In 2010, during The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, I had a chance to interview James Randi. There’s a recording of it somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s gone now. What I have is a transcript. And in that transcript, I made a rookie mistake, suggesting to Randi that he was a legendary “debunker.”
Randi corrected me of that right away: “We do not accept the term, ‘debunking’… We are not debunkers. We are investigators.” (It’s a statement he’s made many other times.)
He was right, of course. Calling yourself a “debunker” suggests you’ve already reached a conclusion without looking into the matter. That’s not what he did. That’s not what we should do. What made Randi such a legend was that, when confronted with an extraordinary claim, he would suggest an ordinary explanation for it, and then work to confirm it. He took the other side seriously enough to investigate their claims. In a way, he showed the other side a kind of respect they didn’t normally get from non-believers.
I doubt they felt that way for long. He tore apart the supernatural claims of psychics and televangelists with such precision that they were left scrambling for credibility. It’s one reason his Million Dollar Challenge was so alluring: He was willing to part ways with all that money — and that money really did sit in his foundation’s bank account — if psychics proved they could do the thing they claimed they could do.
No one ever came close to winning. No one who claimed supernatural powers and crossed Randi’s path was able to get away with it for long. Just ask Peter Popoff and Uri Geller, two hucksters whose own eventual obituaries will surely include long sections about how Randi, at least temporarily, paralyzed their careers.
Randi died on Monday at the age of 92. The public found out yesterday. And in the past 24 hours, I’ve seen countless people expressing how much he meant to them or influenced them, sometimes directly.
Magician Penn Jillette said it bluntly: “You invented us.”
The last picture of me and Randi. I can’t type through the tears. This will be a hard day of making tv. I love you Randi. You invented us. pic.twitter.com/z2SKY59Jtb
— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) October 21, 2020
Many others joined in:
James Randi was my imperfect hero whose impact on my life is too great to measure. He joked about death all the time and instructed me not to tell him to Rest In Peace when he’d gone. I’ll say what he wanted me to: Randi, you are dead.
(I’ll miss you as long as you are.) ♥️ pic.twitter.com/0gpK5KGJgS
— Carrie Poppy, Interested Party (@CarriePoppyYES) October 21, 2020
All of us at American Atheists are incredibly sad to hear that James Randi died yesterday at the age of 92. He was a giant in our community, an innovator, and truly one of a kind. He will be missed, but his contributions will live on. pic.twitter.com/e2asybbOgW
— American Atheists (@AmericanAtheist) October 21, 2020
James Randi was an inspiration: a lodestar representing honesty, healthy scepticism, rational thought, and the very simple idea that knowing what’s really true in this world genuinely matters – and can help you lead a better life. He led a great one and will never be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/iPm0mJwNdP
— Humanists UK (@Humanists_UK) October 21, 2020
Sad news. James Randi has escaped his bonds one final time. The fact that he knew who I was and laughed at a joke or two of mine is one of the proudest achievements of my life. Rest in power, kind sir. pic.twitter.com/W9Mk1gSYdA
— George Hrab (@GeorgeHrab) October 21, 2020
We’ve lost one of the greats. James Randi was an amazing man, a wonderful magician, and a thoughtful intellectual who brought the joy of scientific inquiry to millions. He left the world better than he found it. He will be missed. https://t.co/PGZtNZLIkG
— Bill Nye (@BillNye) October 21, 2020
I just heard that James Randi died. He was a huge figure in the critical thinking movement, a friend, and, for a year and a half, my boss.
The world is a bit more credulous without him.
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) October 21, 2020
Randi also founded the organization that later became the Center For Inquiry. CFI released this statement mourning his death:
Well before his association with CSICOP, Randi was the public face of skeptical inquiry, bringing a sense of fun and mischievousness to a serious mission. Whether exposing fraudulent psychics and faith-healers or revealing the false promises of alternative medicine, his showmanship and expertise in illusion made him an extraordinarily effective messenger for the promotion of critical thinking over magical thinking.
Beyond his own groundbreaking work, James Randi is responsible for inspiring several generations of skeptics and science communicators who are pushing back against the false claims of pseudoscience, the paranormal, and the supernatural, as well as those who profit from them. What began as a committee of intellectuals and a magazine has now expanded into a universe of activists, scholars, entertainers, media platforms, and institutions, like CFI, who share Randi’s mission and his passion.
If you’re not familiar with him, try to check out the film An Honest Liar or read his 1982 book Flim-Flam! (which, sadly, holds up all too well).
Given all the ways I knew Randi had inspired other people, I asked him in our interview if there was anything that inspired him. He just pointed to everyone attending TAM that year:
You don’t know how many people have taken me aside and broken down in tears, in my arms in many cases, and said, “Mr. Randi, you’ve made a lot of difference in my life.” [If I got that] maybe twice a year, [it’s all I would] need to keep going. But I get it, oh, a hundred times a year… I need people to tell me these things every now and then, and I find it so refreshing.
I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant because it wasn’t meant to be. The fact that so many people would tell him — with specificity — how he gave them the tools to change how they think, meant a great deal to him, and he loved hearing those stories. It gave him the energy to keep doing his work. And he would surely encourage everyone now to continue spreading the gospel of critical thinking.