James Randi. (Supplied photo)
Canada grows skeptics like we produce hockey protégés and beer commercials.
But James Randi has always been in a league of his own. And while the Canadian-born arch-disbeliever knows his detractors would just as soon he offer them peace by dying already, at 80 years old, he's now working up a second wind.
The world-renowned debunker — whose spent decades chasing down those who claim to have paranormal powers — is ready to challenge the world of psychics, mediums and fortunetellers all over again.
In 1964, the Toronto-bred conjurer put up $1,000 of his money to anyone who could prove a paranormal ability under controlled conditions. Others who figured it a safe bet, offered to donate more. For years now, the prize has reportedly stood at $1-million. While hundreds of people have tried, none have walked away any richer, as each have quietly failed even preliminary testing.
Growing tired of dangling the carrot — which psychics claim is not real or the scientific measures, which participants help choose, rigged to fail — Randi announced a few years ago the million-dollar offer would be withdrawn in 2010. Now, fearing the end of the challenge is just what his critics are counting the days to, the great inquisitor is set to do something they may not have seen coming.
"The psychics are celebrating the end of it, because they're embarrassed it's been hanging over their heads," he says from his Florida headquarters.
"I now favour extending the offer."
That's what he's told the board for The James Randi Educational Foundation (www.randi.org), which oversees the challenge.
For years, he's fought with and hounded most of North America's top all-seers, and anyone else who sides with the mystics. But the most famous psychics in the business have dodged taking the test, which is rarely done with Randi present, because they mistrust him so.
Many other claimants who have come forward have apparently had psychological problems.
"They claim to be able to float in the middle of the street or such," he dismisses.
To challenge only the most renowned professional psychics, Randi demands they have at least one mention in the media and they find an academic to vouch for them. Both says Randi — hailed and criticized for his venom and vigour when attacking the notion of supernatural powers — are easy enough to do.
Around 240 psychics have made it to the required preliminary testing — but no further.
During one testing earlier this month, professional UK medium, Patricia Putt, was put in a room with, one after another, ten female test subjects. Each had to wear a ski mask, large glasses, an over-sized graduation gown and a pair of white socks — all to hide hints of their lives. Some were asked to read a short.
Putt would then write down psychic impressions for each. Later, the women were presented with the readings, and asked to find the one that related to them.
All Putt needed to go for the million dollars, was for five or more to recognize their psychic-mirrored selves.
As in every other case before, including involving psychics from Toronto and Vancouver, Putt failed.
Psychology professor Chris French, of England's Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, helped test Putt, though Randi's challenges take place around the world.
French has respect for those who are willing to at least try to prove — double blind — they have a third-eye.
"There are skeptics who assume all psychic claimants are fraudsters," he says from his office at Goldsmiths, a college connected to the University of London.
"My experience says that's not the case. The vast majority who claim to (have powers) genuinely believe it."
In defense of her failing grade, a resolute Putt (www.ankhara.com) explains to me the test subjects were too bound-up, and not free to connect with her on a spirit level. She also thinks restrictions put on their ages and sex — all younger women — hampered her.
"The words of my family were, 'You are mad. You're never going to win,” she recalls of the list of protocols she agreed to.
"I can understand (Randi and French) are very suspicious, but the history (of psychics) goes back as long as man goes back.
"We're not a third rate...musical act."
Yes, she agreed to all the measures, but she was sure her abilities would jump every hurdle.
But the 64-year-old medium is glad she took the test, and applauds the foundation's work in trying to track powers which are as elusive as smoke.
Asked to now rate her faith in her abilities from one to ten, the psychic English grandmother allowed herself an "11."
And she plans to do something no other claimant has so far had the courage to do. Under the rules, she can be retested a year from now.
She says she will — despite objections from her family — make those arrangements.
Randi stands ready to receive her and her abilities, and vows to take on all those claiming gifts beyond those registered with science.
Because, he's now sure: "I'll have to die, to give them some bit of relief."