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Challenging Skepticism

A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled “The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge“. It’s one of the most read pages of all time here on the Grail, so it’s obviously a topic that many people are interested in. Apart from the flaws in the MDC that I pointed out in my article, another element of this (and other) ‘paranormal prizes’ which disturbs me somewhat is the use of ‘cannon fodder’, in order to maintain the (somewhat dubious) validity of these challenges. And by ‘cannon fodder’, I mean those people that apply for these challenges, who truly believe they can win the money. To my mind, some may not understand the odds properly, some are misleading themselves about their ‘talents’, and some are just plain unbalanced. That’s a worrying thing when combined with a high-profile test which is undertaken with the intention of publicity based on the challenger being unable to succeed.

A perfect illustration of this occurred last month, when the IIG (the ‘Independent Investigations Group’, a volunteer-run organization based with the Center for Inquiry) tested Regan Traynor, an individual trying to win the CFI’s $50,000 paranormal challenge with his alleged telepathic powers. Unfortunately, this skeptical publicity event didn’t go exactly to plan:

On February 20th, Regen Traynor and his receiver, Fernando arrived at the Center for Inquiry. Not only were they searched for electronic devices but for weapons as well. We had a retired police officer assist with the check. Both men were found to have no weapons and no electronic devices other that a cell phone which was removed for the duration of the test. Both men signed release forms agreeing to be photographed and agreeing to the proposed protocol. I should mention at this point that both men were visibly drunk.

These men weren’t just slightly inebriated. They were wasted, stumbling, swaying side-to-side smell-vodka-across-the-room drunk. They both freely admitted to being drunk and in no way regentried to hide the fact. At one point during the test Traynor referred to himself as not only being drunk but also being “a drunk” and asked for more alcohol a few times during the test. None was provided.

I should also mention that we found out both men were homeless. When asked to sign the release forms they said they had no address and that they were “homeless.” They had traveled from the state of Washington to Los Angeles via bus. I was told the bus trip was a 14-hour drive. They informed us that they planned to travel to Texas after this test to participate in another psychic challenge that offered a $12,000 prize.

This is just really sad. Are skeptical groups really so desperate for publicity that they feel comfortable exploiting disadvantaged and psychologically unstable people for their purposes? The Skepchick blog entry does voice concerns about how this all turned out, but still finishes by saying these sorts of challenges should continue, because they are “very important, especially in the sharing of factual information about these claims and the outcomes of the tests with the public”. As I pointed out in my MDC article, this is nonsense. The odds required by paranormal challenges are insanely high – meant to guarantee the prizemoney, not to assess whether someone has a talent which might suggest some sort of anomalous power. For instance, the odds against chance required for success in Regan Traynor’s IIG test were 13,000 to 1 – and this was just the “preliminary test” needing to be passed before applying for the CFI’s actual $50,000 challenge!

These paranormal challenges are designed for one thing: publicity. They do not offer a scientific evaluation of claims of the paranormal, and as such there are very logical reasons why people should avoid taking part in them. The outcome of this is that the people that do end up applying for them are exactly the sort of people that should be protected from public ridicule.

Skepticism would be better served by helping out these people, and engaging in genuine scientific examination of claims of the paranormal. At the moment, such challenges make them not much better than the ‘hucksters’ they claim to be trying to out, profiting off the misfortunes of others.

  1. Easy targets
    Unfortunately I have noticed this over and over again: I call it the “Easy Target” approach. Avoid serious debate and look for the weakest, most easily discredited subjects and publicise these as though they were representative samples.

    Dawkins did it on his anti-religion TV specials. His Easy Targets were Televangelsits … the bouffant hairstyles, the flashy limosines, the shiny suits, the more “Hallelujah’s” the better it played to the stereotypes of charlatans and loonies. Is it any wonder that most educated people in the west sneer at the mention of the paranormal? We are led by our super-intelligent betters. Dawkins, for years held the Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. What happened when he took his TV crew to what he assumed would be another easy target – Rupert Sheldrake? Well, he (Dawkins) turned down the chance of serious debate and the section was left out of the program.

    But let us not deceive ourselves. There are plenty of easy targets out there. Fake psychics and alternative health practitioners who would make you cringe. Why don’t the serious ones come forward? Ask Rupert Sheldrake or Dean Radin. Or read Greg’s original article on the MDC.


    1. Softer and more open approach
      I gotta say that as a general skeptic and someone who agrees with these challenges in principle i think all the criticisms here are completely fair.

      It’s pretty stupid of the organisers to abuse the test in that way and shows a stupid inclination towards glossy bias. Of course we shouldn’t dismiss someone just because they are homeless either. And perhaps some individuals are better after using alcohol; that might be worth a real test some time. There seems plenty of suggestion that other chemicals assist with paranormal activity.

      That is by the by though. I would love to have that much money to investigate these things myself. I have considered ouija boards, if it wasn’t for the problem that I am just sceptical, which is not the same as being so self assured that I will not bring demons into my home. Even suicide has crossed my mind to glimpse over the horizon, though not for more than an instant and only in my worst moments of frustration.

      The idea of being able to motivate people who think they have something more than the random abilities we all seem to have, to allow people to try and pin down what is going on, is something I find quite exciting. As well as something I would love to have a go at personally.

      I’d set the test up to get a positive result though; then work backwards. Create the test for the persons individual ability and make them as comfortable as possible. Design it so they are sure they can get positive results. Then give it a go. Set the standard at 50/50, not 13000/1. See if they can get better than 50%. Then start pinning down why once you have shown them reliably doing it day after day.

    2. Did he read my post??
      My earlier comment (before the News Briefs were posted):

      Dawkins did it on his anti-religion TV specials. His Easy Targets were Televangelsits … the bouffant hairstyles, the flashy limosines, the shiny suits, the more “Hallelujah’s” the better it played to the stereotypes of charlatans and loonies.

      Browsing todays TDG News Briefs, I came across the article on the atheists convention. Here is a quote from the article:

      [quote]Many there would be horrified at how similar it was to evangelical meetings I have covered, down to the bouffant-haired televangelist prototype in Atheist Alliance International president Stuart Bechman, who was master of ceremonies. Every jibe brought a burst of applause — all that was missing was the “hallelujahs”.[/quote]


  2. Court of the Shameless
    The whole skeptic/debunkery thing, in a nutshell, is an effort to prove that certain things do not exist. Our example today, as played out in the article above, is to prove that clairvoyance/telepathy does not exist. But instead of offering a genuine testing of the skeptic’s theory of negativity, there is a ridiculous floor show.

    In fact, it is pretty doggone clear that the whole exercise was about nothing at all, if not to produce a few guffaws and belly laughs.

    The mechanism is geared to enforcement of stereotype, supported by an undercurrent of ridicule, and then topped off with the performance. To wit: the misshapen peasant is dressed like a clown and sent out before the host of attending courtesans, resulting in howls of laughter and approving nods.

    Have these people no shame?

    Apparently not and instead of disproving psychic ability… or anything at all for that matter, it offered a working demonstration of the loose art of non-discovery by design.

  3. Publicity

    These men weren’t just slightly inebriated. They were wasted, stumbling, swaying side-to-side smell-vodka-across-the-room drunk.

    Absolute Pseudoskepticism?

    The easiest trick in the bag in order to destroy an opposing view is to attack the weakest link in the chain. However, shouldn’t people with a scientific inclination aspire not to use the common tactics of politicians? shouldn’t your point be more emphasized if you chose to challenge the strongest and most respected of your opponents?

    1. Definitely true. The problem
      Definitely true. The problem for the skeptic with this sort of test though is that it will never prove the negative position. You would have to test everybody on the planet, and even then it wouldn’t disprove psychic ability (if the result for everyone was negative), but just make a stronger case against it. This type of test can only ever prove the paranormal case true, not false. Grandstanding each negative result is silly. All anyone can hope for out of it is a positive result proving the paranormal true; the experiment can do nothing else.

      Typically, and not just in science, attacking the weakest section of an idea is entirely normal. The weakest section will be defined as the most poorly evidenced or most internally or externally in-cohesive anyway. By definition it is the bit to target. If you want to argue gravity is wrong find the bit where it doesn’t hold, or natural selection, or any other idea. Go for the weak bit.

      The thing with the paranormal is that there really isn’t a weak bit in the conventional sense. Just like everything else it cannot be disproven to 100%, but people are happy with whatever possibility that it might be true, when other ideas are not favoured in the same way.

      Picking the ‘weakest [idea] targets’ in any movement is still valid, as it has been through any of the thought disciplines over the millennia. After all ‘weakest’ should correlate with ‘most outwardly incorrect’, hopefully. What is wrong is any idea that by doing this you weaken the strongest arguments, or opponents.

      I do think it is time that the worlds skeptical communities turned their attention away from the easy picks, which are now seen culturally as easy picks because of the work drawing attention to the fact, and turned their attention to testing the better ideas.

      1. Weakes in what sense

        Picking the ‘weakest [idea] targets’ in any movement is still valid, as it has been through any of the thought disciplines over the millennia. After all ‘weakest’ should correlate with ‘most outwardly incorrect’, hopefully. What is wrong is any idea that by doing this you weaken the strongest arguments, or opponents.

        I suppose I could agree with that, ideally. But isn’t true that often the weakest target has often less to do with the problem at hand and more with circumstantial flaws?

        When a politician wishes to attack an opponent, they go after the flaws: whether the opponent cheated on his/her wife, cheated the IRS, is an alcoholic or drug user, etc.

        So, in some instances, going after the weakest target can easily become a mere case of ‘ad-hominem attacks’.

        1. Yeah, i guess this is the
          Yeah, i guess this is the case.

          Especially if you’re just using ad-hominem attacks, but then we aren’t really in the realm either of us are comfortable in.

          I think that politics is particular in this form since there is no ‘best’ path or true path for a country, people have different ambitions for the direction. I suppose this is a really good way for spotting when people have different ambitions for the ‘truth’, rather than trying to be honest to where the evidence might lead.

          Ideally though weakest in the scientific sense should mean weakest evidence, though you still see diminished reputation affecting ad-hominem usage. I don’t know where to draw the line here. If a scientist is caught committing fraud then their reputation is affected and ad-hominem is likely to be used in any further assertions they might make, an obvious mistake if they are correct. I guess this is not ideal. The same goes for scientists making claims that seemingly dismiss other established bodies of work. I guess the argument here is that this should not be done either. Drawing the line is difficult though. How much can i ignore or dismiss without affecting trust and reputation, in any circle?

          What should be happening is if i wanted to disagree with Sheldrake i should learn his arguments and attack the weakest, not attack the man. Politicians cannot do this because politics is about personal belief, conviction and character. Science can mostly avoid these things (granted in the things we like to talk about belief often still comes into it), though it is still a human endeavour and i think the person attacking as well as the person defending an idea must both be able to disassociate from it if it is to remain ideally neutral.

          1. Disassociation
            Yes, disassociation should be what we all should strive for.

            But… can there be passion with disassociation? Apathy cannot be the answer either.

            If we could only accept our mistakes with the gladness that we have come closer to the truth by being proven wrong.

          2. Yep
            Agree completely.

            It is odd because science teaches exactly that. Many scientific theories change and new evidence is gathered all the time. Passion is heard of from everything from the afterlife to trilobites. Yet we are supposed to adjust as quickly as possible to the stream of data, never clinging to the disproven.

            It is not possible to completely extract our humanity from our behaviour though and this is as much a good thing as a bad. Passion can push you forward, and even though you may be left on your own as you stick to an idea in the face of adversity occasionally you are right. The colossal advancements over the past few hundred years (and especially the last 100) show the affect of improvements in co-operation and methodology.

            When we have these chats about the philosophical positions staked out by drawing lines in the sand we inevitably fail to perfectly describe a best line, since there is none. It is all compromise within the human condition. Perhaps it is just best to keep discussion alive so that the chance of discovering we are wrong remains, even if the perfect situation of everyone, whoever it may be, actually doing so is either realistically impossible or improbable.

      1. I think a shift in belief is
        I think a shift in belief is something the brain doesn’t handle well. An actual physical problem, rather than philosophical. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if belief was a little like addiction.

        The upside to proof of things like the afterlife surely outweighs what any individual is going to negatively feel about having been wrong. I would suspect that it is much easier for a non-believer to cross over to belief and to gain the benefit if certainty was shown than it would be for a believer to have to cross the divide, simply for what is gained or lost.

        1. ordinarily
          you are correct. But when someone builds a career out of skeptisim. then they have more to loose then joe blow down the street who dosen’t believe,then is shown proof and changes his belief. Nothing riding on it.
          It’s like scientists who are suddenly put into the lime light for a very important discovery, they enter modestly and humble, but once their tasted celebrity they are very reluctant to let it go.Even in the face of possible errors they have made.

          This is all EGO and that is where the biggest problem lies.
          To admit your wrong to 2 or 3 people is one thing, but to admit your wrong to half the world is intirely different.

  4. Legless in Gazer Experiment
    Highlighting this sort of thing’s very important, Greg – if only the mainstream media’d pick up on it in the way they often quote Randi (and his prize) as if it’s indisputable proof of something.

    It’s definitely the case much of the activity of the sceptical fringe is purely devoted to procuring and securing attention, publicity, lines in newspapers, etc.

    There is another aspect to it, though: they keep reminding themselves – and us – they’re the brights, the smart guys who’re too clever to fall for all this woo woo – unlike the rest of us mush for brains.

    Yet as anyone who knows even the teensiest amount of pop psychology will tell you, people who have to keep asserting how much smarter/beautiful/sexier/richer/stronger/whatever than the rest of us they are, are secretly harbouring major doubts about this.

    Which brings me to Regen ‘Tipsy’ Traynor and his pissed as a fart receiver, Fernando: the subtext of this piece is to reassure Randi and his followers, see, this is the calibre of people we’re up against, why they can’t recognise our superiority, why they dispute our pronouncements about the way the world is, why they’re so easy to fool with woo woo; and even if they don’t start out that way, this is the likely fate laying in wait for any brights so foolish as to contemplate even the remotest possibility there might just be something to all this paranormal nonsense.

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