Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

James Randi, a father of skepticism.

The opening section of that obituary by Paul Valentine in The Washington Post emphasizes his influence well, and the rest is a more chronological biography. Randi was born in the area where I was born, but over halfway backwards through time from my birthdate to the dawn of recorded audio, well into the grey depths of what I've always considered history.

Still, most of my childhood elapsed before the advent of the Internet, before you could call remote information to a nearby screen within seconds of the moment you thought to.

I remember seeing my first couple of magic tricks; simple things like sleight of hand, or even "got your nose." (I think the latter was performed by a cousin with an obvious thumbnail, thus I failed to understand not only why she thought she'd fool me, but why she thought I'd even realize I was supposed to be seeing my own detached nose.)

But the French Drop (the act of secretly dropping an object while pretending to grab it, priming your grabbing hand to be revealed as "magically" empty) can be surprisingly convincing for something so simple.

And so I realized: critically more important than seeing magic tricks was learning them. If seeing a trick provided one unit of delighted bewilderment, learning a magic trick provided much more than one unit of anything, for it's one example of an entirely different lesson: even when something seems truly magical, there are reasonable explanations you haven't thought of. Put another way, not being able to think of a reasonable explanation is no proof of real magic.

Adults, it turns out, can achieve parenthood and profession without having learned this skepticism. Uri Geller based his entire career on appealing to adults so amazed by his "psychic" spoon-bending ability that they didn't think to ask how he did it. Think of it: people's acceptance of his claim to psychic power was so established in their minds, they didn't even have the thought to wonder whether psychic power was only one of multiple explanations. What would we think of an adult who never wondered whether a street taco vendor isn't using a cooking spell fired from his fingertips, or a traffic light isn't operated by Sleeping Beauty-esque fairies with colour-changing wands? Those seem indicators of fairly pressing mental health concerns, yet it's the same category and magnitude of error found in every single audience member that never thought to ask the reasonable question about Geller, or any other claimant of supernatural power.

However, such errors, while striking, aren't mental health deficiencies. If they were, it would have taken more than Randi's demonstrated replication of Uri Geller's feats through trickery to flip on light bulbs in their mind – and back to the subject of light bulbs, it wouldn't take more than a short lecture from an electrician for the traffic light fairy-ist to consider an alternate explanation for those patterns of illumination. James Randi understood the difference between gullibility and credulity was not a matter of intelligence, but education (suggested by the title of the donor-catalyzed "James Randi Educational Foundation"). I don't consider myself clever for having learned my lesson early; rather, I consider myself fortunate to have learned a couple of magic tricks. Randi took that kind of fortunateness like a handful of pennies and flung it far. He took it further than that, though.

Logically, the presence of a reasonable explanation for a phenomenon, such as the skilled swapping-in of a previously-broken spoon, doesn't prove the reasonable explanation is the correct one. (Occam's Razor is a good rule of thumb but not a trump card.) Neither does it prove every claimant of special powers is a charlatan, nor that there is no such thing as supernatural powers. Uri Geller, if he was a fraud, could be one fraud amid a thousand genuine articles.

That was where the "Million Dollar Challenge" came in; one of the staples of the JREF. Claimants of supernatural abilities, if they wished, could apply to establish mutually agreed-upon test conditions designed to allow them to demostrate those abilities, controlling for any alternate explanations conceivable to either the foundation or the claimant.

There are plenty of stories and video about the tests, the conditions, and the claimants, and it's a wonderful thing to dive deeper into, so I won't here. In brief, the challenge had over a thousand applicants over five decades – psychics, dowsers, remote seers, mediums, and so on – and none walked away with the money. You can't prove there's no gold in China, but James Randi spent his life and resources digging up as much non-gold as possible and shared the records. If you've learned the first thousand claimants lack their claimed abilities, what would you consider a reasonable disposition when meeting the one-thousand-first? You retain the full capacity to be impressed at the technique, but your internal reaction to the special claim would feel less like the gasping delight of Uri Geller's unquestioning audience, and more like James Randi's famously arched eyebrow.

The encompassing word is one I mentioned earlier: "skepticism." The Oxford definition is beautifully clear: "not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations." Not unconvincable – that would mean closed-minded. And while proper skeptics classically shoudler accusations of closed-mindedness, the opposite is true: instant believers in Uri Geller's psychic powers, for example, are closed-minded, because they're the ones failing to consider all possibilities. A skeptical person is open to any explanation, as well as the possibility other explanations may remain, and requires supporting evidence and the elimination of those alternatives before becoming convinced. Otherwise, they remain unsure. Anyone who would describe that as anything but stark open-mindedness is incorrect.

Happily, this term "skepticism" was in the air through my childhood and early adulthood — further fortune. Being a "skeptic" was not only called for in a world with plenty of misinformation and credulity, but was cool. I deduce Randi, born in my area, might have been indirectly responsible for much of that influence on the cultural climate into which I would grow up. Reading the words of acquaintances and larger online figures today, I suspect I've had more for which to thank him than I'm aware.

Seth Andrews, whose atheistic podcast is popular for its positivity and empathy among those applying skepticism to their religious upbringings, said "he leaves a legend".

Bill Nye, whose original show I drank up during grade school (not even to mention the weddedness of skeptical inquiry to the scientific method), tweeted "Randi was an amazing man, a wonderful magician, and a thoughtful intellectual who brought the joy of scientific inquiry to millions. He left the world better than he found it."

Richard Dawkins, one of the only science writers whose novels I don't just read, but reread, said "mourn James Randi, world class magician, good-humoured nemesis of spoonbenders, spiritualists & other charlatans…".

Penn Jillette, whose insistence on honesty with his audiences about the nature of his and Teller's conjurational deceptions stems unmistakably from Randi's, called him "our inspiration, mentor and dear friend."

James Randi, as I've heard he requested be said of him after he died, conveniently, is dead now. Seven decades into his nine-plus-decade life, the Internet's arrival was planted like a seed, and today I find myself in a culture where it feels a little less like people have seriously concluded gods exist, purport astrology is a working mechanism, spend their savings on mind-readers or faith healers, or advocate government funds redirected toward self-appointed clairvoyants to track criminals or provide overseas intelligence. Like anything gradual, it was hard to notice.

The Internet is no inherent block against misinformation, and skepticism at the level of the individual is no less crucial when using it. But thanks to it, many more students will discover the secrets to magic tricks, the current evidence for astrology and gods, and so on. Humanity's work in elevating and preserving the value of skeptical inquiry among itself will continue as long as humans are born, but the elfin James Randi was a giant in the portion he accomplished. Perhaps the greatest aspect of his example was the delight he took in that vigilance. Asking reasonable questions – even, or perhaps especially when they're out of fashion – is a true source of happiness, both superficial and deep.