The Million-Dollar Challenge Ends

Some news from earlier this year you might have missed: James Randi is officially ending his million-dollar challenge to those who claim they have psychic or supernatural powers. The challenge will be offered for two more years, and assuming no one succeeds and claims the money, will be terminated in March 2010.

It’s not hard to see why Randi would do this. After ten years without a single successful applicant, I think he’s made his point. Unsurprisingly, the best-known, most prominent psychic pretenders (Sylvia Browne, John Edward, etc.) have refused to even come near the challenge. The people who do apply are usually either recalcitrant and uncooperative or obviously mentally disturbed, in either case forcing Randi’s staff to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to get them to commit to a clear, testable claim. Here are some typical applications from the JREF’s blog:

There are alternate versions of myself in different types of highly evolved states that work interchangeably to form the time process in its phasic reflective capacitations of experiential transience.

I want to show the matrix. To prove solutions and cures are withheld. Prove manipulations of sinister intent exist.

This money can be more effectively used to promote the causes of scientific inquiry and skepticism, rather than being held in trust while its caretakers try to sort through this river of nonsense. If there were any prospect that high-profile psychic claimants would agree to be tested, then I would encourage the challenge to continue, since debunking their claims in a major public forum could attract attention and interest that would greatly advance the skeptics’ cause. But of course, these famous psychic pretenders know full well that this would be the outcome, and so they steadfastly avoid Randi’s challenge. From their perspective, sad to say, it’s a rational decision: why risk near-certain exposure and embarrassment by going up against a canny skeptic, when they can make comparable sums by safely exploiting the credulous and the gullible?

Interestingly, Randi’s challenge is not the only one of its kind. The Skeptic’s Dictionary lists numerous similar challenges offered by skeptical groups around the world. So, to handle the inevitable flood of flimflam artists who will step forward just after the challenge ends and announce that they could have won it, I advise pointing them to one of these challenges instead. A person who could win one or several of them would have an excellent claim for having their powers scientifically validated. Randi has also said, I believe, that he’d consider temporarily resurrecting the challenge if a famous psychic wanted to apply – so we can rest assured that woo-woo advocates will not be able to wriggle away from those pesky requests for proof, either now or in the years to come.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    From their perspective, sad to say, it’s a rational decision: why risk near-certain exposure and embarrassment by going up against a canny skeptic, when they can make comparable sums by safely exploiting the credulous and the gullible?

    Why indeed? They’re swindlers, not idiots.

  • Samuel Skinner

    If there were supernatural things in the universe, scientists would have been able to come up with a natural explanation and model to deal with it. They did it for gravity and electromagnetism.

    Still, I wonder what double think the supernaturalists use to justify their beliefs- are they all con men?

  • 2-D Man

    This money can be more effectively used to promote the causes of scientific inquiry and skepticism, rather than being held in trust while its caretakers try to sort through this river of nonsense.

    I have to disagree with you here, Ebon. That money was being used for research. If a repeatable measurement of something supernatural occurs, it becomes part of the natural world; we will find a natural explaination. This challenge was much like the Darpa challenge, though less fruitful.

    James Randi seemed to truly want to give that money away. He wasn’t running a challenge like “Dr.” Hovind, who won’t award a proof of evolution until he sees a disproof of God (really, it says that on the other side of that link). Mr. Randi wasn’t sitting back with smug satisfaction as an idiot made an idiot of themselves. I don’t know how he managed to do that; it must be the supernatural.

  • Mrnaglfar

    2-d Man,

    From your link:

    I have a standing offer of $250,000 to anyone who can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution.*

    *NOTE:

    When I use the word evolution, I am not referring to the minor variations found in all of the various life forms (microevolution). I am referring to the general theory of evolution which believes these five major events took place without God:

    1. Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves.
    2. Planets and stars formed from space dust.
    3. Matter created life by itself.
    4. Early life-forms learned to reproduce themselves.
    5. Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms (i.e., fish changed to amphibians, amphibians changed to reptiles, and reptiles changed to birds or mammals).

    So it seems, in short, the offer extends to anyone who can prove evolution through proving 3 things that have nothing to do with the evolutionary theroy.

    Of course, if those things were somehow proven, provided those statements are even accurate descriptions of things that happened, the $250,000 from that convicted fraudster would be pocket change to whomever could.

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  • Chet

    Of course, if those things were somehow proven, provided those statements are even accurate descriptions of things that happened, the $250,000 from that convicted fraudster would be pocket change to whomever could.

    It’s also well-known that Hovind has admitted that he doesn’t actually have the $250,000 to give away.

  • OMGF

    Especially not after the IRS got done with him.

  • Samuel Skinner

    We can watch stars forming from space dust- the “spirals” of galaxies are places where stars recently formed. 3, 4 and 5 would take alot of time and effort- setting up the starting conditions might be hard, but the wait would be forever. I don’t know about 1- you get matter and energy being spontaneously created in a vaccum, you can see space being streched and time… time isn’t something you can create. You can manipulate it though- but time itself can only begin once.

  • 2-D Man

    I didn’t mean to send this off-topic.

    My point was that Mr. Randi was apparently not trying to further any cause by leaving this check unclaimed. It had the side effect of furthering skepticism, which, I think, is good, but science would have benefitted even more had the check been claimed. It was an effective way to get research done without handing out any money.

  • Valhar2000

    2-D Man:

    [...]but science would have benefitted even more had the check been claimed.

    James Randi has claimed this several times that I know of: once while debating Dawkins in one of the TAM’s, and another time during an interview with Penn Jillete in his radio show.

    In Penn’s show he said that if any of the common supernatural claims were found to be true, and could be put to practical use, the payoff for humanity would far exceed the million dollars the JREF had spent finding it. And it’s not hard to see why: imagine being able to create effective medicines with no side effects (homeopathy), or being able to operate without cutting people (psychic surgery), or being able to asks questions about the universe to entities that can travel through at will (talking to spirits). Any of those things would be worth trillions!

    Still, after 10 years of nothing but crazy talk, or close to 150 years if you take into account other skeptical investigators’ work, I think it is reasonable to begin to give up hope that it’s all anything more than crazy talk.

  • 2-D Man

    I suppose you are correct, Valhar (and by extension, Ebon); the experiment has run its course. And so long as the other challenges that were pointed out in the original article remain, it’s not over.

    However, I remember my electrodynamics prof telling me that some of the loops of wire that were intended to detect magnetic monopoles have not been taken down because they might still detect one.

  • Aerik

    Uh, silvia brown said live on Larry King she’d take and win the challenge but never proceeded from there.

    I’d say she came near it. She blew smoke up it’s ass.