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Last year I mentioned a documentary-in-development about skeptic James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, titled “An Honest Liar”. The film-makers have now turned to Kickstarter to raise $148,000 to finish the project.

An Honest Liar profiles the colorful life of famed magician turned professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi as he embarks on a series of public crusades to expose America’s psychics, faith healers and con artists with religious fervor. But you never know whether to trust a master deceiver – and there’s more to Randi’s life than meets the eye.

I think it’s a worthwhile project – Randi is certainly a fascinating character to study, and has lived a very interesting life. I hope that the film-makers will be delving into the “colorful” aspect of Randi’s personality, rather than simply making a hagiopic, though I’m not encouraged by the call to arms in the blurb: “You can help fund our film and spread a call for reason and critical thinking and save the world from falling back into the Dark Ages!” Ugh, the old Dark Ages trope. Anyhow, if you’d like to see the documentary come to fruition, or at least are interested in the pledge reward packs, then kick in some dollars to help them reach their goal (currently around $35,000 raised out of $148,000, with a month still to go, so looking promising).

On a related note, Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) is under heavy discussion in the blogosphere again after Steve Volk wrote a blog post taking Sam Harris to task for saying that there was “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part in the controversial test. This in turn inspired responses from skeptics Steven Novella (“Defending the Million Dollar Challenge“) and Sharon Hill (“Looking for the best answer: Sorry it burst your paranormal balloon“).

There’s very little I want to add, as I’ve laid out most of my criticisms of the Million Dollar Challenge previously. To keep critiquing it, or James Randi, over and over again just seems like I’ve got a bug up the proverbial about it all, when I really don’t. So I’ll just quickly list a few things that came to mind while reading these responses to Steve Volk’s blog, and which keep coming up repeatedly in critiques of my own article:

Firstly, Sharon mentions in her post websites that “enjoy bashing James “The Amazing” Randi”, and Steve Novella takes issue with Steve Volk’s blog post, saying “The attack amounts to one giant straw man, typical of such criticisms…this post, like all criticisms I have seen, focuses on Randi the man.” I’ve looked at Volk’s blog a few times, and I can’t see how Novella would come to this conclusion – it focuses nearly entirely on the MDC, with just an early mention of Randi as a ‘cranky elf’. I bring this point up because whenever I mention the MDC, I seem to face accusations of flagrantly attacking Randi. Indeed, in his own response to my original article, he described me as a “grubbie” who had written a “tirade” attacking him. One would think that skeptics would appreciate articles taking a skeptical stance on someone’s claims, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

However I must give credit to Steve Novella for making a certain point clear. This has also been mentioned by Randi and D.J. Grothe previously, but let’s put this one up in lights so it can be referenced from now on (for reasons to be discussed below):

The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon….

The million dollar challenge is not designed to scientifically test subtle or tiny effects, but rather to test the dramatic claims of people who are publicly proclaiming they have genuine paranormal abilities.

Randi et al may well have “always been crystal clear about this” (I agree they have mentioned this, I’m not sure I would extend it to being “crystal clear”), but the fact remains that in debates over parapsychology, the MDC has become some sort of trump card that is often thrown on the table by skeptical debaters – “if he’s so sure he’s proven precognition, why doesn’t he apply for Randi’s prize?”. Indeed, the ENTIRE REASON for Volk’s article was Sam Harris invoking this argument – so Steven Novella would perhaps be better off aiming his corrective comments at him, rather than Volk. So too with New Scientist, who asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi’s million dollars.

We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem’s famous experiments (“Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi”) – an editorial that Novella himself described as “the best thing to come out of Bem’s research” – we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon:

[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)

Hrmm – does that mean Wagenmaker et al need to readjust the prior probabilities for their Bayesian analysis…? (/musing aloud).

My final concern about the Million Dollar Challenge, which I have mentioned previously, but doesn’t get mentioned by too many other people, is that I find the ethics of the whole thing rather questionable. It’s not for testing subtle psi effects – Steve Novella makes that clear above (though if the comment referenced in this post is by him, maybe someone should tell Randi). It can be used as a tool for shaming high-profile frauds – though I would argue the insane odds (which are fine for risk management, not so much for finding things out) sadly gives any of those people a very rational excuse for not participating. Caught in the middle between those two ends though are the people who do apply – generally people that believe they have some power, and think that they can exhibit it to an amazing degree. There is little doubt that a portion of these claimants are either unbalanced, or desperate. To use them as cannon fodder for what is a publicity stunt, to me, is deplorable. And may just come back to bite the JREF at some point.

I consider the MDC an embarrassment. Skeptics may try to see that as a personal attack on Randi, but it’s not. Skepticism is a prerequisite for exploring these areas…I just find it a shame so few skeptics practice it. If I want to attack Randi, I’ll do so on the basis of his creative personality or his social Darwinism, or other often ignored facets of his personality and opinions. Seeing it as a defence of the paranormal would be more correct, but only in so much as I would like to see open, fair discussion of these topics without reference to an overhyped, unintelligent publicity mechanism designed to bring attention to Randi.