James (The Amazing) Randi used to be content escaping Houdini-style from locks and straitjackets while suspended over a Manhattan boulevard. But with the rise of popularity in all things paranormal in the '60s--from UFO sightings to Uri Geller bending spoons--Randi began a crusade to show that paranormal claims were nothing more than the results of the kind of magic tricks he learned long ago as a teen-age student of magician Harry Blackstone.
As a founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal--along with scientists and authors Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Martin Gardner--Randi has led a worldwide investigation into psychic phenomena that has earned him the scorn of parapsychology supporters and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.
His most recent documented investigation took him to Russia, where "Nova" filmed him trying to uncover "The Secrets of the Psychics." Randi talked with writer Robert Koehler about what he found.
How did you arrange access to Russia's reputed mystics? Didn't they fear you?
I had been chomping at the bit for years to get inside the Soviet Union, now Russia. I had long been asked about the Russians, that maybe psychic healing seemed to work there. I wanted to see for myself. I also wanted to go officially, with an invitation, so I couldn't just be booted out. "Nova" and the producers at WGBH gave me an opportunity to investigate, and document it. The producers, with the U.S. government, put us on very good status.
Almost none of the Russian psychics knew who I was, so they generally didn't fear me. Only a couple of scientists at the Brain Institute in Moscow recognized me. One stiffened when he saw me, and took his colleague aside.
Did you uncover bad science, or good science taken in a new direction?
First of all, I don't go into an investigation thinking, "This is what I want to discover." I found at the Brain Institute, for example, that they were depending on European and American research on psychic phenomena that had been bombed out of existence 25 years ago. There's a very uncomfortable part in the program when I'm telling these scientists with Ph.D's that what they've been doing is wrong, that they hadn't done double-blind experiments to ensure correct readings. They always knew what data was chosen, and what the results would be. No placebos, no control tests. They didn't think they would fool themselves. It's a case of scientists as their own worst enemies. That's extremely insidious. Many parapsychology tests aren't done double-blind.
So, the claims of parapsychology--from astrological predictions to palm readings to the Russian claims of moving objects and changing the chemistry of a liquid--have no basis?
Parapsychology is about phenomena that don't appear to have an explanation in regular science. What parapsychologists fail to do is to establish any phenomena. They've worked out theories about what could happen, not what has happened. They will tell me (privately) that they haven't gotten a proof. Now, there are legitimate parapsychologists. It's a legitimate science; it has statistical studies, peer review and scholarly journals.
But it's the only science that can't duplicate an experiment. So there's been no proof. The National Research Council issued a two-year-long study in 1988 that found no evidence for parapsychological claims. One of the canards of my psychic critics is that I deny all their claims. No, I don't deny it all. The onus is on them to prove that it does exist. And what they're trying to prove is highly unlikely. I mean, if after sitting on a roof for years, and noticing that a fat man in a red suit hasn't come down the chimney, you might conclude there's a great likelihood that there's no Santa Claus.
Why do you think paranormal and psychic phenomena are so popular in Russia, where an astrology show airs just before the nightly TV news?
Well, communism doesn't allow for anything spiritual. Parapsychology research got funded in the U.S.S.R. in the '40s, but the work had to show a material basis not related to divinities. With communism's fall, the paranormal can have a spiritual element, and what's going on in the clinics and institutes is really a spiritual, religious thing. It's an escape, which we can understand from the terrible conditions going on over there. If you offer anything appealing, they'll jump for it.
What is your latest investigation?
I can't even hint at it. It's top secret, because the people I'm looking into would panic if I revealed anything. I can tell you that I just finished the manuscript of my next book, "Encyclopedia of the Occult and Supernatural," which should be out early next year. And I'm not sure how I'm going to pay for the new roof that's being put on my house. All of the lawsuits brought against me by Uri Geller and other psychics I've criticized have cost more than the $272,000 grant I received from the MacArthur Foundation. In fact, I've had to suspend for the past year the $10,000 offer I've had for 30 years to anyone who can prove their psychic claims. I just can't keep that kind of money in the bank right now. But I'm not worried; no one has ever come close to collecting.
"Secrets of the Psychics" airs on "Nova" Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KCET.