The Myth of the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge
For ten years, the modern skeptical movement has wielded a cudgel against claims of the paranormal: the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge. In many debates over the possibility of psi abilities, the Challenge provides a final word for one side... "has so-and-so applied for the Challenge?"
The financial reward offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation is seen by many skeptics as providing an irresistible motivation for anybody with paranormal ability - after all, if someone could genuinely exhibit such powers, surely they would step forward to take the million?
However, after ten years, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) says nobody has even got past their preliminary testing. Furthermore, none of the 'big fish' - medium John Edward, spoon-bender Uri Geller, psychic Sylvia Browne - have applied. And now, perhaps as a result of that fact, James Randi has announced that the Challenge will come to an end in two years, on March 6th, 2010.
But does the challenge really make a statement about the existence of the paranormal and/or psi abilities? According to paranormal investigator Loyd Auerbach (who, like Randi, is a member of the magic fraternity):
What are these hurdles that Auerbach refers to?
Chances, of Anything...
First, and perhaps the most important, is the effect size required to win the challenge. While the JREF says that "all tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant", this does not mean that the tests are fair scientific tests.
The JREF need to protect a very large amount of money from possible "long-range shots", and as such they ask for extremely significant results before paying out - much higher than are generally accepted in scientific research (and if you dont agree to terms, your application is rejected). In the case of parapsychological research, however, where effect size is often small (though apparently robust), this means most researchers would have to go to extraordinary lengths to win the million dollars. As one psi researcher pointed out to me:
Furthermore, applicants must first pass a 'preliminary test', before they are allowed to progress to the actual 'formal' test which pays the million dollars. So an applicant must first show positive results in a preliminary test (yielding results against chance of at least 1000 to 1, apparently), then once through to the next stage they would then have to show positive results against much higher odds to claim the prize (by all reports, at odds of around 1 million to 1). Failure in either test means no cash prize, and a fail beside their name. It many respects it would be like telling a professional golfer to shoot 63 around Augusta National, then come back and shoot 59, to prove that he can play golf. In the words of Chris Carter, author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics:
Dr Michael Sudduth of San Francisco State University also pointed out to me a wonderful irony in one of the rules. Challenge rule #3 states: "We have no interest in theories nor explanations of how the claimed powers might work." As Sudduth puts it: Curiously, Randi's challenge itself is saddled with assumptions of this very kind. The challenge makes little sense unless we assume that psi is the sort of thing that, if genuine, can be produced on demand, or at least is likely to manifest itself in some perspicuous manner under the conditions specified by the challenge.
Researchers Step Up to the Plate
As a consequence, you might well say "no wonder no serious researcher has applied for the Challenge." Interestingly, this is not the case. Dr Dick Bierman, who has a PhD in physics, informed me that he did in fact approach James Randi about the Million Dollar Challenge in late 1998. Bierman reported a success in replicating the presentiment experiments of Dr Dean Radin (where human reactions seem to occur marginally before an event occurs), and was subsequently asked by Stanley Klein of the University of California why, if his results for psi effects were positive and replicable, he didn't respond to Randi's challenge. Bierman replied that he would rather invest his time in good scientific research, rather than convincing skeptics in a one-off test. However, after further discussion, he decided that he may be able to combine the two:
Note that he didn't insist on showing the effect on stage. Rather I proposed to do a kind of precognition (actually presentiment) experiment on-line over Internet where he or some other independent skeptic could generate the targets once the responses were communicated over the Internet (all this would be done automatically on a computer under his control within a second). This would prevent cheating from the experimenter's side but we still had to work out how to prevent cheating from the Randi-side.
At that point Randi mentioned that before proceeding he had to submit this preliminary proposal to his scientific board or committee. And basically that was the end of it. I have no idea where the process was obstructed but I must confess that I was glad that I could devote myself purely to science rather than having to deal with the skeptics and the associated media hypes.
Bierman said I should also contact Suitbert Ertel, Professor Emeritus of Georg-August-University of Göttingent, who has developed a new type of parapsychology experiment which seems to facilitate large-scale psi effects - which would be much more suited to the Randi challenge. Ertel, I was told, had apparently also discussed the challenge with James Randi, after his results had been replicated by other skeptical researchers. Ertel replied to my query by explaining his involvement with not just Randi's challenge, but also a separate 'Prize Challenge' offered by a German skeptical group:
Ertel's first test with the GWUP had a p value of .018. He mentioned however, that two additional students among a number of observers also participated, secretly, during the test. Their results were also significant, giving a total significance p-value of .002. Ertel told me that the GWUP skeptics, to their credit, did note the results of the two students who had participated secretly.
Ertel thinks that the Million Dollar Prize is winnable, though obviously the odds required are not 'fair' scientifically. However, as one of the rules is that applicants must pay all their own expenses, he estimates that he would need at least $US10,000 to make a long shot bid for the formal challenge. He would also like to have a personal attorney present and another independent scientist as observer, and would need to select 3-4 psi-gifted participants near the JREF institution where the tests would be performed:
But winning the prize would not be my main concern. My main concern is to achieve high levels of significance under control by the skeptics. Psi effects would have to be acknowledged as existent by the science community if they were achieved, i.e. replicated (because they would have been observed before the Randi test was made) with, say, p = .0001 - it need not be .000001. Winning the Randi prize is no scientific standard for acknowledging the existence of causal effects. P = .0001 or so obtained under control of people who are experts in deception (so that this factor is ruled out) and whose intention and bias is to prove that psi does NOT exist (so bias is also ruled out) would let psi appear existent beyond reasonable doubt.
Would You Trust This Man?
Ertel's mention of the expenses required to engage in Randi's challenge, returns us to to the "hurdles" mentioned by Loyd Auerbach. Perusing the rules of the Million Dollar Challenge would certainly give most people cause for concern. Two of the most important, especially when combined, are rules #4 and #8:
words, applicants give the JREF/Randi virtually absolute license to use
the data as best suits their publicity needs, without any legal recourse
for the participant. Not exactly enticing for an applicant, although if
James Randi was held in higher esteem by the parapsychology research community
then it might not matter so much. However, a number of scientists iterated
to me their distrust of Randi... and a number of them appear to have good
reason for that judgement.
Dr Gary Schwartz has often come under attack from James Randi for his research into mediumship. Labelled "Gullible Gary" by Randi, and accused of believing in the tooth fairy, Dr Schwartz refused an invitation from Randi to allow an "independently qualified panel" to hold forth on the data he has collected. According to Dr Schwartz: "He calls it an 'independently qualified panel', but it is composed mostly of people hand-picked to guarantee the decision would likely be a foregone conclusion, merely rubber-stamping his prejudices". In this case, Randi suggested a panel comprising of Ray Hyman (CSICOP Fellow), Marvin Minsky (CSICOP Fellow), Michael Shermer (CSICOP Fellow) and Stanley Krippner (a parapsychologist whom Randi is familiar with). Not exactly independent, one would surmise. Unfortunately, according to Dr Schwartz:
Lastly, despite James Randi's assurances that applying for the prize is a simple matter, this seems not to be the case. A number of the more 'general' applicants have waited multiple years to have their claim tested; one of the more recent, Carina Landin, went through a 3 year process just to reach the preliminary test, and after failing her test (achieving above chance results, but not to a significant level) found that her protocol had not been adhered to...and so is now waiting to be retested. According to 'Kramer', a former JREF employee who helped with applications:
All in all, it's rather easy to see why 'psychic personalities' would ignore the Million Dollar Challenge, irrespective of anyone's opinion as to whether their talents are real or fraudulent. It asks them to risk their careers on a million to one shot (assuming they are not fraudulent), putting all the power into the hands of a man they distrust - and who has been antagonistic towards them over a number of years - with no legal recourse available to them.
On the other hand, although parapsychologists face similar worries, it is now apparent that some are so determined to show the evidence for psi effects that they are willing to risk a failure in order to make an impression. Both Dick Bierman and Suitbert Ertel feel that there is a robust enough effect for them to at least scientifically prove to the skeptics that something interesting is going on. And perhaps others are aware of this fact...
You Say Paranormal, I Say Perinormal
At The Amaz!ng Meeting #3 (TAM3), the JREF-sponsored conference held in January 2005, Richard Dawkins made an intriguing comment during an on-stage chat with James Randi:
Certainly, suspicious (some might say 'skeptical') minds might wonder whether the influx of positive perinormal results - such as from the decades of Ganzfeld telepathy research, replicated presentiment experiments, and Ertels new ball-drawing test - may have influenced the JREFs decision to withdraw the Challenge. Its interesting to note that Rule #14 of the challenge states:
Similarly, in a previous discussion regarding the Challenge, Randi had stated: ...the million dollars is not my million dollars, sir, it belongs to the foundation I represent, and it cannot be used for any purpose other than as prize money in the challenge." It would seem this is no longer the case
Whatever the reasoning behind the withdrawal of the Million Dollar Challenge, it has little impact on scientific acceptance of psi effects. Even if a challenger took on the risks and won the million dollars despite Suitbert Ertels best intentions - it is doubtful that skeptics would be convinced. According to CSICOP Fellow Dr Ray Hyman:
It would seem the modern skeptical movement has all bases covered. If you dont apply, it shows you have no evidence of the paranormal. If you do apply and fail, ditto. If you put your career on the line and apply, beat initial odds of 1000 to 1, and then 1,000,000 to 1, to win the Challenge, then it still offers no proof of the paranormal.
Ironically, paranormal investigator Dr Stephen Braude agrees with Ray Hyman about the merits of the Challenge: The very idea that there could be a conclusive demonstration to the scientific community of psychic functioning is fundamentally flawed, and the suggestion that a scientifically ignorant showman should decide the matter is simply hilarious.
Skepticism is certainly demanded in examinations of paranormal claims (not to mention, in all facets of life). However, the JREF Challenge seems to be primarily aimed at providing the modern skeptical movement with a purely rhetorical tool for attacking the topic of the paranormal.
In a recent newsletter, James Randi says as much: The purpose of the challenge has always been to provide an arguing basis for skeptics to point that the claimants just wont accept the confrontation. It appears though that some parapsychology researchers are actually more willing than Randi thought...
It seems quite obvious that the Million Dollar challenge does not offer - and has not offered in the past - a fair scientific evaluation of paranormal claims - rather, the statistics employed are primarily based on ensuring the million dollars remains safe. Other rules further stack the deck against participants, by handing control of publicity to the JREF. Suitbert Ertel commented to me:
Dr Dean Radin was more blunt in his assessment:
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