Title: An Honest Liar
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a documentary of James Randi’s life.
I’d known about his feud with Uri Geller and about his challenge to give one million dollars to any psychic phenomena that can be done under strict scientific conditions (not yet collected).
There was, however, several other things that I did not know. I did not know that, in conjunction with Australia 60 minutes, he’d trained a young man named Jose Alvarez in how to behave like one of those charlatans that pretend to channel 50,000 year old beings (think J.Z. Knight and Ramtha). They flew to Australia and apparently made a huge splash. Jose was clearly patterning himself after Ramtha. However, large numbers of people were interpreting words of wisdom from the nonsense that he spouted.
Later, Randi heard that James McDonnell (of McDonnell Douglas, now part of my beloved Boeing) was a believer in paranormal phenomena and created a $500,000 grant to research this. There were a couple of very young aspiring magicians (17 and 18) who had been inspired by Randi and somehow got in touch with them. Randi surreptitiously had them apply to participate in the grant program (Randi named what he was doing as Project Alpha).
They both got into the program. Randi provided the program a list of eleven things that the experimenters needed to do to be scientifically correct. It turns out that the two, through pretty basic social engineering, were able to easily get the researchers to ignore pretty much all of these rules, at which point, the two could appear to perform psychic phenomena via simple magic.
Over time, Randi continued to provide additional input to the program to make the experiment more strict, but the two young men were continually able to circumvent the additional requirements and still appear to be performing psychic wonders.
Under ‘controlled’ conditions, the two were able to bend spoons, identify pictures in sealed envelopes, move objects in a container, and cause electrical surges.
The two were told by Randi that they were to immediately confess if anyone on the project asked them if they were faking. No one ever did.
Finally, Randi announced to the world Project Alpha. As can be expected, this caused an uproar. It brings out a couple of interesting points. It shows that even smart, experienced researches can be fooled. It put a dark light on all of the academic parapsychological research that was being done then (most famous being the Rhine Institute at Duke University). Such research needs to done in a double blind way to prevent the possibility of a researcher’s bias affecting the experiment. Even well funded parapsychological research is certainly no guarantee of quality results.
The movie tag line makes a tease about Randi’s secret, which really isn’t that much of a secret at all. He’s gay. After he worked closely with Jose on the Australian fraud, they became very close, and twenty-five years later, they’re still together.
What is dramatic is Jose’s story. He grew up in Venezuela. In those times (and maybe now for all I know), it was hostile to gays. When he visited America, he did not want to go home. Therefore, about the time that he met Randi, he’d adopted a false identify (Jose Alvarez). Twenty-five years later, immigration caught up to him, grabbed him out of Randi’s house, and arrested him. He ultimately was freed and Randi and Jose later married.
What is interesting to me is that Randi has spent a significant part of his life shining truth and exposing lies.
So, did Randi know about Jose and thus led a personal life of a lie? Or was the great skeptic duped by a young Venezuelan man? Does it change his legacy?