Million Dollar Hustle

Only a couple of years after terminating his "Million Dollar Challenge" for evidence of the paranormal, James Randi has lit a fire under his old marketing goldmine and brought it back to life. According to this news release from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), the new incarnation of the Challenge now makes it easier "for any genuine psychic to pass."

But nothing in the press release tells why it will be easier to pass, except that they've loosened the initial application rules to "lower the bar" for entry:

Before today, applicants for the prize were required to submit press clippings and a letter from an academic to demonstrate the seriousness of their application. Now, applicants will only have to submit one or the other—demonstrating that somewhere, at some point in time, some independent person has taken their claim seriously. Applicants who cannot provide this evidence have a new, third option: submitting a public video that demonstrates their ability. The JREF will choose some of these video applications for further testing. This option gives potential applicants without media or academic documentation a way to be considered for testing, and allows the JREF to use online video and social media to reach an even wider audience with the Challenge.

I've criticised a number of aspects of Randi's MDC before, and one of the primary points in that article was the ridiculous odds that the MDC requires the claimant to overcome in order to 'win'. At the time I wrote that article, claimants had to beat odds of 1000 to 1 in a 'preliminary' test, and then a million to one in the 'true' test. Have these statistical requirements been significantly relaxed? That would be the only way the JREF could in good faith say that "the tests are designed to be easy for any genuine psychic to pass", because nothing about those sorts of statistical hurdles is "easy". But there is no explicit mention of lower odds in the release or new rules (though I welcome clarification of this point from JREF officials).

In fact, lowering the bar to entry is the exact opposite to what the JREF should be doing with the Challenge. By making it easier to apply, they have more official claimants, and so they (necessarily) have to set the odds to be beaten very high, just in case one of those many challengers gets lucky. If they truly want to settle the matter of paranormal abilities, a better approach would have been to approach a minimal number of parapsychologists or well-regarded 'psychics' offering odds that are far more scientifically reasonable and attainable.

But that's not the point of the Million Dollar Challenge - the point is to get as many 'flakes' applying and getting knocked down as possible (which raises some moral questions about exploiting delusional and/or needy people). The MDC is a marketing tool, plain and simple. And it should be regarded with the contempt that marketing tools deserve (I could quote Bill Hicks, but that might be a bit extreme). No doubt many news services and websites will trumpet the news about the Challenge, but...no. It's a sad joke that scientists actually cite this nonsense as any sort of 'proof'.

Oh, and just in case you *did* think the MDC is a genuine 'test of the paranormal', check out the rules page where the JREF even explicitly says that "if the Prize is awarded, this would not mean that the JREF acknowledges the existence of the supernatural." Not sure how that matches up with the statement that the prize will be "awarded to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability."

Edit: Sadie makes a decent point below in regards to possible confusion over my mention of "million-to-one odds". Those odds cover what we might expect to happen by chance - the million-to-one isn't the difficulty factor based on your particular skill. It is, nevertheless, an incredibly strict p-value (p=0.05 might be suggestive that something is happening and worthy of further testing, compared to Randi's required p=0.000001). As has been mentioned a number of times, it is required for safety against long-shot lucky guesses, and as such negates a whole heap of positive results which would be suggestive of something odd happening.

Previously on TDG:

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rickpetes's picture
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Bill Hicks is always worthy of quoting.

As to Randi, I have appreciated y'alls work in pointing out the dubious nature of the challenge.

existential nihilist

Nostradamus's picture
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If JREF charged a fee from applicants, then I would cry foul straight away and agree that it is either a fund raising device or a marketing/advertising ploy.

But as no charges or fees are requested, then it is a different matter. According to the rules, applicants agree testing perameters etc. prior to starting any challenge: I cannot see that any genuine psychic applicant would have a problem with this.

I feel that the problem lies with the genre itself rather than JREF's challenge - physic abilities seem to be rare and random, with people unable to call them up on-demand. This inability for people to reproduce 'psychic' powers on request is perhaps nature's way of containing what could be a devasting ability for the human race. Psychic powers, if they exist, could be used for both good and evil.

If there is a genuine psychic living today, he or she is probably living a very good life out of the public gaze, not at all bothered about the $1 million prize - they wouldn't need it!

Nostra

red pill junkie's picture
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Nostradamus wrote:

If there is a genuine psychic living today, he or she is probably living a very good life out of the public gaze, not at all bothered about the $1 million prize - they wouldn't need it!

From the site Presidential UFOs, an extract from a conversation between Dr. Henry Azadehdel, and Dr. Eric Walker, discussing the facts behind the groups generally known as Majestic 12.

Azadehdel: Doctor. Is there such a group still active?

Dr Walker: How good is your mathematics?

Azadehdel: As good as it could be for a doctor in physics, but why?

Dr Walker: Because only a couple people are capable of handling this issue. Unless your mind ability is like Einstein's or likewise, I do not think you can achieve anything.

Azadehdel: well, Doctor, for years I have been trying. But, are there government scientists?

Dr Walker: Everyone mistakes this issue. I gather by that you mean whether they work for the Defense establishments of the military.

Azadehdel: Yes, Doctor, that is what I meant.

Dr. Walker: Well, that is where you are wrong. They are a Handful Of Elite. When you are invited into that group I would know.

Azadehdel: Is it a group like Bilderbergs, Pugwash, or the Trilaterals?

Dr Walker: I didn't get that

Azadehdel: Is this group like the Bilderbergs, Pugwash, or the Trilaterals?

Dr Walker: (Silence for a long while) Something like that.

Azadehdel: Are there any members of the public in this group?

Dr Walker: What do you mean?

Azadehdel I mean ordinary people who have dedicated their lives to studying UFO?

Dr Walker: No.

Azadehdel: Are you a member of that group?

Dr Walker: I cannot answer that. How good is your sixth sense? How much do you know about ESP [emphasis mine]?

Azadehdel: I know to some degree about ESP and EVP. But, what has that got to do with it?

Dr Walker: Unless you know about it, and how to use it, you would not be taken in. Only a few know about it.

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
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The Cancer Man's picture
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....there should be a whole sting of Bill Hicks quotes here!

:)

Randi sucks. There, that is my well thought out contribution to this discussion. lol.

"I get a kick out of being an outsider constantly. It allows me to be creative." - Bill Hicks

Sadie C.'s picture
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Hi -- I'd like to correct a misunderstanding in this post about the odds of winning the challenge.

It means nothing to say that applicants are up against "1,000-to-1 odds." 1,000-to-1 odds of what? There are two probabilities that matter here:

1. The likelihood that someone with no psychic powers could win by chance alone. A series of lucky guesses, for example.

2. The likelihood that a genuine psychic could fail by chance alone. For example, say your powers are accurate 99% of the time, but you had a bad day and got a series of predictions wrong.

It's possible to create tests where both of these probabilities are low, which is good for the JREF and good for the applicant.

For example, let's say we were testing something not paranormal, but simply an ordinary skill, like shooting hoops, and we only want to know if your skill is significantly better than chance. If you close your eyes and throw ten basketballs in random directions, the odds that two of them will land in the basket by pure chance might be 1,000,000 to one. That doesn't mean you "face 1,000,000-to-1 odds" when you shoot with the blindfold off. If you have even the smallest skill at basketball, you should be able to hit two out of ten. That's certainly not insurmountable odds. And if your claim is that you can usually shoot baskets with 50% accuracy, it should be easy to hit 20% -- even while the odds of hitting it by pure chance would be 1,000,000-to-1.

That's what it means in the news release when it says the JREF works with applicants to design tests that they should be able to pass if their ability is real. It's not intended to be some kind of psychic olympics where it takes extreme ability to win. The JREF only asks that people prove that they have *some* paranormal ability, and that means it has to work significantly better than random guessing.

Greg's picture
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Sadie C. wrote:

Hi -- I'd like to correct a misunderstanding in this post about the odds of winning the challenge.

It means nothing to say that applicants are up against "1,000-to-1 odds." 1,000-to-1 odds of what?

True, using "odds" is not the most correct way of describing it. But if I mentioned p-values and significance, most people would not understand the numbers involved.

Quote:

For example, let's say we were testing something not paranormal, but simply an ordinary skill, like shooting hoops, and we only want to know if your skill is significantly better than chance. If you close your eyes and throw ten basketballs in random directions, the odds that two of them will land in the basket by pure chance might be 1,000,000 to one. That doesn't mean you "face 1,000,000-to-1 odds" when you shoot with the blindfold off. If you have even the smallest skill at basketball, you should be able to hit two out of ten. That's certainly not insurmountable odds. And if your claim is that you can usually shoot baskets with 50% accuracy, it should be easy to hit 20% -- even while the odds of hitting it by pure chance would be 1,000,000-to-1.

I think your example is confusing, and somewhat misleading, due to the arbitrary values and abilities that you have selected (throwing blindfolded in random directions, vs non-blindfolded in a specific direction). Your selection allows you to suggest that 20% hit rate is good enough to pass the MDC (though in certain claims and experimental setups, perhaps it would be).

To make things clearer on the odds/p-value required (and other parts of my argument against the MDC), let's restrict it to a coin toss:

Say a friend claims to be "psychic", says they can paranormally predict the results of a coin toss. By chance, the most likely specific result is to get 10/20. If they got 12, I don't think any of us would be too impressed (though they certainly did better than we might expect). Fifteen correct choices out of 20 should certainly give us pause enough to think "let's try that again", though it could certainly be luck (p-value of 0.02, ie. odds of 1/50 of it happening. Seventeen would be getting damn spooky, but at p=0.0013 (1/769) it would not even pass the preliminary test for the MDC (p=0.001, 1/1000).

But no wait, psychic friend calls 18 correct tosses out of 20 (0.0002 - 1/5000) and passes the preliminary challenge. He then goes on to Randi's main challenge and does even better, nailing 19/20. And fails miserably, because 19/20 gives a p-value of approx 0.00002, at odds of 'only' 1/50,000, when 1/1,000,000 were needed. Randi then hits the media, telling how psychic friend is either a fraudster or deluded, because he failed the MDC. Randi is free to use video and images from the test in any way he pleases, no legal recourse to participant, and so Randi takes full value. Psychic friend is laughed at across the internet for being a crazy woo, even though he picked 19/20 against odds of 50,000 to 1, on top of the previous 18/20 in the preliminary test.

There's an exaggeration here - Randi vould certainly do more than 20 tests, and that would help bring more clarity to any possible abilities via the p-value. But this is also a simplified test - testing mediumship and other paranormal claims is more complicated than a simple coin toss - and so *a lot* more tests would be needed.

And this lies at the heart of my criticism of the MDC - it is a one-off test, and as it has multiple ongoing applicants it requires an extraordinary p-value (0.000001) to 'pass' (in order to avoid one of those multiple participants getting lucky, a la the 15/20 in the coin toss example). As such it gives no real scientific test of the validity of the paranormal - though certainly it could be used where a psychic claims "100% strike rate" or similar. And the JREF explicitly say that passing the test would not compel them to admit the existence a paranormal ability anyhow...so they obviously don't see it as a true scientific test themselves.

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

kamarling's picture
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My arithmetic skills are, by any measure, quite poor so please feel free to educate me if I'm making a howler with this comment.

It seems to me that, when it comes to evaluations of claims of psychic abilities - or indeed any anomaly that might challenge the materialist orthodoxy - then the assumption is automatically made that sheer luck (or fraud) must be the correct explanation no matter how unlikely. In other words, if a self-proclaimed psychic *could* have achieved a number of "hits" by fluke, then fluke *must* be the explanation. That is the built-in bias. Or am I wrong in thinking that this assumption doesn't apply to other, more common-place events?

Now, I understand the need for extraordinary evidence, but how extraordinary does it need to be? Anecdotal evidence is dismissed because it is not obtained by the scientific method, thus chance or fraud could be at work in any given anecdote - no matter how sincere the originator of the anecdote may appear to be. But what if people all over the world are telling similar stories - and have been for hundreds of years? Are they ALL victims of coincidence or perpetrators of fraud? Every single one?

As William James said: "In order to disprove the law that all crows are black, it is enough to find one white crow."

red pill junkie's picture
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Methinks that the Million Dollar Challenge organizers would never be convinced with just a white crow: they are seeking a glowing crow ;)

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
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fff's picture
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great coin flip example!

Sadie C.'s picture
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Greg wrote:

But no wait, psychic friend calls 18 correct tosses out of 20 (0.0002 - 1/5000) and passes the preliminary challenge. He then goes on to Randi's main challenge and does even better, nailing 19/20. And fails miserably, because 19/20 gives a p-value of approx 0.00002, at odds of 'only' 1/50,000, when 1/1,000,000 were needed. Randi then hits the media, telling how psychic friend is either a fraudster or deluded, because he failed the MDC. Randi is free to use video and images from the test in any way he pleases, no legal recourse to participant, and so Randi takes full value. Psychic friend is laughed at across the internet for being a crazy woo, even though he picked 19/20 against odds of 50,000 to 1, on top of the previous 18/20 in the preliminary test.
There's an exaggeration here - Randi vould certainly do more than 20 tests, and that would help bring more clarity to any possible abilities via the p-value.

That is quite an exaggeration.

You have come up with a test where the only way to pass is a perfect 20/20 score. But there are much "easier" tests that would result in the same p-value. You could toss the coin 200 or 1,000 times, for example, and the percentage you'd have to get right would be much lower. Testing protocols are created by the applicants and the JREF, so a test like the one you describe would only be conducted if an applicant agreed that it was a fair test of their ability.

It's simply not true that someone would have to have a 100% strike rate to pass the tests. The press release says clearly that "Professional statisticians and scientists work with applicants to develop tests that minimize ... the possibility of any actual psychic losing by 'bad luck.' ... we will work with you to develop a protocol that you can pass if your claimed ability is real.”

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Sadie C. wrote:

It's not intended to be some kind of psychic olympics where it takes extreme ability to win. The JREF only asks that people prove that they have *some* paranormal ability....

Testing protocols are created by the applicants and the JREF, so a test like the one you describe would only be conducted if an applicant agreed that it was a fair test of their ability.
The press release says clearly that "Professional statisticians and scientists work with applicants to develop tests that minimize ... the possibility of any actual psychic losing by 'bad luck.' ... we will work with you to develop a protocol that you can pass if your claimed ability is real.”

If you are Sadie Crabtree, the author of the press release, welcome. I am unfortunately less and less convinced that the challenge is serious and I would advise any contender to try other prizes in local groups which may be less valuable (10,000 € etc.) but which may be faster, better documented and fair.

Why I am so dismissive ?
I have contacted Greg some time ago about Randis challenge in Würzburg 2004 / Germany. The trigger was his article "The myth of the million dollar challenge" and the angry response "The Grubbies attack" from Randi in JREF. Randi said some sentences below the answer that Suitbertel Ertel was tested for the prize
in Würzburg and failed.
As the GWUP, the local skeptics groups, did not only conducted the test but reported it in detail in their magazine (and is therefore *NOT* attackable as gullible esoteric
shills) I was stupified that Randi was lying: Ertel was not a participant. I told that in the article "Randis Sleight of Hand".

It comes worse.
Defenders of Randi may say: Oh, just a little tragic error, there was a test and a prize and Ertel was there and Randi was there, so Randi has just remembered it wrong. Until I found an article
during the research for another theme:

http://www.csicop.org/si/show/fakers_and...

The thermometer story did not happen. I could not believe my eyes:
Randi is not only lying, he has *completely invented* a story to ridicule his opponent in circumstances which are easily refutable.

I am sorry, this dishonesty disqualifies Randi and the JREF as partner.

I may add: According to the new rules it is allowed to shortcut steps.
"The JREF may choose to waive any step in the application, protocol development, or Preliminary Test process, in order to make it easier for serious claims to be tested."

But Randi bailed out from the homeopathy challenge with Vithoulkas with the argument

http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swif...

"There will be no more exceptions, which I had – unwisely – granted to certain persons in order to be more accommodating; they have always chosen to be difficult, capricious, and arrogant as a result of this courtesy. No more."

No more exceptions, eh ? Till two years later....Who can take the "challenge" seriously if Randi decides how and when rules are
applied ?

Testing protocols are another thing. The truth is simply: The JREF and noone else decides how and what is tested. If the JREF wants something, there is no way a participant can veto this.

kamarling's picture
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Over at Skeptiko Alex Tsakiris and Robert McLuhan discuss another example of flagrant invention from the Amazing one.

I should do my blood pressure a favour and ignore such injustices and if his influence was restricted to a small but vociferous band of hard-line sceptics, then I might. But his influence ranges far and wide. He is taken seriously by many scientists, journalists and media personalities ... in short, by those who really do have the presence to spread the word.

So I find myself wondering why would someone who claims to be so wedded to the impartiality of science feel the need to fabricate evidence in support of his particular crusade? Well, I keep coming back to one word: atheism.

I have noticed that when sceptics attack anyone who takes paranormal research seriously, they automatically assume the "believer" to be religious. They see the subject as in some way opening the door for God to creep back into science. And they will have none of it. It matters not how much the researcher might protest that he or she is not religious. And it is no coincidence that prominent atheists are also prominent in the CSICOP (CSI)ranks.

I think my point here is clarified somewhat when we consider what Richard Dawkins had to say about Randi's prize and what he (Dawkins) termed the "perinormal". As I understand it, Dawkins was on stage with Randi at the 2005 Amazing Meeting and said:

“About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.”

Now it seems to me that Dawkins might have considered some of the evidence for the "paranormal" a little too convincing for comfort and so invented a term that would shift the "para" to the "peri" - i.e. on the periphery of natural phenomena but decidedly still natural - that is to say still embraced by materialism.

Thus, the important thing for Dawkins is to keep the walls of materialism intact and allow no concessions to the supernatural because the supernatural inevitably leads to God.

Dave.

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Sadie C. wrote:

That is quite an exaggeration.

I thought it was quite a decent riposte to "you only have to hit 2 baskets out of 10".

;)

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

Rick MG's picture
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Dr Gary Schwartz conducted triple-blind experiments with mediums, all recorded on video (and available to order). The experiments were so tightly controlled, the only way the mediums could have cheated is if they're psychic!

"Don't bother me with the facts, my mind is already made up."

~ * ~

@levitatingcat

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Randi is a circus barker - always has been. "Lowering the bar" just means that he will be able to pick from a larger pool of apllicants not likely to succeed.
I always think back to the Russian "girl with X ray eyes" fiasco which almost grabbed the million bucks. After taking the girl out of her usual procedures and making sure she was working in exhaustion from her transoceanic flight, she still got 4 out of 7 correct. Had it been 5 she would have been a winner, However, 4 out of 7 correct diagnoses from a dead start was already way, way beyond guessing chance.
Randi has absolutely no interest in furthering research into anything. He is just another high profile gatekeeper for the forces attempting to quash evolving human potential and awareness.