Friday, January 12, 2007

Good move: Skeptic Revamps $1M Psychic Prize

"We can't waste the hundreds of hours that we spend every year on the nutcases out there -- people who say they can fly by flapping their arms," says Randi. "We have three file drawers jam-packed with those collections.... There are over 300 claims that we have handled in detail."


In 10 years, though, nobody's passed the preliminary exam. The most recent one was administered in Stockholm in October, when Swedish medium Carina Landin tried to identify the gender of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers. She got 12 right; 16 was the agreed-upon threshold for success. (The foundation plans to re-administer Landin's test following revelations that several of the diaries were older than stipulated in the protocol.)
I hope there was a stipulation about repeatability. I would never be convinced, and would never pay off, on a single test with these odds.
Before that, the last preliminary test was in July 2005, when a Hawaiian psychic named Achau Nguyen traveled to Los Angeles to demonstrate he could mentally transmit his thoughts to a friend in another room. Under the watchful eyes of paranormal investigators, a video camera and a small audience, Nguyen selected 20 index cards from a deck of 30 and focused on the words written on each of them in turn -- while one floor below his "receiver" wrote down the wrong word, 20 out of 20 times.

These tests, however unsuccessful, represent the cream of the crop for the Million Dollar Challenge -- polite, sincere applicants able to agree to a reasonable testing protocol. The vast majority of the people applying for the money don't get that far.

A Nevada man legally named "The Prophet Yahweh" planned to seize the prize for charity by summoning two spaceships to a Las Vegas park last year, but negotiations broke down when he announced he was bringing several armed guards to the demonstration in case any "negative personalities" showed up. An inventor who claimed to have built a device that could sense the psychic distress of an egg about to be dropped into a pot of boiling water recently abandoned his application when the foundation suggested the egg be threatened by a hammer instead, in case the invention was really just detecting steam.

"One a week gets as far as a protocol negotiation, and then drops off," says Jeff Wagg, who administers the challenge.


Those are the easy ones. In some of the applications, perhaps most of them, the foundation has to deal with the thorny dilemma of where to draw the line between upholding its commitment, and potentially exploiting or feeding someone's mental illness. The demarcation is inherently tricky, since the entire theatre of paranormal testing is located in the realm of extra-rational belief.


The media's lightweight treatment of professional psychics is a deadly serious matter to Randi.
The media's lightweight treatment of professional psychics ought to be a serious matter to everyone, especially educators everywhere. It's revolting to see these frauds treated with kid gloves by the likes of Larry King.

More power to James Randi!


jj mollo said...

I love James Randi! He has done wonderful things. Once I believed in psychic phenomena myself. The people who gave me the mental tools to resist this kind of thinking were Susan Blackmore, James Randi, Johnny Carson, and Carl Sagan. What a feeling of liberation from a demon-haunted world! I love them all.

jj mollo said...

I was disappointed by a Grey's Anatomy episode that dealt with a psychic individual. The character Izzy was skeptical and said all the right things, about how her mother was sucked into this fraud, spending all her money on a psychic, how the psychic picked up on subtle cues, prepared with detective work, used collaborators, etc., gave vague but emotionally charged probe answers in order to read the monther's face, but mostly defrauded her mother for money. The psychic in the episode was undergoing brain surgery and was afraid he would lose his "talent". In the end, he proved to Izzy that he really had the "gift", which is when I got irritated.