James Randi at CSICon: Much More Than a “Theatrical Character”

James Randi is 88 years old, or so he says. (Though he also says he only feels 86.) It’s been posited to me, half-jokingly, that Randi is actually decades younger, and has been playing “old” the entire time, and will at some point reveal his long ruse and blow our minds. Yeah, you know, I could see that.

In his conversation at CSICon with Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier, Randi was as sharp, insightful, and funny as ever. I don’t know what it must feel like to sit in front of an audience filled with people who consider you a hero, and to engage in a conversation which rested on the premise of one’s legacy, a legacy now firmly established.

But it was no great thing to Randi, who rattled off stories and observations about these weighty, self-reflective ideas with levity. I hope when I am 88 (assuming I get to 88 which seems like a bit of a stretch) I can have that same sense of peace that Randi showed on stage today.

img_0084“I am a theatrical character,” he said as he reminisced about the beginnings of what would become the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and ultimately the Center for Inquiry. He had been approached as a possible leader of this nascent, groundbreaking organization, but demurred. “An entertainer should not be head of an organization like that,” he said. And considering how things might have gone had he accepted, “I was rather frightened for the future of the organization.” Good thing, then, he referred one Paul Kurtz. You know the rest.

So many more memories. (Though we should check with Elizabeth Loftus as to whether they were planted.)

On Isaac Asimov: “He was scared to death of flying.” Pretty remarkable considering the future-tech, sci-fi worlds filled with space travel that Asimov invented. Why bother with real life air travel, Asimov would posit, when one can travel without limit in one’s own imagination?

On Johnny Carson (one of my earliest heroes): “He was very much on our side.” Carson would never visit with guests before tapings of The Tonight Show, but made an exception for Randi. “He was so thoughtful…[Carson would ask] ‘What should I ask, what do you want me to plug?’… He wanted to be aware of how he could help me.”

On Carl Sagan, who once referred to Randi as “crotchety”: “I am crotchety. He couldn’t quite understand why I got so angry” about people such as faith healers and other scammers.

Randi was particularly interested in the fact of Sagan’s marijuana use. “I read that and I was sort of nonplussed, because I [was thinking], ‘Carl? Puffing a weed? … I had to rear back and stare at the wall and say, ‘Damn if Carl says it’s a good thing…and he got some inspiration from it,” then perhaps the practice had real merit. “But I didn’t trust myself enough to do that and walk away from it.”

What struck me most about this conversation was how much empathy Randi felt and then acted on. He expressed his warm feelings for the late Martin Gardner, who considered himself a deist and openly conceded he had no evidence for that position. He talked about breaking an escape record set by Houdini, but intentionally not breaking it by too much, considering the fact of Houdini’s more advanced age at the time of his attempt. He talked about answering a fan’s question about how to treat a friend who adamantly believes in the paranormal: with kindness.

Ken asked, is this compassion for the believers a sign of a “new Randi” or is it the same old Randi?

“No, it’s not a new Randi…I’ve found that these people, they believed in it so much, and they needed it so much, that to disabuse them of the notion was often difficult to do,” he said. And he talked about the people who say he’s changed their life in one way or another through his work and his example.

“Now folks, you cannot buy that. That’s the greatest compliment we can possibly have.”

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