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.