“The attacks on the million dollar challenge are likely to continue. This is a sign, in my opinion, of the success of the challenge. Con artists know they cannot beat the challenge, and so they have no choice but to try to discredit it. Those who truly believe they have abilities but fail the challenge almost universally make up post hoc excuses for their failure.”
Our writing is an interesting window into our beliefs and opinions, even when we may not be fully aware of what it shows. What does it say to end a critical piece with a manipulative double bind that leads the reader to conclude those who question the JREF Challenge are either gullible or cons?
The opening quote comes from a recent article by Steven Novella discussing Steve Volk’s critique of the James Randi Educational Foundation Challenge. As usually happens when the JREF is brought up, either positively or negatively, Volk has ignited a vigorous back and forth between skeptics and believers.
What Volk basically points out is that the test is designed to find William James’ ‘white crow.’ It’s sort of a real world example of the kind of entry test that Professor Xavier might have designed for the School for Gifted Youngsters, if such a place existed.
“… the point of the challenge is to be a public demonstration. There are many people who claim dramatic paranormal abilities. If their claims were anything close to the truth, it should be easy to demonstrate their abilities. As Randi says – he is only asking them to do what they claim to do on a daily basis, just under conditions that make it impossible (or at least very difficult) to cheat.”
This, however, is not what scientific investigation of anomalous phenomena is about, at least not in the broader sense of the field. Novella says nothing different, however seems to miss the fact that within the public discourse the JREF Challenge is seen as a scientific test.
There are recent stand-outs such as Uri Geller, if the 1970’s can be considered recent, where scientists have focused on the claims made by an individual. There are also other individual cases that have been studied, with less fanfare from the media, however, the majority of research since the 1930’s has been focused on much more subtle effects, which are measured by accumulating data over time which can be coordinated and analyzed statistically.
Technically Novella is himself a parapsychologist, having conducted a number of trials himself, yet when he says things such as, “at the very least, the challenge teaches us, basic controls should be put into place before any paranormal claim is taken seriously,” it becomes unclear if he is aware of that standard scientific procedure is the norm even when tests are conducted by parapsychologists who aren’t part of the skeptic movement.
Basic controls have been the norm since ancient Greece, where rational examination of anomalous events was common, and the scientific investigation of anomaly has kept this basic scientific principle in place. Even the Catholic church investigates claims of miracles to see if they fit within the bounds of orthodoxy. If the Catholic church still has some sense of procedure in this area, we probably don’t need the JREF Challenge to save the scientific process.
Ben Radford’s latest piece for Live Science on whether or not scientists fear the paranormal is another example of why we need reminders that these issues are more nuanced than the radical skeptic community likes to present. Within the first paragraph Radford gives us a statement surprising for its inaccuracy:
“Psychics have been studied for decades, both in and out of the laboratory, yet the scientific community (and the public at large) remains unconvinced.”
This may be true for the scientific community, and I use the word ‘may’ very directly, because it is impossible to know what the scientific community thinks in this area due to the cultural stigma attached, and the fact that their careers and reputations are on the line. This is absolutely not true of the public, however, and all studies of belief in anomalous phenomena have shown that a significant portion of the population of the U.S. alone believe in some kind of anomalous phenomena.
As I pointed out in a piece for Reality Sandwich:
“Whether or not they are provable in a laboratory setting, anomalous experiences remain a part of life for a surprising number of people. Gallup polls show that 17% of the population in the United States claim to have had a UFO experience. The Baylor Religion Survey, as detailed in NYU Press’ recent publication Paranormal America, shows that, in the United States, 45% of women and 32% of men believe in the existence of ghosts, and 31% of women and 28% of men believe in telekinesis. Taking into account the various categories of paranormal possibilities close to half of the population believes in, or claims to have experienced, something out of the ordinary in their lives.”
Taken globally the overwhelming majority of people believe in, or say they have direct experience with, anomalous phenomena. I think that this is a very important point to look at, as it would seem to indicate a very telling cultural bias when the majority of the world’s population is ignored, and we only accept data from the U.S. and Europe as a valid indication of social norms. In Radford’s article he ignores even the data for the U.S. Unless we are to assume that those outside of the Western paradigm are by and large primitive heathens as yet unschooled in the enlightenment of Western culture, we need to reassess ignoring the majority of the world’s population when making broad claims about reality.
This is also seen in the concept of fraud. If you read the comments there is a focus on debunking specific individuals who claim extraordinary powers, intermixed with a critique of parapsychological studies themselves. These are two different things. One commenter, JMo, says, “forget about statistical significance, but the probability that any one of these claimants can demonstrate ability better than chance still needs to be framed coherently.” Under the definition that Novella outlines for the Challenge, this is fine, but what does this have to do with parapsychology? Novella tries to direct the conversation back to the point, he says, “talk of p-values and Bayesian analysis is good when discussing the scientific study of psi, etc. but all irrelevant to the challenge. The challenge is not a scientific study. ” Yet if you look at the timber of the comments, there still seems to be a confusion over just how divergent what they are discussing, and what the field of parapsychology is investigating, really is. This was exactly what Volk was trying to indicate in his article.
Volk brings up another point that I think requires an understanding of the sociology of the situation to really start to flesh out. During his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, Sam Harris mentioned that he thought something was ‘fishy’ about Rupert Sheldrake declining to take the JREF Challenge. It seems to me that Sheldrake’s dismissal of the Challenge may in part be an issue of class. I wouldn’t presume to know what Sheldrake was thinking, but when a Cambridge scholar is approached by an American magician to take a “Challenge,” something tells me that might not be top on the list of things to do. Especially considering what Volk accurately pointed out about the Challenge’s worth as a tool of science.
Although his books have been popular, Sheldrake is not a media monkey, and never has been. The JREF Challenge exists in the media, not in the scientific milieu. As co-founder of the skeptical organization CSICOP (now CSI) , Dennis Rawlins, has written in a critique of the skeptic movement, “investigators who live by the media are ruled by publicists, not by scholars.” There is no reason for Sheldrake to even consider the Challenge as something that would attend his research, despite what some skeptics might think about its value.
Fortunately for the JREF, it is these kind of gaps in the understanding of a situation that are perfect for setting up an illusion, that’s one of the most basic elements of sleight of hand. In this instance, the illusion that there is any reason for Sheldrake, or any other serious scientist, to participate in the Challenge. The general public has no reason to question the claim that Sheldrake should take the JREF Challenge, both deal with psi right? So why not?
Even more directly, as Volk indicates, “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.”
These issues lead directly into what he says about the effect the Challenge has had on the public conversation around these issues. “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.” Strangely Novella reiterates both of these points, but as positive factors, in his critique of Volk.
“The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon…Saying that investigations are done “in a scientific way” is not the same as saying that they are scientific experiments. The challenge develops protocols that use proper blinding, multiple trials, and statistical analysis. These are scientific methods, but even still no one claims that these are rigorous scientific experiments worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals.”
If we look at what Volk is saying, the real issue is what this does when it’s presented in a sloppy way to the public. The JREF Challenge has nothing to do with the scientific community, scientists and clinicians may work with the JREF, as Novella does, but they do so in an un-official capacity. To really get a perspective of this, consider the fact that in total there have been 1.126 Billion individual scientific trials to test for psi.
Yes, you read that correctly, despite what you might have come to understand from the debunkers, and despite what the comments on Novella’s piece may indicate, there have been over a billion trials to test for psi, not just one or two studies and some failed replications. This figure includes tests for a number of different aspects of psi phenomena, however in each case the effect values found were significant, some very highly so, in their respective meta-analyses.*
Why have you never heard of these trials? Because so much of the media attention in these areas has focused on the opinions of people like Ben Radford, Steven Novella and Sam Harris. As Volk says, “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.” There is also the difficulty of the statistics involved, one of the more perceptive points brought out in the comments on Novella’s piece is that those who are qualified to deal with the statistical difficulties in this area are few and far between. Yet one of the most respected statisticians, Jessica Utts, stands in support of psi.
The issue at hand is one of influence. When inaccurate information is presented by powerful public figures, or their opinions are presented as factual statements, it needs to be addressed. Even the wording of the Challenge, and most skeptical discourse, is problematic. It seeks to prove or disprove “evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” Having spent the last 13 years studying esoteric philosophy, I wouldn’t make the claim that traditional magic has anything to do with the paranormal, supernatural or occult, as these words are understood in their popular sense, let alone include these words in a description of what is being tested by parapsychologists. As just one small example, keep in mind that mathematics was originally a devotional practice. So at the very beginning we have a problem, because the test is testing for something that doesn’t exist outside of popular fiction. Unicorn hunts tend to be rather unfruitful.
When this lack of critical savvy is aided by support from someone like Sam Harris, who in other areas is a very nuanced thinker, there is a problem. Harris has discussed his meditative practice, which recent studies have shown can have a physiological affect on brain structure. Is this effect occult, paranormal, or supernatural? No. Nor would anyone pursuing a Dharma practice claim that it was, unless that person was courting a gullible Western audience.
Not long ago meditation was considered by most Western scientists as, at best, a way to calm down. Now it’s causing significant physiological changes in the brain? No, it was always causing physiological changes, and those of a different opinion were wrong. What has changed is that the Dali Lama has encouraged some of the more advanced meditators under his authority to allow themselves to be tested using contemporary technology like fMRI. We can’t go back, however, and suddenly pretend that the opinions expressed on the matter by those dismissive of meditation were anything but shortsighted, inaccurate, and, if issued by someone claiming to be pursue scientific inquiry, should have been withheld until proper testing could take place.
The same historic dismissal occurred with hypnosis, which was not accepted as a “scientific” reality until well into the 20th century. In a way this is still occurring with both meditation and hypnosis. Our academic and clinical understanding of what these practices are capable of hasn’t even come close, at least in terms of the information provided to the public, to what has been demonstrated in experiments prior to these areas being regulated by the Western scientific community, or what has been purported by some of those practicing meditation and hypnosis outside of the clinical setting.
And what of psi? Russell Targ points out in his book The Reality of ESP, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, that in his view, with over 3 decades of experience studying anomalous perception, there is nothing supernatural about psi. His exact statement being:
“I do not believe that ESP has metaphysical origins. I believe that is is just a kind of ability we strengthen by expanding our awareness to think nonlocally. It will become less mysterious as more of us become more skillful.”
Ultimately, even Novella admits that the JREF Challenge is limited in scope:
“The fact remains – the million dollar challenge has seen a long series of applicants with dramatic paranormal claims yet who cannot demonstrate their abilities when even the most basic controls are set into place. This does not prove that there are no paranormal abilities anywhere ever. It does demonstrate, however, that the applicants are likely to have been self-deluded (or conscious frauds). And this says something very important – that people can delude themselves to that degree.”
Yet this is not how the discussions around the JREF Challenge usually go, where it is often touted as proof that there is no basis for the existence of any anomalous phenomena. Even if this is not how those within the scientific community who are sympathetic to the JREF see it, this is how it is understood by the majority of those involved in the public end of the skeptic movement. The comments section of Disinfo.com alone shows this to be the case, and it may even be demonstrated in comments left on this article.
This is clear in smaller versions of single event tests, such as the recent “Halloween Challenge” which Chris French conducted. Whether or not those running the tests know better, results are often presented as definitive. I mentioned this in a piece for The Teeming Brain discussing French’s test regarding statements made by one of the tests co-designers Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptic Society:
“The weaknesses apparent in the design of the “psychic challenge” are nowhere clearer than in a statement from (Michael) Marshall in the BBC coverage of the experiment, where he flatly claims that the experiment “showed that claims to have special abilities ‘aren’t based in reality.‘” This, from testing two self-proclaimed “professional” psychics in an experiment that was admittedly designed to demonstrate fraud in professional performers. This is rather disheartening in its logic-chopping for a conclusion that is supposed to be coming from those who are seeking scientific honesty and rational investigation. It negates any claim Marshall may have had to pursuing these tests under the auspices of sound scientific inquiry.”
Now if a co-designer for one of these one off challenges can’t even keep the lines straight between what does and doesn’t qualify as over-arching proof, how does this translate to the general public, and to those within the skeptical community that are involved on a less critical basis?
This lack of care when it comes to how our statements are perceived is prevalent on both sides of the debate. Eben Alexander didn’t choose the title ‘Proof of Heaven’ for the book he wrote on his Near Death Experience, his publisher did. The section that was printed in Newsweek that raised the hackles of skeptics everywhere was also chosen by his publisher. In both cases the use of the word “Heaven” was a critical gaff in keeping the conversation pure of issues that are outside of a simple experiential report. For the publisher this doesn’t matter, the controversy spurs sales, and in some sense the controversy has also spurred a renewed conversation over NDEs. In terms of our understanding of the situation, it didn’t make it any easier to discuss these issues with any sort of clarity, and once the publisher sets the boundaries an author has to play within them, or spend time explaining why the book with their name on it isn’t quite what they originally wrote.
Going back to Sheldrake we see a perfect example of confusion over the purpose of the JREF Challenge. If we are to take Harris’ concern over Sheldrake’s decision not to participate, then his experiments are being treated as though they are “dramatic paranormal claims.” In reality Sheldrake’s work with animal telepathy has been a continuance of scientific research in this area, and a continuation of his work in biology. Under Novella’s definition of the challenge there is again no reason why Sheldrake should participate in the challenge. Framed as a “defense of Sheldrake,” this is one of the key issues Volk was address. In a certain sense, with the description presented by Novella, the Challenge is little more than a carnival game, where the players, in this case the claimants of dramatic powers, have to hit the target to win the prize. In true carnival fashion, since any large scale psi effects are unlikely outside of spontaneous examples such as poltergeist phenomena, the game is rigged.
We also have to keep in mind that James Randi has an extremely dubious history when it comes to the truth. Anyone defending Randi at this point, or anything he has done, or has his name on it, should seriously rethink where they are putting their support, or at least issue their support with a caveat that indicates they understand his failings as a critical thinker. This is only fair considering the harsh opinions many in the skeptic community express towards individual parapsychologists, who are, for the most part, not guilty of offensive behavior in pursuit of their goals. Despite what his Wikipedia entry would have you believe, Randi’s history as a debunker has quite often run afoul of his own aggressive attitude towards his mission. Novella tries to skirt this by mentioning that Randi is no longer involved in a direct way with the Challenge, and due to ill health has moved away from most of his administrative role at the JREF. His partner of nearly 30 years was also convicted on May, 29th, 2012 of stealing the identity of Jose Luis Alvarez in 1987, which has, I’m sure, been a bit of hassle to deal with.
I’m glad that Volk ended his piece in complimenting Harris for being discrete in his own critiques. He mentions that “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.” And I would extend this to Ben Radford as well, while I’m often aghast at his ability to skirt facts and conveniently leave out details in his Live Science articles, his recent podcast discussions on the topic of doomsday cults and cultification at Project Archivist are great, and what I’ve seen of his presentations, when he is dealing with legitimate fraud he is a thorough researcher and investigator.
I’m not as familiar with Steven Novella, but am sure with his passion for the rational when he is tackling issues of bad medical practice he is spot on. It should also be noted that his explanation of the JREF Challenge, despite my critical comments, does an excellent job of putting it into perspective, and defining what it’s goals are. As I mentioned, he also tries to keep the discussion on point in the comments when things start to drift away from what he was bringing up in the article. Where he misses the point, I think, is recognizing that the public image of the Challenge has move far beyond what he indicates as its intent.
In a bit of irony I quit working on a complementary piece on Derren Brown’s skeptical activity to work on this one. It may come as a surprise to some that there is actually a lot of camaraderie between the parapsychological community and the skeptical community, one interesting example of this is Dr. Stanley Krippner’s friendship with James Randi. In fact, despite how it is perceived, many of the parapsychologists that I’ve spoken with who have met Randi admit that he is an enjoyable fellow when in person, even if they disagree with the way he goes about his mission.
This is perhaps the saddest thing about the way this conversation gets twisted in the media. When the bull dogs of skepticism, and even the JREF Challenge, are set loose on a deserving topic, such as psychic scams, fraudulent faith healers, dubious medical claims, and the like, they provide an incredibly valuable social service. It’s only when they turn their ire on legitimate attempts to work out the complexity of our existence that their frenzy starts to kick up dust.
Skepticism, when conducted poorly, is about saying ‘no,’ Nietzsche may have announced the death of god, but he still advocated a life lived saying ‘yes.’ If we take the horn off the unicorn, we’re still left with a beautiful horse.
*Note: Information on the number of trials conducted for psi was from Demystifying the Akasha – Consciousness and the Quantum Vacuum by Ralph Abraham & Sisir Roy, pg. 72