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Last week the James Randi Educational Foundation hit the publicity jackpot (Time, AOL, CBC, Gizmodo, Discovery) when it played a central part in a feature on ABC’s Nightline dedicated to the topic of psychic powers, with Randi’s famous million-dollar challenge being conducted on national TV (officiated by his trickster protege Steve Shaw, aka Banachek):

I’ve made my feelings about Randi’s MDC pretty clear in the past (see “The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge“), so there’s not much need for me to repeat most of those criticisms again here. But there are a few points that I’d like to apply to this particular program.

Firstly: there is something very wrong with an organisation that is supposedly dedicated to raising the public understanding of science and skepticism deliberately obfuscating the fact that its well-known challenge is no real scientific test of the topic and thus says *nothing* about the existence or non-existence of the paranormal. Now when you raise that point, Randi and others will be quick to say that “we never claim that, it’s just a one-off challenge”. But the MDC is always promoted as the be-all-and-end-all of tests – “if you’re psychic, you’d obviously just go and take Randi’s money”. For example, this is the way in which it is reported in the media:

Of course, just because psychics have not been able to find missing persons doesn’t mean that they might not have other psychic abilities. It’s important to keep an open mind, and try to demonstrate psychic powers in an objective, scientific manner, under conditions that rule out deception.

The Million Dollar Challenge has been around for many years… Will these celebrity psychics take Randi’s challenge? If they have the powers they claim, and can demonstrate them under scientific conditions, they have nothing to lose.

In fact, the publicity of having their abilities validated would likely raise their profiles even higher (to say nothing of the satisfaction they would get from publicly proving the skeptics wrong).

Either the psychic information they give is accurate, or it isn’t; there’s no real way that skeptics could disprove genuine psychic powers. If the psychics have the powers they claim, they have nothing to lose and $1 million to gain.

(If any ‘skeptics’ want to say the above is just typical extrapolation by the media, it’s worth noting that the syndicated Discovery article above is written by none other than Ben Radford, who has more than a vested interest in the skeptical movement and should know better).

As I pointed out in my MDC article, the “nothing to lose” part is absolute bollocks – when they lose (as they likely will, at Randi’s normal success benchmark of beating odds of 1,000,000 to 1) they are ‘outed’ as non-psychic, sometimes with much media fanfare (as in the clip above). And the ‘objective test’ is nothing of the sort. The test itself may be scientific in some respects, but the benchmark to be considered a success is not (one-shot, extremely high odds).

And if you thought the usual million-to-one odds were a bit harsh, how about the test faced by the first ‘psychic’ on the Nightline version of the MDC (pick the correct photo from a set of twelve envelopes, and do that at least nine times out of twelve attempts)? I spoke to well-known parapsychology researcher Dean Radin about this particular test and he quickly did the math, and also pointed out another problem with the test setup:

Assuming each person has to select one correct reading out of 12 possibilities, then the odds of getting at least 9 correct matches is 29.6 million to 1….

In addition, the psychics selected for the test were not vetted for prior ability. Roaming around looking for storefront psychics, and assuming that they have actual talent, is roughly equivalent to roaming around random high school athletic fields, selecting a few runners at random, entering them into the Olympics, and requiring that they win. It’s nonsense.

In another segment of the show, reporters went and talked to – and received ‘readings’ from – celebrity psychics James van Praagh and Allison Dubois. Again, this was poorly done – the reporters give their names before turning up, and then when the reading is done they compare the ‘hits’ to what information about themselves they can pull up online? This proves nothing either way – for example, in Van Praagh’s case he nails a number of things, and then is virtually labeled a fraud because the information is online. I have no experience with Van Praagh, so have no conclusion either way, but this was really poorly executed.

But hey – more power to the JREF. They just got a big chunk of publicity on national TV, for the cheap, cheap price of a million dollars that was always going to stay in their pocket anyhow. And, coincidentally I’m sure, this week the JREF have announced a funding drive looking for ongoing donations in the range of $16 to $48 per month. So you too can help pay James Randi’s $200,000/year wage so that he can continue complaining about people making money from unscientific claims…

My recommendation? Ignore it all – the phony and/or deluded psychics, and the media-hungry skeptics, and keep your eye out for real scientific investigation of these topics. Y’know, this sort of thing.