‘An Honest Liar’: The story of James Randi

Recently I learned about a new documentary concerning James Randi, called “An Honest Liar.” Unfortunately, it won’t be out until early spring. What a shame, because though I’m no movie buff, here was one I wanted to watch.

You see, I grew up watching the “The Amazing Randi” doing incredible stunts on TV during the ’60s and ’70s, then in the ’80s I started paying attention to his other career, that of the stinky eye ferreting out frauds.

That started earlier. As Randi grew better as a magician, he got sick of seeing others using his same tricks not to entertain, but to gain the confidence of innocents in order to steal from them. His lifelong crusade began in 1964 with a $1,000 challenge for anyone who could offer proof of the paranormal. The prize later went to $10,000, then to a cool million dollars.

The media attention around his crusade was intense and it trickled down to young adults such as myself. You know, we of the happy hippie generation, still in the afterglow of discovering and experiencing a miraculous world all around us. Spiritual and chemical energy infused everything and there was so much to take in and wonder about. The metaphysical seemed interwoven with everything and now science was starting to find supporting evidence.

Then came Randi, to remind those of us who would listen, about skepticism and turning a critical eye on amazing claims. While these exposures were sobering for many, they enraged just as many who resisted having their bubbles burst. It’s telling that over a thousand claimants have taken and failed Randi’s “challenge,” yet spiritual/psychic con artists are raking in as much as ever.

Still, for many, Randi’s interviews were teaching moments of rational critical thinking and he taught many how to recognize bunk. Such skills helped me navigate a world filled with too many predators hiding behind the smiling mask of the con artist.

But all that’s known to me from snippets – various articles I’ve read. I actually didn’t know much about the man himself. So, reading the synopsis of this documentary, I knew I wanted to see it.

Life is full of surprises. As serendipity would have it, I was reading the program the very afternoon of the evening “An Honest Liar” was being screened in Yountville, Calif.

Now, I’m just a working stiff, in the area because of a lucky short job I landed, and headed home the next morning. The last thought on my mind was attending a fancy Napa Valley Film Festival, yet that’s where I found myself. Sipping on some Cabernet Sauvignon that proclaimed to me: Now you see? Taste me… look at me… swirl me and breathe me in… take your time, savor the moment. Now, wise guy… you see why some don’t mind dropping a Ben Franklin for a bottle if they can?

With that boisterous glass of wine in hand, I was ready as “An Honest Liar” began with a review of Randi’s career and fun old TV clips. The film recalled the unmasking of Uri Geller, the “psychic” spoon-bender who was investigated by some gullible scientists that judged him legitimate, making him a media sensation until Randi exposed his tricks.

There was also Reverend Popoff, the minister with miraculous telepathic “gifts” (provided by his wife transmitting information, gleaned off the prayer cards visitors filled out, into Popoff ’s “hearing aid”). Using that information, he mesmerized his flock and proceeded to “heal” his hapless victims and rake in the donations.

It got fascinating when we learned of the various fictitious psychics Randi created. They managed to fool the world despite Randi liberally sprinkling hints. When Randi wasn’t all hell and brimstone on frauds, he found time to help Alice Cooper create some hell and brimstone on the stage.

Then came the plot twists, for those of us who haven’t kept up with Randi’s amazing life. There was the surprise of Randi coming out in 2010 and publicly revealing his 25-year partnership with Jose Alvarez, a fascinating survivor and amazing fellow in his own right.

Then, while still absorbing all that, we’re hit with an even more startling revelation, unfolding in real time, heightened by the dead seriousness of jail time and worse.

After the film was finished, we were treated to a Q&A with Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, the co-directors. They surprised us by announcing a couple visitors, Randi and Alvarez in the flesh.

Watching Randi walk down the aisle, I couldn’t help but think that he looks like Charles Darwin in his later years. That’s fitting, though Harry Houdini would probably deserve it more, considering he’s the granddaddy of debunkers of spiritualists and con artists, as Randi acknowledges.

Taking questions, Randi responded to one with something I’d already jotted down as the single best line in the documentary, “People need to believe.” Later, I had a chance to speak with him and asked: “OK, people need to believe – what can we do with that? Where do we go from there?”

He looked at me with those deep intense eyes, shrugged and shook his head for a beat, then perked up: “Teach the young ones,” and invited me to check out the James Randi Educational Foundation.

After watching the documentary, I came to appreciate that Randi had given me more than skills to deal with con artists. He’d helped me learn that I was my own toughest challenge – falling in love with my own notions and refusing to acknowledge my blind spots, being afraid to be proven wrong. Fabricating bubbles of contrived reality in order to justify rejecting contrary evidence, no matter how valid.

Such failings are our worst enemies.

And what of our allies? There’s the passion to keep learning about this incredible world I inhabit for a short moment. Appreciating that no matter how much I think I may already know, there’s more to learn. Besides, I could be wrong and need to remain willing to honestly listen to and digest new information – then base my belief on the strength of the evidence presented – not on my tender ego or desires. If I’m wrong it’s a learning opportunity and not an excuse to lash out against the bearer of better information.

In closing, what I thought would be an entertaining, informative movie about one of the most interesting characters of my time turned into a journey of discovery and reflection for me. “An Honest Liar” gets my thumbs-up recommendation, with or without an accompanying glass of fine wine.

Living near Durango, Colo., Peter Miesler maintains a blog dedicated to sharing scientific information and challenging climate-science contrarians at http://whatsupwiththatwatts.blogspot.com.

From Peter Miesler.