Randi's Million Dollar Challenge: Not Science

I've mentioned this topic more than a few times, so here's some clarity on the subject from the horse's mouth, so to speak. D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), discusses the 'Million Dollar Challenge' in this interview with renowned magician and JREF advisor Jamy Ian Swiss, who makes these points about the requirements and goals of the challenge:

No matter what you make the probability...coincidences happen. Events that are one in a million happen to eight people a day in New York city. So what we've traditionally tried to do in the million dollar challenge is to make it definitive; to make the demands really significant enough that if you pass there's a good chance you're a psychic, or it was a really amazing coincidence that happened.

And of course we never say that the million dollar challenge is scientific research. It's not. It's a test that's designed to scientific protocols, but we're not doing science because we don't have enough trials, we're not doing studies. And so it's quite possible that if and when someone passed the test and took the million, we're not stamping them officially psychic at that point. We're saying that day, they passed the test, and it's for others to determine what the significance of that is, what that really means. Which would actually demand repeated studies.

But one of the things that we really want to do in the regular Million Dollar Challenge is to lower the requirements in the preliminary stages. We actually want to test people, and we actually want people to get through the test and to engage in the process, because we want to use the process of the Million Dollar Challenge to put forward and promote everything we do at the JREF.

It's not science, it's a promotional tool - are we clear on that now? Because though I've seen that caveat thrown around by the JREF and its supporters whenever the 'one-off' nature of the test is raised, it doesn't tend to show up at other times. For instance, most recently, in the 'Psychic Sally' controversy, British skeptic Simon Singh suggested that Sally Morgan could settle the matter by demonstrating "her powers in a scientific experiment" - which was simply the preliminary test for the Million Dollar Challenge (with higher-than-usual inflated odds, I might add). And if Sally had passed that test, what then?

I would have said "Great, there's another test waiting for you". And it would have shaken my current belief, which is that psychic phenomena don't exist. I wouldn't have done a complete about turn immediately, but I'd be halfway there.

I'd add that I'm not endorsing Sally Morgan here - I'm simply addressing the mis-characterisation of the Million Dollar Challenge as science. And as I've mentioned previously, there are fairly serious moral issues in lowering the bar for such a test.

You might also like...

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
Last activity:
2 hours 31 min

Let me see if I understand this: if the purported psychic doesn't pass the test, it's a blow to their credibility; whereas if they *do* pass the test, it doesn't necessarily validate their abilities, since the results could just be coincidence.

So the value of this challenge for participants is what, exactly?

DrSkeptic's picture
Member since:
20 December 2011
Last activity:
2 years 31 weeks

As described in your own blog entry, the MDC is NOT a definitive certification of possession of psychic powers. It would be silly to think so. It is merely an EXPERIMENT. Rarely, if ever, does a single scientific experiment validate anything in a definitive way, it merely suggests that further analysis is warranted (properly design trials). This is especially true in the case of psychic powers where validating the concept would most certainly REVOLUTIONIZE our very understanding of the natural world, physics, biology, human ability and everything in between! The Foundation's challenge is "scientific" simply by performing the alleged psychic ability under controlled conditions. The challenge itself is difficult enough for common trickery, and mere chance, to be limited from the equation. If someone successfully passed the task then I suppose we could then truly label his/her abilities as UNEXPLAINED and we could then contemplate performing an adequate controlled trial to further characterize this phenomenon (stopping short of calling it a "psychic power" until AFTER the trials).
I think the Foundation has been clear about its intentions. It's not in the business of sponsoring psychics with bulk sums of money. It's business is to educate the public about the infinite number of charlatans and opportunists out there making, literally MILLIONS out of susceptible, uneducated, or simply naive individuals who are often in difficult and emotionally charged states, eager to believe in the fantastic. For better or worse, in our material society today, if you want attention you have to throw some money around. And that's where the MDC comes in.
So if you think about it, it's actually even MORE surprising that psychics are not lining up to take the MDC since they don't actually have to PROVE their powers, they don't have to EXPLAIN their powers, all they have to do is not get CAUGHT while completing a task which ought to be straight forward - if you have ESP. Their silence and absence speaks volumes...

jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
Last activity:
2 hours 31 min

To reiterate my point above, it seems to me there's essentially no reason for anyone to waste their time partaking in a test of this sort, since at best it can't "prove" their abilities, and at worst can do serious damage to their reputation--perhaps just as a result of their having an "off" day. (If indeed there are psychic abilities, and that remains an open question for me, it's perfectly sensible they'd be sensitive to environmental conditions--especially should those conditions include antagonistic human experimenters.) And that's not even getting into the question of whether the MDC stacks the deck with its various conditions and terms...

red pill junkie's picture
Member since:
12 April 2007
Last activity:
16 hours 50 min

I think you're missing the point: what Greg is pointing out —and is further confirmed by Singh & co.— is that the Million-dollar challenge is so unreasonably difficult to win, that it renders it as completely unscientific; and it actually hinders our search for psychic phenomena.

If the alleged psychic manages to pass the test, the answer from the JREF will be "Great, there's another test waiting for you". What exactly would that subsequent test amount to, do you reckon?

 

It's as if we wouldn't acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena that would allow some people to say, bend spoons, until we found one Eric Lensher capable of raising entire submarines & airplanes.

Are we looking for psychics, or super-mutants?

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

raptorshaman's picture
Member since:
30 June 2010
Last activity:
22 hours 21 min

So you are, in essence, implying that potential psychics who do not take the MDC challenge are ALL frauds? Isn't that intellectually dishonest? What about the many studies and trials performed by independent parapsychology researchers on the subject of psi? Can they all be assumed fraudulent and safely ignored because they haven't been vetted by Randi and his MDC?

This sort of back handed innuendo undermines a skeptic's credibility and isn't particularly convincing of any value the MDC might possess. Surely the quest for empirically verified psi effects should contain less propaganda, fewer publicity stunts, better logic and more real study?

Greg's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
Last activity:
7 hours 28 min
DrSkeptic wrote:

So if you think about it, it's actually even MORE surprising that psychics are not lining up to take the MDC since they don't actually have to PROVE their powers, they don't have to EXPLAIN their powers, all they have to do is not get CAUGHT while completing a task which ought to be straight forward - if you have ESP. Their silence and absence speaks volumes...

The bolded bit is where your whole argument breaks down. As I've said numerous times now, the whole trouble with the MDC is that it asks for ridiculous results (scientifically speaking, not in terms of economic insurance) due to its one-off nature.

And when someone comes up with a way of perhaps breaching that abnormally high threshold - e.g. Dick Bierman (see my original MDC article) - his application suddenly disappears in the system...

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

alanborky's picture
Member since:
29 January 2009
Last activity:
22 weeks 2 hours

DrSkeptic: "if you think about it, it's actually even MORE surprising that psychics are not lining up to take the MDC since they don't actually have to PROVE their powers, they don't have to EXPLAIN their powers, all they have to do is not get CAUGHT while completing a task which ought to be straight forward - if you have ESP. Their silence and absence speaks volumes..."

Either that or it shows the whole MDC roadshow's becoming so sidelined and starved of attention for lack of 'psychics' gullible enough to believe they'll get fair treatment (not to mention the alleged prize) the MDC'll do or say practically anything to get contenders in through the door, (what next, rubbing their corns and sponge bathing them?).

Don't you get it?

The 'psychics' who're already successful don't need the MDC - it's the MDC which needs them, (hence the nobodies who offer their services never get a sniff because there's no publicity in it).

alanborky's picture
Member since:
29 January 2009
Last activity:
22 weeks 2 hours

p.s.

Keep up the good work, Oh Shah of the Psychically Sonic (or the Sonically Psychic?).

alanborky's picture
Member since:
29 January 2009
Last activity:
22 weeks 2 hours

Greg, is this the same Simon Singh who said in the Daily Mail (Is There Any Point To Acupuncture? 27th January 2009) "patients receiving real acupuncture showed significant levels of improvement, but the patients receiving fake acupuncture typically showed similar levels of improvement. In other words, the benefits of acupuncture have nothing to do with meridians of Ch’i, but are merely associated with sticking needles into the body willy-nilly."

That is to say he dismissed out of hand the concept of Ch'i meridians by resort to the concept of the placebo, itself a very powerful effect which's never been explained and recently became even more mysterious when it was revealed it works even when patients KNOW they're receiving placebos (Alok Jha, Placebo Effect Works Even If Patients Know They're Getting A Sham Drug, The Guardian 22 Dec 2010).

He also failed to notice the sweeping logical fallacy that because the placebo effect achieved similar results this means "the benefits of acupuncture have nothing to do with meridians of Ch’i, but are merely associated with sticking needles into the body willy-nilly", which to be me's a bit like saying the effectiveness of chemotherapy in treating cancer shows "the benefits of surgery have nothing to do with knowledge of anatomy, but is merely associated with sticking knives into the body willy-nilly."

Is he also the same Simon Singh who admitted receiving acupuncture for a condition I either can't remember or he didn't define but when asked why he kept up the treatement if it supposedly didn't work answered "I won't even dignify that question with a response!"

DrSkeptic's picture
Member since:
20 December 2011
Last activity:
2 years 31 weeks

Dear Alan, you bring up acupuncture and some of the aspects which already have (finally and thankfully!) been properly investigated. Indeed I have read of a couple of properly designed randomized, blinded controlled trials of acupuncture and indeed they have established that the exact location of the needles, or indeed whether the needles in fact penetrate the skin, do not alter the effect. The trials used: 1) fully trained acupuncturists, 2) actors trained to ACT as acupuncturists but with no knowledge of the meridians, 3) real acupuncture needles, and 4) well-designed gadgets which gave the patient the exact sensation of being stuck with a needle while in fact there was no cutaneous penetration.
You might want to check out SRAM (Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine) at sram.org for further reliable and impartial scientific inquiry. Their recent opinion piece on Homeopathy is very thought-provoking.

As for the Placebo Effect, it has indeed been explained biochemically in the form of endorphins and surges of many neurotransmitters. That is not to say, of course, that the power of the mind is anywhere near being fully explained!

The power of the mind is truly underestimated but neuroscience is slowly uncovering more questions the more we learn about the brain: the power of suggestion is effective precisely because of the mind's power to affect the body. A colleague of mine performed a circumcision on a Chinese child (about 4 years of age) with no anesthesia, no analgesia... and NO tears or cries from the boy. The mother was adamant that no medication be given and made a deal with my colleague to accept anesthesia if the child cried... but he didn't. She simply got him into an amazing trance by talking to him non-stop throughout the 15-minute procedure. THAT is mind power!

Likewise, another colleague took part in a mastectomy (removal of a breast) from a female doctor with breast cancer. They were both trained in clinical hypnosis and, WITHOUT anesthesia, the surgery was performed successfully.

Although these are extreme and experimental cases, they give us a glimpse at the power of the mind. So, even if a patient knows he is receiving a placebo, IF he believes it will help him... then it might just do that.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
32 min 19 sec

The idea of body meridians does not need to apply to acupuncture for verification. There are plenty of other modes of interaction that more clearly reveal the meridian system.

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
46 weeks 1 day
emlong wrote:

The idea of body meridians does not need to apply to acupuncture for verification. There are plenty of other modes of interaction that more clearly reveal the meridian system.

Thus, the much-used term "Treasure Trail" :3

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
32 min 19 sec

My own personal experience with meridians and nodes is that they are not as fixed in their positions as the orthodoxy says they are. The body is more like vibrating bell that keeps shifting densities all over the place. Therefore the body is not so easily mapped out as they would have you believe. Lower chakra vibrations can be lodged in the head and upper chakra energies can migrate to the navel. It may be that really advanced people no longer have specific energy centers. They are just one big ultra high chakra. In other words, the situation is kind of messy and very fluid. People tend to want maps and a system, but it is not that predictable.