James Randi announced the formation of The James Randi Educational Foundation seventeen years ago today, in 1996. Randi announced that the JREF was founded “to conduct and/or finance original, basic, research in subjects of interest, ranging through many aspects of paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims” and that it would “conduct classes and seminars for students, teachers, the media, and the public [which would] deal with the goals of the Foundation.” He also mentioned that the JREF would begin “offering scholarships to students in the USA and abroad” working in related fields of interest to the JREF.
Since 1996, I’m happy to say that the JREF has come to do all of that and much, much more.
I am now well into my fourth year as president of this great and growing organization, and it has been my extreme pleasure to contribute my skills and passion to helping build it, deeply inspired by Randi’s vision. I was previously with the Center for Inquiry for over a decade, eventually as Vice President and Director of Outreach Programs. I made amazing friends while at CFI, was engaged in a number of invigorating projects and events, and I will always support their important work. But I have enjoyed immensely the opportunity over the last number of years to help expand the JREF's growth and impact. With a different, if sometimes overlapping, focus — on scientific skepticism, promoting critical thinking, and combatting the harm that paranormal and pseudoscientific belief causes — JREF is uniquely poised to educate the public about the problems with what Randi calls "woo-woo."
I’m proud of a number of new programs we have started, as well as a number of existing programs that we’ve expanded, since I have come aboard.
We began some fantastic digital outreach, including the dozens of episodes of my interview show For Good Reason, JREF’s Consequence Podcast hosted by JREF’s Brian Thompson (I love its tagline: “true stories about false things”), and of course Randi’s regular video podcast, The Randi Show.
We started offering grants to educators to teach skepticism in their classrooms (most recently to David J. Van Dyke, who did a two-week workshop for 8th Graders on difference between science and pseudoscience; his materials are available for other teachers to duplicate in their classrooms), and we continued JREF’s various academic scholarships. We started a number of other grant programs for local skeptic groups, TAM attendees, and teachers.
We launched a JREF Fellows program, which supports the original work and research of leading skeptical writers and thinkers, such as Jamy Ian Swiss, Steven Novella, Karen Stollznow, Leo Igwe, Tim Farley and Kyle Hill, and publicizes their educational work for the general public.
We expanded The Amaz!ng Meeting in a number of ways, including making the lectures and workshops from TAM available online for free in their entirety on our popular video channel. It is now the largest such event in the world.
We started offering skeptic smartphone apps, with more on the way. We published a number of books for the iPad, Kindle and Nook, such as James Randi’s Faithhealers, Flim-Flam, The Truth About Uri Geller, and books by other authors such as Bob Carroll’s Unnatural Acts, Bob Sheaffer’s Psychic Vibrations, and a number of books on skepticism and Science Based Medicine by medical experts like Drs. Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, David Gorski, Mark Crislip, Kimball Atwood, and others.
And we’ve been featured on national primetime TV focusing on the paranormal and skepticism: ABC Nightline’s Beyond Belief was seen by some 4.5 million viewers, and on that show JREF tested a number of psychics for our $1 Million Paranormal Challenge — for the first time ever on national primetime network television — educating the public about why such paranormal claims warrant skepticism (hint: not one of these sincere psychics passed the tests they thought they would!).
We continue to accept applications for the $1 Million Dollar Challenge, and conduct live Million Dollar Challenges, which are among the most popular events at The Amaz!ng Meetings in Las Vegas. (Another $1 Million Challenge demonstration is coming up later this month at the acclaimed Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, focused on the practice of “Therapeutic Touch.”)
We’ve continued our annual Pigasus Awards, highlighting the most deserving charlatans, swindlers, psychics, pseudoscientists, and faith healers. along with their credulous promoters. (Check out this year’s winners here.)
JREF has conducted a number of public educational workshops on skepticism and critical thinking in cities around the U.S., with more on the horizon. We’ve lent support to the growing network of local skeptics groups, through sponsorship of a number of regional events and conferences and through the distribution of free educational and promotional resources. We have grown our popular skeptic conferences-at-sea, The Amaz!ng Adventures; the last one was an exciting cruise through the Riviera Maya, focused on skepticism and doomsday prophecies, and in many ways was our favorite cruise so far.
We started making available lesson plans using the evaluation of pseudoscience and the paranormal to teach critical thinking — we call this “JREF in the Classroom” — and the first four curriculum modules are out now: Astrology: Superstition or Science?, Do You Have ESP?, The Case of the Cottingley Fairies, and Dowsing: Science or Pseudoscience?. Each of these classroom kits exposes students to concepts identified in National Science Content Standards and AAAS science literacy benchmarks, and teaches students how to think critically about weird claims, guard against their own biases, and practice open-minded skepticism. We have a number of additional classroom lesson plans currently in development, and JREF makes available all of these resources to teachers and parents, completely free for the asking.
One of the highlights of my time at the JREF so far has been traveling the world with Randi advancing the mission of the foundation through talks, workshops, and media appearances. Over these years at the JREF, many members of our team have accompanied Randi during his recent trips abroad: he’s toured Norway, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, a nine city tour of Canada, and over the last couple of years I’ve traveled with Randi throughout Spain, Italy and Germany, India, the United Kingdom, and JREF outreach coordinator Brian Thompson and I were with Randi for a week last winter in Australia. This is to say nothing of the many dozens of speaking and media engagements Randi and the rest of our team appeared at throughout the United States in recent months and years at places like The Reason Rally, Dragon*Con (with Alice Cooper), and other events.
What impresses me most about these appearances is how many folks at the local level seem to resonate with the important work we do. I have seen people time and time and again express how their lives have been changed by the important work of the James Randi Educational Foundation. People who have been bamboozled by heartless paranormal hucksters have found a defender in Randi and the JREF. Activists who are alarmed by growing credulity are equipped to fight back against the nonsense. Teachers who want assistance promoting skepticism in their classroom find free resources. Media professionals find experts to respond to irresponsible claims in the news. And students find materials to help them think better about weird things.
So on this anniversary of the JREF’s founding, it is good to take a moment to look back, but I thought it would also be good to look forward a bit. I asked Randi to take a quick break from his busy schedule writing his next book to answer some basic questions about why he started the JREF all those years ago, what makes it unique, and where he wants us to go from here.
In usual Randi fashion, here were his responses:
I started the JREF in recognition of the need for an organized presence that would inhabit the Internet and challenge the woo-woos in the media and elsewhere who were promoting nutty - and dangerous - ideas sold to them by the Brownes and the Gellers. The letters I have always gotten — and still get regularly — from persons, young and old, thanking us for being here, makes it all worthwhile.
The JREF goes well beyond merely solving situations for individuals, although that is important. It also provides a forum, a cruise conference, support for groups, and a yearly conference in Las Vegas, TAM, where dedicated skeptics can — and do — gather to improve their skills and their awareness of what reaches the public, and we publish — free — teachers' guides explaining how the fakers gull their victims.
I envision the JREF continuing to do more of the same good work, fueled by our zeal for rationality and basic truths. It is my hope that this work will be seen and felt by ever more people in the next year and well into the future... With the financial help of our members and the continued participation of so many influential and dedicated partners — along with our great team — we at the JREF look forward to continued success and satisfaction...
I couldn’t have said it better myself. We’ve come pretty far from the start of this organization seventeen years ago, but in a sense we are only starting. New technologies allow for increased effectiveness educating the public about harmful nonsense. The skeptics’ job is never done — Randi calls it the Whack-A-Mole problem — but that doesn’t mean we should give up or slow down. It only means we need to redouble our efforts to push back against the cults of irrationality gripping so many people. The “woo-woos” will always be with us, but there’s something we can do about that. And that is working together to fight the fakers.
If you would like to work with us in expanding JREF's impact — consider it a birthday present! — please become a JREF member here.
DJ Grothe is the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation.