By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
On stage in a spacious Las Vegas banquet hall sits a nervous-looking, dark-haired Danish woman named Connie Sonne. The 46-year-old retired police officer has made a name for herself as a psychic in Europe, claiming she knows the whereabouts of famous missing British toddler Madeleine McCann. Sonne also says she can read playing cards through sealed envelopes using only a crystal. If she can successfully demonstrate her skills in this controlled experiment at the South Point Hotel Casino & Spa, she'll receive $1 million.
A broad-shouldered security guard enters dressed in a standard-issue black polyester uniform. He walks toward the stage, carrying the precious cargo he's been hired to protect: a large manila envelope sealed with duct tape.
The 700 people in the audience — famous magicians, television personalities, mind readers, scientists, and garden-variety nerds — sit in silence, their eyes fixed on the package. The guard passes VIPs: magicians Penn and Teller, astronomer Phil Plait, psychologist Dr. Ray Hyman — and there, at the end of the first row, with a bald head and a beard as long and white as Darwin's, James Randi. For more than 60 years, "The Amazing Randi" has been performing magic, debunking psychics, and discussing the perils of all things paranormal. Now 81 years old, he heads the Fort Lauderdale-based James Randi Educational Foundation.
Across from Sonne on the stage is a magician named Banachek. Back in 1980, Banachek, with help from Randi, tricked scientists at Washington University's now-defunct McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in St. Louis into believing he had supernatural powers. He later admitted he had performed an elaborate hoax. Today, Banachek is administering Sonne's test.
The security guard hands the envelope to Banachek. Inside is a ten-sided die and four smaller envelopes. Banachek cuts open one of the smaller envelopes and removes ten more envelopes. Inside each one is a playing card. Sonne rolls the die. It stops on three. Sonne now must find the envelope containing the three of hearts, then repeat the die-rolling process to locate two other cards. If she can, the money's hers.
Sonne glances at the audience, then back at the envelopes spread before her. With her right hand, she dangles her crystal amulet over the table.
For four minutes, the room is motionless. Sonne's dowsing charm sways like a pendulum over the envelopes. No one speaks — nobody wants to be Sonne's excuse if she later says she was too distracted. Randi watches closely, his bushy eyebrows cocked. It's his foundation's million bucks on the line.
Randi has debunked more than 100 psychics and faith healers in a quest to rid the world of hucksters. It also makes him the subject of scorn among purveyors of the paranormal, true believers who say Randi has made himself rich, pulling in nearly $200,000 a year from his foundation, at the expense of others' careers.
Now, however, Randi's work may be in jeopardy. His foundation has been hemorrhaging money, and Randi, who has spent his career challenging the notion of an afterlife, now faces his own mortality. He has cancer in his intestines and may not have long to live. Randi has been a commanding presence for four decades, but it's unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community.
Randi still has a growing group of followers, though, who revere him like a religious leader. Many of them come to Las Vegas every year for his conference, the Amazing Meeting. This July, the weekend of critical thinking culminated in Sonne's dowsing demonstration — the first public attempt at the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.
Sonne indicates she has found the three of hearts. Banachek writes "3" on the sealed envelope. Sonne rolls the die twice more, then searches for a seven and an ace. For the final card, the awkward silence lasts nearly five tedious minutes before Sonne chooses the envelope farthest to the left.
After nearly 20 minutes, it's time to see how she fared. Banachek asks her to cut open the envelope marked "3." She does, and Banachek peeks inside.
The Amazing Meeting attendees are mostly white men with glasses, facial hair, and a healthy appreciation of physics and Monty Python. They come from as far away as Australia and Japan. There are college students, bloggers, and rambunctious computer scientists. In the halls of the conference, they banter about the psychological phenomenon known as "the ideomotor effect," the pseudoscience behind the instant sommelier (a contraption that can supposedly age wine to perfection in 30 minutes), and — a favorite conversation topic — getting wasted at the hotel bar.