Examining Psychic Ability: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Related Post: Can You Win Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge?
To get on a blog and tell people you are psychic is to have skeptics immediately invite you to take magician James Randi’s million dollar challenge. Rather than reply to every comment of that sort that comes through, I’ve set up this page to deal with this subject. I will demonstrate here that there is no reason to take this challenge seriously. Oh, and by the way, James Randi is a climate change denier. (I think this says a lot about his frame of mind.)
First of all, the challenge is meaningless by scientific standards. It’s not a study and it can’t be replicated. It’s a one off. As it is entirely controlled by one person who has no scientific experience, is known to have strong views and has published no scientific peer reviewed papers on the subject, The challenge carries no scientific weight whatsoever.
Compare that to the Parapsychological Association, which is a member of the The American Association for the Advancement of Science and regularly publishes peer reviewed studies. Here is what real evidence looks like.
By far the most damning evidence that this challenge is a mere publicity stunt is that Randi does not take all comers.
He has explicitly refused to test homeopath John Benneth (who has issued a $100,000 challenge to any person who can demonstrate, under conditions similar to James “the Amazing” Randi’s Psychic Challenge, that the Psychic Challenge is a valid offer for proof of psychic powers.), Professor George Vithoulkas’s homeopathy experiments similarly never got tested and backed down from a challenge issued by Dr. Jule Eisenbud, who wagered $100K that Randi could not duplicate the “thought photography” of Ted Serios, even with the aid of a prop in which a gimmick could be housed. Randi has ignored challenges to the test such as English psychic Chris Robinson. Dick Bierman, PhD proposed a presentiment test to Randi which Randi simply never followed up on. This brings up a legitimate question: who else is he ignoring?
By doing this, the main claim of the challenge, -that no one can pass it and therefore psychic ability does not exist- is voided and any tenuous claims to being scientific are invalidated.
Skeptics seem to think that this challenge means something; that if psychic ability were real, someone would pass the test. This assumption rests on the belief that this challenge is reasonable and fairly administered. But where is the proof of this? Science demands openness. A parapsychological study run like Randi’s challenge would never get out of the gate.
John Benneth, (homeopath) points out that the challenge is not an actual contract, lacks third party mediation and in his words:
Randi has expressly told me that he will not deal with attorneys. As an instrument, its unilateral. Like a fiat from the King, or a papal bull. It gives the applicant no recourse in case Randi harms him; in fact, the applicant has to forego any rights of recompense if Randi harms him.But the biggest thing is that Randi’s signature has never appeared underneath it. It’s a hoax. It was conceived of by an entertainer, a man who has made a career deceiving and tricking people, a particularly nasty little man who has a grudge to bear against the world, revealed in the animosity routinely shown towards applicants.How is it that one can expect to have an AGREEMENT with someone who is calling you derogatory names, ridiculing and CHALLENGING you?
He has a point actually. The Daily Grail points out that Rules #4 (allowing Randi to use the data from the experiment in any way he chooses and #8 (denying the applicant legal recourse), when combined allow Randi the option to lie about the results and get away with it.
John Benneth went back and forth in 70 e-mails with Randi. The Vithoulkas experiment process dragged on for two two years, the Zibarov process dragged on for two years, Carina Landin, went through a 3 year process. Only one of these actually came to down to an actual test and that one was botched.
For that matter, how many people have actually gone down to Florida to take the challenge? Randi’s website is decidedly vague on this point. Why is this information missing?
After doing a bit of research on the JREF site, I found out some interesting things. First, many applicants have no clue how to put their abilities up to a scientific test. Once they start in on the process, many drop out. The fact is, performing a psychic ability for a scientific test is much harder than it first appears. They also find out an extra requirement not stated up front: There is a time limit for the preliminary challenge: eight hours.
This time limit is quite a barrier to success. It prevents people from building up statistical significance through sheer repetition, which is how it’s done in every scientific study. Most parapsychological studies do not test for more than a couple of hours at a time, having found that psychic ability wanes quickly as mental exhaustion sets in. There is no reason for the time limit since the applicant is paying all expenses. In fact, in the case that I studied, the number of repetitions was limited. What this means is that psychic ability is not being tested. Extraordinary psychic ability is being tested. This distinction is important. You cannot make claims about psychic ability if you’re testing for something else.
In the case of Pavel Ziborov he had gotten all the way through the process, having agreed to 100 repetitions within the eight hour time limit only to have Randi come back and limit his challenge to 20 repetitions, thereby violating his own protocol and ensuring that nothing less than near total perfection could pass the challenge. No explanation was given for this change which Mr. Ziborov wisely refused. On the JREF site it is simply noted that the challenger had refused to accept the protocol. In other words, Mr. Ziborov’s attempt was cast in the worst possible light. (Mr. Ziborov has posted his response to JREF in the comments below.)
Randi has also claimed that once the parameters are set, neither he nor anyone else can change them, yet it was done here. How is that? Simple. Randi NEVER accepted the application. Mr. Ziborov was going back and forth with JREF for almost two years and in that time he was never formally declared an applicant. It appears that this a loophole in the process that has been exploited to prevent legal challenges to his methods. If nothing is signed, there is no contract and the person applying has no legal means to force a reasonable challenge. It appears that when James Randi talks about the fairness of the challenge, he is referring to accepted applicants, who can only achieve this status by agreeing to absolutely everything Randi demands whether it is reasonable or not.
When I went through the forum postings for the Ziborov challenge, I noted that he was referred to as a “woo.” This is an abbreviation of woo woo. In other words, the challenger was being insulted. Throughout the discussion, other posters on the forum make it clear that they do not believe that he has this talent; effectively saying that he is either a liar, con artist or deluded. These are the people responsible for setting up the challenge and possibly administering it. The bias is clearly strong.
This is extremely important because another undocumented “feature” of the challenge is that the applicant may not bring anyone in either for moral support or to assist or monitor the challenge. There is no way to prevent JREF errors or mischief during the testing. Because the people administering the test are JREF volunteers and are self selected for being strongly skeptical of psi, (they are volunteering their time to a skeptical organization after all,) the chance of errors due to cognitive dissonance and inexperience are actually quite high and there is nothing to prevent them from either covering up any mistakes or simply not catch them at all. JREF is under no obligation to publish a full account of the test nor make good on any JREF errors in the event they occur and are discovered.
There is also the fact that an extremely important bit of information that is lacking. You cannot find it in the FAQ, nor on the application, nor does Mr. Randi talk about it. There is no way that withholding of this information is anything but deliberate. The way this challenge is currently set up, it is in my opinion, a trap designed to disgrace and humiliate the people who take up the challenge.
To easily understand this, let us take the analogy of Mr. Smith’s jumping challenge. Mr. Smith does not believe that the ability to jump actually exists and he has a million dollar challenge to anyone who can prove to him that jumping exists under laboratory conditions. You have to apply for the challenge and bear all travel expenses to Mr. Smith’s facilities. You can help design the experiment and everything will be measured with complete accuracy.
So what’s wrong? If you can jump you should take the challenge right? By now, you should notice what’s missing. There is nothing in the previous statement about how high you have to jump. Wouldn’t you want to know this before you applied for the challenge? Because if the height you have to jump is unreasonable, there is certainly no point in applying. Misdirection has been applied here by confusing the requirements with the testing procedures.
But how can you do this with psi? If someone makes a claim, all they have to do is live up to it right? The answer is that parapsychology is a science that relies on statistics. It is well known that psychic ability is not automatic. People get some answers right and some wrong and statistics must be used to determine if this occurred due to chance or not.
All statistical measurements of psi ability can therefore be expressed as odds against chance. All you have to do is set up a test where the exact odds for chance are known. (i.e. picking the correct picture out of a set of four yields a 25% chance outcome with odds against chance for one trial at 1 in 4.) Certainly JREF would never allow a test where this sort of computation couldn’t be done, nor should they. Statistical certainty is essential for determining success.
So if James Randi wanted to tell people what his requirements were, all he would have to do is tell them what odds against chance he would accept for someone to claim the million dollar prize. He could use words like “approximately” to indicate that there was some flexibility. There is nothing vague or complicated about this, yet this is not mentioned at all even though the challenge application and FAQ were recently re-written to address a number of valid complaints.
Why does he leave out this crucial bit of information? Because it allows Randi to work behind the scenes to make the challenge as difficult as possible. It is well known within scientific circles that the odds against chance that James Randi will accept are 1,000 to 1 for the preliminary challenge and 1,000,000 to 1 for the main challenge. The odds for the main challenge are the equivalent of asking a person to stand under a 20′ high wall and jump over it. And if their foot brushes the top? That’s a failure; too bad, so sad, get lost.
You can’t find this out of course until after you’ve applied. While psychics can, conceivably overcome odds of a thousand to one, it’s extremely doubtful that they can do this under both the pressure of performing, in the presence of extreme skeptics, within eight hours and having their number of trials arbitrarily limited. It is a worse case scenario for demonstrating psychic ability. Beating 1,000,000 to one odds is completely out of the question. Bear in mind that should a psychic show a sudden flash of great ability, they may be asked to repeat it, further worsening the odds. Randi makes no attempt to explain these details, he only paints the applicants in the worst possible light.
Until as recently as the end of 2007, applicants were required to give up all publicity and media rights as a requirement for applying. So not only were they screwed, they were not allowed to talk about it. This is kind of like the sideshow at the carnival where people are promised that they will see something wonderful, but when shown the empty box are advised not to tell anyone else lest they be the only fool. Until very recently, he did not even show the list of applicants. At every step of the way he appears to be seeking to withhold information about the difficulty of the challenge.
This is one more way in which the scientific validity of the challenge is nil. Proving that people cannot jump over a 20ft wall does not prove anything about jumping except that people cannot jump that high. It makes no statement about any ability under that threshold. If a person can only jump six inches, that is still jumping. The same applies to psychic ability.
It is possible for scientists to achieve 1,000,000 to 1 odds, this has been done many times, but only through a great number of repetitions, which is how this sort of science is normally done. Taking time away from the real science to travel to Florida in order to perform in front of die hard skeptics isn’t really high on their priority list. The expense of such an endeavor would likely use up a large chunk of the prize money so as to make the challenge unappealing. Psychic ability has already been proven, so it’s only about shutting Randi up.
But the expense and obstacles of the challenge do not make it an attractive proposition. A scientist would have to front all of the money for the challenge and stands a chance of running out before they get to their goal. They would likely have to do this in the face of Mr. Randi doing everything in his power to prevent their success, since that would mean the end of whatever fame he possesses from the challenge and his skepticism. This would undoubtedly add to their expense. Of course it’s all moot since he ignores them anyway.
In conclusion, there is no reason to take this challenge seriously. It’s not science. The illusion of the Great Test is only maintained through selectively culling applicants, making the process opaque and rigging the odds. Its only possible purpose can be to harass and humiliate people who do not share Mr. Randi’s beliefs.
I’ll leave you with a comment one of Randi’s own volunteers made on a thread discussing an applicant who had been denied (here #468):
I realize that there is almost no interest in holding Randi and the MDC to the standards that they claim for themselves. I’ve always been in a ridiculed minority when I make these suggestions. It is clear that the Challenge is not about allowing people to demonstrate their claims, but rather about providing examples for our ridicule – partly for education, partly for group-bonding (my guesses). I am in the process of moving on from the idea of trying to persuade anyone to care to that of trying to get the JREF and Randi to be more upfront about this instead, in order to thwart criticism. I fully realize that this will be a futile effort as well. I also continue to tell people to quit smoking. (…)
1. The Randi Prize
2. Skeptic Changes the Rules
3. http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2006/12/the_challenge.html (For some reason, I cannot provide a link to this site.)
4. Beware Pseudo-Skepticism – The Randi Challenge
5. The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge
6. James Randi One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge
7. Challenge Application
8. Challenge FAQ
9. Experimenter effects and remote detection of staring