My 30 minutes with James Randi: Viking blood, computers, and the importance of skepticism

Did you know that James Randi most likely has viking blood flowing through his veins, or did you ever wonder what kind of computer he uses? Wonder no more.

The background for this is that James Randi is currently holding a series of talks in Norway in connection with a campaign by the Norwegian Humanist Association called "no one likes to be fooled".

There is a growing commercial market of "alternative" thoughts, ideas, products and services that all claim to solve all sorts of problems, but often with a severe lack of actual facts to back up their claims. The campaign aims to encourage critical thinking, so that you can avoid being fooled by people trying to get to your money by making unverifiable claims.

James Randi is often referred to as a "professional skeptic" due to his many years of actively revealing the truth behind seemingly miraculous events and claims. Even so, he is open to being wrong, and there is a million dollar prize waiting for someone to cash it in by showing actual evidence of paranormal, supernatural, or occult activities.

I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with Randi at his hotel a couple of days after attending his talk in Oslo. …

At the age of 82, James Randi is still going strong. Norway is just the latest country he's visiting during his frequent travels around the world to speak to people about things related to trickery and fraud. His talks, a mixture between showmanship, entertainment, education, and wakeup calls, are always a hit with the audience.

After meeting up in the lobby of his hotel in Oslo, we sat down for a quick chat.

We started out by talking a little bit about the background for his visit in Norway, and how his stay here was likely to raise awareness around the importance of critical thinking.

Unfortunately, there is no lack of anything-but-critical thinking in this country. For example, we have Norwegian princess Märtha Louise, whose "Angel School" had the brilliant idea of "helping" the Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims by "sending them some angels to tune the Earth in order to restore balance", while pointing out the "hidden blessing" of any tragic situation.

This is just one example of what seems to be a growing trend of people looking for alternatives to reality-based thought in Norway.

However, it is not like this country is alone in having to deal with the issue.

We talked about how, across the world, we see the existence of doomsday cults. These people and groups claim to have predicted the end of the world on a specific date, and, Randi pointed out, they will always refuse to admit that they were wrong after that date had passed. In fact, some of them have the nerve to claim that their prayers or other actions actually prevented the predicted event from occurring! I must admit that I had never heard that excuse before, but I am not surprised that someone might be using it. And now we're just waiting for the big one in 2012!

James Randi and I at his hotel in Oslo.
As for James Randi himself, the first thing you will notice when you see him in person is that he is not very tall or physically imposing, but he still has a powerful presence. What he lacks in physical size, he more than makes up for with his sharp intellect and big personality.

He pointed out the importance of "staying grounded". Staying in touch with reality is crucial in his line of work, so he avoids intoxicating substances. At most, he said, he can enjoy a taste of wine with good food, but that was very rare, and never in significant quantities.

At the same time, he seems to be familiar with Norwegian drinking culture. He even got a taste of it (the culture, not the alcohol) when he dropped by a pub to meet up with some of his fans after his Oslo talk.

One might wonder if perhaps his choice to avoid such substances has contributed to his respectable age?

That is not to say that everything has been a walk in the park. A few years ago, Randi suffered a heart attack, and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. He had to have his chest cracked open in order to undergo a bypass surgery, a medical procedure that would keep most people bound to the bed. But he told me about how, obviously with his background in show business ("the show must go on"), he left his hospital bed prematurely in order to make it in time for his scheduled TED talk.

There was a real risk of complications, and there was even a team of medics backstage in case something went wrong. He explained that this performance was far from his best one, but patched up after the recent surgery and still trying to recover, he pulled through. He successfully carried out his performance, and eventually recovered fully.

In 2009, Randi suffered a second major medical problem, when he announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Once again, he had to undergo surgery, and now there was the added burden of chemotherapy as well. However, the chemotherapy treatment was not as unpleasant as one might think. Modern medicine has made numerous advancements in the past few years, and his treatment seemed to be fairly mild compared to some of the horror stories out there.

Today, Randi says, he is healthy.

And clearly, he must be somewhat healthy to be able to travel the world as he does, and walk around on a stage for up to two or three hours while doing his talk.

He also said that he still enjoys what he's doing, and it didn't sound like he was planning to retire any time soon. There are a lot of frauds out there, after all, and Randi has exposed his fair share of them. The likes of Nostradamus and Uri Geller have been thoroughly dealt with in Randi's books. And while his detractors are quick to criticize him for being one-sided, there's no denying that he has put a great deal of thought into this through several decades of investigating extraordinary claims.

During our conversation, we also briefly touched on his origins. I thought I had heard a Canadian accent at times when he spoke, and it turns out that he was indeed born in Canada. How he ended up in the US, and as a US citizen, was a slightly longer story, but he apparently felt at home and welcome there. And when he witnessed abuse by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police first-hand, that was one of the final straws that finally made him apply for a US citizenship.

Digging even further, his roots apparently reach all the way back do Denmark through his grandparents. That's "almost Norway", I suppose, since Denmark and Norway have been part of the same kingdom. And perhaps it is viking blood flowing through his veins which can explain his determination as he attempts to educate the world about frauds, fraudsters, and many of the tricks that are used to deceive people?

What surprised me a bit about Randi was how quickly he sometimes responded to e-mails. And yes, he responds personally when you send him an e-mail. He explained that if he happens to be using the computer when you send an e-mail, he will see it almost immediately. And if you happened to mail him late the previous evening, you would probably have gotten a reply fairly quickly. Apparently he was somewhat tired from staying up a bit too late the night before, typing away on his computer!

Now, he did make it clear that he was by no means an advanced computer user, but my impression was that his computer is an important tool to him. One could say that for someone his age, it would be surprising that he even uses a computer at all. However, this is a man who is still actively doing his job even at 82. Maybe we can conclude that in this case, age is just a number.

I was also so bold as to ask him what kind of computer he was using, and he explained that he was currently using a Mac. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), he indicated that he preferred Windows (or, as he jokingly referred to it, Bill Gates' system) because that was what he was used to. There's always a learning curve when switching to something different, so maybe we should check back on him later and see if he has adapted more to his Mac. Or maybe he'll go back to Bill Gates.

He did mention that he had someone there with him to help out in case of computer trouble.

I did not ask him which browser he was using, although I suppose I should have. In fact, there are a lot of things I could have asked him about, but it was now less than an hour until he had to leave his hotel room and head for the airport.

As we wrapped up our little conversation, we talked about how it has been 14 years since he last visited Norway. Considering the turnout for his talks, he should definitely not wait another 14 years before coming back here, which he acknowledged. The talk in Oslo had room for 1000 people, but something like 1500 people apparently had to be turned down. A similar situation arose in Trondheim yesterday. So if you are in or around Bergen and plan to attend his final talk of this Norway trip, you should probably try to get there early!

He ended up saying that it was likely that he would be returning to Norway in the future, and probably before another 14 years have passed…

To close off, I'd like to thank James Randi for taking the time to meet with me, and I hope I did not cause him any delays on his trip to Trondheim!

If you want to learn more about who James Randi is and what he does, visit the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). There you can find information, schedules, and contact details for both him and his organization.


6 thoughts on “My 30 minutes with James Randi: Viking blood, computers, and the importance of skepticism

  1. Wow, that must have been fun!I knew you were a passionate rationalist thinker ever since you blogged about the stork theory! 🙂

  2. I went to one of his shows in Oslo many years ago, probably in the early 90s(?). One of his magic tricks was reading peoples' mind, and I figured out how he had manipulated a printed Book to make it happen. Unfortunately one of his assistants stopped me from checking my theories 😉

  3. Originally posted by haavard:

    by the Norwegian Humanist Association called "no one likes to be fooled".

    Is it a humanist organisation or a secular humanist organisation?I love how in some of his talks he'll do a subtle magic trick. :up:Originally posted by huxr:

    Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene.

    :lol:Originally posted by haavard:

    In 2009, Randi suffered a second major medical problem, when he announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

    Originally posted by haavard:

    Today, Randi says, he is healthy.

    Aha, see, a miracle! 🙄

  4. So he is the guy behind 'The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge' ? :yes:Thanx for that from all humanity. Without irony.

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