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TED2007

James Randi: Homeopathy, quackery and fraud

February 2, 2007

Legendary skeptic James Randi takes a fatal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills onstage, kicking off a searing 18-minute indictment of irrational beliefs. He throws out a challenge to the world's psychics: Prove what you do is real, and I'll give you a million dollars. (No takers yet.)

James Randi - Skeptic and conjuror
Legendary skeptic James Randi has devoted his life to debunking frauds and investigating paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Good morning.
00:16
Happy to see so many fine folks out here
00:18
and so many smiling faces.
00:21
I have a very peculiar
00:24
background, attitude and approach
00:26
to the real world
00:28
because I am a conjurer.
00:30
Now, I prefer that term over magician,
00:32
because if I were a magician, that would mean
00:35
that I use spells and incantations
00:37
and weird gestures
00:39
in order to accomplish real magic.
00:42
No, I don't do that; I'm a conjurer,
00:45
who is someone who pretends to be
00:47
a real magician. (Laughter)
00:50
Now, how do we go about that sort of thing?
00:53
We depend on the fact
00:56
that audiences, such as yourselves,
00:58
will make assumptions.
01:00
For example, when I walked up here
01:02
and I took the microphone from the stand
01:04
and switched it on,
01:06
you assumed this was a microphone, which it is not.
01:08
(Laughter)
01:10
As a matter of fact, this is something
01:12
that about half of you, more than half of you will not be familiar with.
01:14
It's a beard trimmer, you see?
01:17
And it makes a very bad microphone;
01:20
I've tried it many times. (Laughter)
01:22
The other assumption that you made --
01:24
and this little lesson is to show you
01:26
that you will make assumptions.
01:28
Not only that you can, but that you will
01:30
when they are properly suggested to you.
01:32
You believe I'm looking at you.
01:34
Wrong. I'm not looking at you. I can't see you.
01:36
I know you're out there, they told me backstage, it's a full house and such.
01:39
I know you're there because I can hear you,
01:42
but I can't see you because I normally wear glasses.
01:44
These are not glasses, these are empty frames. (Laughter)
01:47
Quite empty frames.
01:49
Now why would a grown man appear before you
01:51
wearing empty frames on his face?
01:54
To fool you, ladies and gentlemen,
01:56
to deceive you, to show that you, too,
01:58
can make assumptions.
02:01
Don't you ever forget that.
02:03
Now, I have to do something -- first of all, switch to real glasses
02:05
so I can actually see you,
02:07
which would probably be a convenience. I don't know.
02:09
I haven't had a good look. Well, it's not that great a convenience.
02:12
(Laughter)
02:14
I have to do something now, which seems
02:16
a little bit strange for a magician.
02:18
But I'm going to take some medication.
02:20
This is a full bottle of
02:22
Calms Forte.
02:24
I'll explain that in just a moment.
02:26
Ignore the instructions,
02:28
that's what the government has to put in there
02:30
to confuse you, I'm sure.
02:32
I will take enough of these. Mm.
02:35
Indeed, the whole container.
02:38
Thirty-two tablets of Calms Forte.
02:47
Now that I've done that -- I'll explain it in a moment --
02:50
I must tell you that
02:53
I am an actor.
02:55
I'm an actor who plays a specific part.
02:57
I play the part of a magician,
03:00
a wizard, if you will, a real wizard.
03:02
If someone were to appear on this stage in front of me
03:05
and actually claim to be
03:08
an ancient prince of Denmark named Hamlet,
03:10
you would be insulted
03:13
and rightly so.
03:15
Why would a man assume that you would believe
03:17
something bizarre like this?
03:19
But there exists out there
03:21
a very large population
03:23
of people who will tell you
03:26
that they have psychic, magical powers
03:28
that they can predict the future,
03:30
that they can make contact with the deceased.
03:32
Oh, they also say
03:34
they will sell you astrology
03:36
or other fortunetelling methods.
03:38
Oh, they gladly sell you that, yes.
03:40
And they also say
03:42
that they can give you perpetual motion machines
03:44
and free energy systems.
03:46
They claim to be psychics,
03:48
or sensitives, whatever they can.
03:50
But the one thing that has made a big comeback
03:52
just recently
03:55
is this business of
03:57
speaking with the dead.
03:59
Now, to my innocent mind,
04:02
dead implies
04:04
incapable of communicating. (Laughter)
04:07
You might agree with me on that.
04:10
But these people, they tend to tell you that
04:12
not only can they communicate with the dead --
04:15
"Hi, there" --
04:17
but they can hear the dead as well,
04:19
and they can relay this information back to the living.
04:21
I wonder if that's true.
04:24
I don't think so, because
04:26
this subculture of people
04:28
use exactly the same gimmicks that we magicians do,
04:30
exactly the same --
04:33
the same physical methods, the same psychological methods --
04:35
and they effectively and profoundly
04:38
deceive millions of people around the earth,
04:41
to their detriment.
04:43
They deceive these people,
04:45
costs them a lot of money,
04:47
cost them a lot of emotional anguish.
04:49
Billions of dollars are spent
04:51
every year, all over the globe,
04:53
on these charlatans.
04:56
Now, I have two questions
04:58
I would like to ask these people
05:00
if I had the opportunity to do so.
05:02
First question: If I want to ask them to call up --
05:04
because they do hear them through the ear.
05:07
They listen to the spirits like this --
05:09
I'm going to ask you to call up the ghost of my grandmother
05:11
because, when she died, she had the family will,
05:14
and she secreted it someplace. We don't know where it is,
05:16
so we ask Granny, "Where is the will, Granny?"
05:18
What does Granny say? She says, "I'm in heaven and it's wonderful.
05:21
I'm here with all my old friends, my deceased friends,
05:24
and my family
05:26
and all the puppy dogs and the kittens that I used to have when I was a little girl.
05:28
And I love you, and I'll always be with you.
05:31
Good bye."
05:34
And she didn't answer the damn question!
05:36
Where is the will?
05:38
Now, she could easily have said,
05:40
"Oh, it's in the library on the second shelf, behind the encyclopedia,"
05:42
but she doesn't say that. No, she doesn't.
05:44
She doesn't bring any useful information to us.
05:47
We paid a lot of money for that information,
05:50
be we didn't get it.
05:52
The second question that I'd like to ask, rather simple:
05:54
Suppose I ask them to contact
05:57
the spirit of my deceased father-in-law, as an example.
05:59
Why do they insist on saying --
06:02
remember, they speak into this ear --
06:04
why do they say, "My name starts with J or M?"
06:06
Is this a hunting game?
06:11
Hunting and fishing? What is it?
06:13
Is it 20 questions? No, it's more like 120 questions.
06:15
But it is a cruel, vicious,
06:18
absolutely conscienceless --
06:22
I'll be all right, keep your seats (Laughter) --
06:25
game that these people play.
06:28
And they take advantage of the innocent, the naive,
06:30
the grieving, the needy people out there.
06:33
Now, this is a process
06:36
that is called cold reading.
06:38
There's one fellow out there,
06:42
Van Praagh is his name, James Van Praagh.
06:45
He's one of the big practitioners of this sort of thing.
06:47
John Edward, Sylvia Browne
06:49
and Rosemary Altea, they are other operators.
06:52
There are hundreds of them all over the earth, but in this country,
06:55
James Van Praagh is very big.
06:58
And what does he do? He likes to tell you
07:00
how the deceased got deceased,
07:02
the people he's talking to through his ear, you see?
07:04
So what he says is, very often, is like this: he says,
07:07
"He tells me, he tells me, before he passed,
07:10
that he had trouble breathing."
07:14
Folks, that's what dying is all about!
07:16
(Laughter)
07:18
You stop breathing, and then you're dead.
07:20
It's that simple.
07:22
And that's the kind of information they're going to bring back to you?
07:24
I don't think so.
07:27
Now, these people will make guesses, they'll say things like,
07:29
"Why am I getting electricity?
07:31
He's saying to me, 'Electricity.'
07:33
Was he an electrician?" "No."
07:36
"Did he ever have an electric razor?" "No."
07:38
It was a game of hunting questions like this.
07:40
This is what they go through.
07:42
Now, folks often ask us
07:44
at the James Randi Educational Foundation,
07:46
they call me, they say, "Why are you so concerned about this, Mr. Randi?
07:48
Isn't it just a lot of fun?"
07:51
No, it is not fun. It is a cruel farce.
07:53
Now, it may bring a certain amount of comfort,
07:56
but that comfort lasts
07:59
only about 20 minutes or so.
08:01
And then the people look in the mirror, and they say,
08:03
I just paid a lot of money for that reading.
08:05
And what did she say to me? 'I love you!'"
08:07
They always say that.
08:10
They don't get any information,
08:12
they don't get any value for what they spend.
08:14
Now, Sylvia Browne is the big operator.
08:16
We call her "The Talons."
08:18
Sylvia Browne -- thank you --
08:20
Sylvia Browne is the big operator
08:22
in this field at this very moment.
08:25
Now, Sylvia Browne -- just to show you --
08:27
she actually gets 700 dollars
08:30
for a 20 minute reading over the telephone,
08:33
she doesn't even go there in person,
08:36
and you have to wait up to two years because
08:38
she's booked ahead that amount of time.
08:40
You pay by credit card or whatever,
08:42
and then she will call you
08:44
sometime in the next two years.
08:46
You can tell it's her. "Hello, this is Sylvia Browne."
08:48
That's her, you can tell right away.
08:50
Now, Montel Williams is an intelligent man.
08:54
We all know who he is on television.
08:57
He's well educated, he's smart,
09:00
he knows what Sylvia Browne is doing
09:02
but he doesn't give a damn.
09:04
He just doesn't care.
09:06
Because, the bottom line is, the sponsors love it,
09:10
and he will expose her
09:13
to television publicity all the time.
09:15
Now, what does Sylvia Browne give you for that 700 dollars?
09:17
She gives you the names of your guardian angels, that's first.
09:20
Now, without that, how could we possibly function? (Laughter)
09:23
She gives you the names of previous lives,
09:26
who you were in previous lives.
09:29
Duh.
09:31
It turns out that the women
09:33
that she gives readings for
09:35
were all Babylonian princesses, or something like that.
09:37
And the men were all Grecian warriors
09:40
fighting with Agamemnon.
09:42
Nothing is ever said about
09:45
a 14 year-old bootblack in the streets of London
09:47
who died of consumption.
09:49
He isn't worth bringing back, obviously.
09:51
And the strange thing -- folks, you may have noticed this too.
09:54
You see these folks on television --
09:57
they never call anybody back from hell. (Laughter)
10:00
Everyone comes back from heaven, but never from hell.
10:04
If they call back any of my friends,
10:07
they're not going to... Well, you see the story.
10:09
(Laughter)
10:11
Now, Sylvia Browne is an exception,
10:14
an exception in one way,
10:17
because the James Randi Educational Foundation, my foundation,
10:19
offers a one million dollar prize in negotiable bonds.
10:22
Very simply won.
10:25
All you have to do is prove any paranormal, occult
10:27
or supernatural event or power of any kind
10:29
under proper observing conditions.
10:31
It's very easy, win the million dollars.
10:33
Sylvia Browne is an exception in that
10:35
she's the only professional psychic
10:37
in the whole world
10:40
that has accepted our challenge.
10:42
She did this on the "Larry King Live" show on CNN
10:45
six and a half years ago.
10:48
And we haven't heard from her since. Strange.
10:51
She said that, first of all, that she didn't know how to contact me.
10:54
Duh.
10:57
A professional psychic who speaks to dead people,
10:59
she can't reach me?
11:02
(Laughter)
11:04
I'm alive, you may have noticed.
11:06
Well, pretty well anyway.
11:08
She couldn't reach me. Now she says she doesn't want to reach me
11:11
because I'm a godless person.
11:14
All the more reason to take the million dollars,
11:17
wouldn't you think, Sylvia?
11:19
Now these people need to be stopped, seriously now.
11:21
They need to be stopped because this is a cruel farce.
11:24
We get people coming to the foundation all the time.
11:26
They're ruined financially and emotionally
11:29
because they've given their money and their faith
11:32
to these people.
11:34
Now, I popped some pills earlier.
11:36
I have to explain that to you.
11:38
Homeopathy, let's find out what that's all about.
11:40
Hmm. You've heard of it.
11:43
It's an alternative form of healing, right?
11:45
Homeopathy actually consists -- and that's what this is.
11:48
This is Calms Forte,
11:51
32 caplets of sleeping pills! I forgot to tell you that.
11:54
I just ingested
11:57
six and a half days worth of sleeping pills.
11:59
(Laughter)
12:02
Six and a half days, that certainly is a fatal dose.
12:04
It says right on the back here,
12:06
"In case of overdose,
12:08
contact your poison control center immediately,"
12:10
and it gives an 800 number.
12:12
Keep your seats -- it's going to be okay.
12:14
I don't really need it
12:16
because I've been doing this stunt
12:18
for audiences all over the world
12:20
for the last eight or 10 years,
12:23
taking fatal doses of homeopathic sleeping pills.
12:25
Why don't they affect me?
12:28
(Laughter)
12:30
(Applause)
12:32
The answer may surprise you.
12:35
What is homeopathy?
12:37
It's taking a medicine that really works
12:39
and diluting it down
12:41
well beyond Avogadro's limit.
12:43
Diluting it down to the point
12:45
where there's none of it left. (Laughter)
12:47
Now folks, this is not
12:50
just a metaphor I'm going to give you now, it's true.
12:52
It's exactly equivalent to taking
12:55
one 325 milligram aspirin tablet,
12:57
throwing it into the middle of Lake Tahoe,
13:01
and then stirring it up, obviously with a very big stick,
13:04
and waiting two years or so
13:07
until the solution is homogeneous.
13:09
Then, when you get a headache,
13:12
you take a sip of this water, and -- voila! -- it is gone.
13:14
(Laughter)
13:17
Now that is true. That is what homeopathy is all about.
13:19
And another claim that they make -- you'll love this one --
13:22
the more dilute the medicine is, they say,
13:25
the more powerful it is.
13:28
Now wait a minute, we heard about a guy in Florida.
13:30
The poor man, he was on homeopathic medicine.
13:33
He died of an overdose.
13:35
He forgot to take his pill.
13:37
(Laughter)
13:39
Work on it. Work on it.
13:41
It's a ridiculous thing. It is absolutely ridiculous.
13:45
I don't know what we're doing,
13:48
believing in all this nonsense over all these years.
13:50
Now, let me tell you,
13:53
The James Randi Educational Foundation
13:55
is waving this very big carrot,
13:57
but I must say, the fact that nobody
13:59
has taken us up on this offer
14:02
doesn't mean that the powers don't exist.
14:04
They might, some place out there.
14:06
Maybe these people are just independently wealthy.
14:09
Well, with Sylvia Browne I would think so.
14:12
You know, 700 dollars for a 20 minute reading
14:14
over the telephone --
14:16
that's more than lawyers make!
14:18
I mean that's a fabulous amount of money.
14:21
These people don't need the million dollars perhaps,
14:23
but wouldn't you think they'd like to take it
14:26
just to make me look silly?
14:28
Just to get rid of this godless person out there
14:30
that Sylvia Browne talks about all the time?
14:33
I think that something needs to be done about this.
14:36
We really would love to have suggestions from you folks
14:38
on how to contact federal, state
14:41
and local authorities
14:44
to get them to do something.
14:46
If you find out -- now I understand.
14:48
We've seen people, even today, speaking to us
14:51
about AIDS epidemics
14:53
and starving kids around the world
14:55
and impure water supplies that people have to suffer with.
14:57
Those are very important,
15:00
critically important to us.
15:02
And we must do something about those problems.
15:04
But at the same time,
15:07
as Arthur C. Clarke said,
15:09
The rotting of the human mind,
15:11
the business of believing in the paranormal and the occult
15:13
and the supernatural --
15:15
all of this total nonsense,
15:17
this medieval thinking --
15:19
I think something should be done about that,
15:21
and it all lies in education.
15:23
Largely, it's the media
15:25
who are to blame for this sort of thing.
15:27
They shamelessly promote
15:29
all kinds of nonsense of this sort
15:31
because it pleases the sponsors.
15:33
It's the bottom line, the dollar line.
15:37
That's what they're looking at.
15:39
We really must do something about this.
15:41
I'm willing to take your suggestions,
15:43
and I'm willing to have you
15:45
tune in to our webpage.
15:47
It's www.randi.org.
15:50
Go in there and look at the archives,
15:53
and you will begin to understand much more
15:55
of what I've been talking about today.
15:57
You will see the records that we have.
15:59
There's nothing like sitting in that library
16:01
and having a family appear there
16:03
and say that Mum gave away all the family fortune.
16:05
She cashed in the CDs,
16:08
she gave away the stocks and the certificates.
16:10
That's really sad to hear,
16:13
and it hasn't helped them one bit,
16:15
hasn't solved any of their problems.
16:18
Yes, there could be a rotting of the American mind,
16:20
and of the minds all the way around the earth,
16:22
if we don't start to think sensibly about these things.
16:25
Now, we've offered this carrot,
16:29
as I say, we've dangled the carrot.
16:31
We're waiting for the psychics to come forth and snap at it.
16:33
Oh, we get lots of them,
16:35
hundreds of them every year come by.
16:37
These are dowsers and people
16:39
who think that they can talk to the dead as well,
16:41
but they're amateurs; they don't know how to evaluate
16:43
their own so-called powers.
16:45
The professionals never come near us,
16:48
except in that case of Sylvia Browne
16:50
that I told you about a moment ago.
16:52
She did accept and then backed away.
16:55
Ladies and gentlemen,
16:58
I'm James Randi,
17:01
and I'm waiting.
17:04
Thank you.
17:07
(Applause)
17:09

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James Randi - Skeptic and conjuror
Legendary skeptic James Randi has devoted his life to debunking frauds and investigating paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Why you should listen

James Randi has an international reputation as a magician and escape artist, but he is perhaps best known as the world's most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Randi has pursued "psychic" spoonbenders, exposed the dirty tricks of faith healers, investigated homeopathic water "with a memory," and generally been a thorn in the sides of those who try to pull the wool over the public's eyes in the name of the supernatural. He has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1986. He's the author of numerous books, including The Truth About Uri GellerThe Faith HealersFlim-Flam!, and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.

In 1996, the James Randi Education Foundation was established to further Randi's work. Randi's long-standing challenge to psychics now stands as a $1,000,000 prize administered by the Foundation. It remains unclaimed.

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