On May 6th, self-proclaimed psychic Patricia Putt was put to the test by Professors Richard Wiseman and Christopher French in the UK, on behalf of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The testing by these two highly regarded academics was a preliminary ‘screening’ for an attempt at James Randi’s ‘Million Dollar Challenge’:
A few months ago the JREF asked if Chris French (Goldsmith University) and I would carry out an initial test of a medium named Patricia Putt. We went back and forth about the protocol, and eventually settled on an experimental design. Basically, Patricia would carry out readings for 10 strangers, and then all of the participants would be presented with all 10 readings and have to select the one that best described them. To cut down on possible sensory cues, the strangers were not allowed to interact with Patricia, and asked to wear a graduation gown and facial mask.
…Patricia was a joy to work with, and carried out the readings as promised. I sat in the room with Patricia as she wrote her readings and sent the occasional twitter update.
None of the participants were able to correctly identify their reading, and so the results do not support Patricia’s claim.
To be clear on that result: Putt got 0 out of 10 correct. That’s a pretty comprehensive fail. You can find the protocol for the experiment at the JREF Forum. Chris French also has written up his account of the day for the UK’s Guardian.
This looks to have been a good solid test of what Putt claimed to be able to do – and if anything, by allowing speaking I think it probably favoured Putt a little in terms of allowing some possible sensory leakage. There are only two things that concern me. Firstly, there is no mention of the stance of the volunteers. I emailed Chris French asking whether any survey was done of their thoughts on paranormal phenomena, he told me there was not. This seems odd to me. What if all the volunteers were of a skeptical nature? Is it possible that they could intentionally pick the description that does not indicate them? While personally I think this is stretching things (especially with a zero out of ten result), it is theoretically a nasty flaw. With the final selection of reading by volunteers being blind, the sensible thing to me would be to have supporters/believers of paranormal phenomena involved, to put this possibility to bed.
The more important concern is over the setting of five selections out of ten as constituting the benchmark for success. While a casual glance might suggest that’s 1 in 2 odds, it isn’t. If Putt had achieved that benchmark, she would be doing so at odds against chance of over 600 to 1. Remember, this is just the preliminary test, in order to see whether she’s worthy of going for the million dollars. Given Putt’s 0 out of 10 result, in this particular case it’s all academic – but still worthy of making a point of, given the reputation the million dollar challenge has.
I asked Chris French why the benchmark for “success” was set at 5 out of 10; he told me that “this was set by JREF and agreed to by Mrs Putt,” before he got involved in the testing. This is consistent with previous ‘preliminary’ tests regarding the Million Dollar Challenge, with odds against chance of 1000 to 1 generally mentioned as being required for the preliminary, rising to a million to one for the true ‘Million Dollar’ test. As I’ve mentioned previously, those odds are probably valid given the amount of money Randi needs to protect against being won by a chance event. It does not, however, give any sort of ‘scientific’ test of whether someone has exhibited an anomalous sensory power, or at least done well enough to warrant further testing. See the Demkina case for an example of someone doing quite well but ‘failing’.
Having said that, it’s probably a valid argument that if you’re going to sell your services as a talented psychic, you should be able to get five things out of ten correct, despite the odds. Otherwise, what value is this power – what sort of trust can we put in anything said, even if some of it is through some genuine psychic channel?
The other thing worth noting is that Patricia Putt agreed to setting 5 out of 10 as the level required for success. Hopefully she was aware (or made aware) of the odds she was going up against. But she took on the challenge, with full knowledge of the restrictions and benchmarks for success, so she has made her own bed.
The pointy end of the stick is though: what does Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge offer us? This test has shown that one ‘psychic’, Patricia Putt, failed to show evidence for paranormal powers, on this one particular day. Nothing more can be claimed than that, all else is inference. It also has shown that even if something surprising happened, and a ‘psychic’ achieved results against odds of 500 to 1, it would be labeled a failure under this protocol. That any intelligent ‘psychic’ – whether genuine or fraudulent – would avoid putting themselves in that position is more than understandable. As such, it could well be argued that the pool of Million Dollar applicants might be composed of less than capable individuals. (Given that Putt has been put to the test previously by the BBC, with not-so-impressive results, this particular test result isn’t that surprising).
So we basically have a testing system which offers no scientifically useful benchmarks, investigating mostly self-deluded individuals, which so far has proved that on that particular day, nothing exceptionally out of the normal has happened. In short, I fail to see why the Million Dollar Challenge is held in such high regard. Let’s hope that – contra to what the Bad Astronomer says – the Million Dollar Challenge is *not* the “coolest thing” the JREF does.
The one thing that it does show is that you shouldn’t explicitly trust the results of anybody relying on ‘psychic’ ability. That’s the message that skeptics would do well to get across to the public, rather than large-scale dismissals of psychic abilities based on the continued retention of the million dollar prize.
For more information on this topic, see my previous article “The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge“. Your thoughts?