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Debunker at large

James Randi opened his presentation Saturday with a spectacular claim.

"I'm going to perform miracles of a semi-religious nature," Randi said, drawing chuckles from the packed audience in the Chemistry Auditorium. Coming from the featured speaker of "Science Day at U.Va.," this statement might sound strange. However, Randi's presentation had critical thinking in mind rather than religion.

"He wants to promote healthy skepticism and critical thought about various issues we would believe without examining them too closely," said Kathryn Thornton, professor and director of the University's Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education (CMEE).

Although not a scientist, Randi has become a world-famous proponent of skeptical inquiry. The former stage magician and mentalist (one who uses psychological techniques to appear psychic) has spent decades writing books and conducting investigations to expose charlatans claiming to have supernatural powers. Randi said he is trying to educate the public about the dangers of being too uncritical. This consists of showing "how people are fooled and how people fool themselves," he said.

"I travel around the world telling people what they should already know," Randi said.

Through a series of video clips, anecdotes and demonstrations, Randi revealed how easily impostors can fool an audience. He showed how people make assumptions by seeming to talk into a hand-held microphone, only to drop it and reveal the real microphone attached to his tie. Randi also caused a spoon to "magically" bend and break in half, and he caused a wristwatch to advance its hands without the owner's knowledge, all through techniques of concealment and sleight of hand.

Randi came to the University at the invitation of Astronomy Prof. Philip Ianna. Ianna had met Randi in conjunction with various functions of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), of which Randi is a founding member. Ianna said he thought Randi would make a good guest lecturer for Ianna's class, "Science and Controversy in Astronomy," to which Ianna sometimes refers jokingly as his "UFO course."

The Astronomy department also made arrangements with the Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education to include Randi in its Science Day events.

"We were looking for a way to support [Randi's] visit, so we made arrangements with Science Day to have him appear," Astronomy Prof. Charles Tolbert said. To defray the costs of having Randi appear, the Science Day event organizers secured the sponsorships of Virginia Power and Virginia National Bank.

"Science Day at U.Va." was an all-day event Friday organized by the CMEE to show the public what the mathematics and science departments do at the University. According to Thornton, Randi's presence was an added draw.

"We invited [Randi] to be here at Science Day to bring in the general public so they can see what we do at the math and science departments," Thornton said.

In addition to his Friday lecture and his appearance in Ianna's class, Randi also guest lectured to a section of "Introduction to the Sky and Solar System," a physics colloquium and a small group of students in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering building. Such a busy schedule is not unusual for Randi.

"Our understanding is that he likes a full schedule," Tolbert said.

Audiences at the University reacted positively to Randi's presentations.

"It was enlightening. He gives insight to things you wonder about -- things like acupuncture and homeopathic healing," first-year College student Tony Wong said.

Other students voiced support for Randi's work in debunking alleged paranormal phenomena.

"Too bad there aren't more people like him," neuroscience graduate student John Davis said. "He's right. If you choose [to believe in paranormal phenomena] you're taking one step back to the caves."

Both Ianna and Thornton noted that many people stayed after Randi's presentations to ask questions, making it hard to drag Randi away.

Randi's commitment to educating the public prompted him to form the non-profit James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in 1996. The foundation encourages the use of critical thinking in education, and provides scholarships and awards to further this aim, in addition to providing grants in what the Foundation's Web site calls "basic paranormal research."

The Foundation also has created the so-called "Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge." Anyone able to provide proof of a paranormal event's occurrence will receive $1 million in negotiable bonds from the Foundation. Potential applicants must pass a test consisting of criteria provided by the Foundation.

"If anyone does not want a million dollars, they are mentally challenged," Randi said. In spite of the cash incentive, no one so far has proven the existence of supernatural powers.

Randi has made a career of exposing frauds; his numerous books have covered topics ranging from faith healers to "psychic surgeons." Randi's investigations into the latter group have caused the Philippine government to deny him entry into the country, where much psychic surgery takes place. In addition to his writings, Randi has appeared on numerous television programs such as "NOVA" and "The Tonight Show," while maintaining an extensive lecturing schedule.

Randi admitted during his presentation that he could not disprove the existence of supernatural powers.

"I can't prove a negative," Randi said. "Most negatives are hard to prove."

Nevertheless, Randi remains skeptical about many claims.

"No, Virginia, there is not a Santa Claus," he said.

He ended his presentation with a warning for his audience. According to Randi, even intelligent people can be fooled by a clever deception.

"The most obvious thing of all is sometimes overlooked," Randi said.