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The highlight of the weekend for most of the skeptics here is the chance to meet the man dubbed "The King of Debunking." Randi is a 5-foot-5 command performance, with his characteristic white beard and brow, and penchant for zingers. On each morning of the conference, Randi arrives at the main lecture hall in a wheelchair. A slow-moving pack of swooning disciples gathers around him. Pictures are taken. Hands are shaken. A little girl asks him to sign her straitjacket. A booth sells little James Randi dolls with glasses, bushy white beards, and tiny handcuffs. Some conferees come with questions they've been dying to ask for years ("Mr. Randi, when you flew in upside down over Japan, did you have any plan in the event of an autorotation ditch?"). But most want to give thanks to the man who got them sober to the ways of the world: "Hi, I saw you speak in Toronto, and you changed my life." "You let me know it was okay to question my own beliefs."
Magician Penn Jillette and his usually quiet partner, Teller, have known Randi for nearly 35 years. "Make no mistake," Teller says. "Randi is the reason everybody's here." Regulars at the Amazing Meeting, Penn and Teller often cite Randi during their nightly show at the Rio and on their Showtime show, Bullshit! "He means everything to us," Penn says. "It's hard to think of something he doesn't influence that we do. There certainly wouldn't be a Penn and Teller as it is now if not for Randi."
Penn puts Randi in the same category as innovators like Bob Dylan and Pablo Picasso — people who moved the world through their life's work. Penn first visited Randi's house in New Jersey in 1975, which gave him an idea of how he wanted to live his life: "The door opened the wrong way, and there were talking birds and Alice Cooper heads," he says. "It was, for me, the first sense that you could be artistically crazy and flamboyant and still grounded in reality."
Randi's debunking work over the past 40 years has earned him fame, powerful friendships, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and a spot on Esquire's 1997 list as one of the 100 Best People in the World.
Hard-core skeptics see their work as a moral imperative. Randi points to the millions wasted every year on astrology or phony faith healers and psychics who profit from people in pain. "Someone who lies to strangers for money is just as amoral as someone who robs a 7-Eleven," Penn tells the audience at one point.
The emotional tolls of charlatanism are as real as the financial ones: In 2003, on The Montel Williams Show, psychic Sylvia Browne — who charges upward of $700 for personal sessions — told the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck that the boy was "no longer with us" and that his body would be found in "a wooded area." The news devastated his family, until four years later, when Shawn was discovered alive, living in an apartment with his kidnapper. Randi has confronted Browne on several talk shows. On Larry King Live in 2001, she agreed to take his challenge, but Randi is still waiting for her to show up.
Randi wasn't the first to dream up a financial reward for anybody who could prove his or her paranormal skills. Harry Houdini offered $10,000 of his own money in 1923 to any psychic who could prove that his or her gifts were genuine. The master magician said he felt compelled to draw a distinction between entertainers and criminally minded grifters preying upon a gullible public. "It takes a flim-flammer to catch a flim-flammer," he used to say. Nobody passed the challenge.
Following Houdini's model, Randi started offering his own money in 1964 for proof of supernatural powers. First the reward was $1,000, then $10,000. One of his friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams, put up $1 million in 1996. That nobody has won the challenge in 40 years doesn't stop a regular stream of applicants: a woman who claimed to cry tears of glass, the man who said he could detect buried water with two bent coat hangers, the woman who could supposedly make strangers urinate using only the power of her mind.
"I never claim they don't have these powers," Randi says. "I just say there is no evidence to support these claims. I say, 'If it's so, I'll give you a million dollars.' That's a pretty big carrot."
It's unclear how long the foundation would survive or who would carry on the challenge if he can't beat his cancer. On the first morning of the conference, Randi, looking more slouched and frail than most of his fans have seen him, rises slowly from his wheelchair and walks up the steps of the stage. He tells the dedicated faces peering back at him about his coming chemotherapy. Two weeks earlier, doctors had removed a Ping-Pong-ball–sized tumor from his intestines.
"We'll fight it," he reassures the audience, though many can't fight back tears. "And we'll beat this. We still have a lot of work to do."
Randi's voice is scratchy and strained from the tubes down his throat during the surgery. Hangover from the anesthesia has left occasional blurry spots in his otherwise remarkable memory. The procedure left him weak, begrudgingly confined most of the time to his wheelchair. "It's not a matter of pride," he explains. "It's a matter of the impression you make on people. You want to appear to be empowered. It's the show business in me."