The Joke of the James Randi Challenge (In Defense of Sheldrake)

HarrisRandiThe trickiest assignment I assigned myself, for my January 7 appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, was to refute  some things the new atheist thinker Sam Harris said about James Randi’s “1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge.”

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I’ve endeavored to crater the myth of James Randi on a number of occasions. Randi, an amateur magician who found fame as an opponent of paranormal claims, has long served as the cranky elf of the skeptical movement. And I believe if anyone looks closely at the details of his career they will conclude, as I have, that he is a poor spokesman for critical thinking and rationality.

You can check out my previous coverage of him by following the link above. Here, I just want to address what is likely the worst, least credible thing Randi promotes: his long-running Challenge, in which he vows to give $1 million to anyonewho can prove a paranormal claim in a “controlled test.”

The Challenge has muddled the very boundaries of science, allowing Randi-ites to say paranormal claims don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny while conceding, when pressed, that the Challenge isn’t science.

Harris touted the Challenge on Rogan’s show, claiming that paranormal researchers should have to prove their case to Randi and his minions at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) before they get a wider hearing. He even claimed there is “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part.

Harris gave his opinion on Rogan, But he is in the powerful position, in many people’s lives, of seeming to spout only truths. I myself owe Harris a deep personal debt for turning me on to meditation. But I’d like to clear up some misconceptions he surely furthered by speaking so adamantly in favor of Randi’s authority.

Others, before me, like Greg Taylor, at the Daily Grail, and Chris Carter, have pointed out the failings of Randi’s challenge. But allow me to summarize.

The Challenge begins with a red herring:

Randi boasts that the protocols of each test must be “mutually agreed upon.” RandiHarrisBut the only terms he agrees to insist that applicants obtain results beyond what would be demanded to determine scientific significance.

The preliminary test, which must be passed before an applicant can try for the million, demands odds against chance of 1,000 to 1. The second test, to win the million, requires the applicant to show results at better than a million to one against chance.

The result is that an applicant can—and did—achieve statistically significant positive results, yet was deemed to “fail” the challenge. Taylor quotes a psi researcher giving the following account:

“In the ganzfeld telepathy test the meta-analytic hit rate with unselected subjects is 32% where chance expectation is 25%. If that 32% hit rate is the ‘real’ telepathy effect, then for us to have a 99% chance of getting a significant effect at p < 0.005, we would need to run 989 trials. One ganzfeld session lasts about 1.5 hours, or about 1,483 total hours. Previous experiments show that it is not advisable to run more than one session per day. So we have to potentially recruit 989 x 2 people to participate, an experimenter who will spend 4+ years running these people day in and day out, and at the end we’ll end up with p < 0.005. Randi will say those results aren’t good enough, because you could get such a result by chance 5 in 1,000 times. Thus, he will require odds against chance of at least a million to 1 to pay out $1 million, and then the amount of time and money it would take to get a significant result would be far in excess of $1 million.”

In light of this, there is nothing “fishy” about the disinclination of a scientist like Sheldrake to participate in the Challenge. Statistical significance is built through sheer repetition. In fact, achieving a proper “sample size,” testing an effect enough times, is a bedrock of science. Conversely, failing to obtain a representative sample size is a hallmark  of the Randi Challenge. Scientists like Sheldrake, Dean Radin or Daryl Bem conduct studies that requires dozens of people (or more) and take weeks or months or even years to perform. Randi puts on events that occur in a fraction of the time, generally over an evening or afternoon. In conclusion, Randi’s protocols simply won’t allow Sheldrake to conduct real science.

Now, other parapsychologists have contacted Randi about applying for the million dollar challenge: Dick Bierman and Sutbert Ertel claim they approached Randi but got nowhere.

In addition, there are other reasons anyone might decide not to apply. JREF requires applicants to grant the rights to all video, audio and written record of the tests to the JREF, and also to waive any legal claims stemming from the challenge. In other words, anyone who ventures into Randi’s lair, seeking to win $1 million, will find their every word and deed therein subject to Randi’s editing and promotional exploitation, without any legal recourse. (Taylor first reported this, providing a link to rules posted at Randi’s website that have subsequently been taken down.)

Given the long odds and Randi’s history of antipathy toward psi research and its practitioners—his woeful “Pigasus” award is a case in point—why would anyone subject themselves to this agreement?

Harris is actually quite charitable (particularly for a materialist atheist) toward the paranormal in The End of Faith, which, in my opinion, remains his most worthwhile book. He is, I’d argue, a potential friend to the psi community. In this sense, his faith in James Randi reveals the little magician’s real talent as a showman—capable of swinging even a free thinker like Harris toward a dogmatic view.


23 Responses to The Joke of the James Randi Challenge (In Defense of Sheldrake)

  1. Alexander K. Hansen

    An excellent overview that I will refer my friends to.
    I would love to see Sam Harris consider the points you have raised here.
    Good work!

  2. I don’t believe the 1000:1 and 1,000,000:1 odds are set explicitly as the odds to achieve. They are not in the contrest rules. Those details have to be negotiated along with the rest.

    • These are the figures traditionally thrown as around and Greg hasn’t corrected them at the Daily Grail. With this post, I’m including some of my own thinking but as I stated I really am summarizing on more comprehensive work performed by others. These seem to be the odds they seek to negotiate. Thanks for this input. It’s nice to have you over here!

  3. The numbers are not set explicitly, but those involved with Randi’s MDC say those are the odds they aim at with the preliminary and final challenges, in order to protect the money from a random ‘lucky guess’. Which is the main issue with the challenge – being of short duration, in order to protect against a lucky guess the odds have to be set at an unrealistic level. If someone performed at odds of 900 to 1, it may well have been a lucky guess…but most people would at least say “hell, that’s interesting – let’s investigate further”. In the MDC though, it’s simply a failure – and a failure of the preliminary test, not even reaching the final MDC.

    In response to my article, Randi said he was going to lower the odds to 100 to 1, and 100,000 to 1 for each stage. However, most recent preliminary tests I’ve seen have stuck with odds of 1000 to 1 or higher. Though that may be on the organisations doing the preliminary test (they might not want to have a success in their test, while Randi gets to preside over the test with much higher odds).

  4. You need big samples only when the psychic ability is very tiny. Small signals demand a great number of trials.
    With bigger signals, it doesn’t take too much trials to get statistically significant results (also 1 : 1.000.000) with a few trials.
    It is correct to write that Randi’s Challenge cannot detect small signals.

    • It certainly takes more than the usual 3 to 10 trials that Randi uses. Even if the effect is larger.
      The larger problem with Randi’s challenge though, is the lack of objective oversight and complete absence of independently verifiable documentation.

  5. I spent a great deal of time going over Randi’s challenge for a couple of blogs I did on the subject.
    This one contains stuff you probably haven’t seen. A challenger gets his protocol changed for no good reason:

    The Zibarov, challenge, which I referenced in the blog, had a much different outcome than that listed on Randi’s site. In other words, they are lying about what really happened. There is no way to verify what is going on with any new challenges. They’ve removed all those forums from public view and made them private. (After I posted about Zibarov.)

    There is absolutely no way to evaluate whether they are being fair at this point.

    There are other problems with the challenge that I found:
    Undocumented rules:
    1. 1,000 to one for preliminary challenge. Possibly 1,000 to one again for the main challenge. This isn’t exactly clear.
    2. No objective observers
    3. Challenge must be completed within 8 hours

    There does not seem to be any documentation whatsoever of challenges that have been completed. No one is sure how many there are and none of them seem to have been formally written up. There is no list as far as I know.

    For all the preliminary tests that have been completed (that I could find) all of them had this in common:
    1. Very short
    2. Very hard
    3. High profile
    4. High pressure

    If you were going to create a method specifically designed to not find psi, this would be it.

  6. Thanks for shedding light on Randi’s methods. I actually bought a copy of Wiseman’s book “Paranormality”, but after a couple of chapters it was clear his life’s work hinges on discrediting everything at all costs. People like him confuse scepticism with cynicism.

  7. Rupert McWiseman

    I simply don’t understand why anybody capable of critical thought would consider that a prize offered by a retired conjuror (who holds no scientific qualifications, but DOES hold well-known dogmatic beliefs) should be held up as some sort of Ultimate Scientific Experiment, when it is clearly nothing more than a publicity stunt!

    Randi is an entertaining and flamboyant character who deserves some credit for his work in exposing cases of undoubted fraud and charlatansism. But he’s essentially an entertainer, a showman, a confrontationist and a self-publicist – he’s NOT Albert Einstein! Why is that so difficult for so many people to grasp?

    Advancement in science is to be done by real scientists, not conjurors, and it is to be arbitrated by peer-review – not by a showman’s prize. And, as it happens, if some of Prof. Persinger’s latest research receives peer confirmation, then dear old Randi and his congregation will be left rooted to the spot, still waving their flag for 19th-century science, while 21st-century science simply sweeps past them.

  8. How is it Randi’s fault that it would take too long to gather a sufficient sample size? The challenge is to demonstrate something paranormal (beyond a shadow of a doubt). It’s up to the challengers to conclusively prove that the results aren’t the work of experimentation error or that it wasn’t just a rare occurrence.

    • The claim of JREF is that no one is psychic and that proof of this is that no one can pass their tests and claim their prize.

      If you are going to use this as proof that someone isn’t psychic, then it is up to you to provide a credible test of their ability. There is absolutely no proof that any of the JREF tests meet that standard. They are too short among other things.

      It is up to JREF to provide proof that the test is credible in order to make any claims about what the test has demonstrated. The whole process though, is poorly documented and lacks any objective observers. It is not up to scientific standards.

  9. Your reference to Randi as an amateur magician (his professional career in that field is well documented) demonstrates the level of scholarship you bring to the table.

    That you have also admitted that most of the numbers used in the piece to discredit the challenge were also bogus brings us to a sadly familiar place.

    I realize that it suits your ooga booga religion to pretend that these paranormal effects exist. But what a sad collection of claims you circle your wagons around. The meta analysis of many (possibly dubious) studies to show some slight statistical evidence for psi is a far cry from the bold claims of paranormal believers and hucksters.

    How might you propose testing of such a claim? The supposed effects hide just above the level of noise, if they exist at all (the meta analyses have been challenged, something you blithely ignore).

    When there is no chance of testing, the claims are big and impressive: reading of minds, predicting the future, remotely viewing through someone’s eyes. When any sort of control is suggested, we see the claims wilt in the same sadly predictable and impotent way.

    One of the commenters above actually complains that proving the existence of the paranormal might be hard! “Dude, make it easier for us…just turn your head one time so we can peek behind the protocols. C’mon don’t be so all scientific and stuff.”


    Lance Moody

    • Hi Lance,

      Your reaction to my reference to Randi as an “amateur” is understandable, and perhaps a message to me that I should leave comedy to the comedians. But I intended it as a jab, as criticism. What I’ve seen of his work as a magician isn’t terribly impressive, and he has for so long made his money as a professional curmudgeon that I find it difficult to accord him the same status as a working magician. So there’s that. As for the odds, I used the numbers Greg published at the Daily Grail and which apparently went unchallenged by Randi’s minions ever since he posted the piece years ago. I used these numbers because they are also the same odds bandied about at places like the 2009 parapsychology conference, which I attended when I researched my book. Judging from the details arising out of past Challenges, parapsychologists think he’s looking for odds of 1,000 to 1 against in the preliminary and a million ton one against for the loot. In other words, while JREF didn’t and doesn’t publish the odds they seek to negotiate, they tend to come in around the same place. So, bogus? Nope.

      You write that “When there is no chance of testing, the claims are big and impressive.” But who are you talking about? The people I write about in Fringe-ology are scientists, claiming to find results that are above chance to a statistically significant degree. The problem with the Challenge is that it isn’t geared to test this kind of claim. At all. So we’re at an impasse, in which the Challenge is valid for people claiming the equivalent of mutant superpowers but not as a means of testing the researchers actually practicing science. As a reporter interested in figuring out whether or not, say, Dean Radin, is on to something, the Challenge is worthless to me.

      I do need to apologize, however, for one thing. I shouldn’t have referred to Randi as an amateur magician. The use of humor in these conversations often leads to misunderstandings and conflict. The jabs skeptics continually throw at believers—my “ooga booga religion,” for instance—are singularly unhelpful and I should not respond in kind. When I wrote Fringe-ology, I scoured the text and closely monitored my own thinking to stay above this sort of nonsense. But this medium, blogging, is so immediate that I have on a couple of occasions published material that never would have made it into my book. I truly don’t mean to ridicule Randi. But I do mean to contextualize him as an impediment to actual scientific progress—a wiseacre who keeps even a figure like Harris, who is sympathetic to psi, distracted by the red herring of his Challenge.

      —Best, Steve

  10. Lance is a true believer in the cult of Randi. His primary interest is in ufos- at least that’s what I see him posting about most. Thing is, he’s not nearly as obnoxious or arrogant in person- just listen to his recent interview on The Paracast. He is every bit as ignorant and closed-minded as he comes across though. Lance, have you read the article at The Daily Grail that Steve mentions? Please get a clue before your next rant and do so. Thanks.

  11. By the way Steve, you’re wasting your time responding to Lance in a reasonable manner. Just go look at his behavior on The Paracast forums, where condescension and belittling seem to be his raison d’etre. He has no interest in having an informative discussion- like any true believer, he seems to prefer proselytizing to having an informed discussion. But perhaps Lance will surprise me and read Greg’s article and come back with some fair, balanced, and reasonable comments. That would be nice. But I doubt it.

  12. Hi Steve,

    If the million dollar challenge doesn’t suit the purpose of every paranormal claim, then perhaps those folks who feel left out ought to use another avenue towards fame and riches. What makes you think that you are owed this as a service?

    It doesn’t seem to me that Randi or the Challenge owes anyone anything. It’s a private endeavor, you realize? And the milquetoast brand of paranormal claim that you are championing is not the only kind of claim that skeptics have to address.

    The problem is that by retreating as your claim does into a place that is just at the level of detection (and subject to the well-known and well-documented problems of poor design and experimenter bias), it is very hard to test the claim and the results are ALWAYS going to be in dispute. I know how paranormal believers work. If, for instance with UFO’s, you show one case to be bogus, the believers will immediately point to another dubious case.

    In the link you provide, it appears that one claimant was complaining about the protocols, even as great effort was being made to design controls that eliminate bias and error and provide a clear result. Another poster complained that they weren’t properly updated on the status of various claimants. How hilarious. It’s like they thought that this private unpaid endeavor should work just like their online banking account!

    There has to be a way to a clear result or everyone is wasting everyone’s time.

    Saying that something a private group is doing somehow hinders science is ridiculous.

    Your comments about how YOU don’t consider Randi to be much of magician (as though that matters) reveals an inability to understand the difference between something that is subjective and objective. You would be a great paranormal “investigator”.


    • Hi Lance,

      >If the million dollar challenge doesn’t suit the purpose of every paranormal claim, then perhaps those folks who feel left out ought to use another avenue >towards fame and riches. What makes you think that you are owed this as a service?

      What makes you think I feel I am owed this as a service?

      >And the milquetoast brand of paranormal claim that you are championing is not the only kind of claim that skeptics have to address.

      Milquetoast? See Wiseman and French and, for that matter, Randi, who call any claim of psi downright “extraordinary.”

      >The problem is that by retreating as your claim does into a place that is just at the level of detection (and subject to the well-known and >well-documented problems of poor design and experimenter bias), it is very hard to test the claim and the results are ALWAYS going to be in dispute.

      If you believe aspirin therapy can help prevent a heart attack, you can believe the results of the Ganzfeld test.

      —Best, Steve

  13. @Craig Weiler

    Craig says:
    “The claim of JREF is that no one is psychic and that proof of this is that no one can pass their tests and claim their prize.”

    Can you support this by providing a reference to where this claim is made?

    Paranormal believers make up a mythology unrelated to the truth and then piously recite their verses as though they were true.


  14. Poor Mr Moody, he can be so fair-minded and agreeable but that he insists on having no capacity to understand, no aptitude to accept, no ability to incorporate, and no skill to recognize!

    More to the point: And I must caution the reader that it is not “Skeptics” I have a problem with or that I am merely bored with the rationality “Skeptics” but _pretend_ to dispense… true skeptics are not the issue! No, they are in comparison persons to be revered above all others and are _welcome_ company … honored team members… boon companions…!

    They are the _most_ interesting of us, the _most_ knowledgeable of us, and the ones to instruct us the _most_! They are not to be confused with scurrilous skepti-bunkies, ponderous pelicanists, or insipid CSIcopians–scurvy klasskurtxians–the antagonists otherwise regarded, eh? No, it’s ardent intellectual arsonists like Randi who diminish skepticism and provide it with such a bad name… google “starBaby.”

    Summing up, Randi is and has been six points of shame covering carnival hucksterisms, empty platitudes to get you into his big CSI tent for the scientistic (sic) revival meeting! Once there, smooth faced scient-evangelists like (the hugely disappointing!) Penn and Teller, the bellicose and whiney Dr. Nickell… or our “not so amazing but pedantic and pedestrian” Randi can perform his unbalanced slights of hand! Now -these- guys, among others, are just slick scientistic-scripture pounding frauds with ulterior motives. Religious fundamentalists of a different stripe… They front a closed organization of similar myopic intellectualists, little men who steadfastly assert to the worried -credulous- that there -is- a place for *everything*, and everything (read ‘everybody’!) should be in its place!

    The reasonable must suspect that this cannot be the case where there _is_ so very much… and we _know_ so very little in its regard. Humility is required, reader. Hubris is unwarranted and inappropriate.

  15. I’ve never been a fan of James Randi. By his reasoning, if one can artificially reproduce something, the original isn’t real either. Does that mean there’s no real money? That can be counterfeited too, y’know!

  16. If you assume that no “real-deal, super-duper, easy-and-effective-as-riding-a-bike” psychics exist, then the challenge is indeed “unfair” simply as a consequence of being worth $1,000,000. After all, one can’t expect someone who is offering $1,000,000 to accept something with a 1/20 probability of occurring by chance, even though 1/20 is the “baseline” for statistical significance in science. As it is, it’s a bit like the “unfairness” of lotteries — if viewed as a task, they indeed ask too much of the average person.

    At the same time, if someone offered $1,000,000 to the first person who could prove their ability to ride a bike, or to read a book without moving their lips, or to extract a tooth, wouldn’t someone have claimed it by now? Ergo, we can conclude that no real psychics are “like that”. It must all be subtler and more complex somehow. And in this sense, the Randi challenge is providing a great service, because there really are people claiming they have ESP-like-turning-on-the-tap, and it seems these people are in fact frauds.

  17. Ah Yes.. you can always tell when you have hit on someones “core Beliefs” being challenged (we all have our core beliefs – that which we consider sacred ) by how they respond. A response with deep emotion – emotions such as anger, sarcasm, cynicism present) indicates our core beliefs being challenged . And that’s on both sides of the debate.
    For me, I love the $1 million challenge being held up – as “proof” that there is no such thing as a psychic – why there’s still the outstanding $1,000 challenge to prove that the Holocaust existed (to the standards of David Irving). Since the Holocaust has never been proved to the “skeptic” Irving, are we to conclude naturally that the Holocaust never happened? Well, many do – and using quite similar thought approaches and techniques used by Randi et al.

    • James Randi and the JREF do not hold the lack of successful applicants to the million dollar challenge up as proof that there is no such thing as a psychic. James Randi himself has spoken at length on numerous occasions as to how you cannot prove a negative.

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