James Randi – Skeptic, debunker of the paranormal

James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr
James Randi in 2008 by Napolean 70 via Flickr

James Randi (1928-) is a Toronto born American citizen known for his skepticism and enthusiastic debunking of paranormal truth claims.

In the past, Randi has demanded scientific evidence of paranormal abilities using science as he defines it. This was evident in his “$1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge,” terminated in 2015, with the following exception:

…any established psychic may contact JREF via email to be tested directly (preferably with an independent, third party TV crew.) ¹

During his lenghty career Randi has exposed alleged psychics who couldn’t perform under his agreed upon conditions.

However, Randi tends to emphasize the naturalistic and public aspects of life, making the replication of an alleged effect within these realms the criteria for scientific proof. This is a prominent view in the 21st century. But life, thank God, is rarely that cut and dried. There are other ways of understanding science, its meaning and appropriate method.

James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMo...
James Randi in Sydney as a speaker at the TAMoZ conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, some social thinkers and philosophers of science liken science to an agreed upon social construction, paradigm, myth or fiction. Some even say that science is like another religion. For these thinkers, the conceptual distinctions among science, myth and religion are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some theologians have called theology the “Queen of Sciences.”

Randi was a guest on the popular Johnny Carson show several times, which is not surprising. Randi’s approach arguably gained a measure of popularity not only because he was successful is debunking but also because his weltanschauung resonated with many skeptical and non-religious persons.

In his own words:

“I’ve said it before: there are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity, the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity; I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot. Religious persons have by far the easier position; they say they believe in a deity because that’s their preference, and they’ve read it in a book. That’s their right.”²

The meaning of the phrase “and they’ve read it in a book” is unclear in this sentence. If Randi is suggesting that reading about God in a book always conforms to or reinforces a belief in God, then I would disagree. Some people have ongoing spiritual experiences which lead them to believe in God in ways not necessarily outlined in a holy book. For these people, living spirituality is not just about choosing to believe and reading something in a book.

Moreover, for those concerned about getting it right in a true scientific sense, reason is applied to any unusual or unconventional experience which they may have. This is somewhat similar to the old medieval theological view that “reason follows revelation” but it differs in that reason is not used to forcibly make revelation conform to Biblical passages or orthodox teachings.³

James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdal...
James Randi Foundation offices, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the above quotation Randi also says he would have to “produce evidence” to say that no God exists. Essentially, he is applying the same criteria for atheism as he does for religious and paranormal belief.

However, for many a deep, possibly mystical relationship with God is a personal matter that may extend outward to others in subtle ways. It does not have to be publicly verifiable to be real.

By way of analogy, if person “X” has a secret relationship with another person “Y,” others not in that particular relationship, whom we’ll call group “Z,” may be unaware of the connection between “X” and “Y.” But that does not mean that the relationship between “X” and “Y” does not exist. Those who are in that relationship know very well that it exists. Furthermore, that secret relationship may have effects on “Z” without “Z” even knowing it.

¹ http://web.randi.org/

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi

³ In today’s world the idea of revelation does not necessarily fit with ancient scriptures or official religious teachings. Many have revelations that challenge traditional scripture and teachings. Also, revelation may be subtle and ongoing in the forms of grace, insight and intuition. But it seems that if one does not use reason to analyze any kind of revelation, great or small, they run the risk of making mistakes or, at the extreme, become insane persons. Evelyn Underhill recognized this as far back as 1911.

Related » Psychokinesis, Seer


  1. I appreciate that you want to look at this issue from more than one perspective, but I have to say I think what he does is invaluable. People tend to be EXTREMELY credulous. I have personally had experiences that I would classify as “paranormal” and could not be duplicated under scientific conditions, but I also know there are a lot of frauds and crooks out there who prey on the gullible.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “other ways of viewing science, its meaning and appropriate methods.”


  2. Hi… thanks for your comments. I guess I’m just hinting at the idea that there could be a scientific approach to spirituality, parapsychology and the paranormal but that it would probably be a different kind of science than that which Randi stipulates in his challenge.

    Carl Jung and others have hinted at this ‘new’ kind of science. I guess it’s the science of mysticism, when you get right down to it.


  3. I think that’s bending the definition of “science.” The scientific method requires forming a hypothesis, then experimenting in a controlled fashion which either results in empirical validation of the hypothesis, or modification of the hypothesis. The key here is the controlled fashion. When it starts coming down to “belief” or “feelings” (mysticism) it is by definition no longer “science.” People are free to believe whatever they like, but belief alone doesn’t make something true. Anecdotal evidence is not evidence.

    I’ve read the rigorous testing model Randi lays out on his site. It’s extremely well thought out, as something of that nature needs to be.


  4. Well, when you get into the sociology, philosophy and theology of science I believe things become a bit less clear cut:


    In religion there’s this notion of discernment, which I think can be a kind of science especially when it involves drawing upon life experience, learning from mistakes and communicating with other people (in Catholicism, for instance, a spiritual director).



    • Oh I would imagine so. There might be a secret war between good ones and nefarious ones… underworld characters, informers, enforcers, spies, rats, etc.

      Problem is, the world is so corrupt that no matter how ‘psychic’ a good one may be, they probably couldn’t do too much.

      I don’t know. Fun to speculate.


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