Book Review: Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion
A Medical Medium

Plans for the Million Dollar Challenge?

I've been listening to a conversation between organisers of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. They were discussing a test of psychics that they organised for ABC's Primetime Nightline show last summer. It was quite revealing.

The test was set up by the stage magician Banacheck, DJ Grothe (president of the James Randi Educational Foundation), and Jamy Ian Swiss, also a magician and one of JREF'S resident experts on psychics. The clip can't be viewed outside the US, so I can't comment on how it went. But I was struck by the comments of Grothe and Swiss afterwards.

They categorise psychics in three ways. First there are the celebrities, led by the 'Unholy Trinity' of John Edward, James van Praagh and Sylvia Browne. Such people do great harm and make big bucks scamming ordinary people, they complain. They're desperate for scientific endorsement - if they get one they'll never stop talking about it - yet at the same time they're 'desperately afraid' to submit themselves to proper scientific testing. That's why none of them ever pitches for the million dollars.

Then there are the 'store-front' psychics, who offer quick readings off the street for a token fee, then try to bilk their customers with expensive cures for invented ills. The JREF folks were dismayed to learn that Nightline was targeting these people as potential participants, as of course none would submit to testing - and none did.

However they got a number of takers from their third category. These are psychics in the spirituality and New Age community, some of whom accidentally found out about the show and were keen to take part. Swiss calls them 'shut-eyes', by which he means people who actually believe that their psychic powers are real.

Grothe was fascinated by this. The idea of a faker who doesn't realise he/she is faking seemed to be a new idea for him. The psychics he met in the studio were all warm, sincere and kind-hearted, he commented with surprise. It's true, there really are such people, Swiss explained; they just don't realise that what they do is illusory.

Swiss went on to comment that sceptics are far too quick to assume they know what is going on in other people's minds. I'd say that hardly states the case. If they weren't so stuck in their ideological bubble these guys would know that psychic vision isn't just a game played by con artists - it's a mental process that people experience - more often than one would think. Just now I'm reading a book by a doctor who suddenly began having accurate psychic intuitions about real-life situations, followed it up, and is now also a practising amateur medium (a fascinating story for another post). You can't associate with psychics and mediums for long without understanding this. It doesn't have to be taken at face value, but that's where genuine investigation starts, by getting up close.

Grothe and Swiss also talked about the Challenge itself. This time, instead of designing a bespoke test, JREF came up with an off-the-shelf version they could apply more or less to any psychic, whether palm or tarot reader, psychometrist, mediums, or even astrologer. This was the way they'd like to go in future, Swiss said. It would mean the challenge would be more accessible, and they could take it out to the psychic community. 'No preliminaries, a one-shot test, and if you pass we'll give you a million bucks.'

As things stand, the Challenge is not a scientific test, as Swiss himself explicitly said. If someone ever won, he pointed out, it wouldn't mean that person was psychic, it would just mean he/she won on that day. It would be a fluke. (Surely this makes a nonsense of the taunt that psychics, by refusing the Challenge, show how scared they are of scientific testing.)

But there seems to be a certain impulse for change at JREF. When the Challenge was saved, having earlier been slated for retirement by Randi, I recall talk of it being made more transparent and accessible. This is odd, in a way. One of its strengths as a propaganda device has been that it's so opaque. We're invited to take the Great Man's word for it that no one has passed the preliminaries. With rare exceptions that's all there is.

It also succeeds by being so extremely hostile to the idea of what it aims to test. That ensures that no one who is at all gifted will participate, reduces the likelihood that anyone will win, and reinforces expectations of what it will find. As a method of investigation it's a non-starter.

So why tinker with it? It works perfectly well by just sitting there like a big roadblock. Scientists and sceptics love it, as it saves them having to leave their comfort zone.

But if younger, more dynamic people come along, and start doing things with the Challenge, pushing out the boundaries, what then? What might it become? As far as I'm aware there have only been three televised tests, but perhaps we could start seeing more of those. Suppose more psychics and mediums are encouraged to take part. In theory that might raise the chances of someone winning the cash, in which case the Challenge would become the victim of its organisers' overconfidence.

What interests me more is the possibility that, along the way, some of them might start to get a more educated view of psychics, and perhaps even feel that there's something here worth checking out, instead of mindlessly debunking.

I could be wrong, but I thought I glimpsed in this conversation some faint stirrings of seriousness. It would be going too far to call it scientific curiosity, but it might be the precursor to it.


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Encouraging stuff! Are these guys aware that a few mediums have submitted to scientific testing and 'passed', including John Edward?

I'm on the run right now, so I haven't got enough time to thoroughly check out the links and watch the episodes (if I can find them).
But reading the JREF article by Jamy Ian Swiss on the series, one sentence jumped out at me: "As we all know, skeptics and the skeptical position don’t often fare well on television."
Huh? You mean every single TV producer doesn't always kiss that wide, ego-inflated sceptic community patootie? What's wrong with them? :D

Sometimes life is a matter of perspective...

Very interesting! I'd love to see someone win that challenge. I only hope a win would actually be acknowledged. I've seen a couple of TV shows where the psychic did perform extremely well, only to have the producers dismiss it. One was a Russian girl with supposed X-ray vision, examined by a team led by Ray Hyman. She matched 4 out of 7 X-rays with the right people, but was treated as if she totally failed. Another was with expert remote viewer Joe McMoneagle, who clearly nailed the location he was asked to remotely view--a judge easily picked the location based on McMoneagle's description--yet his results were also dismissed.

So I can imagine someone succeeding at the challenge and then some kind of loophole being found after the fact that invalidates the whole thing, along with the need to produce a check.

"So why tinker with it? It works perfectly well by just sitting there like a big roadblock. Scientists and sceptics love it, as it saves them having to leave their comfort zone."

LOL! beautifully and succinctly put, it I might say so. Nice one all round Robert - it's so good to have a bit of levity introduced to this subject.

BTW, can you possibly let us know the title of the book your reading re: the psychic doctor? I do so love personal accounts.

Julie, it's Consulting Spirit by Ian D. Rubenstein - an excellent read, and I'll post something about it next week.

Many thanks, Robert. I'll look forward to that! 8)

I wonder if the progression may be something like this:

"Hey, some of these people actually think they really are psychic!"

(a) Chalk it up as an odd fact and move on
(b) Wonder, Why would they think that?

If (b), then either
(c) Take "Introduction to Abnormal Psychology" down from the bookshelf and read the chapter on delusions, or
(d) Admit the very dangerous thought that perhaps their belied is based on an experience of some kind or others.

If (d), then
(e) Repeat to yourself, "Well, 1000 monkeys at 1000 typewriters..." (you know the rest),or
(f) Look in the index in Abnormal Psychology under "Confirmation Bias" and quote the comforting skeptical truism about firing an arrow and then drawing a target around where it landed, or
(e) Entertain the even more dangerous notion that perhaps if some experience convinced them that they are psychic, perhaps we can measure how often they are "right", even if only to prove to them how silly they are being.

Anyone who arrives at (e) is firmly on the slippery slope, likely within a few short years to be wearing crystals to ward off Yeti attacks.

Best to ignore the whole thing.

You might find this blog site interesting. The blogger, who goes by the name James Random, claims that the Million Dollar Challenge is in fact a magic trick and a hoax. He shows how simple trickery could be used by the skeptic to prevent anyone from ever winning the prize. He thinks the money is a distraction to keep people from realizing the challenge is not winnable.
Here is the link for anyone interested.

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