A mong many tributes to the great James Randi, who died last week aged 92, one stands out. Hours after the death was announced, cutlery expert Uri Geller reacted with a tweet he piously expanded on Facebook. “How sad that Randi died with hatred in his soul. Love to you all.” One thing that the most professional paranormalist may find it hard to conceal, you gather, is indecent glee.
Geller’s public gloat has, however, ensured that many people who might never otherwise have viewed his televised humbling in 1973, at the height of media credulity about his claimed paranormal talent, will now have witnessed the spectacle of his inexplicably interrupted powers. Randi had advised the producers to supply their own props. Even supreme rationalists, it turns out, can exact vengeance after death.
Mediums, astrologers, homeopaths, clairvoyants, faith healers, mind-readers and anti-vaxxers featured among his targets
Spoon-benders are unlikely to be the only profession toasting the disappearance – supposing we rule out further hauntings – of Randi, who, being himself a brilliant magician as “The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold” (previously “The Great Randall: Telepath”) was repeatedly more effective than scientists at examining paranormalist claims, sometimes by simply performing their stunts himself.
Mediums, dowsers, astrologers, homeopaths, clairvoyants, faith-healers, mind-readers, spirit guides and anti-vaxxers also featured among Randi’s targets after he moved on from surpassing Houdini’s escapology to exposing all forms of pseudoscience, on principle but with a showmanship that made him reliably more compelling than his subjects. This made him immeasurably valuable to sceptics. Addressing homeopathy, for instance, he appreciated that argument alone would have less impact in demonstrating the staggering uselessness of these royal-endorsed products than his filmed consumption of a homeopathic overdose.
Before Randi’s retirement in 2015, his eponymous educational foundation’s “paranormal challenge”, offering $1m to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural ability in scientific conditions, provided sceptics with a perfect response to ambitious phonies: supposing they didn’t want the money, how about the glory? The cash went unclaimed. Now, with Randi gone, life just got much more comfortable for purveyors of pseudoscience and, it follows, less so for their prey, the public.
If, say, the prognostication industry, which proved either unable or unwilling to alert Earthlings to the horrors coming in 2020, does nothing worse than make fools of consumers, Randi showed that more ambitious charlatans, such as the British manufacturer of a fake bomb detector, which he exposed in 2008, could kill them. Now, with lizard-believers hosting UK anti-mask/anti-5G/anti-Covid-19/anti-vaxx/reportedly antisemitic rallies in Trafalgar Square, and with quack remedies and conspiracy theories disseminated by the White House as well as by social media, his death only underlines the absence of comparably effective sceptics to counter lies more baleful than Doris Stokes’s “I’m getting an Eileen”.
How much did we hear from Piers Corbyn before Twitter plus the virus turned him into a free-speech martyr?
Long before Covid-19 elicited interventions from influencers including the anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic and that oracle Eamonn Holmes, Randi had warned against celebrity contributions to vaccination panic. “We have a Dark Age of sorts facing us,” he wrote in 2010, a time when Andrew Wakefield seemed to have done his worst, “one in which a generation of children may be decimated through the ignorance of the public, fuelled by irresponsible public figures who assume expertise they do not possess”.
Since then, irresponsible minor figures have learned, in good time to do extensive damage, to transform themselves into major public nuisances. How much did we hear from Piers Corbyn before Twitter plus the virus turned him from weird sibling into a free-speech martyr, currently telling his followers: “Modern Vax is utterly evil. It’s purpose is to maim kill control and depopulate.” If there’s anything to the theory, one that informs Kate Summerscale’s new novel inspired by 1930s poltergeist reports, that superstition thrives in periods of uncertainty and disruption, the appetite for Corbyn, Wakefield, David Icke and their various scare tactics, directed at an already fearful public, could probably have been anticipated, at least by anyone except a professional astrologer.
After the First World War and the 1918 flu pandemic, Summerscale has pointed out, “many of the bereaved found consolation in seances. In an era of widespread technological change, it seemed plausible that the living could forge channels of communication with the dead.” Likewise, earlier, Daniel Defoe: “These terrors and apprehensions of the people led them into a thousand weak, foolish and wicked things, which there wanted not a sort of people, really wicked, to encourage them to; and this was a running about to fortune tellers, cunning men and astrologers, to know their fortune…”
Updated, amid reports of a renewed appetite for forecasts, we find the Daily Mail keen to gratify the excellent foppery of the world, as someone once called it, with insights from the astrologer Jessica Adams. One statement in a 2019-dated forecast for March 2020, “we’re going to see computer and human viruses”, is widely taken (unlike Bill Gates’s 2015 prediction) to compensate for the failure of apparently all her rivals to spot what frustrated stars/spirits/entrails have been trying to tell humanity about a virus that, according to other paranormalists, does not exist (Icke), is no worse than flu (Trump), was made by Bill Gates (44% of Republicans) or alternatively in China (also Trump), then accidentally transmitted to a human “while delivering the virus to Iran for bacteriological warfare reasons” (Geller).
Luckily for us, Adams is also a medium. “I’ve always been able to see the spirit world and I know about things before they happen,” she told the Mail. I know this is a busy time, especially for the world’s only reliable astrologer, but is there any chance she could make contact with The Amazing Randi – shortish guy, big beard – and ask where we can find his successor?
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist