was the idea. I’m not trying to put you down.

Much to the surprise of James Randi "The Tonight Show didn’t have much effect on Uri Geller’s career, neither did the book that I wrote about him. But eventually his star faded. Why people are so drawn to the irrational is something that has always puzzled me. I want to be if I can as sure of the real world around me as is possible. Now you can only attain that to a certain degree but I want the greatest degree of control. I’ve never involved myself in narcotics of any kind. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers and I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That means giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world as close as I can get to it."

During the 1980’s Randi entered a world that was filled with fantasy and rife with abuse, the world of faith healing. He developed a special interest in a television evangelist named Peter Popoff.

James Randi and Peter Popoff

Peter Popoff said God told me, “You smite that cancer with your fist!” At the time Popoff was pulling in nearly $ 4 million a year healing people on his miracle crusades.

Peter Popoff would say "You got cancer of the stomach? Are you ready for God to burn that cancer out? Here it goes in the mighty. Devil back off, back off Devil! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"

An interviewer asked one of those blessed to be healed by Popoff on stage "Do you really believeu’re healed?

Person: Yes.

Interviewer: Do you think her cancer is gone now?

Person: Yes I believe because God never lies and we believe in his word, praise the lord.

Popoff would proclaim, "I tell you from now on you’re going to have a song of victory in your heart, Amen!" To his followers Popoff seemed to have divine powers. He knew audience members names as well as the afflictions they have come to cure. God is touching that thyroid condition right now. God is touching your nerves right now. God is touching your eyes just lift up your hands and get ready here it comes."

He also knew the personal concerns of their lives.

"You are going to hear good news from Charles. I tell you before everything is over you will be completely delivered because of your prayers. Because of your faith here it comes complete, healing in Jesus mighty name, right now, right now, right now! Amen! It’s alright to praise the lord." One would have suspected that Popoff’s revelations are far from divine. A radio scanner brought to the hall picked up a decidedly worldly source. Popoff was being prompted by his wife. Through a wireless earpiece She got her information from prayer cards filled out by the faithful before the show began.

From healers to magicians and even inventors, James Randi became the original myth buster.

James Randi and William C Lucas

Of all the citizens of Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,022), none is more famous than William C. Lucas, who was featured on NBC-TV News as the inventor of perpetual motion. Reporter Bob Dotson said, “They laughed at Fulton and Edison, but they’re not laughing at Bill Lucas!” And onto America’s TV screen spun the contraption that, according to NBC, generates 4,000 watts of electricity.

Randi explains his involvement "Hastening to witness this wonder, I visited Lucas’s home in a high state of doubt but quite willing to be convinced.

Lucas had been switching some gear, and his machine was not quite in working order. It rotated and made appropriate grinding and hissing noises, but it would not continue to run without being powered from the domestic 110 volts that were used to start it up.

Here’s what I saw: A half-horsepower electric motor was run by house current via an underground cable. It turned the shaft of a “gravity wheel” of Lucas’s own design. This wheel, operating vertically, had three spokes placed evenly around it, each with a cement-and iron weight weighing 200 pounds that slid along the spoke. The weights were pushed to the end of the spoke or drawn back to the hub by means of pneumatic cylinders triggered by a cam on the wheel axle as it contacted the respective valve. When a spoke reached a straight-down position, the weight was drawn up to the hub, and a moment later the weight, now beginning its downward trip, was shot out to the end of its spoke.

Thus, the wheel rotated under both the force of the motor and the action of the weights providing torque. But where did the compressed air come from that moved the weights? Well, the gravity wheel was connected to an old Toyota transmission, which turned a 500-pound flywheel, which ran a 4,000-watt generator, which put 220 volts into a transformer, which split it into two 110-volt circuits, one of which ran the air compressor. See?

And the other 110-volt line? It ran the half-horsepower motor, once the arrangement was in motion. Lucas claimed that he disconnected the house current that was used to start the action, and the small motor then ran on the voltage that came from the generator, run by the flywheel, etc.

I contacted NBC. No outside engineer had been called in, I was told. Lucas had simply disconnected a long wire that ran into the house to prove that the machine ran by itself. That’s all they had required of him to prove his claim. But I recalled that Lucas had obtained the house current from a buried line. Things were looking very grim for the future of perpetual motion at that point. However, NBC also told me that one of its staff present at the demonstration was an engineer from a Tyler, Texas, TV station. I immediately got on the phone to Tyler."

The “engineer” was now in Columbus, Missouri. Undaunted, I called him there. He turned out to be a sports announcer who “of the opinion: that Lucas’s machine worked as claimed. After all, he explained, NBC had powered its TV lights from it. What else do you need?

Lucas, I discovered, has a patent pending on the “gravity wheel.” I reached his lawyer, Earl Tate, who informed me that he had troubled to take an honest-to-goodness mechanical engineer out there to see the machine. “No way that thing’s going to work!” the engineer exclaimed as they drove back from the show. Tate decided that he better ask for a demonstration with everything uncovered, all lines showing, and the provision made for simply pulling the main power switch inside the house to see whether the contraption would keep on going.

Looking at the Lucas “invention,” we discover that he has reinvented the flywheel, the unbalanced wheel, and compressed air. Surely he loses the majority of the power that he puts into it, through transference and through friction. If it’s five percent efficient, I’ll be surprised. And—of greater interest—I find that an examination of his patent-pending papers shows that no provision is made for disconnecting the initial 110-volt motive power! Shooting weights out to the end of spokes to cause a wheel to turn provides no advantage at all. Yet a patent attorney in Washington D.C., accepted Lucas’s money to have these papers filed.

The history of the perpetual-motion delusion is long and complicated. Machines similar to the Lucas assemblage have been begging for patents ever since the Patent Office opened for business. Every amateur has figured that running a generator from a motor run by that same generator would be a dandy idea. Yet such notions are deflated suddenly by both calculation and experiment. But that doesn’t stop the inventors—or the investors.

Just after the NBC-TV News ran the Lucas story, the FBI arrested a Texas citizen named Arnold Burke for selling $800,000 worth of stock in a similar type of wheel he had named Jeremiah 33:3, for reason that I will allow my reader to discover. Burke was found to be using a small motor to “help” the device along. He claimed to get 3,000 kilowatt-hours per month from his wheel—and may get a few years in jail, too.

Futurism Staff
Futurism Staff
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Futurism Staff

A team of space cadets making the most out of their time trapped on Earth. Help.

See all posts by Futurism Staff

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links