The 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.”
I’ve endeavored to crater the myth of James Randi on a number of occasions. Randi, a
n 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.
The Challenge begins with a red herring:
Randi boasts that the protocols of each test must be “mutually agreed upon.” But 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.