Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

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:

Anti-Vax Attacks

Childhood vaccinations have been at the centre of a mega-controversy for more than a decade now due to claims that they sometimes cause the onset of autism in youngsters. The academic foundation stone of this controversy is a paper by former surgeon Andrew Wakefield published in the premier medical journal, the Lancet, in 1998. However, after an inquiry by the British General Medical Council, in early 2010 the journal retracted the paper, and Wakefield was struck-off the Medical Register in May 2010.

But a new investigation by journalist Brian Deer, published in the British medical journal BMJ, goes much further with its allegations:

An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study -- and that there was "no doubt" Wakefield was responsible.

"It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors," Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN. "But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data."

Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May. "Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession," BMJ states in an editorial accompanying the work.

It's not a subject I have taken much interest in personally, and so don't know a lot about it and have no comment myself. Although when my children were offered vaccination, and the possible risk was mentioned, from the reading I did on the subject I remember my thoughts were simply along the lines of "a possible risk versus very real risks known to be present and waiting in the environment". To me, there is little doubting the overall good that vaccinations have done for humanity at this stage in history - though I am more than happy to hear arguments against in any (respectable) form, having seen first hand the sometimes blinding power of consensus thinking.

You can read Deer's new investigative article at the BMJ website.

Chris Carter vs the Skeptics

This week the always fascinating Skeptiko podcast features Chris Carter (not the X-Files guy, nor the musician) discussing his new book Science and the Near Death Experience (audio and text transcription of the podcast are available). I've been meaning to talk to Chris about his new book for a while, but meatspace issues keep impinging on my time. But for those who can't wait, Alex has (as always) done a good job of exploring Carter's take on a topic we discuss pretty regularly here on TDG: anomalous science and the role 'skeptics' play in keeping it apostate.

In my first book I had a section on Susan Blackmore and it basically showed that her claims-she went around for years claiming that she failed to find any psychic abilities in her experiments. Science and the Near Death ExperienceSo one of my friends, Rick Berger, went back and re-examined her experiments and found that they were also sloppily conducted. Nothing-no conclusions could be drawn from them. If anything, her experiments showed the existence of telepathy.

He printed this up in a scientific journal and Blackmore was asked to respond. What she said was, “Hey, I agree. No conclusions can be drawn from the Blackmore experiments.” In other words, she was saying that her work was an absolute failure and for the past 20-30 years, however long her career had been on at the time, she had accomplished absolutely nothing. It was based upon absolutely nothing.

But then I examined her writings in a scientific journal before the Berger article and her confession, and then I examined her writings in the popular press right after. And I saw absolutely no change at all, both before and after. She was still saying, “Hey, I did years of careful research and I found nothing.” Even though she had admitted just a few years previously in a scientific journal, that her experiments on psychic abilities were absolutely useless. They were just too sloppy, too small, too poorly conducted to draw any conclusions.

So I don’t have a lot of respect for Susan Blackmore. I think she’s a shameless self-promoter.

As can be seen above, Chris has some pretty strong thoughts about 'skeptical' individuals and organisations, which he discussed at length in his previous book Parapsychology and the Skeptics. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research has also recently published his critique of prominent 'skeptic' Richard Wiseman, titled “'Heads I Lose, Tails You Win', Or, How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results, and What to Do about It" (free PDF download). It's a great article, showing that all of Wiseman's criticisms of parapsychology can be turned against himself.

Wiseman, yet another magician-turned-skeptic, has some serious punch in the scientific community - he's listed as one of the most followed psychologists on Twitter, with over 50,000 followers. He's at least worth following for a laugh - he seems obsessed with self-publicity (to an almost pathological level), and my own conclusion is that this obsession with media coverage is what drives most of his experiments, rather than actual scientific curiosity (encapsulated in his response to media coverage of his Twitter remote viewing study: "#twitterexperiment getting lots of media attention. Well done us!"). It's also fascinating to watch his presentation of paranormal topics to the media, as he tends to get fairly 'creative' with his statements (see for example this previous TDG story, "Hampton Haunting Debunked?") - a trait he shares with other magicians-turned-skeptics (not least, Randi).

But who am I to criticise...it seems to be paying his bills, and some. Wiseman has an upcoming book on his experiences researching the paranormal, titled Supernormality (also sometimes listed as Paranormality), which reportedly sold to a publisher in the UK "in a 'big' six-figure deal". Maybe I should start getting 'creative' myself when I write about the paranormal, seems a sure fire way to bring attention to yourself...

Previously on TDG:

Randi's Prize

Paranormalia blogger Robert McLuhan has announced the publication of his long-awaited book Randi's Prize, which examines the arguments for and against the paranormal:

The 'prize' of the title is the Million Dollar Challenge offered by stage magician James Randi for anyone who passes his test for psychic powers. So far, Randi says, no one has even passed the preliminaries. Randi's PrizeThis confirms the belief held by sceptics and many scientists that so-called 'psychics' are delusional or dishonest.

Randi's Prize accepts that this may sometimes be the case, but strongly sympathises with scientists who have investigated paranormal claims in depth and consider some of what they have observed to be genuinely anomalous. It finds the arguments of well-known sceptics like Randi, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore less convincing.

The book proposes that we need to develop a more mature and discerning approach to these hugely challenging issues (subtitle: what sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters).

You can find out more about Randi's Prize at the official website, which has the table of contents, some excerpts, research resources, and an ongoing blog discussing the topics in the book. You can pick up a copy from Amazon UK page, and digital versions are on the way in Kindle and iPad (ePub) formats.

Robert's been writing some great things at Paranormalia for a while, so this book should be a wonderful read. I've also asked him to blog here occasionally, so I'm looking forward to some fascinating discussion of a number of these topics.

Oh, and if the title of the book interests you, then you should definitely check out this article here on TDG: "The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge".

Science Saved My Soul

Here's a wonderful monologue on the profound nature of life and the cosmos, purely through the lens of science: "Science Saved My Soul".

Only thing that bothered me was the unfortunate anti-religion riff that starts around the 6 minute mark - not so much because I'm defending religion, but it just brings the whole thing back to 'petty-Earth-people's philosophical squabbles' after soaring with some wonderful, transcendent prose.

CSICOPrisy

I guess when CSI(COP)/Skeptical Inquirer whine about the culpability of the media in spreading belief in the paranormal, they exclude themselves. Hey, the disclaimer makes it all okay...

CSICOPrisy

/snark.

Dawkins Charity Scandal

The Richard Dawkins Foundation has accused its former website creator and administrator of embezzling $US375,000 from the organization over the last 3 years:

Josh Timonen was one of a small coterie of young protégés around Richard Dawkins, sharing his boss's zealous atheism. But now he and the evolutionary theorist have fallen out spectacularly. Professor Dawkins's charity has accused Mr Timonen of embezzling hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The two atheists had become close in recent years, with Dawkins, the best-selling author and Emeritus Professor of Biology at Oxford University, even dedicating his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, to him. But Mr Timonen and the Dawkins foundation are now preparing for a legal wrangle.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, has filed four lawsuits in a Californian court alleging that Mr Timonen, who ran its online operation in America, stole $375,000 (£239,000) over three years. It is claiming $950,000 in damages, while Mr Dawkins is suing him for $14,000 owed to him personally. Mr Timonen strongly denies the allegations.

In the 18-page complaint filed in a Los Angeles court, the foundation claims that Mr Timonen said the website he was running was just "squeaking by," making only $30,000 in three years, when in fact it was grossing 10 times that sum. The charity alleges that Mr Timonen pocketed 92 per cent of the money generated by the store, with his girlfriend spending $100,000 of the charity's money on upgrading her home before putting it on the market.

For those interested in learning more, the full complaint is available as a PDF. Timonen - who had been involved in an earlier controversy about the closing of the RDF forums - responded by calling the lawsuit "the ultimate betrayal". Between the angst directed at him over the forum shutdown, and now these accusations that he stole their donated money, Timonen doesn't have a whole lot of friends in the atheist community at the moment.

Ah well, what's a religious group without the occasional scandal over donated money...

Is Randi Backed by Amazon's Jeff Bezos?

Prominent skeptic Michael Shermer has written up an account of James Randi's 82nd birthday party over at SkepticBlog. And what a night it was - Randi was joined by skeptical heavyweights Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman and others for dinner and an evening at the personal library of a "good friend of Randi and benefactor of the JREF"...

...who kindly allowed us to peruse his collection of some of the rarest books in the history of science, along with other spectacular items of considerable interest. It is, in short, the finest collection I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Any single volume on any of the shelves would be an item worthy of possession as one’s most cherished belonging, and here there were hundreds of such treasures.

Along with ancient papyrus pages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, German Enigma machines, and not one but two first editions of Mein Kampf personally signed by Hitler (to Goebbels and Goering no less), was the jewel of the collection: the Archimedes Palimpsest. This medieval prayer book conceals an ancient scientific treasure - it was written over the top of a treatise published by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes.

The Archimedes Palimpsest sold at auction in 1998 for $2.2 million, reportedly to an anonymous billionaire in the IT industry, only ever referred to as 'the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest' or simply "Mr. B". The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in 1997 that insiders "are now certain that it was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and CEO of online book retailer Amazon."

Regardless of who this private individual is, I'm sure those skeptical luminaries, with their love of science and truth, will now spread the word about who the actual owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest is...

Update: Based on documents from the recent court case involving Randi's partner 'Jose Alvarez', and a little further digging, I now believe that the individual who hosted Randi's birthday gathering probably wasn't Jeff Bezos, but was actually longtime JREF supporter Richard 'Rick' Adams, who is known to be a collector of important historical documents and books.

Randi's Prize

Robert McLuhan of the Paranormalia blog has announced that his book Randi's Prize will be released on November 1. The book will discuss the evidence for psychic functioning, and the part that skeptics have played in shaping scientific opinion about such things as telepathy, psychics, ghosts and near-death experiences:

Scepticism is a natural and healthy response to paranormal claims. We can't take at face value the notion that some 'psychics', or people with so-called psychic ability, can read minds, tell the future, or converse with the spirits of the dead, or for that matter that there is such a thing as the spirit world. These claims are antithetical to the materialist paradigm, and at the very least need to be thoroughly investigated.

So sceptics like Randi - along with others whose views I discuss in the book: Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, David Marks, C.E.M. Hansel, etc - have a role to play. But it's wrong for sceptical scientists to imagine that these are the experts. They aren't; they're the fleas on the back of the elephant. The real experts are the parapsychologists who carry out experiments and field research.

Actually some sceptics do carry out investigations and even offer some original thinking - Susan Blackmore on out-of-body and near-death experiences, for instance. But their main concern, Blackmore included, is to dissuade their audience from taking psychic claims seriously. Polemicists like Randi consider abuse to be an appropriate response. I happen to think that empirical investigation, patient and painstaking, is a better way to understand these things than laughing and pointing and calling it 'woo-woo'.

Looked at from a historical perspective there is something really interesting going on here. To me it's as though the sceptics are patrolling the frontiers of the materialist paradigm, beating back the superstitious hordes. There's only a handful of them, the so-called 'specialists' who understand enough about parapsychology to sound knowledgeable to their audience, and create a plausible case against it. But if scientific materialism is to survive, these people have to be right.

...I should mention, though, that it's not primarily about James Randi - I just thought the prize thing would make a cool title. I'm sure there is a book to be written about him, but it would be a different sort of book, and would probably only interest those people who already understand the issues. Mine, by contrast, is mainly concerned to try to explain the challenges posed by psychic research to those who know little about it, and its implications.

By the way, if you're looking for something a little more targeted towards Randi's actual prize, make sure you read my article "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge".

Skepticism Will Eat Itself

Within atheist and skeptical ranks there's been a growing schism between 'accommodationists', and, for lack of a more appropriate term, 'dicks'. In recent times the 'accommodationist' side has started speaking more loudly (which it has to, in order to be heard over the din of the 'dicks'), with the likes of Daniel Loxton and Phil Plait promoting more civil debate rather than P.Z. Myers-ish schoolboy tirades. But the cognitive dissonance that the skeptical movement is currently experiencing may in turn just reinforce the childish behaviour: in a new entry on his blog titled "Are We Phalluses?", Jerry Coyne has taken Phil Plait to task for his 'Don't Be a Dick' speech':

What struck me most strongly about the DBAD talk, and reminded me of the Tom Johnson affair, was Plait’s complete failure to provide evidence for what he was saying. Not only did he not give a single instance of the rudeness and stridency that he finds so ubiquitous, but also gave no evidence that skeptics who behave that way have been less effective than others. This was curious because, after all, the prime requirement for good skepticism is that you give evidence for what you think, and demand it from others.

And the dickish comments come fast and furious after the blog post, including one from an actual Dick - Richard Dawkins. I had a good giggle at his curt response to the Bad Astronomer's talk:

As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people’s face. I don’t think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

I'm sorry...you "suspect" that it's very effective? What happened to this evidence-based reasoning that Jerry Coyne and yourself were just singing the praises of? You might like to do some studies on that before you start criticizing others.

Here's a data point for Jerry and Richard. I regularly encounter dickish behaviour from 'skeptics', and I find it offensive. I find it very difficult to read anything that the likes of Myers and Dawkins write, no matter how intelligent, without an inherent bias due to my previous experience of their dickishness. And I'm not a fan of organized religion, so I should be their target audience.

Being offensive is the easiest course of action - it just requires unstopping any filters of civility and letting the garbage pour out of your head. It takes no intelligence at all, and rarely achieves anything other than to falsely stoke the ego of the offender. I am disinclined to listen to the 'rational' arguments of a 'skeptic' that can't act rationally themselves.

On the other hand, the way things are going, organized skepticism will tear itself apart soon enough...