… and the frauds who won’t take it.
James Randi was on Larry King Friday, sparring with “international spiritual medium” Rosemary Altea (transcript). Among other things, Randi asked Altea if she would take his One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, prompting Altea to regurgitate the usual lame justifications for not taking it. I am reminded of this list of bogus reasons pretend-psychics have for not taking the challenge. Although I’m not going to repeat that whole list, I thought it would be worthwhile to address some of the more common reasons given for not taking the challenge. These are the ones I hear the most:
Claim: The million dollars doesn’t exist (Altea used this one).
Reality: Yes it does!
Claim: I don’t need a million dollars and/or it doesn’t matter to me what Randi believes (Altea used this one too).
Reality: Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to win just to rub Randi’s nose in it. If any one of these big name psychics really could do what they claim they can, they’d take it in an instant, and would revel in the publicity and in Randi’s humiliation. And they could give the million to charity if they don’t need it.
No – if you had the powers you claim, you’d take the test.
Claim: Randi can’t say before I apply, what the test will be (Altea implied this as well).
Reality: Each test has to be designed individually – a test for a dowser is different from a test for a psychic, which is different from a test for homeopathy. If there was only one standard test for all applicants, you’d soon complain that the challenge didn’t fit what you can do.
Claim: Randi rigs the test.
Reality: The test is designed so that the applicant is happy with it, and Randi is not involved in running the test. In addition there is no “judging” that would allow Randi (or the applicant) any wiggle room. The result will be clear – it’ll be either a pass or a fail based on the strict criteria agreed in advance.
The truth is that the test is designed to prevent cheating and to eliminate results due simply to chance – and that is the real reason frauds won’t take it.
Claim: The test doesn’t prove or disprove psychic powers anyway.
Reality: I call this the Loyd Auerbach defense. And it’s bogus.
Let’s be clear here – if anyone actually had real psychic powers, they would be able to ace the challenge. The fact that no one has won it, and that the big names are frightened to take it, is not proof that psychic powers don’t exist, but it is starting to be pretty good evidence that they probably don’t.
Changes to the challenge
Randi recently announced some changes to the Challenge, effective April 1, 2007. (There is no doubt some intentional irony in changes to a test of psychics taking place on April Fool’s day.) There are a couple of changes, namely:
First, any applicant will be required to have a media profile. By that, we mean that there must be some media recognition – a television interview, a newspaper account, some press writeup, or a reference in a book, that provides details of the claimed abilities of the applicant. […] The second requirement will be that the applicant must provide an endorsement of an academic nature. That means some sort of validation from an appropriately-qualified academic.
The reason for this change is to cut down on the time taken by Randi’s staff devising tests of little value. For example, Randi says that 80% of applicants are dowsers – and dowsing has been tested and has failed so often now it’s really about time we moved on to something new. In addition, some applications are clearly from people who are deranged or even mentally ill, and there seems little real point in proceeding with people like that. This new rule is designed to focus JREF staff time more productively.
Unfortunately, this new requirement will allow the frauds another excuse not to take the test. But the reality is this is not a valid excuse. Randi has said that a successful test by a local skeptics’ group would qualify – so get a local skeptics’ group to test you first. (Not really difficult – there are many groups who would love to do this.)
Of course, the big names like Sylvia Browne, John Edward and the like would already qualify, so this lame excuse wouldn’t apply to them anyway. (Incidentally, John Edward refused the test on the grounds that he won’t allow himself “to be tested by somebody who’s got an adjective as a first name”. Apart from the fact that this is a really lame excuse, I’m pretty sure that “The Amazing Randi”’s first name is a definite article, not an adjective.)
The other change to the challenge is a little more interesting:
Rather than merely waiting for applicants to present themselves, we will regularly and officially highlight well-known persons in the field and challenge them directly by name. Those challenged will then have a six-month period during which they may respond; during that period the JREF will heavily publicize the fact that such a challenge has been issued, we will issue press releases on the matter, and we will be frequently asking that those challenged make a response. Tentatively, we will begin by formally challenging Uri Geller, James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward, on April 1st.
Randi goes on to say that the JREF will begin actively pursuing the possibility of legal actions being brought against prominent figures, to investigate whether or not any laws are being broken by false promises and the like. Direct challenges to named individuals, plus legal actions against possible frauds – this is going to be interesting.
Of course, we know the big names who knowingly use trickery, will still avoid the challenge. Just look at Sylvia Browne’s tactics to dodge the challenge, after she had agreed on Larry King over five years ago, that she would take it. But perhaps her continued refusal will start to get more publicity now that the mainstream news media is beginning to catch on.
One final point – there is now an online petition to get Sylvia to take Randi’s challenge. I don’t normally promote online petitions, since they’re generally of little use. Still, I’ll make an exception in this one case, since I think it would be fun to have an additional stick to beat Sylvia and Montel. However, using my own awesome psychic powers, and after consulting my personal spirit guide, I predict Sylvia still won’t take the challenge.
Unfortunately, I doubt this prediction would qualify for the million.