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I’ve mentioned this topic more than a few times, so here’s some clarity on the subject from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), discusses the ‘Million Dollar Challenge’ in this interview with renowned magician and JREF advisor Jamy Ian Swiss, who makes these points about the requirements and goals of the challenge:

No matter what you make the probability…coincidences happen. Events that are one in a million happen to eight people a day in New York city. So what we’ve traditionally tried to do in the million dollar challenge is to make it definitive; to make the demands really significant enough that if you pass there’s a good chance you’re a psychic, or it was a really amazing coincidence that happened.

And of course we never say that the million dollar challenge is scientific research. It’s not. It’s a test that’s designed to scientific protocols, but we’re not doing science because we don’t have enough trials, we’re not doing studies. And so it’s quite possible that if and when someone passed the test and took the million, we’re not stamping them officially psychic at that point. We’re saying that day, they passed the test, and it’s for others to determine what the significance of that is, what that really means. Which would actually demand repeated studies.

But one of the things that we really want to do in the regular Million Dollar Challenge is to lower the requirements in the preliminary stages. We actually want to test people, and we actually want people to get through the test and to engage in the process, because we want to use the process of the Million Dollar Challenge to put forward and promote everything we do at the JREF.

It’s not science, it’s a promotional tool – are we clear on that now? Because though I’ve seen that caveat thrown around by the JREF and its supporters whenever the ‘one-off’ nature of the test is raised, it doesn’t tend to show up at other times. For instance, most recently, in the ‘Psychic Sally’ controversy, British skeptic Simon Singh suggested that Sally Morgan could settle the matter by demonstrating “her powers in a scientific experiment” – which was simply the preliminary test for the Million Dollar Challenge (with higher-than-usual inflated odds, I might add). And if Sally had passed that test, what then?

I would have said “Great, there’s another test waiting for you”. And it would have shaken my current belief, which is that psychic phenomena don’t exist. I wouldn’t have done a complete about turn immediately, but I’d be halfway there.

I’d add that I’m not endorsing Sally Morgan here – I’m simply addressing the mis-characterisation of the Million Dollar Challenge as science. And as I’ve mentioned previously, there are fairly serious moral issues in lowering the bar for such a test.

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