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