Plausible-sounding criticism of Randi’s One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge?

I’m currently working on a chapter for the book on how supernatural claims can be scientifically investigated. I’m including a few paragraphs on James Randi and his One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge (link is to Wikipedia). For obvious reasons, it would be nice to include a brief response to some criticisms of the challenge, but I’m not sure where to start. I’m worried a Google search will just return nuttiness.

The Wikipedia article’s discussion isn’t bad, and I may just track down the primary sources, write a quick summary, and call it a day. Or are there other points that would be more worth my time? Does anyone reading this have their own reservations about the challenge?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Part of the problem I’ve always had with things like these is that the scientific tests are artificial and not related to what the person who is claiming the experience is actually doing when they experience it. For example, to test precognition what they had people do was predict which lights would light up over a long period of time, to see if there was a statistically significant difference. But this is not what they do, nor did they normally try over long periods of time, bringing in a whole host of other factors that at least makes finding “no results” a fairly meaningless statement. But I do understand that this needs to be done in order to rule out chance or fraud.

    Ultimately, the main issue is that you can’t actually do formal testing of things until you understand what the purported mechanism is well-enough to eliminate confounds, or at least identify them. For almost all paranormal cases, we have no idea how the mechanisms ought to work, including the people who actually try. If you bundle someone up so that they can’t express body language, is the psychic’s failure because they lose the cold reading techniques or because they actually lose some “supernatural” connection that they need in order to actually do good predictions? We have no idea. So all we can do is explore, not test, or send them back to work out a clearer mechanism through exploration before we try to test it.

    • Balstrome

      For me it is like this. Before any testing is done, the question is asked of science, is there any part or combinations of parts within the human brain/body that has the following functions chemically.

      To generate a energy field that can be directed from the point of generation to a second point usually localised outside the originators human body.

      In the case of “telepathy” what part of the human brain encodes human thoughts either into this energy field or converts thoughts into the energy field.

      If the energy field travels though normal space, it would have to be able to pass all the human tissue from it’s point of origin and then move across “empty” space before reversing the process and landing a similar receiving organ or combination of organs which are able to decode or strip the thoughts from the carrier energy field..

      As far as I am aware, there is no organ or combination of organs in the human body that have any hint that this might be one of their functions. As I understand pretty much every part of the human body has been explained as to what it’s function is, and how much it costs to run that part. It seems to me that for this type of energy transmission, there would be a detectable loss of energy in the human body, specially with regards to telepathy and more with regards to telekinesis.

      Taking telekinesis, the moving of things with your mind alone, this projected energy field would have to be focus and contained in a similar form that a human hand is. It would have to extend from the unnamed originator organ or combinations of organs, though the human body out into empty air, to surround and or press the object that it to be moved. This process would need to contain an “arm” of energy from the brain to the “hand” doing the moving of the object. Projected energy needs a huge amount of energy transmitted to hold into a form that could be considered to be focused.

      The human mind does not seem to have any parts that could possible generate the amount of energy required to fill these claims. Nor is there any evidence of pathways big and strong enough to deliver the amounts of energy needed for these types of fields.

      Lastly, given the vast amounts of humans though our history, we have yet to find reports of human brains who have suffered a catastrophic failure of this brain function, as one would expect with the poor ad hoc design of the human body. Not one human has ever had a brain explode when the telepathy organ failed due to a physical defect. Every other human function is subject to failure, and so we would expect similar for this organ.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Mainly, three are theoretically abilities that couldn’t be tested with their methodology, and I’m not just talking about things that only work when no one is looking. It’s fine for people who say they can tell what card you are looking at or dowsing, but doesn’t work so well for people who can talk to ghosts, for instance, since you don’t really know hypothetically what information whatever ghosts may be one hand may want to disclose. Plus, I can think of some plausible reasons why they might not be able to contact a ghost without knowing information of a sort that would give them a big step up on faking it. Plus, there are all those excluded for safety reasons (breathenarianism) or difficulty of judging results (cloud busting). It can make reasonable tests of lots of claims, though, so I’d say that it’s useful. It doesn’t prove anything, but it was never meant to.

    • Chris Hallquist

      That’s correct that it doesn’t entirely work for all claims. So it’ll be one step towards discussing harder-to-judge things (like: does intercessory prayer work?)

      • Rachael

        “That’s correct that it doesn’t entirely work for all claims. So it’ll be one step towards discussing harder-to-judge things (like: does intercessory prayer work?)”

        There is no theoretically possible way of testing whether intercessory prayer works unless you can propose a way to test whether a Random Old Man exists by sending him letters. (And without visiting or testing his existence some other way)

        And that’s not even getting in to the complications that a) Random Old Man doesn’t like you and doesn’t perform tricks on command, b) There’s like 50 different possible Random Old Men and your letter could be picked up/ignored by any of them based on rules only the Random Old Men know, so even if you could ‘test their existence’ by writing them letters and seeing if they exist you would have to write each of them seperate test letters until you’d disproven them all. and c) Even the people who are sure the Random Old Man lives up in the unreachable House on the Hill don’t claim that they know the correct way to write a letter to guarantee an answer.

        So, not just hard, impossible.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Someone has gone to the bother of writing a book with the title RANDI’S PRIZE: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters.
    I haven’t read it, so obviously I decided it wasn’t worth my time; so I can’t comment on whether it would be worth your time. But every one of the 16 reviewers on Amazon gave it five stars.

    • andyman409

      I haven’t read “Randi’s prize” either, but it appears on literally EVERY paranormal blog I’ve ever read. Even if it’s a bad book, it might be worth reading just to be able to respond to it.

      • M Groesbeck

        If it’s popular among a certain crowd, then might it be worthwhile for someone to “take one for the team” and read it critically?

  • Kevin

    Think neutrons traveling faster than the speed of light. The tests are based on probability. As in, if they were guessing, it would be fantastically improbable for the participant to guess by chance. However, if there is a flaw in the test and the participant can use that to answer correctly, then they will pass the test. This entirely depends on James Randi’s ability to think of ways to exploit the tests and to have controls to prevent it. However, he is still human so maybe someone will come along who can trick him and pull off statistically significant results. If they do, do we then believe or revisit the test? If we don’t believe regardless of the outcome (after all, it doesn’t show the cause of the ability to pass the test), what is the point in the test?

    • Kevin

      Sorry, it should be neutrinos, not neutrons.

  • SAWells

    For starters, the onus is on the person they can Do A Thing to specify what the Thing is that they can Do. If you can’t formulate your supposed paranormal ability in such a way that we can tell if you’re doing it or not, then we have no reason to suppose that you’re doing anything at all.

    • SAWells

      typo: *person who says they can Do A Thing…

  • anthrosciguy

    The criticisms I’ve seen have been two falsehoods: that the money isn’t really there (it is and can be easily verified); and that the challenge insists that people do things they don’t claim to be able to do (the challenege is always constructed with the participation of the person being tested, and they agree they can do what the challenge tests, and generally there is a dry run, an open run without all the controls, to show the tested person can find the gold in the containers via dowsing, divine the numbers via psychic powers, etc., in the way they claim to be able.

  • andyman409

    Paranormal apologists I’ve read don’t seem to care how about how their supposed paranormal phenomena works. So long as it proves that evil atheistic materialism is wrong, they’ll support it

    Some of the books I hear Paranormal enthusiasts discuss are: McLuhan’s “randi’s prize”, Braude’s books such as “immprtal remains: the evidence for life after death”, and any article from P.E.A.R. I wish I could come up with a more comprehensive list, but honestly, I can’t.

  • The Lorax

    It’s actually pretty hard to criticize the One Million Dollar Challenge. Oh sure, you could invent excuses (nearly every individual who fails the Challenge will blame it on anything and anyone but themselves), but the Challenge itself is pretty air-tight.

    First off, no testing commences until the challenger agrees that it is a fair test. It’s humorous/painful to see most failed challengers blame the conditions of the test; conditions that they themselves agreed were fair.

    The tests are almost always double-blind with sufficient trials to provide an adequate sample size. I am not a professional scientist, but I think those aspects make the test “good science”.

    A lot of people claim that the money isn’t there; this is simply false, and every time Randi mentions the money, he almost invariably mentions the exact dollar amount and that he’d be more than happy to mail a bank statement to that effect to anyone who wishes him to.

    The only “criticism” I could imagine would be that the test is usually performed by unbiased, agreed-upon third party individuals who are rarely, if ever, professional scientists. Plus, the test themselves are simplistic; guess what is under the box, and what have you. Now, this is by all means absolutely fine, but I would like to see more professionalism. Of course, that would cost more money, so maybe there is a financial limiting factor.

    And maybe another criticism: there’s no James Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge: Home Edition. I’d like to see a board game version of the Challenge, where people who think they have a skill can test themselves. Might be fun!

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Plus, the test themselves are simplistic; guess what is under the box, and what have you. Now, this is by all means absolutely fine, but I would like to see more professionalism.

      Professionalism is understanding what needs to be done, and doing it. Perhaps you want more gee-whiz high tech or something, but I don’t think it’s professionalism.

    • Chris Hallquist

      This is really helpful, links to sources for these claims?

    • Drivebyposter

      I think it is pretty professional the way they do things. They’ve honed the tests down to a fine art. A skilled magician can probably do card tricks quicker with fewer steps and need to divert audience attention less than an amateur.

      It’s professionalism that cuts out all the unneeded bullshit. I’d also like to point out that every object and every step involved becomes a possible confounding factor. The fewer steps and variables to deal with the better.

  • andyman409

    On second thought, I think Randi’s own newsletter SWIFT mentions a few of his “million dollar challenge” critics as well. Now sure how to access it though

  • Trebuchet

    The old SWIFT newsletter is, alas, no more; it’s been replaced by a blog which is seldom written by JR himself. You can find it here:

    The Lorax’s summary is pretty excellent. The excuse-making for failure is hilarious, and occasionally includes “I failed because Randi was using his psychic powers against me!”

    The woo-woos often quote Randi as having said “I always have an out” to suggest he’ll cheat. The full quote is “I always have an out. I’m right.”

    It should be noted that Randi himself does not participate in the tests, and usually doesn’t even know when they’re going to happen.

  • TGAP Dad

    Part of the reason for the simple (not simplistic) nature of the challenge testing is to make it plainly obvious o a casual observer whether or not the claimant succeeded. Thus there can be no misinterpretation of the data, fudging of data, omission of trials, etc.

    FWIW, the application for the prize is here: Challenge Application. For the formal testing, where the million is at stake, Randi himself is not involved at all, but his representatives serve as his proxies. As far as I know, no one has yet often past the preliminary testing, and ALL of them have offered excuses (most blaming Randi) as to their failures, despite agreeing the conditions were acceptable, in writing, just before starting the test.

  • Chris Hallquist

    To anyone following this thread: might also be nice to have a good summary by Randi of typical experiences, particularly with dowsers, since once when I met Randi in person he said a majority of applicants are dowsers.

    • Ace of Sevens

      I think that’s largely because dowsers are easy to design a test protocol for (you just bury some shit and have them try to find it) and because they are the most likely to actually have a good faith belief that their powers work since it tends to be the ideomotor effect and not conscious deception as with most psychics.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Yeah, ideomotor effect is what Randi said.