James Randi wasn't surprised when, following the attempted assassination of President Reagan, a self-proclaimed psychic insisted she had predicted the event. Tamara Rand said on the Today show her prediction that a fair-haired radical named "Jack Humley" would try to kill the President in late March was taped at KTNV in Las Vegas last January. Randi was even less surprised when KTNV manager Ed Quinn subsequently said the clip aired on Today was actually taped March 31, the day after the shooting.
NBC's director of network news in L.A., Arthur Lord, gamely admitted, "We've been had." Randi's comment was more direct. "It was too good a prediction, too close to the event."
Randi, 52, best known as "The Amazing Randi," is an accomplished magician and escape artist. His biggest act these days, though, is exposing fraud among the profit-and publicity-seeking ESP-psychic crowd.
He's also a founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, whose membership of nearly 5,000 includes Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. The group is eager to help the media verify alleged paranormal feats but is rarely consulted, Randi says. Noting that during the last two years ABC paid psychic Beverlee Dean $54,000 to work as a program consultant, he adds that media sympathy with the psychics may not all be heartfelt: "The media are enormously biased by the marketplace that tells them people like to believe in things that go bump in the night. The smarter you are, the easier it is to fool you."
Scientists are often duped, Randi says, because they're not familiar with the tools of the psychics, who use magicians' techniques while claiming supernatural power. "Never has a properly conducted scientific experiment proved paranormal powers of any kind exist," Randi contends.
Randi's 1980 book Flim-Flam! The Truth about Unicorns, Parapsychology and Other Delusions demystifies such performers as Uri Geller, who rose to stardom bending spoons, purportedly with brain waves. Randi, who bends objects and "reads minds" as part of his debunking act, says Geller's tricks are "no more astonishing than pulling a rabbit out of a hat."
Geller replies, "I have to thank him for making me so famous." Geller concedes, though, "Randi apparently can duplicate my feats, using trickery. The difference, however, is like comparing a Picasso to a perfect fake."
Geller even hints the U.S.S.R. may be somehow motivating Randi so it can stay ahead in the ESP race. "The Soviets may be able to damage this country by knocking out our radar systems with their minds or by penetrating the mind of the President," he says. And if you wonder what kind of weirdos believe things like that, the answer is some officials at the Pentagon and CIA. Columnist Jack Anderson says both agencies have multimillion-dollar projects afoot to develop ESP weapons.
The CIA hasn't tried for the $10,000 reward Randi has offered since 1965 to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under mutually agreed terms. Of some 600 applicants, none has succeeded. Astroprojectionists, for instance, claim they can dispatch their consciousness from their bodies to distant places, yet they have consistently failed to name a simple object Randi puts in a locked room. The prize money "was never safer," says Randi.
His personal safety is another matter. He keeps a pile of hate mail from ESP devotees "who write with pink crayon on grocery bags" in his bizarre 12-room house in Rumson, N.J. Upstairs, a built-in bookcase opens with a wave of Randi's hand to reveal a bedroom adorned with Houdini memorabilia. The refrigerator is stocked with human blood, obtained from local hospitals, which Randi uses in demonstrations disproving "psychic surgery." His library contains "sensible" and "bullshit" literature. In the latter category Randi puts Jeane Dixon's books. He contends "her batting average is about zero."
Randi has never married. "I'm an escape artist," he explains. He shares his macabre bachelor pad with a rotating roster of apprentice magicians, a parrot, a macaw and a black cat named Alice—after Alice Cooper, with whom Randi toured in 1975, managing the rock singer's guillotine trick.
Born Randall James Zwinge, son of a Toronto phone company executive, Randi was inspired as a boy by magician Harry Blackstone Sr. and left home at 17 to become an escape artist. His career took off in the 1950s with appearances on U.S. television. In the mid-'60s, as host of a phone-in show on New York's WOR radio, he decided to expose psychic frauds when he discovered how many people believed in the "claptrap." Randi now earns most of his $45,000 a year from lectures discrediting psychic charlatans.
His hobby is choosing recipients for his whimsical Uri Award—a bent spoon mounted on a "flimsy and quite transparent base." This year's winners, announced April Fool's Day:
•"For the most irresponsible statement on the paranormal, occult or supernatural"—Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, who declared ghosts may exist.
•"For presenting the most irresponsible account of supposedly supernatural events"—ABC's That's Incredible!
•"For taking in the most people with the least talent"—New Jersey housewife Dorothy Allison, who persuaded Atlanta police she could help solve the city's murder wave.
"Uri winners are informed telepathically," Randi kids. "Of course, they're permitted to predict their victory in advance." Needless to say, none of them ever has.
The media are the psychics' unwitting accomplices, Randi charges