The Challenge

This article is adapted from a four-part series that originally appeared on my blog, starting here. The series prompted many critical comments from James Randi's defenders. Please see the comments threads on the blog, especially under Part One.

For another critical look at James Randi's challenge, see "The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge" by Greg Taylor.

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For years superskeptic James Randi has touted his million-dollar challenge as his ultimate argument against the paranormal. If these phenomena are genuine, Randi and his many fans insist, why hasn't anyone won the million dollars yet?

Randi's detractors counter that the challenge is a publicity stunt, and that Randi and JREF (the James Randi Educational Foundation) make it difficult for people to apply successfully for the challenge, or to be tested even if their applications have been successful. They also argue that JREF's standards are loose and ambiguous, and that they can ignore or dismiss an applicant for any number of reasons, some of which are purely subjective.

An interesting document in this regard is The JREF Million Dollar Challenge FAQ, which attempts to answer such criticisms but ends up only raising more questions. Please note: The version of the document that I'm referring to was current at the time I wrote this series on my blog. Since then, it's been heavily revised. As of November, 2008, the most current version can be found here. All quotations in this essay are from the earlier version, which apparently is no longer online, but which was in effect in December, 2006.

There are many points one could make about this series of questions and answers, but I'll limit myself to just a few. Even so, it will take a while to cover this much ground, so I am dividing this post into multiple parts.

First, how objective are JREF's standards when it comes to deciding whose applications will be taken seriously?

Section 2.3 addresses this issue. (Note: In quoted material, all emphases in bold are added.)

There are some claims that are far too implausible to warrant any serious examination, such as the "Breatharian" claims in which the applicant states that he can survive without food or water. Science conclusively tells us all we need to knowabout such matters, and the JREF feels no obligation to engage applicants in such delusions....

Other claims, such as "Crop Circles" and UFO's are rejected because they have been definitively proven to be the result of hoaxes or mass hysteria. Claims involving "Cloud-Busting", for example, are rejected because Science (along with keen observation) tells us conclusively that clouds will move and disperse despite the efforts of humankind to move them according to their wishes. The phenomenon behind Oujia boards, for example, is attributed to ideomotor reflexes, and not to anything paranormal.

So it appears that quite a wide variety of phenomena will not even be considered by JREF because Science (the word is always capitalized in the FAQ) has already "definitively" or "conclusively" refuted such claims. It may come as news to most of us that all (not just some) UFO sightings have been "definitively proven to be the result of hoaxes or mass hysteria," or that because clouds ordinarily move according to natural forces they cannot be moved by any other means. It is equally surprising to learn that all Ouija board motions are "attributed to ideomotor reflexes." Attributed by whom? By Science, presumably.

What's odd about all this is that JREF seems to be starting with the presumption that huge swaths of paranormal phenomena have already been explained or are not worth explaining. Later we learn that there are even more areas that are problematic for testing. In section 4.9 we're told:

Claims of psychic healing border on the miraculous, and the JREF declines to investigate them unless extraordinary proof (in the form of actual medical documentation of the disease, "pre" & "post" psychic treatment) is submitted along with your application.

In his Personal FAQ at the end of the document, Randi observes,

The [applicants'] claims are sometimes interesting variations on very old misconceptions or delusions, but seldom is there anything that surprises us or that requires very much heavy analysis.

No analysis is needed, since the claimants are delusional. Back to Section 4.9:

Most investigators will not want to waste their time with the most implausible claims, and claims involving "psychic healing" most certainly fall within the realm of the highly implausible....

Some of the more "miraculous" claims simply cannot be considered without strong proof that it is worthy of the enormous effort involved in investigating it. This places such applicants in a more difficult position than some other applicants (such as dowsers and remote readers), but keep in mind...there's a million dollars at stake.

Note that in the last paragraph quoted above, we are told that dowsers and remote viewers are in a better position than psychic healers, because their claims are easier to test and, apparently, not so implausibly miraculous. Yet later, in his Personal FAQ, Randi says,

Of course, when confronted with a particularly incredible claim like "remote viewing" (the current version of "clairvoyance") we can easily stop short and ask ourselves just why we are involved with such obvious nonsense.

Evidently, then, remote viewing is to be categorized with the miraculous and incredible claims that are hard to take seriously, after all.

Bearing in mind that the definition of "extraordinary" or "miraculous" or "incredible" claims seems rather fluid, what happens if an applicant does make such a claim? Section 4.3 tells us:

Also, if your claim seems extraordinarily implausible (such as: "I can place my thoughts within the minds of others"...or, "I can make lights shoot out of the top of my head"), you will more than likely be asked to submit three (3) notarized affidavits from professional individuals — doctors, lawyers, professors...no janitor, dishwashers or busboys — stating that they have witnessed this phenomenon and can offer no rational explanation for it. In fact, if you have such a claim and wish to see the application process expedited, don't wait to be asked; provide it along with your application.

Thus, placing your "thoughts within the minds of others" is also included among the most implausible claims. This means that telepathy, in the sense of sending thoughts (as opposed to receiving them), is another of the apparently miraculous claims. One begins to wonder if JREF would consider any paranormal claim to be anything other than "extraordinary, incredible, and miraculous." (One also wonders what JREF has against janitors and busboys.)

Section 4.8 elaborates at length on what the applicant with an "extraordinary" claim must do:

... there is a certain criteria applied for the acceptance of affidavits. Try to find persons who are skeptical by nature, and try to avoid enlisting the aid of friends who share your beliefs. Do your very best to seek impartial individuals who work in professional fields, if you want your affidavits accepted quickly....

The following is a list of examples of persons who would NOT be acceptable as affidavit providers:

Family members, minors, persons you have met while in "treatment" or during the course of any "psychic studies" you may have embarked upon, persons presently taking medication for bi-polar disease, schizophrenia or other forms of mental illness, alcoholics & drug addicts, spiritual advisors or priests/rabbis, anyone involved in any way with the so-called "psychic arts", etc.

In the last paragraph you may have noticed a reference to being in "treatment." There's a reason for this. JREF seems to assume that a very large number of applicants are, to put it bluntly, nuts.

Section 4.2:

Many people who claim to have paranormal powers are, sadly, suffering from an advanced state of delusion. That isn't to say that you are, but it's a hypothesis that may be raised during the application process. So, be prepared for this in advance, especially if your claim is extremely remote by reasonable standards.

We've already seen that almost any claim likely to be fielded by JREF can be judged "extremely remote by reasonable standards" (whatever that means). Now we learn that the "hypothesis" of mental illness "may be raised during the application process."

The JREF will also not waste its time (or jeopardize the applicant's safety and well being) with claims from applicants who exhibit clear signs of paranoid delusions, schizophrenia or other mental illness, feeling strongly that it is their moral responsibility to avoid the furthering of such delusions in the minds of those who may be in need of immediate psychiatric attention. What this means is that it is OK for you to be deluded, as the JREF feels many applicants may well be, but it is not OK for the JREF to support your illness, if you have shown clear, clinical signs of suffering from one. Randi feels that his personal and moral obligations in this regard far supercede [sic] the JREF's professional obligation to test all applicants.

And Section 5.3 warns,

While you may be neither mistaken nor a cheater, the JREF will always assume that you are one or the other.   

Now we return to our question: How objective is JREF in deciding which applicants will be accepted? Well, it appears that JREF categorizes virtually all paranormal claims as "extraordinarily implausible" and assumes that many, perhaps most, applicants are mentally ill. JREF reserves the right to ignore an application from anyone whose claim is too "incredible" to be taken seriously, or whose claim contradicts the findings of "Science," as understood by JREF. Further, JREF reserves the right to ignore applications from people who are psychologically impaired - a determination that can be made by JREF alone.   

Now, given all of the above, just how easy is it to get an application approved by JREF, and how many people have managed it? In other words, how easy is it for a claimant to apply for James Randi's vaunted million dollar prize? According to the FAQ, not easy at all. Section 4.4 of the FAQ reads:

An application made by an earnest applicant may take 1-6 months to handle, considering the refining of the application wording and the mutual negotiation of a mutually acceptable preliminary test. It should not take longer than a few weeks, ideally, so long as an acceptable test is quickly agreed upon. However, securing a team of qualified observers is not always an easy thing to do, so the time that lapses between your claim submission and the actual test can be several months, or even longer.

Such long delays must discourage a lot of people. In his Personal FAQ at the end of the above-linked document, Randi seems to concede as much:

Many hundreds have applied, and most have had to be instructed to reapply — sometimes several times — because they did it incorrectly or incompletely. There are, at any given time, about 40 to 60 applicants being considered, but from experience we know that the vast majority will drop out even before any proper preliminary test can be designed. Of those who get to the preliminary stage, perhaps a third will actually be tested, and some of those will quit before completion.

Hundreds have applied ... often several times because of problems with the paperwork. But "the vast majority" drop out even "before any proper preliminary test can be designed." And even most of those who make it to the preliminary test don't actually get tested - only "perhaps a third."

So what kind of numbers are we talking about? Section 1.3 reports:

Between 1964 and 1982, Randi declared that over 650 people had applied [3]. Between 1997 and February 15, 2005, there had been a total of 360 official, notarized applications.

It's not clear what happened between 1982 and 1997, but in the 26 years covered, 1,010 people applied. Whether all these applications were accepted is a different issue, one that's not taken up in the FAQ.

Who are these applicants and what became of them? Section 4.7 addresses this question. In response to the question, "Where can I find a list of all the people who have ever applied?" the FAQ states: 

Since the Challenge has been going on since before the World Wide Web gained in popularity, no such list exists online. The JREF has limited resources, so most of the applications are maintained in a file cabinet at the JREF headquarters. In other words, if you want a lot of details about the former applicants, you are going to have to visit the JREF and do your own research.

However, the JREF forum also contains a CHALLENGE APPLICATIONS section that describes in detail the claims received, the correspondences exchanged between the JREF and the applicant, and subsequent protocol negotiations and test results.

I'm not sure why the fact that the challenge predates the popularity of the Web is relevant. A great deal of the data on the Web predates the Web itself. Those data have simply been uploaded to Web servers. JREF prefers to keep its data in file cabinets, presumably where few people can see them. If I were a skeptic, I might be skeptical about this.

It appears, then, that the application process can extend for many months, with the applicant told to resubmit his paperwork (often including notarized documents) again and again. No lists of applicants and outcomes are readily available. Randi himself is vague about the number of people who have been tested (as contrasted with the number who have applied). It's also unclear whether all 1,010 applicants between 1964-1982 and 1997-early 2005 were actually accepted, or whether some, or even most, of the applications were rejected.

For a look at the slow-as-molasses "progress" (if that's the word) of one candidate's application, I looked at a Web site put up by Peter Morris. Unfortauntely the site is now defunct, but in Google's cache you can still read some of the correspondence between the applicant and James Randi. This correspondence began on March 6, 2004. Correspondence relating to the application itself began on August 31, 2006, and the application was mailed on September 11, 2006. On October 16, 2006, Randi acknowledged receipt of the application. As of November 3, 2006, the applicant and Randi were still arguuing about whether or not the claim would be tested. (Other cached pages from Morris' Web site are here.)

Remember also that some applicants are rejected out of hand. For instance, someone named Rico Kolodzey tried to apply for the challenge, claiming he could survive without food for an indefinite period. In his reply Randi (quoted in full here) simply dismissed the claim as preposterous:

Please don't treat us like children. We only respond to responsible claims....

If this is actually your claim, you're a liar and a fraud.  We are not interested in pursuing this further, nor will we exchange correspondence with you on the matter.

The one thing that stands out here, beyond the obvious difficulty of getting an application approved in the first place, is the disparity between the number of people who successfully apply and the number who are actually tested. Do all these claimants drop out voluntarily even after going to the trouble of applying, or are there other factors involved? To put it another way, once the applicant for the JREF's million dollar prize has been finally accepted for testing, he's "in," right?

Wrong. He can still be dismissed at any time, at JREF's sole discretion, if he is deemed guilty of bad behavior.

Section 6 of the FAQ goes into exhaustive detail about this. Here are some highlights:

Section 6.1:

The Challenge Administrator may close your file and reject all future applications submitted by you based upon negative behavior.

The following are some examples of the type of behavior than can result in the rejection of your claim:

1. Continuous Belligerence, Hostility or Obstinacy. Repeated use of Profanity Following Warnings from The JREF asking you to STOP. Willfully or Unreasonably Delaying the Application Process (for reasons that can only be considered vain). Canceling a Test at the Last Minute (for reasons that can only be considered "vain"). Threatening Legal Action Against The JREF or its Employees & Investigators. Slandering the JREF or its Employees. Making Libelous Accusations (such asinsisting that the Challenge itself is a Sham/Fraud or that Randi himself is a liar and a cheat who will never award the prize money even if the Applicant Passes the Tests). A Consistently Aggressive or Violent Tone in Correspondence.

2. A Proven Inability to Comprehend or Accept the Rules of The Challenge.

Section 6.2:

The JREF alone determines when an applicant's behavior is unacceptable. There is no Appeal Process, and there is no mediator.

Section 6.3:

This rule applies both to private correspondence and communications between the applicant and the Challenge administrator, as well as the JREF forum, which all applicants are welcome (and encouraged) to join....

You have the right to have your say, but don't expect it to be allowed to continue beyond the point of what is deemed Reasonable.

All forum members have the right to state their position. If you chose to abuse that right, you will lose it.

At that point, you can also expect to have any further applications you submit discarded upon receipt. The JREF is NOT compelled to accept subsequent applications from persons who have proven themselves impossible to deal with on a reasonable level.

Section 6.5:

Dissenters and JREF opponents will always be allowed a voice on the forum, but it must be a civil voice, and a voice that does not break the forum rules. If a member, any member, behaves in a manner that ultimately saps JREF resources — even when there may not have been any forum rules broken — that person may nonetheless be viewed as a detriment and a hindrance to the JREF mission. It is well within reason for any organization to eliminate obstacles that might prevent it from operating nominally whenever possible.

So, if you wish to see your claim tested (and if you wish to remain a forum member), behave appropriately.

Section 6.6:

The JREF is in no way required to test your claim regardless of how you behave. Other applicants have believed so and been sorely disappointed by the facts.

Remember; it's the JREF Paranormal Challenge, and The JREF alone dictates the rules surrounding it and how it is run, so, if your nature is to quickly turn belligerent and rude, or to accuse the JREF of being disingenuous, you should not apply.

Notice that the applicant can be dismissed for behaving "in a manner that ultimately saps JREF resources - even when there may not have been any forum rules broken." This is as vague a formulation as one could ask for, and covers virtually any behavior whatsoever. Who, after all, is to say what "ultimately saps JREF resources"?

Moreover, we are told that the applicant can be dismissed for "insisting that the Challenge itself is a Sham/Fraud or that Randi himself is a liar and a cheat," or even for "accus[ing] the JREF of being disingenuous." But what if the applicant sincerely feels that the procedure is unfair - perhaps that it's being unduly dragged out, or that unreasonable obstacles are being placed in his way? To voice these objections, not only in the forum but even in "private correspondence and communication," is to invite dismissal. So the candidate is effectively silenced before his test has even been run.

So what have we learned? Even after an applicant has succeded in qualifying for the challenge - which is clearly no easy task - he can still be rejected at any time for "negative behavior." Acting as judge and jury, JREF can dismiss any applicant for being "rude" or "hostile" or even for suggesting that JREF itself is misbehaving. Evidently, any criticism of JREF's procedures can also be grounds for dismissal.

At every stage of the process, the applicant finds himself facing long odds - and not just because he may or may have the ability to demonstrate a paranormal phenomenon. The application process is arduous and time-consuming, often requiring multiple resubmissions over a period of months or even years. Applicants can be rejected for virtually any reason, including the "incredible" nature of their claims. Applicants may be placed in the position of trying to prove they are not mentally ill. Applicants are effectively muzzled from criticizing JREF or Randi either publicly or privately, and may be dismissed at any time for a variety of offenses subjectively determined by JREF administrators, including rudeness and "sap[ping] JREF resources." JREF is the final authority in all cases; there is no mediator and no appeal. Since no lists of applicants and outcomes have been made available on the Internet by JREF, and since Randi himself does not seem to know the number of claimants who've actually been tested, we can only guess at how many people succeed in reaching even the preliminary testing stage. By Randi's own estimate, the number is small, with the "vast majority" of applicants failing to negotiate the application process, or dropping out or being dismissed before the test is attempted.

Given all this, is it really such a mystery that the more sophisticated researchers and test subjects in the paranormal field steer clear of the much-publicized JREF Challenge?

 

P.S. As a minor postscript, I want to mention one other detail. Throughout the FAQ, JREF assures the reader that it really does want to test all applicants and that it will bend over backward to treat applicants fairly. Some may wonder why I didn't quote these statements.

The simple answer is that I can't quote everything, and I selected the passages that struck me as most problematic for the applicant. The more involved answer is that these reassurances do not carry any legal weight.

JREF may very well believe that it is entirely reasonable and fair in all of its actions. But what one party to an agreement believes to be reasonable and fair may seem most unreasonable and unfair to the other party. In a one-sided power relationship, there is no way for the aggrieved party to have his grievances addressed. In a more balanced relationship, where power is allocated to both sides, an aggrieved party can seek redress.

It should be clear from the FAQ that the million dollar challenge is a one-sided arrangement. While JREF administrators may behave in a way that seems reasonable and fair to them, the applicant who disagrees with their decisions has no legal recourse.

An analogy would be a dispute between a taxpayer and the IRS. The IRS may believe it handles such disputes with impeccable fairness and reasonableness, but if a given taxpayer disagrees, what can he do about it?

But at least the IRS has a taxpayer advocate who can be appealed to. The million dollar challenge does not provide for any appeal process or any mediation. All the power rests with JREF. The only power the applicant has is to walk away - an option that a great many applicants apparently exercise.

If JREF wanted to protect the rights and interests of applicants, rather than just paying lip service to fairness, they could set up an independent mediator who would oversee disputes. This would go a long way toward making the process more balanced and giving disgruntled applicants some right of redress.

In the absence of any such arrangement, protestations of fairness and reasonableness amount to nothing but window dressing.

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