The Amazing One

By Phil Plait | June 19, 2005 8:31 pm

Note added June 27, 2005: This entry was accepted as part of the 11th Circle of Skeptics.

When I was but a Pre-Bad Astronomer, still in high school, I decided to stay up late one night and watch Johnny Carson’s show. He had as a guest that night a tiny gnome-like man, shiny pate gleaming and white beard blindingly reflecting the stage lights. He went on stage and performed what is called “psychic surgery”, a technique that some people in the Philippines claim allows them to reach inside a person’s body and removed diseased tissue, all without even breaking the skin of the patient.

This odd little man, gruff of voice but charming in demeanor, demonstrated this technique on a volunteer from Carson’s audience, all the while discussing exactly why it was a fraud. He would pull out long strings of what was obviously chicken guts, and dump them in a bowl, while the audience moaned and groaned at the disgusting display of goo.

It was truly an awesome and hilarious thing for me to see (and you can see it too! [Real Media file courtesy of Richard Saunders]). At that time in my life, I was susceptible to all sorts of woowoo creduloid nonsense, and seeing this man debunk — and I had never even heard of that word before — antiscience garbage like that may have very well set me on the road that lead, inevitably, to the here and now.

That man was, and is, James “The Amazing” Randi.

You can read more about him here, and here, and of course here, at his own website. I’ll have more stories about Randi on this blog as time goes on. I have quite a few, and they’re pretty funny.

Anyway, I am in awe of him and his history, and it is with disbelief (har har) that I can actually call him friend. I sometimes think that if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t bother going to see Lincoln on the night of the play, or the dinosaurs the eve of the asteroid impact. I’d go back to when I was 15, watching that show, and say to the young and naive me, “See that guy? He’ll be a bud of yours in just a couple of more decades. Hang tight.”

And now Randi does me the great honor of posting one of my blog entries on his own weekly newsletter. It’s my Science Fair speech (originally found here), and he posted it on his June 1 newsletter.

Randi is a very cool guy. To get a nod like that from him warms my heart (if I knew what cockles were, I’d guess that part of my heart would be warm and fuzzy too).

Thanks, Randi. And I’m looking forward to the next Amaz!ng Meeting in January 2006. BABloggeroos, if you can, come to this meeting. The past three have been incredible, and so so so much fun. I’ll be there, with a host of, well, amazing guests. I have always come away from the meetings renewed and invigorated, and ready once again to fight the swell of ignorance and silliness that threatens our intellect.

I sometimes wonder what the role of hope is in the world of skepticism, but hope is what I have after those meetings. We can change things, we can show people that critical thinking is important, and we can show them that it’s possible, needed, and even fun. That’s what I learned that night so many years ago when I saw Randi on Carson’s show. And he’s still just as funny, sharp, and ready to take on the antiscientists of the world now as he was then. I’m proud to be a part of his team.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff
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Comments (19)

Links to this Post

  1. The Masala Dose » Giblets of God | January 8, 2006
  1. Patrick

    I think I’ve seen him on TV before. The meeting is in Vegas, so that’s not too hard for me to get too…short drive through the desert. hmm. Will strongly consider this. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  2. Edward

    I don’t know about Indonesia, but in years past psychic surgery was quite a thing here in the Philippines. Haven’t heard much about it for some time now. Oh, but the carnival goes on! New acts, new ways to charm us. A newsclip I saw several months ago featured a group which claims to have powers that makes its members immune to injury from knives and swords. Showed their members laying down and being chopped. Sword courtesy of the group of course, with their leader doing the mincing. The group had old dishes to serve too (though perhaps new to this country), like munching on the shards of light bulbs.

  3. Jyril

    I saw him once when he visited my hometown. Wonderful performer, not only funny and entertaining but also very thought-provoking. In that performance he bashed dangerous pseudomedicine like psychic surgery and homeopathy. He also did some magic tricks, like spoon bending (it is very dull trick, he said), and showed how some simple tricks are made, like stopping the watch. He levitated a match-box (very eerie) and told how he once showed the trick to a group of physicists who scratched their heads — unsuccessfully — for a long while trying to solve how the trick was done. It was, after all, terribly simple trick that anyone can master.

  4. It’s sort of funny that you made this post. About a year ago, I commented to someone that you were to astronomy what The Amazing Randi was to psychics and faith healers.

    I grew up in a mgical family with a brother and sister who were both professional magicians. (In 1976 we were the closing act on opening night of tannen’s Magic Jubliee. This was David Copperfield’s “Coming Out” event. Because he was hogging rehearsal time, I prepared to unload our equipment and opened the stage door just as he lost control of a couple of doves who took that chance to escape.)

    I have always been a fan of the late great Harry Houdini, who was also an exposer of frauds. I’m happy to see The Amazing Randi follow in that path. Also, thanks to you for your own efforts in a similar vein.

  5. By the way, Randi emailed me and told me it was the Philippines, not Indonesia. That was my mistake. :-)

  6. TriangleMan

    The last Amaz!ng Meeting was a lot of fun and I encourage everyone to attend the next one if you can (I think it is January 2006 in Las Vegas). There were over 500 attendees last time!

  7. CR

    My dad and I always liked Randi’s appearances on The Tonight Show. I, too, got introduced to critical thinking at an early age (heck, my elementary school even taught critical thinking skills back then!), and seeing Randi debunk some of the popular gimmicks used by “faith healers” & “psychics” was quite enjoyable.
    Off topic: hey TriangleMan, still winning against Particle Man & Person Man? :-)

  8. Bob Allee

    I saw the same episode and was amazed at the response from some classmates still believing that this type of surgery was real. All they believed that Randi had done was show a fake way to discredit the “real surgeons.”
    Although you said they used chicken guts, I thought it was just tissue and paper towel from my memory, but I could certainly be wrong because that is what was used at another “real demonstration” that I was asked to leave. I was pretty blunt back then, these days I’m more diplomatic, I’d probably just break out laughing.
    Randi inspired my critical thinking as well.
    Please tell him the other BA is a long time fan and admirer.
    Bob Allee

  9. Jon

    I was first introduced to the Amazing Randi’s work through “flim flam”, used as a text book in a college course. In undergrad at St. cloud State University in Minnesota I took 2 semesters of a psych course; “critical thinking”, taught by an amazing professor, and magician, Dr. Mertens. This guy was the classic magician. Older professor with long white hair and a long white beard. Always a bit disheveled, but what a great course, and a great professor. Everyday he would start the class with a magic or psychic trick, all the while assuring us that it was a fake. He never would tell us how it was done, as that would take away from developing critical thinking methods. The class critically looked at everything from fairies to water witching. Dr. Mertins really opened my eyes to the world of critical thinking. I am fortunate to have had the experience.

  10. bad Jim

    I’ve long been grateful to Randi and other magicians for their eagerness to expose the deceits of psychics and the like. Perhaps they do us this service because magicians are compelled to figure out how others create their illusions, and would, but for professional courtesy, love nothing better than to demonstrate how it’s done. Fortunately, they don’t owe the same courtesy to frauds.

  11. DodgerDean

    Paul Harris in St. Louis (harrisonline.com) had a real appreciative write of your blog yesterday. Nice plug for Randi and TAM 4 too.

  12. Paul emailed me about that. Pretty cool!

  13. christian burnham

    The BA makes an important point in passing. Very very few of us grow up naturally skeptical. Critical thinking is something that most of us need to be taught- like geometry and French grammar (though I hope it’s a lot more fun). I think we forget sometimes that only a very few people have had the benefit of a Randi or a BA to be their inspiration when growing up. Randi is ‘Amazing’ because he has inspired so many others to think. That’s quite a magic trick.

  14. Bob Allee

    I agree with christian burnham, we don’t just grow out of “uncritical thinking”, so critical thinking must be taught. It’s sad though that so many have to be taught ethics as well. Did you notice that Sylvia Brown has a .org website. .org’s are usually non-profit.

  15. I live in the Philippines. I’d like to believe that only a few people here believe that stuff now. :) Especially because it had been exposed as a fraud several times already.

  16. Please, oh please take the Catholic’s Apologetics International up on their challenge! I hope you read about it on Randi’s site today.

  17. I was lucky enough to see the Amazing Randi at the University of Manitoba, uh, awhile ago, and also remember the Carson episode. At the time I still had some interest in the paranormal, cryptozoology and the like. Luckily The Amazing Randi contributed greatly to my reality based view of the world. Very interesting blog, thank you.

  18. Love James Randi! He had a similar effect on me. I look forward to hearing your stories.

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