Standort: / Meldung: "“Skeptiker vom Dienst”"

Joanna Bostock

Reading between the headlines.

24. 11. 2016 - 16:10

“Skeptiker vom Dienst”

An interview with James Randi, winner of the first Heinz Oberhummer Award für Wissenschaftskommunikation.

On Thursday evening, the first Heinz Oberhummer Award for Science Communication is being presented in Vienna, one year after the death of the popular Austrian physicist and Science Buster. The prize was established to commemorate Heinz and his work and to encourage and promote others in the same field.

The first person to receive the prize is James Randi, a magician and escapologist who later made a career out of investigating paranormal phenomena and exposing hoaxes and frauds.

Simon Welebil / Radio FM4

James Randi with Science Buster Martin Puntigam

In one famous example James Randi advised the TV team which in the 1970s exposed Uri Geller, who had become a sensation for supposedly bending spoons with brain power and gentle rubbing, as a fraud.

Joanna Bostock: when did you start investigating people you thought might be involved in hoaxes and fraud?

James Randi: conjurer, investigator and winner of the Heinz Oberhummer Prize

James Randi: Right from the very beginning I think, because I would always get questions from people saying “I saw what you did and that was very clever, but I’ve seen people do other things” and they would describe them to me. And if I felt that those performers were doing it for profit, they were trying to deceive people and to take money under false pretences, I would always try to explain to them what was happening. As the years went on I began to realise this was very, very common.

So is that the essential difference then between a magician and a fraudster?

Well, no, because magicians are entertainers. A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician. The better term actually is conjurer. A conjurer is someone who approximates the effects of a real magician and does it for purposes of entertainment.

Whereas a fraudster is exploiting people’s gullibility …

That’s right, and changing their philosophies. That’s the dangerous thing – taking money is one thing, and that’s reprehensible, but taking money and changing somebody's view of how the world really works – that’s unforgivable.

Why was it so important to you to expose these things?

Well I saw the damage it was doing, not only financially but intellectually and emotionally. People were beginning to depend on these [fraudsters] for giving them psychic impressions of the world and how it operated, all of it false. And if people are not well enough educated to tell the difference between entertainment and frauds I think that can be very dangerous to them.

When you perform illusions do you tell people what the trick is?

No, because then I haven’t got a show, because it depends upon confidence. I belong to many organisation such as the Magicians’ Guild, International Brotherhood of Magicians and others. We have a tacit agreement that we don’t tell our secrets, simply because other people in the profession have to use those things to make a living. And they do it honestly – they’re actors.

So the entertainment value is knowing it’s an illusion, but not being able to work out how it’s actually done...

Exactly – when someone just suddenly rises in the air and floats off-stage, most intelligent audiences I think would say “that was a good illusion”. I would certainly hope they would do that and I try to encourage them in that respect.

Let’s talk about your work investigating and uncovering hoaxes and frauds. Part of what you have done is actually to set up your own hoax and then exposing how you did the whole thing. Tell me about Carlos…

Carlos was a fictitious character that we invented. With my partner Deyvi Pena we created this false character and one of the stunts that Carlos would do was to stop his heart, and we had nurses going crazy. They were taking the pulse and nodding and I would say to Carlos “stop your heart”. The nurses would then get very worried because the pulse in his wrist was stopped completely. That was done by a secret device under the armpit – a simple ping pong ball. All he was doing was pressing down on the ping pong ball that cut off the circulation to that one arm. His heart didn’t stop – the pulse was what was stopped, only temporarily and then it would suddenly come back and the nurse was very relieved.

And people lapped this up without questioning it?

Oh, in many cases yes they did! But we tried to tell them that this is a demonstration of how people can produce false effects and yet they would say “oh, no – I know what’s real!”. In many of my performances I do what’s called mentalism, a form of conjuring which appears to be done entirely with the mind. And when we do that kind of thing I’m always very careful to say it’s a trick. But after the show people will come to me and say “well, that was a good trick, but when you told the lady her telephone number and you had never met her before in your life, that was real.” I look at them and say “No, that was a trick too!” and in many cases they get very angry.

So it’s interesting that even when you debunk your own “hoax” people still refuse to believe you…

Because they think that they’re so intelligent that I couldn’t possibly have done a trick on them.

Your career as a magician, a conjurer, also investigator, spans decades. It includes things like helping to expose Uri Geller famously in the 1970s, who could bend spoons “with his mind”. What do you think are the kinds of fakes, hoaxes, frauds that deserve attention in today’s world?

Well, two things: the faith-healing business. It’s a total fraud. They pretend that they’re healing people, and people often believe it. And the other thing is just changing people’s minds in general about the supernatural. I think that’s reprehensible, I think it’s something that should be stopped and you have to depend upon people’s willingness to first of all listen and then decide whether or not to believe.

If you had the opportunity to pass on advice to today’s teenagers, people who are finding their way in the world, what would your one piece of advice be?

I would simply say: look behind it. Don’t turn down scientific evidence, because there is good scientific evidence that things like homeopathy for example are total frauds. They do not work and generations ago we should have realised that, but apparently haven’t because homeopathy is being sold all over the world with great success. It does not work. Now that’s just one example. Look into the other claims that are being made. You may find that they are doubtful and you should do something about it.

You are being awarded the Heinz Oberhummer prize for science communication. Where do you think the connection is between what you do and what science communication does?

Well, remember I’m not a scientist, although I’ve been given all kinds of awards for various scientific accomplishments, let’s say. Heinz was a gentleman I never met. It’s my great regret that I am accepting this award and yet I never met this gentleman. I think we would have been very good friends, we could have spent hours just talking and speaking about the inside secrets of how these things are done and how we have to explain them to the public. I’m very, very honoured to be receiving the prize, I can assure you.