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.