On a stage at a Las Vegas casino, James Randi, the 85-year-old magician-turned-mythbuster, limps into view, his face framed by a long white Santa Claus beard, a black cape draped over his hunched frame. It’s early July and the esteemed skeptic is here to talk to a crowd of a thousand people at the 15th annual “Amaz!ng Meeting” of his eponymous educational foundation. Suddenly, the octogenarian launches into a cartwheel, rips off his beard, and begins a little song-and-dance number. We’ve been hoaxed. It’s not Randi, after all, but George Hrab, a chrome-domed performer in a pinstripe suit. “Who can take a person spouting off the poo and prove they’re filled with number two?” he croons. “The Randi Man can! Yes, the Randi Man can! ’Cause he’s got a rational plan to fight the fakers good!”
The audience erupts in laughter as Hrab takes jabs at chiropractors, water dowsers, and Bigfoot hunters. Hrab is the meeting’s M.C. and the corny host of The Geologic Podcast, which features comic sketches, interviews, and a dose of skepticism. His Vaudeville-style roast sets the tone for the next four days of what is perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of self-proclaimed skeptics, people dedicated to debunking and demystifying anything that smacks of the supernatural. At this gathering of the nerdiest of the nerdy, it’s hard not to run into the likes of Michael Shermer, the charismatic publisher of Skeptic magazine, or such scientific celebrities as Michael E. Mann, the embattled climatologist famous for his hockey-stick graph of Earth’s rising temperature. “You read their books, and then there they are in person!” one astonished attendee tells his partner.
Out in the audience this morning is a man few people have heard of, Leo Igwe. A black man in a sea of white faces, he sticks out like an evolutionist in Sunday school. The previous fall, Igwe, a Nigerian, had been named a fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundationfor his high-voltage campaign against witchcraft beliefs in Africa. He has flown here straight from a witch-rehabilitation camp in Ghana to give a talk about his work. The 43-year-old is of medium height and a little soft at the belly; today he is wearing rectangular glasses perched on his broad nose. As he explores various booths out in the hall, he takes in everything from whimsical anti-religion “Praise Bacon” T-shirts to a pair of double-helix earrings. Down by the registration booth, a man pulls up a sleeve to reveal a portrait of the foundation’s white-bearded namesake tattooed on his shoulder.