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Dr. Narendra Dabholkar

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Prabhakar Nanawaty

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Million dollar challenge from Randi for who can demonstrate supernatural powers

For those who may not know about him, I would like to introduce James Randi aka the amazing Randi -one of the most well known skeptics on this earth and has a million dollar challenge for any one who can demonstrate supernatural powers or can show him something which can prove such. With his famous organization JREF, the James Randi Education Foundation he is a household name in the US and well known all over the world for debunking the supernatural claims which could be anything from the healing powers of homeopathic concoctions to healing by prayers or anything else for that matter which can be called as supernatural.

Now, 84 and still active he had been to India for the first time and was at Bangalore after attending the Thinkfest at Goa and the program was at short notice due to the visa problems that Randi had to face.  I was told that the visa was in his hands just 4 hours before his flight was to take off and the appearance had been almost cancelled. Since had few days free he decided to come to Bengaluru and meet some of us. The programs were arranged by Nakul Shenoy at various places in Benagaluru on three days. On the first it was a meet for members of the magic circle while on the second it was for those interested and had registered on line with the organisers. He had also arranged for a meet with me to discuss various aspects of the movement inIndiaand D.J.Grothe, the President of the foundation was with him and it was a double purpose interview with me interviewing them for our readers and the other way around for their readers!

 Speaking to us Randi had in his hands a dice used at some casinos atLas Vegasin which there were three on the opposite side of six while the normal ones have one! The hawk like eyes of Randi had caught this and being 84 years of age had not diminished his zeal for debunking! Anyway the same sleight of hand was demonstrated later on too during lunch and then at a public lecture.

            He clarified that the movement in theUSwas of three groups- the atheist groups whose focus in on discussions about the nonexistence of the supernatural forces, the humanists who emphasise on the equality of all humankind and the skeptics who were mainly interested in investigating the claims of those who professed to have supernatural powers. Though the ultimate goal was the same the methodology was different.

The James Randi Education foundation has mainly four tasks as of now and going into the fifth one soon. Their most publicized activity is the million dollar challenge whose text runs as follows: there is a fake cheque for a million dollars and the promise is to replace it with a genuine one for any one who could demonstrate a paranormal ability under proper observable conditions!

The foundation conducts a meeting called asTAMmeeting- the amazing meeting in which there are lectures and demonstrations of so called supernatural phenomena. Most importantly the foundation educates young school children to develop rational thinking through their kits which just encourage children to ask questions and get answers by themselves about various so called claims of the paranormal.

The foundation has a well known media wing too which takes care of videos, podcacsts, radio and printing of books too. They have promised to put one of my books on line soon.

When queried about his million dollar offer for the demonstration of paranormal claims he told me that he got that idea from a book Begone godmen- the famous tome on the subject written by none one else but our own Abraham T.Kovoor who was also my inspiration to join the movement. Randi told me that when he went to Srilanka in 1996 he shook hands with Kovoor- he said thanks to Sir Arthur C.Clarke the famous science fiction writer, whom he had gone to film! I asked him how that was possible as Kovoor passed away long back and he said there was the miracle! He had gone toUniversityofMoratuawhere Kovoor’s skeleton was hanging and went shook hands with it telling him that he was glad to be shaking the hand of his inspiration.

Both Randi and Grothe were awed by our work and the audiences we interacted with. They said there were more people in a single program than they could meet with in a year. They also expressed interest in collaborating with us in activities in fields of common interests. They were already having such with groups inAfricaand wanted us to train them in exposing the godmen in those countries, particularly the Shamans and the Witch doctors who were taking the people for a ride. Randi said his life’s ambition was to end exploitation of people who were being taken for a ride by the peddlers of concoctions, devises and such things, putting people’s lives to risk while lining their own pockets. He came down heavily on Homeopathy which was peddling sugar pills with imaginary powers of healing. This was very evident in the interaction he had in the same evening in which he spoke at length on these things. He also showed video clippings of his some famous exposures one of an evangelist who was using FM radio broadcasts by his wife who would first mingle with the audience get details from them and transmit the same to him through an earpiece which appeared to be a hearing aid but actually a radio which could receive FM broadcasts. He had a radio engineer with him who tuned in to the some frequency and recorded the conversations some of which he said were very derogatory. He also demonstrated some magic tricks and showed a video of his demonstration of psychic surgery. He said that  he felt very sorry for those who would go to Philippines spending large amounts for getting these so called surgeries performed and then come back to die soon.

 When we were taken to lunch by Nakul, that Randi came into his own. He started sleight of hand tricks with paper napkins, salt cellars, a coin that made the waiters crowd around our table. It also showed that though he was 84 he had not lost any of his touch which had bestowed the title the amazing Randi on him!

In the evening when it was time for interaction with the members of the public it was again Randi all the way. Many of things that he did and showed are not to be

mentioned here because that would spoil the suspense for those likely to watch any of his programs in the future but I can say only one thing that he showed us as to how many of our assumptions are wrong. He told us the secret of his success never make people expect anything and always do the unexpected which is also includes doing the expected thing! He also brought out the point that one should not go by any authority if they make statements which are irrational and gave many examples when very ‘famous’ scientists have been fooled by tricks of charlatans because they had assumed that being scientists it was not easy for anyone to fool them! He also demonstrated some escape tricks by having himself tied with a rope and escaping from the knots in the blink of an eye, However when it came to question time he refused to answer any questions revealing magic tricks and just dismissed them saying that they are just tricks of the trade. However, questions connected with the supernatural were answered very satisfactorily including the one about god which was given an answer that one could prove the existence of this entity to him under fraud proof conditions and take away his million dollars.

This was his first visit toIndiaand he has promised to return some time this time the meet being organized by us!

 Courtesy: Mangalore Today News

James Randi: Edited Excerpts from an Interview

‘Expose every belief to the light of reason’

He broke Houdini’s record by sealing himself in an underwater casket for an hour and 44 minutes. He spent 55 minutes encased in a block of ice, bent spoons with ‘mind power’ and escaped from a straightjacket suspended upside down over the Niagara Falls. But James Randi’s greatest act of defiance might be the long-standing challenge to psychics to demonstrate the validity of paranormal or psychic claims under controlled conditions — with a prize of $1 million administered by his foundation. It has remained unclaimed since it was instated in 1996. The author, lecturer, amateur astronomer and archaeologist is now the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

How did you change tracks from magician to rationalist?

I had been a magician and an illusionist for more than three decades. Through the course of my vocation, I happened to meet quite a few gullible people who, after seeing my tricks, would ask me if I was part of a cult society. They were trying to sort me into one of those groups and despite my insistence that this was all deception, they refused to believe me. So at the age of 60, after I retired as a professional conjurer, I decided to spend the rest of my life debunking the myths surrounding my profession.

How much of a skeptic should one be? Shouldn’t we be equally skeptical of science, or should we apply skepticism selectively?

Of course, one has to be skeptical of any science if it is being used to fool people. But by definition, science works on principles that are empirically tested, even if they are near-approximations. It has an astonishing rate of explanatory success. Science is a progressive body of knowledge that has been
built over several centuries. By progressive, I mean it abandons old and false ideas when new evidence shows up. Unlike religious dictates, which do not change and, in fact, they only keep adding more and more ideas to it so that what you get in the end is a confabulated tale. Science can predict many things, and it can debunk many things. So you can be skeptical of science, but at your own peril. As long as you can back up your claims with evidence, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But certain truths are not empirically verifiable. We know π as the ratio of the circumference and radius of a circle, but there is no circle in the physical universe that conforms to it. It only works in the Euclidean/mathematical realm.

Oh, come on. Those are two entirely different topics. There may not be a perfect circle in the known universe, but you will always be able to find a correlation. You will get a close approximation based on how much you can bump up the Pi value. It depends on how lazy you are on a given day, to figure out how much the circle you’ve drawn conforms to the ratio.

But other things such as justice, art, love, etc, remain beyond what science can fathom.

If you believe so. On the contrary, you can even choose not to believe me when I tell you there is a science behind the tricks that a magician performs. Belief is very powerful; it can make you assume notions that may not even exist.

What about neuroscientists who insist that their new findings be incorporated into the American legal system?

They sure love beating their own drums just like countless others. But if you’re asking if neuroscience is some kind of a basis for morality, I would tend to disagree, although not entirely. Fashioning moral values, especially in a legal framework, is extremely tricky. We have learnt, over the course of many millennia, how to interact with each other, and formulated value systems that govern what we ought to do and not to do in certain situations. It was obviously acquired by a refining process of evolution, over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s probably wired into our DNA. The behaviours and actions that led to our own decimation were eventually sort of ‘dropped’ by evolution, in favour of other beneficial ones. Which is why going to war is simply ‘bad’, because both groups will annihilate each other. But there is also such a thing as survival, which is what all living beings aspire to, and when survival is at stake, morality will sometimes be suspended. In this light, reconciling our legal framework with all this becomes a slippery slope and we can only wait for society to become mature and take a call on it.

What’s an idea you think that could change the world?

There is a lot of credulity out there and what people really need to be convinced about is to think carefully before they commit to any belief. Expose every belief to the light of reason, discourse, facts, scientific observations; question everything, be sceptical because this is the only chance at life you will ever get.

Shone Satheesh Babu

Assistant Copy Editor with Tehelka.

 shone@tehelka.com

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