Another Day, Another Randi Challenge

A day after Randi’s zombie horde (so wonderfully ironic!) challenged James Van Praagh to take the JREF’s million dollar psychic challenge, the Amazing one has lent his name to a British challenge of ‘Psychic Sally’ Morgan’s claimed abilities:

A celebrity psychic who claims to speak with the dead in sellout shows across the country has been challenged by sceptics to prove her supernatural powers. They have invited TV “star psychic” Sally Morgan to demonstrate her ability to connect with the spirit world in a specially designed test in Liverpool on Monday.

The Halloween challenge is backed by the US paranormal investigator James Randi, and qualifies as the first step towards claiming a million-dollar prize established by the James Randi Educational Foundation for any psychic who can prove their “gift” to be real.

…Sceptic groups, led by the science writer Simon Singh, arranged the test after one of Morgan’s shows in Dublin last month at which some members of the audience reported hearing someone at the back of the theatre apparently feeding her information on stage.

More details are available at the Merseyside Skeptics’ Society website. The test, if Morgan agrees, is to be held in three days time and is a simple one – Morgan has to match ten photos of deceased individuals to names on a list. To pass she must get 7 or more correct.

Readers will know my thoughts on these types of tests. On Twitter I mentioned that I hoped that Chris French and company would design something reasonably scientific and fair which might give some indication as to whether something interesting was happening, rather than the usual James Randi-style short test/crazy high p-value. This appears to have been optimistic on my part – my back of envelope calculations have the p-value for this test at roughly 0.00001…ie. odds of occurring by chance of around 1 in 100,000 (though I’m definitely no statistician, so please correct me if necessary!). And it would seem that no matter what the difficulty of that test is, it will not be enough, because once Sally passes that rather stringent test, then “she will be invited to enter into discussions with [the] JREF with a view to arranging a final challenge for the $1m prize.” Wow, generous!

The fact that this test, just announced, is scheduled for just three days time – that is, Halloween – tells you what you need to know about this challenge. It’s a publicity stunt, just like Randi’s million dollar challenge is. The very brief 20 minute test, issued on short notice, with a high p-value, and with Randi’s even more stringent test to follow, is no scientific or fair test of the existence of psychic abilities…it’s a gimmick, plain and simple. Though I guess it’s already done its job, with a mention in the Guardian already. Nevertheless, I would hope any science-minded people involved in this are at least just a little embarrassed with themselves.

But that is not to say that a test is completely off-base – in my opinion, the matter of psychic or mediumistic ability is still up in the air, and *should* be tested in a scientific manner. It would be good to see more psychics/mediums undergoing scientific testing to see if there is something genuine going on. However, with publicity stunts such as this, and obvious antipathy toward them by the ‘objective scientists’, why would they put themselves in that situation?

Personally, I’d like to see a short test, at an ‘easy’ p-value of 0.02 or similar, for absolutely no prize at all. In my opinion, if you’re charging people based on your ‘psychic ability’, that’s the sort of challenge you should expect to pass. If the challenger doesn’t take the test, there’s good reason to say “poor show”. If they do and pass, scientists/skeptics don’t have to acknowledge psychic ability, but I’m sure that would be enough to make any fair-minded person sit back and say to themselves “this deserves further study”. After all, isn’t that what science is all about, rather than publicity stunts and prizes?

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