So, it turns out that James Randi is indestructible. Like a rare form of extremophile he can survive in just about any environment, from the Arctic wastes to the depths of the ocean.
Or even more impressive, our school lecture theatre.
Randi and Co. turned up at the gates of my school on Thursday the 29th of November, just before noon. A day that for some reason had decided to reach 38°C, the hottest in November in recorded history.
By 11:45 it was already sweltering and I was feeling nervous. Would the students be receptive? Would they behave? Would Randi melt?
After setting up the stage we marched in approximately 300 students and gave them a moment to settle down. As the mass of bodies added their considerable body heat to the temperature of the room, a horrible realisation struck me.
The air conditioning wasn’t working.
I had essentially thrown 300 students, teachers, guests of honour and James Randi himself into a sauna. Would this be the end of my sceptical career? Would I go down in history as the man who killed Randi with heatstroke? I do not say this with any sense of exaggeration, I was genuinely worried.
Our head of junior school took to the stage and introduced me, who introduced DJ Grothe who introduced Randi and the show began. Randi asked the students “How do you know things?” A simple question, but a deep one. How much of our own knowledge is based on assumptions?
Randi showed us quite convincingly how easy it is to make false assumptions by pointing out that he had fooled us from the very beginning. We all assumed he was wearing regular glasses right up until he took them off and showed them to be nothing more than empty frames.
It punctuated the point that it is incredibly easy to be deceived. Of course, believing that somebody is wearing a pair of glasses isn’t terribly dangerous, but Randi gave us an example of how wrong things could go.
He told us about psychic surgery. A “medical” technique where a psychic surgeon will seemingly penetrate your skin with their bare hands and remove any infected organs.
He showed us a fantastic video of him appearing on the Johnny Carson show where he gave a wonderful demonstration of what it looks like: James Randi – Psychic Surgery He explained how many poor people travel to other countries to have what is essentially a magic trick performed on them. A magic trick that would leave them thinking they had been cured. Most of these people then return home and die, having failed to receive proper medical treatment.
While the students found the video equally disgusting and wonderful, they really had an opportunity to understand just how deadly false beliefs could be. They also saw how horribly deceitful and greedy some people are. No better example of that could be found than Peter Popoff. Randi told us about this faith healer who used his con tricks to bilk thousands of people out of thousands of dollars and like the psychic surgeons, preventing them from receiving proper medical help.
With a chilling reminder of how gullible and forgetful people can be, Randi told us that after being publicly exposed as a charlatan, Popoff is now back in business and raking in seven figures a year. More people like Randi are needed to actively fight these criminals wherever they show up.
Unfortunately his talk had to end a little early due to the heat, but not before he performed some magic for the kids. Finding volunteers wasn’t a problem with dozens of kids wanting to take part in the magic. He had a couple of students tie him up and they did not hold back. The two of them were pulling those knots so tightly it was like watching a tug of war. I actually got worried that they were hurting him but Randi barely seemed to notice. If anything he was encouraging them.
He escaped their knots with ease, and then proceeded to perform a second escape in which he slipped his bonds before anybody had even noticed! You could see the years of experience as a magician at work. He wowed the kids so quickly and effortlessly (seemingly, anyway) and I got my first real taste of how he earned the moniker “The Amazing.”
Richard Saunders took to the stage at this point and ran a Q&A session for the kids. Not surprisingly most of the questions were of the “How did you do that trick?” and “Can you do another one?” variety. He must have gotten his second wind because he whipped out a deck of cards and performed a fantastic version of a trick called “Out of this World.”
It was a wonderful day and one that I never thought I would see happen. To be honest I never expected to meet Randi in person let alone have him speak at my school. I want to thank the Victorian Skeptics for giving me and my students such an amazing opportunity. In particular I want to thank Don Hyatt for spearheading the event.
I must also thank Richard Saunders who stepped up and assisted Randi during his talk when it looked like the heat might be getting the better of him.
On a personal note, thank you D.J. Grothe for helping me relax when I was contemplating the likelihood of going down in history as the sceptic who killed Randi with a heat wave. He patted me on the back and said “Don’t worry, it’s not even close to worst gig he’s had.”
All images courtesy of Andrew Krause Imagery.