Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Randi's Unwinnable Prize: The Million Dollar Challenge

Last month I wrote a couple of posts in a discussion forum explaining why the Amazing Randi's million dollar challenge has not been won. This is important to understand because pseudoskeptics often claim that because no one has won the prize, all claims of paranormal powers must be false.

However, the truth is that that a number of paranormal phenomena have been shown to be genuine and the million dollar prize has not been won because it is simply not a good way to demonstrate paranormal powers. The million dollar challenge requires that the applicant has to beat 1 million to one odds. Setting such a high barrier for success makes sense if you are risking a one million dollar prize. However, 1 million to one odds are much higher than the scientific standard of proof so this challenge is not necessarily the best or fairest way to determine if paranormal abilities are genuine. Designing a test that is fair to both the applicant and the challenger requires sophisticated knowledge of statistics (How many trials would be needed for a psychic to have a 95% confidence level that they could beat million to one odds if their accuracy was 75%?) Most psychics don't have the understanding of statistics necessary to look out for their own interests and therefore most applicants will not be able to demand a protocol that gives them a fair chance of winning. This is the most likely reason no one has won the prize.

Furthermore, most applicants who know about Randi or understand the details of the challenge would be reluctant to spend the time, effort and expense of applying because they would not trust it to be a fair test or have confidence that they would be judged fairly or rewarded fairly if they succeeded.

  • Randi supposedly has said, "I always have an out. (Fate, October 1981)", and "I am a charlatan, a liar, a thief and a fake altogether." (This is reported to have been said on PM Magazine, on July 1st, 1982.) Applicants for the prize have legitimate reasons not to trust Randi. An interview in Will Stoor's book The Heretics quotes Randi in making several deceptive statements.

  • The prize is in bonds but Randi won't say when the bonds mature or who issued the bonds so no one knows what the prize really is. Why won't he say what the prize really is? Applicants are legitimately afraid the prize is some sort of worthless trick.

  • The applicant has to pay for their own travel expenses involved in attempting the prize. Why would they do that when they have good reasons not to trust Randi and they don't know what the prize really is?

  • Randi has a history of making mean spirited statements. He has been forced to retract statements in the past. However, applicants have to sign an agreement not to sue Randi even if he makes makes misleading, defamatory, slanderous, or libelous statements about the psychic.

  • The applicants for Randi's prize have to prove themselves to a very high statistical standard far beyond the level that is generally considered proof in science experiments. An experiment could be designed to satisfy this standard with fewer than ten trials. However, a psychic, depending on their rate of accuracy, might need hundreds of trials to have a fair chance of obtaining such an unlikely result1. Most psychics won't realize this because they don't have the necessary expertise in science or statistics and this may be the primary reason no applicant has ever won the prize. One scientist who did apply for the prize never heard back from Randi.

Why would anyone be willing to spend their time and money to try to win the challenge when they don't trust Randi, or believe that the challenge is fair, or that the prize is real?

The challenge is not really serious. Most applicants who understand the details would be reluctant to spend the time, effort and expense of applying because they would not trust it to be a fair test or have confidence that they would be judged fairly or rewarded fairly if they succeeded. The most likely reason no one has won is because most applicants do not have the expertise in statistics needed to demand a protocol that will give them a fair chance of winning. The prize is a publicity stunt designed to give materialist pseudoskeptics a one liner: "Why has no one won the prize?!?!" The correct answer is: ... Because it is not a good way to measure paranormal powers and anyone who understands the situation would have very good reasons not to apply.

It is sadly ironic that so many of Randi's followers, who pride themselves on their critical thinking skills, are fooled into thinking this prize is a legitimate test of paranormal phenomena. There are many independent forms of empirical evidence for ESP and the afterlife. The entire movement of pseudoskeptics is based on misdirection. Randi's followers believe they are helping to protect people from fraud, but in fact they themselves are victims of many deceptions perpertrated by the leaders of the pseudoskeptic movement. I discuss this in greater detail on my web page on Skeptical Misdirection.


(1) In an experiment to measure psychic ability, there are three numbers that need to be considered:

  • The first number represents the confidence that the outcome is not due to chance. The million dollar challenge requires the psychic perform at a level that would occur by chance only once in a million times.
  • The second number is the rate of accuracy of the psychic's abilities. For example, a psychic might have an accuracy of 75% in some task where the probability of being correct by chance is only 50%.

  • The third number is the number of trials which are needed to give the psychic a high level of confidence that they would win the prize given their rate of accuracy.

In order to achieve the required confidence that the psychic's performance is not due to chance, the challenge could require two tests of ten or fewer trials. However, the psychic might not be able to pass such a test if they are not 100% accurate. But, if the psychic is given a sufficient number of trials, they may demonstrate a success rate that, while not 100% accurate, still cannot be explained by chance at the level of confidence demanded by the challenge.

In order for the psychic to have a 95% confidence level that they could beat million to one odds if their accuracy was 75%, they might need over 100 trials. Most psychics are not well enough versed in statistics to know how to measure their rate of accuracy or how to calculate the number of trials they need to have a good chance of winning the prize.


Skeptical Organisations and Magazines A Guide to the Skeptics at skepticalinvestigations.org

For many years this "prize" has been Randi's stock-in-trade as a media skeptic, but even some other skeptics are skeptical about its value as anything but a publicity stunt. For example, CSICOP founding member Dennis Rawlins pointed out that not only does Randi act as "policeman, judge and jury" but quoted him as saying "I always have an out"! (Fate, October 1981).


Contenders have to pay for their own travelling expenses if they want to go to Randi to be tested: Rule 6: "All expenses such as transportation, accommodation and/or other costs incurred by the applicant/claimant in pursuing the reward, are the sole responsibility of the applicant/claimant." Also, applicants waive their legal rights: Rule 7: "When entering into this challenge, the applicant surrenders any and all rights to legal action against Mr. Randi, against any person peripherally involved and against the James Randi Educational Foundation, as far as this may be done by established statutes. This applies to injury, accident, or any other damage of a physical or emotional nature and/or financial, or professional loss, or damage of any kind." Applicants also give Randi complete control over publicity

Flim-Flam Flummery: A Skeptical Look at James Randi at michaelprescott.net

Recently I picked up Flim-Flam again. Having changed my mind about many things over the past twenty years, I responded to it much differently this time. I was particularly struck by the book's hectoring, sarcastic tone. Randi pictures psychic researchers as medieval fools clad in "caps and bells" and likens the delivery of an announcement at a parapsychology conference to the birth of "Rosemary's Baby." After debunking all manner of alleged frauds, he opens the book's epilogue with the words, "The tumbrels now stand empty but ready for another trip to the square" – a reference to the French Revolution, in which carts ("tumbrels") of victims were driven daily to the guillotine. Randi evidently pictures himself as the executioner who lowers the blade. In passing, two points might be made about this metaphor: the French Revolution was a product of "scientific rationalism" run amok ... and most of its victims were innocent.

The Psychic Challenge by Montague Keen Source: www.victorzammit.com/ hosted at skepticalinvestigations.org

Now for the more serious bit: first, the $1million prize. Loyd Auerbach, a leading USA psychologist and President of the Psychic Entertainers Association (some 80% of the members of his Psychic Entertainers' Association believe in the paranormal, according to Dr. Adrian Parker, who was on the programme, but given no opportunity to reveal this) exposed some of the deficiencies in this challenge in an article in Fate magazine.

Under Article 3, the applicant allows all his test data to be used by the Foundation in any way Mr. Randi may choose. That means that Mr. Randi can pick and chose the data at will and decide what to do with it and what verdict to pronounce on it. Under Article 7, the applicant surrenders all rights to legal action against the Foundation, or Mr. Randi, no matter what emotional, professional or financial injury he may consider he has sustained. Thus even if Mr. Randi comes to a conclusion different from that reached by his judges and publicly denounces the test, the applicant would have no redress. The Foundation and Mr. Randi own all the data. Mr. Randi can claim that the judges were fooled. The implicit accusation of fraud would leave the challenger devoid of remedy.

These rules, be it noted, are in stark contrast to Mr. Randi's frequent public assertions that he wanted demonstrable proof of psychic powers. First, his rules are confined to a single, live applicant. No matter how potent the published evidence, how incontestable the facts or rigorous the precautions against fraud, the number, qualifications or expertise of the witnesses and investigators, the duration, thoroughness and frequency of their tests or (where statistical evaluation is possible) the astronomical odds against a chance explanation: all must be ignored. Mr. Randi thrusts every case into the bin labelled 'anecdotal' (which means not written down), and thereby believes he may safely avoid any invitation to account for them.

Likewise, the production of a spanner bent by a force considerably in excess of the capacity of the strongest man, created at the request and in the presence of a group of mechanics gathered round a racing car at a pit stop by Mr. Randi's long-time enemy, Uri Geller, would run foul of the small print, which requires a certificate of a successful preliminary demonstration before troubling Mr. Randi himself. A pity, because scientists at Imperial College have tested the spanner, which its current possessor, the researcher and author Guy Lyon Playfair, not unnaturally regards as a permanent paranormal object, and there is a standing challenge to skeptics to explain its appearance.

Randi's dishonest claims about dogs by Rupert Sheldrake - from www.sheldrake.org hosted at skepticalinvestigations.org

Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off. In Dog World, Randi stated: "Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by." This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape.

Beware Pseudo-Skepticism - The Randi Challenge at skepticalinvestigations.org

Since the prize money is in the form of bonds, then it is possible that the bonds are worthless. For example, maybe a lot of the bonds are from corporations that are on the verge of going bankrupt? Or maybe the corporations don't have to pay off the bonds for another 40 years? In our example, Bob had to pay everything back in 24 months... this is called the "maturity" of the bond. Some bonds don't mature for a few years, others don't mature for a few decades. If Randi awards the prize of a bond that doesn't mature for 40 years, then legally I do have a million dollars... but I can't USE the million dollars until the bonds mature! As you can see, there are a lot of different scenarios where the bonds could be LEGALLY worth a million dollars, but in reality they could be worthless.


The next logical step is to find out what the bonds are really worth. To do that, I e-mailed Randi at the address he provided on his website. I politely pointed out where it said the prize was in bonds in the Challenge rules, and then I asked what corporations issued the bonds, what the interest rates were, and when the maturity dates are. These are the main factors at determining if the bonds are worthless or not. Randi replied with, "Apply, or go away." I explained to him that I wanted clarification on what he was offering. That this had nothing to do with my claim, but they were questions aimed at getting more information about the Challenge. Randi replied with, "Immediately convertible into money. That's all I'm going to get involved in. Apply, or disappear." Obviously that doesn't answer my question at all. Immediately convertible into how much money? Convertible through who?

The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge at dailygrail.com

The procedures for the Challenge included several hurdles in favor of, and multiple "outs" for Randi and the JREF that any discerning individual capable of any kind of extraordinary human performance would think twice about (and here I'm not just referring to psychics and the like).


While the JREF says that "all tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant", this does not mean that the tests are fair scientific tests. The JREF need to protect a very large amount of money from possible "long-range shots", and as such they ask for extremely significant results before paying out - much higher than are generally accepted in scientific research (and if you don’t agree to terms, your application is rejected).


Furthermore, applicants must first pass a 'preliminary test', before they are allowed to progress to the actual 'formal' test which pays the million dollars. So an applicant must first show positive results in a preliminary test (yielding results against chance of at least 1000 to 1, apparently), then once through to the next stage they would then have to show positive results against much higher odds to claim the prize (by all reports, at odds of around 1 million to 1). Failure in either test means no cash prize, and a fail beside their name.


As a consequence, you might well say "no wonder no serious researcher has applied for the Challenge." Interestingly, this is not the case. Dr Dick Bierman, who has a PhD in physics, informed me that he did in fact approach James Randi about the Million Dollar Challenge in late 1998


At that point Randi mentioned that before proceeding he had to submit this preliminary proposal to his scientific board or committee. And basically that was the end of it. I have no idea where the process was obstructed but I must confess that I was glad that I could devote myself purely to science rather than having to deal with the skeptics and the associated media hypes.

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