He broke Houdini’s record by sealing himself in an underwater casket for an hour and 44 minutes. He spent 55 minutes encased in a block of ice, bent spoons with ‘mind power’ and escaped from a straightjacket suspended upsidedown over the Niagara Falls. But James Randi’s greatest act of defiance might be the long-standing challenge to psychics to demonstrate the validity of paranormal or psychic claims under controlled conditions — with a prize of $1 million administered by his foundation. It has remained unclaimed since it was instated in 1996. The author, lecturer, amateur astronomer and archaeologist is now the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
How did you change tracks from magician to rationalist?
I had been a magician and an illusionist for more than three decades. Through the course of my vocation, I happened to meet quite a few gullible people who, after seeing my tricks, would ask me if I was part of a cult society. They were trying to sort me into one of those groups and despite my insistence that this was all deception, they refused to believe me. So at the age of 60, after I retired as a professional conjurer, I decided to spend the rest of my life debunking the myths surrounding my profession.
How much of a sceptic should one be? Shouldn’t we be equally sceptical of science, or should we apply scepticism selectively?
Of course, one has to be sceptical of any science if it is being used to fool people. But by definition, science works on principles that are empirically tested, even if they are near-approximations. It has an astonishing rate of explanatory success. Science is a progressive body of knowledge that has been built over several centuries. By progressive, I mean it abandons old and false ideas when new evidence shows up. Unlike religious dictates, which do not change and, in fact, they only keep adding more and more ideas to it so that what you get in the end is a confabulated tale. Science can predict many things, and it can debunk many things. So you can be sceptical of science, but at your own peril. As long as you can back up your claims with evidence, there shouldn’t be a problem..
But certain truths are not empirically verifiable. We know 2πr as the ratio of the circumference and radius of a circle, but there is no circle in the physical universe that conforms to it. It only works in the Euclidean/mathematical realm.
Oh, come on. Those are two entirely different topics. There may not be a perfect circle in the known universe, but you will always be able to find a correlation. You will get a close approximation based on how much you can bump up the Pi value. It depends on how lazy you are on a given day, to figure out how much the circle you’ve drawn conforms to the ratio.
But other things such as justice, art, love, etc, remain beyond what science can fathom.
If you believe so. On the contrary, you can even choose not to believe me when I tell you there is a science behind the tricks that a magician performs. Belief is very powerful; it can make you assume notions that may not even exist.
What about neuroscientists who insist that their new findings be incorporated into the American legal system?
They sure love beating their own drums just like countless others. But if you’re asking if neuroscience is some kind of a basis for morality, I would tend to disagree, although not entirely. Fashioning moral values, especially in a legal framework, is extremely tricky. We have learnt, over the course of many millennia, how to interact with each other, and formulated value systems that govern what we ought to do and not to do in certain situations. It was obviously acquired by a refining process of evolution, over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s probably wired into our DNA. The behaviours and actions that led to our own decimation were eventually sort of ‘dropped’ by evolution, in favour of other beneficial ones. Which is why going to war is simply ‘bad’, because both groups will annihilate each other. But there is also such a thing as survival, which is what all living beings aspire to, and when survival is at stake, morality will sometimes be suspended. In this light, reconciling our legal framework with all this becomes a slippery slope and we can only wait for society to become mature and take a call on it.
What’s an idea you think that could change the world?
There is a lot of credulity out there and what people really need to be convinced about is to think carefully before they commit to any belief. Expose every belief to the light of reason, discourse, facts, scientific observations; question everything, be sceptical because this is the only chance at life you will ever get.
Shone Satheesh Babu is an Assistant Copy Editor with Tehelka.