Freethought Activism

Being amazed by the amazer : James Randi in Bengaluru

For those who may not know about him, I would like to introduce James Randi aka the amazing Randi -one of the most well known skeptics on this earth and has a million dollar challenge for any one who can demonstrate supernatural powers or can show him something which can prove such. With his famous organization JREF, the James Randi Education Foundation he is a household name in the US and well known all over the world for debunking the supernatural claims which could be anything from the healing powers of homeopathic concoctions to healing by prayers or anything else for that matter which can be called as supernatural.

(L-R) DJ Grothe, James Randi, Narendra Nayak

(L-R) DJ Grothe, James Randi, Narendra Nayak

Now 84 and still active, he had been to India for the first time and was at Bengaluru after attending the Thinkfest at Goa and the program was at short notice due to the visa problems that Randi had to face.  I was told that the visa was in his hands just 4 hours before his flight was to take off and the appearance had been almost cancelled. Since he had a few days free he decided to come to Bengaluru and meet some of us. The programs were arranged by Nakul Shenoy at various places in Bengaluru on three days. On the first it was a meet for members of the magic circle while on the second it was for those interested and had registered on line with the organisers. He had also arranged for a meet with me to discuss various aspects of the movement in India and D.J.Grothe, the President of the foundation was with him and it was a double purpose interview with me interviewing them for our readers and the other way around for their readers!

Speaking to us Randi had in his hands a die used at some casinos at Las Vegas in which there were three on the opposite side of six while the normal ones have one! The hawk-like eyes of Randi had caught this and being 84 years of age had not diminished his zeal for debunking! Anyway, the same sleight of hand was demonstrated later on too during lunch and then at a public lecture.

He clarified that the movement in the US was of three groups- the atheist groups whose focus in on discussions about the nonexistence of the supernatural forces, the humanists who emphasise on the equality of all humankind and the skeptics who were mainly interested in investigating the claims of those who professed to have supernatural powers. Though the ultimate goal was the same the methodology was different.

The James Randi Education foundation has mainly four tasks as of now and going into the fifth one soon. Their most publicized activity is the million dollar challenge whose text runs as follows: there is a fake cheque for a million dollars and the promise is to replace it with a genuine one for any one who could demonstrate a paranormal ability under proper observable conditions!

The foundation conducts a meeting called as TAM meeting- ‘The Amazing Meeting’ in which there are lectures and demonstrations of so called supernatural phenomena. Most importantly the foundation educates young school children to develop rational thinking through their kits which just encourage children to ask questions and get answers by themselves about various so called claims of the paranormal.

The foundation has a well known media wing too which takes care of videos, podcacsts, radio and printing of books too. They have promised to put one of my books online soon.

When queried about his million dollar offer for the demonstration of paranormal claims he told me that he got that idea from a book Begone godmen- the famous tome on the subject written by none one else but our own Abraham T.Kovoor who was also my inspiration to join the movement. Randi told me that when he went to Sri Lanka in 1996 he shook hands with Kovoor- he said thanks to Sir Arthur C.Clarke the famous science fiction writer, whom he had gone to film! I asked him how that was possible as Kovoor passed away long back and he said there was the miracle! He had gone to University of Moratua where Kovoor’s skeleton was hanging and went shook hands with it telling him that he was glad to be shaking the hand of his inspiration.

Audience listening to James Randi

Audience at James Randi’s Bengaluru talk

Both Randi and Grothe were awed by our work and the audiences we interacted with. They said there were more people in a single program than they could meet with in a year. They also expressed interest in collaborating with us in activities in fields of common interests. They were already having such with groups in Africa and wanted us to train them in exposing the godmen in those countries, particularly the Shamans and the Witch doctors who were taking the people for a ride. Randi said his life’s ambition was to end exploitation of people who were being taken for a ride by the peddlers of concoctions, devices and such things, putting people’s lives to risk while lining their own pockets. He came down heavily on Homeopathy which was peddling sugar pills with imaginary powers of healing. This was very evident in the interaction he had in the same evening in which he spoke at length on these things. He also showed video clippings of his some famous exposures one of an evangelist who was using FM radio broadcasts by his spouse who would first mingle with the audience get details from them and transmit the same to him through an earpiece which appeared to be a hearing aid but actually a radio which could receive FM broadcasts. He had a radio engineer with him who tuned in to the some frequency and recorded the conversations some of which he said were very derogatory. He also demonstrated some magic tricks and showed a video of his demonstration of psychic surgery. He said that  he felt very sorry for those who would go to Philippines spending large amounts for getting these so called surgeries performed and then come back to die soon.

When we were taken to lunch by Nakul, that Randi came into his own. He started sleight of hand tricks with paper napkins, salt cellars, a coin that made the waiters crowd around our table. It also showed that though he was 84 he had not lost any of his touch which had bestowed the title the amazing Randi on him!

Randi at the dinner table following the event

James Randi continues to amaze at the dinner-table

In the evening when it was time for interaction with the members of the public it was again Randi all the way. Many of things that he did and showed are not to be mentioned here because that would spoil the suspense for those likely to watch any of his programs in the future but I can say only one thing that he showed us as to how many of our assumptions are wrong. He told us the secret of his success was to never make people expect anything and always do the unexpected which also includes doing the expected thing! He also brought out the point that one should not go by any authority if they make statements which are irrational and gave many examples when very ‘famous’ scientists have been fooled by tricks of charlatans because they had assumed that being scientists it was not easy for anyone to fool them! He also demonstrated some escape tricks by having himself tied with a rope and escaping from the knots in the blink of an eye, However when it came to question time he refused to answer any questions revealing magic tricks and just dismissed them saying that they are just tricks of the trade. However, questions connected with the supernatural were answered very satisfactorily including the one about god which was given an answer that one could prove the existence of this entity to him under fraud proof conditions and take away his million dollars.

This was his first visit to India and he has promised to return some time, this time the meet being organized by us!

About the author

Narendra Nayak


  • It is interesting to read the Kovoor angle of Randi’s million dollar challange. But there is a slight problem with this story.

    Chapter 13 of Randi’s book “Flim-Flam” begins with these lines:

    “Druring a radio panel discussion back in 1964, I was challanged by a parapsychologist to “to put your money where your mouth is”, and I responded by offering to pay the sum of $10000 to any person who demonstrates a paranormal power under satisfactory observational conditions. I have carried around with me ever since a check in that amount, immediately awardable to a successful applicant”

    Though, according to Flim-Flam version, Randi threw open his famous challange sometime around 1964, Abraham Kovoor book “Begone Godmen” was not published until 1976, over a good decade later!

    Another fact will also be of interest in this context: The wordings of Randi’s challange, as appearing in Flim-Flam” is uncannily similar to Kovoor challange. Also, the first edition of “Flim-Flam” came out only in 1982, four years after Kovoor’s death. And, “Begone Godmen” does find a place under “Flim-Flam”‘s Selected Bibiliography.

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