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Culture & Religion

The Amazing Randi, Out and Conjuring at 81

Magician and scientific skeptic James Randi has been performing magic tricks since he was a kid—though he prefers to call what he does “conjuring,” he explains, “because ‘magic’ would be controlling nature by way of spells and incantations … They don’t work.” In his Big Think interview, Randi chronicles his decades-long career as a “conjurer,” and his beginnings as an escape artist. He has broken out of 22 jails, and by his early 20s, he had broken Houdini’s record for the longest submersion underwater in a coffin. Perhaps not surprisingly, he says he has had some close calls, nearly losing his life at least twice.

Randi also talks about how the willingness of an audience to go along with and accept illusions is a defining part of its entertainment value. “People like fantasy,” he explains. “They like to believe there is a supernatural world out there.” At the same time, magicians shouldn’t make it their mission to deceive people. Randi is perhaps most offended by those who traffic in—and profit from—”pseudoscience.” Figures like Uri Geller, who convinced members of the scientific community that he could bend a spoon with his mind. Part of the work of the James Randi Educational Foundation is combating this kind of fraud, and Randi has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrably prove some supernatural ability. So far, no one has claimed the prize.

Randi also speaks about why he finally came out publicly as gay at the age of 81, saying that the public reaction has been “wonderful,” and noting that he could have never come out as a young man. “I would have gotten stoned,” he said. “I would have gotten beaten up every day, I’m sure, by the kids at school.  But not anymore.  That day, I hope, is passed.”

Somewhat reluctantly Randi labels himself a “Bright,” which he defines as someone “who bases his or her decisions on rationality and evidence,” rather than some fleeting, whimsical attraction. He is an atheist, but he says he can also understand why people are so universally drawn to the supernatural, and he says he still finds wonder in the world around him. “I could watch a sunset and my eyes will fill up with tears,” he says.


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