Category Archives: The Skeptics

James Randi’s Foundation

 

“The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)”

 

by Craig Weiler

 


 
JREF is a skeptical organization supposedly devoted to promoting critical thinking regarding claims of the paranormal. In reality it is an advocacy organization, known in politics as a pressure group. They lobby media and science organizations to dissuade them from taking parapsychology and psychics seriously. Like other pressure groups, they occasionally perform high profile publicity stunts to attract attention.

In fact, they are a magnet for controversy and scandal. The president of JREF, D.J. Grothe, has recently been accused of “misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers,” and, “constant duplicity, dishonesty, and manipulation” by a female employee.[1] James Randi’s significant other, Deyvi Pena, was convicted of Identity Theft; a disgruntled million dollar challenge applicant put out a $100,000 reward to anyone who could prove that the challenge was legitimate, and there is a long list of complaints by people who have either applied for the challenge or taken it. The challenge itself is the subject of unending criticism:

“Psychic offered a million dollars to prove his abilities.” How many times have you seen that headline? James Randi, a magician, offers a million dollars to any person who can prove they possess psychic abilities. This is done through the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF for short), and is referred to as the million dollar challenge (MDC for short).

Every few months a story pops up in a prominent magazine about a prominent psychic who has been challenged to prove their abilities by taking the MDC. Celebrity psychics such as the late Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh and John Edward have all been goaded at various times to apply for the challenge. All have declined.

Because the MDC is perceived in the media as a legitimate way to test psychic ability, declining to take the challenge is promoted as proof that the psychics are actually charlatans. Over the years, many people have applied for the challenge, a very tiny percentage has been tested, and no one has passed even the preliminary part. Skeptics point to this as proof that psychic ability does not exist.

Mr. Randi is a very popular skeptic and the million dollar challenge is easy to understand and seems to provide a clear and easy way to establish the truth about psychic ability. Because the MDC is rather popular in mainstream periodical literature, it merits serious investigation.

A Review of the Literature

Parapsychological literature sheds little light on the workings of this challenge. There are no scientific papers reviewing the MDC and it is mentioned only briefly in some books about parapsychology. The most influential book in parapsychology, The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, spends only a sentence on Randi:

“They [Geller or Randi] are actually so irrelevant to the scientific evaluation of psi that not a single experiment involving either person is included among the thousand studies reviewed in meta-analyses.”[2]

In the two most influential books that specifically address parapsychology skepticism, the JREF million dollar challenge gets only the briefest mention.

Chris Carter, in his book Parapsychology and the Skeptics, devotes a mere four and half pages to Randi without examining the challenge except to say this:

“The problem with this test is that Randi himself acts as policeman, judge and jury. Given his countless disparaging and insulting remarks concerning parapsychology, and his financial stake in the debunking movement, he can hardly be considered to be an unbiased observer.” [3]

Robert McLuhan, despite the title of his book being Randi’s Prize, has even less to say about the challenge, devoting only a few paragraphs to it:

“Randi himself laments that none of the stars in the psychic firmament – John Edward or Uri Geller for instance – has entered for it, (…) Another view, of course, is that, unlike the naïve individuals who actually do apply for the prize, they have more sense than to put themselves in the hands of a crusading sceptic who considers them to be the scum of the earth. (…)

“To offer an analogy: the difference between parapsychology and Randi’s prize is the difference between a fleet of boats heading out to sea equipped with radar and large nets, and one man sitting beside a muddy stream waiting for fish to jump in his net.”[4]

What is apparent is that scientists and scholars of parapsychology feel that the challenge is so insignificant as to not merit any significant consideration. Some serious examinations of the challenge do exist in blog posts on the Internet. Greg Taylor at The Daily Grail, published a very thorough article that examined it:

“First, and perhaps the most important, is the effect size required to win the challenge. While the JREF says that ‘all tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant’, this does not mean that the tests are fair scientific tests. The JREF need to protect a very large amount of money from possible ‘long-range shots’, and as such they ask for extremely significant results before paying out – much higher than are generally accepted in scientific research (and if you don’t agree to terms, your application is rejected).”[5]

Both the blog post by The Daily Grail, and another by Michael Prescott[6] , questioned the rules for the challenge, pointing out logical errors and draconian terms in the application. For example, rules #4 and #8 allow JREF to use information as it sees fit and the applicant surrenders all rights to legal action. In other words, if the organization decided to lie and cheat the applicant cannot sue for damages.

Over the years, I have published a couple of articles on the Million Dollar Challenge on my blog,[7] which have made their way into various on line discussions about the merits of the challenge.

My main interest has been in the workings of the challenge. According to Wikipedia:

“In the October 1981 issue of Fate, Rawlins quoted him [James Randi] as saying “I always have an out”. [19] Randi has stated that Rawlins did not give the entire quotation.[20] Randi actually said “Concerning the challenge, I always have an ‘out’: I’m right![21] [22]. Randi states that the phrase “I always have an out” refers to the fact that he does not allow test subjects to cheat.” [23]

Examining James Randi’s Character

As the organization bears his name, this invites questioning about James Randi’s character. Does Randi have an out? Is there some method he uses to make sure applicants never win? All of the criticisms of the challenge that I’ve read don’t address this. They point out, correctly, that the challenge is unrealistically hard and that Randi, who is considered to be far from impartial, totally controls it.

The skeptical point of view is that Randi needs to control the challenge in order to prevent alleged psychics from cheating, and that he is qualified based on his considerable experience in magic to expose frauds. James Randi is a very accomplished magician and this does qualify him to expose people who are posing as psychics but are actually using magic tricks to dupe people. However, Randi has no scientific education, self-taught or otherwise. His critics contend that total control over the challenge allows Randi to cheat, or to create unrealistic rules that no one could satisfy in order to win.

In order to deal with the efficacy of Randi’s challenge, we have to examine the character of James Randi. If he has a genuine interest in the truth, we can rely on his good judgment. So we look first at what his critics have to say.

While psi proponents acknowledge his considerable magic skills and that he has exposed a few frauds posing as psychics, he is widely regarded as deeply biased and more interested in publicity than the truth. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, a target of Randi’s criticisms, uses this widely circulated story to illustrate that point:

“The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research. In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail.” No details were given of these tests.

I emailed James Randi to ask for details of this JREF research. He did not reply. He ignored a second request for information too.

I then asked members of the JREF Scientific Advisory Board to help me find out more about this claim. They did indeed help by advising Randi to reply. In an email sent on February 6, 2000 he told me that the tests he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal”. They involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost. He wrote: “I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so.” [8]

Randi also claimed that in a tape of a dog experiment that Sheldrake had performed, the dog was responding to every passing car. He was later forced to admit that he had never seen the tape.

It is safe to say that no parapsychologist or paranormal investigator would ever work alongside Randi. In one telling instance, he was banned by the family and the investigators from entering a house where poltergeist activity was supposedly occurring.[9] Any testimony to Randi’s integrity and honesty will not be found in the opinions of his opponents. Psi proponent Victor Zammit goes so far as to write:

“In fact his conduct shows him to be a conman, a mind-manipulator and someone who himself admits – and this is a matter of public record – to being highly skilled in deception, trickery and conning.”[10]

In Will Storr’s “The Heretics” he gets a stunning confession from Randi:

“Is James Randi a liar? I begin gently, by telling him that my research has painted a picture of a clever man who is often right, but who has a certain element to his personality, which leads him to overstate.

‘Oh, I agree,’ he says.

‘And sometimes lie. Get carried away.’

‘Oh, I agree. No question of that. I don’t know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time,’ he says. ‘But there can be untruths.’ [11]
We next turn to skeptics’ perceptions of Randi. Does the skeptical community hold him in high esteem? Some do. In 1986, Randi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius award for his work on exposing frauds.

Some skeptics are less generous. Former parapsychologist and CSI fellow Susan Blackmore reviewed Randi’s book, The Supernatural A-Z, and commented that the bookhas too many errors to be recommended.”

Ray Hyman, a longtime skeptic and leading CSI fellow who has contributed more to the field of parapsychology than any other skeptic, noted:

“Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments.”[12]

Hyman and Blackmore are scientists who are among a very tiny handful of skeptics who have actual expertise in parapsychology and have made contributions to the field. While they do not criticize Randi directly, they lightly regard his scholarship and grasp of science.

Randi has been caught red-handed plagiarizing from skeptics on his own forum. He took comments from a forum user known as “Hawkeye” and changed the wording. When confronted, Randi responded with this comment:

“Chris: I admit, I shamelessly took your comments and dropped them in as part of SWIFT, simply because they exactly reflected my observations. I could have changed the wording, but getting SWIFT together each week – amid all the other duties that keep me here at least 60 hours a week – calls for some corner-cutting every now and then. Mea culpa…[13]

“Tkingdoll” noted:

“I see two real problems with Randi plagiarizing or otherwise cheating for any reason at all. The first is that the nature of his life’s work demands that he act with 100% honesty and integrity, because that’s the standard he’s demanding from those he exposes. Why else would Randi pursue cheats unless he thinks cheating is bad? So why then is it OK to give the excuse “oops, you caught me in a blatant cheat, I was busy that week?”

Or are we saying that cheating is OK as long as you admit it when you get caught? I hope we’re not saying that. [14]

The most serious damage to Randi’s integrity came from a long-term case of identity theft. Randi, who is gay, has a significant other, actually named Deyvi Pena, who went by the name José Luis Alvarez for twenty years before being caught in 2012. Somehow, Randi mistook Deyvi Pena, a young man from Venezuela on a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, for a teacher from the Bronx. [15] Either Randi was duped by an obvious con right under his nose for many years or he knowingly conspired with Pena to hide the truth.

So in regards to whether James Randi has impeccable character, the answer is clearly no, he does not. He is apparently willing to abandon honesty and integrity when it suits him. He does not have enough personal credibility to be taken at his word and his detractors have legitimate reasons for not trusting him. The million dollar challenge is somewhat suspect on this issue alone, although he’s not in charge of it anymore. For that reason it is necessary to look at how the challenge is run.

Examining the Challenge

How exactly does the challenge work? What is the procedure for taking an applicant from start to finish? This information is not readily available and I have seen no formal explanation from JREF explaining this process in detail.

On the surface, the million dollar challenge seems legitimate. It seems as though skeptics work on a protocol with psychics until a final procedure is hammered out. But Randi’s people working on the protocol are not vetted in any meaningful way. There is no requirement that they understand scientific protocol or be able to conduct a scientific test. In the challenge forums I visited, no one, for example, seemed to take the experimenter effect seriously. There seemed to be an attitude that psychic ability was something that should function on demand, and testers did not have the specialized knowledge in parapsychology which would be necessary to design proper experiments.

The most glaring problems with the million dollar challenge come from rules that can change on JREF’s whim.

Scientific testing of psychic ability is statistical. That is to say, an effect is considered real when it is shown to not be due to randomness (or problems in the protocol). You do this by calculating the odds that something might occur due to chance. In the results you get from repeated tries, the higher the odds are against chance, the more likely it is that psychic ability is in play.

I’m explaining this because this crucial information is missing. You won’t find it on the application or the FAQ for the million dollar challenge. It should say somewhere that the preliminary test must overcome odds against chance of approximately 1,000 to 1, but it doesn’t. And rumor has it that to win the challenge the applicant must overcome odds of one million to one. This kind of information is crucial to understanding how hard the challenge is.

An analogy would be to have a jumping contest to discover whether jumping was possible, but to not state anywhere how high a person had to jump in order to win.

Investigating through the forums

When I initially investigated the challenge, this is what I found: Applicants for the challenge were given their own thread on a sub forum specifically for the challenge, which is the only way for an outsider to track an applicant’s progress. The forum appeared to be run by volunteers and it was done very much on the cheap. Much of the information passed through the forum, some of it went through the mail and some of it was emailed. It was clear from reading the forum posts that the challenge process was a disorganized mess. The applicants dealt primarily with the volunteers, except when dealing with the staff, who apparently didn’t always notify the volunteers about what they were doing. (The volunteers sometimes found out what had transpired from the applicants.)

Randi could swoop in at any moment and change whatever he wished without notifying anyone or giving any justification for what he did. The volunteers seemed to be left to fend for themselves and had no authority to move an applicant forward in the process no matter how much work they’d done with that individual.[16] One of the signs this was badly run was that very few applicants ever got to the testing stage.

And the application process is dreadfully slow. A process that takes a year to two years is not unheard of. In the course of the Ziborov attempt, Startz (a forum name for a JREF MDC volunteer) made this comment:

“In fairness to Pavel, he has presented statistically sound protocols. JREF has been rather unresponsive as to what objections they have so that Pavel can revise them in accord with JREF’s wishes.”

Let me be more pointed than, as a fan of JREF, I wish were necessary. JREF has asked for communications to be done by email. When I have done as JREF has asked, JREF has not had the courtesy to return emails. If JREF were one of my PhD students, rather than an organization with a long, successful track record, I would say this in a less pleasant way.

Remie has sensibly pointed out that negotiations are better done by email than through this public forum. Following this wise advice, I have (on Pavel’s behalf) sent in protocols by email (while posting informational copies to the forum). JREF’s responses have been through the forum. There is no reason this could not have been settled in a week of back-and-forth email messages. Nearly all the delay time has been on JREF’s end, not Pavel’s. [17]

By forcing all the applicants to make a specific claim and set up a protocol, JREF is making the process difficult for people who have no experience in doing such things. Psychics are not scientists.

There is almost no transparency in the process and no attempt is made to satisfy outside objective observers that the testing is fair. There is no log of people who have been tested. A complete report on the individual testing that would explain in detail what occurred does not exist. [18]

PR Stunt or Serious Inquiry?

The easy way to tell a PR stunt from a serious inquiry is the way in which information is handled. A PR stunt requires important information to be controlled, and a serious inquiry requires all important information to be disclosed. The JREF million dollar challenge is replete with information being controlled and makes no full disclosures. Here is an example:

The question of exactly how many people have been tested is obviously deliberately obfuscated. In the FAQ for the challenge one finds:

“(3) To date, how many persons have been tested for the million-dollar prize offered by JREF?”

That’s not a simple question to answer. Many hundreds have made application, 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 half will actually be tested, and some of those will quit before completion.”

It is a simple question. Just add up the number of people who have been tested. (It appears that no more than a couple of people a year are actually tested, so I would put that number between 20 and 30.) Hiding this number is an obvious attempt to make the number look bigger than it actually is. This subterfuge is especially apparent on the Wikipedia entry for the MDC:

“To date, over 1,000 applications have been filed but no one has passed a preliminary test, which is set up and agreed upon by both Randi and the applicant. [19]

These entries into Wikipedia are done under the auspices of an organization known as the Guerrilla Skeptics, who I’ll cover in a later chapter. They work closely with JREF, so it is no accident that applications have been confounded with actual testing. It is safe to say that the confusion of who has applied versus who has been tested is deliberate.

Investigating a Legitimate Applicant:

Sometime in 2009 I started investigating an application for Pavel Ziborov that had just played out. At the time, the discussion forum for challenge applicants was open to public viewing, so I was able to follow what happened. I discovered foul play by Randi and wrote it up in my blog. Sometime after that, the applicant forum was closed to public viewing.[20] What is there now is nothing more than a brief summary, which, in Pavel Ziborov’s case, is inaccurate.

Pavel Ziborov’s Attempt to be Tested

Around May of 2007[21]. Pavel Ziborov contacted JREF to apply for the challenge. After two years and almost 900 forum post plus emails and letters, he and the volunteers had agreed on a straightforward protocol. Ziborov was to determine whether envelopes held a black or white piece of paper (50% chance) with 100 trials. It was agreed that he needed 67% correct answers to win (odds of that being chance are 1,000 to 1). When this was submitted to Randi, it was changed to 20 trials with this explanation to Pavel:

“Pavel,

Thank you for your continued patience. Now that the TAM dust has cleared, we can again take a look at your protocol. As I said before, I asked other JREF staff to weigh in on whether or not they believed your proposed protocol was workable.

Mr. Randi said:

Suggest that he merely identify for us which of two photos are in an envelope, 20 times. We cannot satisfy each and every whim, and it’s too expensive.

I’d say, if he refuses, he’s refused to be tested.

***

What do you think of simplifying the protocol to that level? Is that a possibility?

If not, I will do as Mr. Randi has suggested, and close your file.

Kindest regards,

Alison Smith
Research Assistant
James Randi Educational Foundation”[22]

This is straight up unethical. In addition to framing Pavel’s possible refusal as chickening out:

1. Randi violated his own rule that applicants have eight hours to complete their challenge.

2. Pavel still had to comply with the 1,000 to 1 odds, so in order to achieve this with 20 trials he would have had to have a success rate of 80%, where he had claimed to be able to achieve 67%. He was being asked to succeed at something he never said he could do.

3. The take it or leave it demand violates the condition that “both parties have to agree to the protocol.”

4. All of the JREF volunteers who had worked with Pavel were thrown under the bus as JREF blithely disregarded the protocol they had come up with.

The skeptic volunteers who worked on this application had worked with Pavel through several iterations of how to conduct tests where they had to teach him a bit of science. They did this because they believed in James Randi and JREF. His volunteers were betrayed.

In fact, many skeptics could not turn a blind eye to such an obvious miscarriage of justice. One of the people involved in the Pavel application wrote:

“I realize that there is almost no interest in holding Randi and the MDC to the standards that they claim for themselves. I’ve always been in a ridiculed minority when I make these suggestions. It is clear that the Challenge is not about allowing people to demonstrate their claims, but rather about providing examples for our ridicule – partly for education, partly for group-bonding (my guesses). I am in the process of moving on from the idea of trying to persuade anyone to care to that of trying to get the JREF and Randi to be more upfront about this instead, in order to thwart criticism. I fully realize that this will be a futile effort as well.[23]

This comment was buried in a forum thread only a handful of people will ever read. Rather than show their warts, JREF has provided a handy little synopsis of the outcome of the Ziborov application:
“In accordance with the suggestions from other JREF staff, Pavel was given one last opportunity to simplify his protocol. He has declined, and his Challenge file has been closed.

Pavel will have the opportunity to re-apply for the Challenge in one year, assuming he qualifies under the guidelines governing the Challenge at that time. [24]

This kind if dissembling is an indication that the JREF organization doesn’t take their own challenge seriously. While they have acknowledged that it is a publicity stunt, it is this sort of organizational behavior that demonstrates something worse: outright dishonesty.

Other Challenge Applicants

I can’t begin to list all the applicants who have complained about the challenge or investigate whether their protestations are valid. But here’s one example of how irritated applicants have become over how they were treated. Homeopath John Benneth, who claims to have been stonewalled by Randi in his attempt to get tested, has issued a $100,000 challenge to anyone who can prove that the JREF million dollar challenge is legitimate. [25] No one has come forward to attempt to claim this prize.

Most of the complaints revolve around not getting tested at all despite numerous attempts. However, one complaint had to do with Randi’s behavior during testing.

One contestant who actually got to the challenge and had some initial success was 11 year old Natalya Lulova. In a trial where she was demonstrating that she could “see” without her eyes, Randi responded by claiming that the bridge of her nose was special, allowing her to see underneath her blindfold. He then did a massive taping job that, according to her guardian, left her in tears and unable to perform. [26] The website referenced in the footnote has pictures and a narrative of the event.

What about the Actual Test?

How about the actual tests that have been performed that have not demonstrated any psychic ability? Are these legitimate tests of psychic ability? If psychic ability exists, why has no one passed the test? In 1991, The TV show, James Randi : Psychic Investigator[27], employed many tricks to prevent actual demonstrations of psychic ability.

Astrophysicist Sam Nichols, who attended one of the shows, enumerated a long list of obvious deficiencies including this significant one:

“Never let the psychic get comfortable enough to feel settled; the guests were more or less dragged on stage with barely an introduction and then expected to exhibit psychic marvels.[28]

The idea behind the challenge is to expose frauds and delusional people who don’t have the ability they claim to have. However, if you make the challenge impossible to fulfill, then you haven’t proved anything, as noted by “Cuddles” on the Ziborov forum thread:
“- It is therefore extremely important for the JREF to ensure that a test is fair to an applicant by ensuring that there is a high probability of success should they actually possess the claimed ability.[29]

Short tests are more difficult than longer ones for psychological reasons. The pressure to succeed on any individual attempt is much higher and the applicant has no chance to relax. Patricia Putt had ten trials. [30] Pavel was allowed to have twenty. A 1979 test had three trials for four dowsers [31], and a recent test with Derek Ogilvie had ten trials. [32]

The test is high profile, as a failure will be highly publicized. Psychic ability also declines in the presence of skeptics. This has been proved in scientific testing and is known as the experimenter effect.[33] In Randi’s tests, the applicants are surrounded by people who hope failure will occur.

Even if an applicant freely signs up for this sort of setup, as Patricia Putt did, a short, high pressure, high profile test run by skeptics is no legitimate way to test for psychic ability. That people fail, often in spectacular fashion (Putt did not get a single trial right), doesn’t say anything about the abilities of the people who were tested except that they didn’t succeed under these very adverse conditions.

In Putt’s case, the problem had to do with the way she was tested. She normally speaks, but was required to write out her psychic readings. She was being asked to succeed at something she had no training at and had not claimed that she could do.

The test protocol was presented to her as take-it-or-leave-it. This was a violation of standard scientific testing protocols. She normally does under five readings a day and she was required to do ten. Portions of her readings were blacked out by Prof. Richard Wiseman who was conducting the test. Doing ten readings in one day is far more than most mediums do. She reported being mentally exhausted by the eighth reading . Other problems included having all young, female students as target subjects, making their experiences and personalities difficult to tell apart. Like other applicants, she did not have much control in the study design.

To sum this up, while the test had good controls against cheating, it was very poor at providing elements that were favorable to psychic functioning. An analogy would be putting a seed on a shelf to see if it will grow. The experiment is perfectly controlled, but is guaranteed to fail.

All you can say is that the test demonstrated nothing. Patricia Putt cannot be said to have failed the test because the design was completely inadequate to test anything. That did not stop the press releases of course.[34]

To put this in perspective, the closest comparison to this test is probably The Afterlife Experiments[35] conducted by Gary Schwartz, which claimed to demonstrate statistically significant positive results from psychic mediums. The tests ran over several days and involved multiple mediums. Various versions of the same tests were run and all the details and results were published. The experiments have been refined and replicated over the years and notable skeptical scientists have reviewed the literature and commented on it and it has become a part of parapsychological literature.

No reports of the psychic testing done for the million dollar challenge has ever made it into parapsychological literature. Zero. Not one.

All that seems to happen is that when one of these tests is performed, the news travels around, a few newspapers pick it up, a few people blog about it and argue about it on the forums, and then it fades into history. Because it’s not important.

There are obvious reasons for their insignificance:

1. Very few serious applicants for the challenge: With the age of the Internet upon us, potential applicants are much better informed than in years past. Even the most cursory Internet search will yield damning information about James Randi and the challenge. So only the most naïve people will pursue the prize.

2. No overall methodology: Every once in a while someone braves the system and actually gets tested with an experiment that is unique, with very few trials and no replications. This renders the results useless as a measurement for anything.

3. Lack of data. To seriously discuss the relevance of any particular test requires that all details of that test be available for examination and critique.

The only thing you can say about the JREF million dollar challenge is that it is a publicity stunt that does not do what it claims to do: legitimately test for psychic ability. Because of the poor way that testing is managed, the tests themselves are not indicators of anything, much less psychic ability. In its present form this challenge is, for all practical purposes, unwinnable.

It begs the question: if JREF is so sure about psychic ability not existing, why do they have to resort to this deceit?

 
Footnotes:

[1] http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/07/carrie-poppy-tells-all/

[2] The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, pg. 240

[3] Parapsychology and the Skeptics, by Chris Carter, pg. 83

[4] Randi’s Prize, by Robert McCluhan, pg. 293-4

[5] http://dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge

[6] http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2006/12/the_challenge.html

[7] http://weilerpsiblog.wordpress.com/randis-million-dollar-challenge/

[8] http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/randi.html

[9] Randi’s Prize, by Robert McCluhan, pg. 19

[10] http://www.victorzammit.com/articles/lawyerebutsrandi.html

[11] The Heretics, by Will Storr, pg. 368

[12] http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/Mediaskeptics/index.html#JamesRandi

[13] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=73944

[14] ibid.

[15] http://stevevolk.com/archives/952

[16] Verified through a reliable source who has worked on several MDC applications.

[17] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?s=192df0a489b90c99a0350e03d1fbfddc&t=119896&page=5

[18] http://forums.randi.org/archive/index.php/t-34848.html

[19] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi_Educational_Foundation

[20] The original Zibarov forum posts are still there and can be accessed if you know the exact web address.

[21] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=82062

[22] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=119896&page=6

[23] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=119896&page=12

[24] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=115239

[25] http://www.scienceofhomeopathy.com/challenge.html

[26] http://www.theblindcarefoundation.com/Randi-eng.html

[27] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1589787/

[28] http://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/background/nicholls.html

[29] http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=119896&page=12

[30] http://monkeywah.typepad.com/paranormalia/2009/05/patricia-putt-score-for-sceptics.html

[31] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Randi_Educational_Foundation#One_Million_Dollar_Paranormal_Challenge

[32] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Ogilvie

[33] Wiseman, R. & Schlitz, M. (1998). Experimenter effects and the remote detection of staring. Journal of Parapsychology, 61(3), 197-208.

[34]
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/may/12/psychic-claims-james-randi-paranormal

and http://m.digitaljournal.com/article/272235?doredir=0&noredir=1

[35] http://www.drgaryschwartz.com/THE-EXPERIMENTS-TRILOGY.html

 


 
Chapter From the Book:

Psi Wars:
TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet: The Story of a Wild and Vicious Science Controversy . . . that Anyone Can Join!

Craig Weiler, CreateSpace, 2013

 
 
 
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Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined

 

Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined

 

The O’Neill – Wiseman Controversy

by Mick O’Neill

 


From an article submitted to Paranormal Review.


 
Frequently, when someone claims a positive psi result, Dr. Richard Wiseman appears in the media giving reasons why it probably isn’t psi, often quoting a similar experiment that he has done which has failed. To his credit, he has been exploring his consistent failure with Marilyn Schlitz (1998) and they have discovered that whether in his lab or hers just by having Richard involved as experimenter the experiment will fail. However, I have never yet heard Richard mention this when telling the media of yet another of his failed experiments. I also know him as an accomplished stage magician and member of the Magic Circle who performed at the SPR Christmas meeting in 1998. The use of magicians in psychical research is important. They are aware of all the tricks that can be used to manipulate people and can thus help separate true results from false ones. However, it seems dubious that they should be performing experiments themselves. With their powers of manipulation they could easily, even subconsciously, be getting the results they want. Perhaps this is the origin of the Wiseman experimenter effect.

The first I heard of “The World’s Largest Esp Experiment Ever” was on the evening of the sixth of December 2000 when I heard Richard on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek describing how thousands of people were expected to take part in a public experiment to test telepathy the next day. Richard’s press release (13/11/2000) showed he was replicating the well-known Ganzfeld telepathy experiment but using many ‘senders’ based on a 1971 experiment with 2000 senders at 6 ‘Grateful Dead’ concerts, described by Ullman, Krippner and Vaughan (1973).

Richard was to attempt 10 trials and he accurately pointed out, 6 direct hits were required for significance (p = 0.0197, binomial p:0.25). The Ganzfeld with single senders has an expected hit rate of 1 in 4 or 0.25 and an observed hit rate of about 0.30 but Ullman et al. concluded of many senders that “Certainly no particularly striking improvement in accuracy was noted when compared with what ordinarily occurs when single agents are used”. So, based on the two past experiments that he was trying to replicate, psi can be expected to manifest with a hit rate of only 0.30, not the 0.60 required for 6 hits. Indeed, the probability of getting 6 hits is still significantly unlikely using an expected of 0.30 (p = 0.047, binomial p:0.30). In other words, here is an experiment which should fail whether psi exists or not.

Despite Richard being a Council member he apparently hadn’t informed the SPR of the experiment, thereby foregoing the potential involvement of interested volunteers and independent expert invigilators. Suspicious that someone didn’t want psychic investigators to attend and intrigued by the Wiseman experimenter effect, I organised a tape recorder and camera and managed to arrive just as the first trial was starting barely 12 hours later.

The first point to make was that there was no-one there. Well, Richard and his technicians and venue staff were and perhaps 5 or 10 members of the press but absolutely no-one else. This was more like a press conference than an experiment to test many senders.

The experiment was apparently well-financed and technologically sophisticated. It involved the co-experimenter Matthew Smith putting a ‘receiver’ through the standard Ganzfeld procedure: relaxation while white noise was played through headphones and a red light was shone at halved ping pong balls placed over their open eyes. The receivers had been chosen, not for any psychic abilities but for their artistic and extravert temperaments and were in an acoustically isolated room on the 19th floor of a tower block. Meanwhile any senders started looking at a slide randomly selected from 4 in the nearby “Museum Of The Unknown”. A one way audio link transmitted whatever the receiver said they visualised back to the senders and was noted by Matthew. At the end of about 10 minutes the session finished and Matthew read back to them what they had said. They were then shown the correct image mixed with 3 decoys and had to sort them into order of correspondence with what they had visualised. During the course of the day 10 trials, each with a different receiver, were attempted; 8 inside the museum and 2 with many more senders in an adjacent park. The first trial was a ‘direct miss’: the correct image being placed in 4th place. The next, 11 o’clock, trial may have had a couple more members of ‘the public’ and the receiver’s visualisations seemed much closer to the image, placing it 2nd. I then heard that an extra trial had been done live on GMTV at 8:30 a.m. that morning and been a ‘direct hit’: first place. For me, this was exciting because I knew this was right in the middle of the local sidereal time window which James Spottiswoode (1997) has found enhances the Ganzfeld effect size dramatically. I am finding a similar enhancement in my current Lottery project.

During the day Richard was relaxed, entertaining and seemed fair. For example, he made a point of not mentioning the results of the earlier failed trials to the senders before each trial.

Of the eight small scale indoor trials there was 1 direct hit, 2 in second place and 5 direct misses: noticeably below chance. However, the next two outside trials attracted more senders: 50 to 100. The first outside target was an image of the famous sculpture of George Washington cut into Mount Rushmore. Although the early feedback from the receiver was not particularly appropriate, towards the end he came up with “America, like a 3D virtual image/map….. old man..”. The receiver then selected the correct image easily. The crowd was very encouraged and were cheering enthusiastically.

At this stage, experimental protocols seemed to be forgotten. Chronologically my criticisms are:


1.   For each trial the image to project had been decided by volunteers selecting balls from gold and silver magician’s bags. When this was completed for this trial Richard said “..which translates on mine to the animal..”. In other words, Richard already knew which image would have been used as a result of which number. The protocol of Ganzfeld experiments has been laid down by Hyman and Honorton (1986) in a rare spirit of agreement between sceptics and psi proponents. This protocol makes it clear that two people must be used to prevent the experimenter having any idea which image will result from the randomisation. When it is being done by a magician using magician’s paraphernalia, the requirement seems much more crucial. One reason for this part of the protocol is that otherwise it would be possible for an unconsciously biased experimenter to make sure that the chosen target image was one which had more (or potentially less) chance of being selected.

2.   On selection of an Elephant image. Richard immediately said “Earlier today we had a moose and it didn’t go at all well”. Not only did this break the admirable protocol of not giving the results of previous trials to the senders but it clearly undermined the task at hand.

At this stage Richard announced that he had just been told that the next trial was to be shown live on Channel 4 news.

3.   Richard then informed the senders about the 1971 experiment in which the receivers were professional psychics, saying “one psychic was not bad and the other was absolutely dreadful”. In this experiment, one psychic was the well-known Malcolm Bessent(1944-1997). The senders had been shown slides saying “Try using your ESP to ‘send’ this picture to Malcolm Bessent. He will try to dream about the picture. Try to ‘send’ it to him. Malcolm Bessent is now at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn.” (45 miles away). The second psychic: Felicia Parise was a control psychic and wasn’t mentioned to the senders.

Of the 6 trials Felicia got 1 direct hit: exactly chance, as you might expect from a control psychic whom the audience knew nothing about. Malcolm got 4 direct hits.

Crucially, Richard omitted to mention that Felicia was a control. As a scientist who has spent much of the last 20 years developing control groups it upsets me to see a colleague diminishing an experiment by presenting a control group as if it were the main experimental group. I cannot think of a worse misrepresentation.

4.   Even ignoring the unforgivable error of failing to mention the control, no scientist could fairly summarise a psi experiment where one subject was four times chance and the other exactly chance, using the terms “not bad” and “absolutely dreadful” respectively, unless they come from a world where psi is the accepted norm.

However, only three hours earlier at the 4 p.m. trial, Richard had said of exactly the same psychics one “was fairly successful, one wasn’t”

Playing down the significance of the only previous mass experiment in such a blatantly unfair and totally inconsistent way was bound to affect the confidence of the senders. Many in the crowd must presumably have arrived for the outdoor trials initially sceptical that it would work. However, having just witnessed the dramatic success with the George Washington image, they could have started to believe it might just be possible. Since then, Richard had improperly or inconsistently informed them of 3 previous results as “didn’t go at all well”, “not bad” and “absolutely dreadful”. This was certain to influence many of the senders and Richard had to be aware of this, because in the short write up of the 1971 experiment Ullman et al. wrote “For those who find it an exciting and novel challenge, ESP may actually be enhanced; for those who feel they are attempting something impossible and do not expect success, there may be no results.”

5.   The main conclusion of the 1971 study was that the use of Malcolm Bessent’s name had established a rapport between him and the senders. Ullman et al. wrote “… it is easier for one subject to make telepathic contact if there is rapport.”. During the day Richard had told us the names of the receivers and they appear on all of the 5 previous trials I taped. However in the crucial final trial the senders were never made aware of the name of the receiver.

The result of the final trial was a miss with the elephant being placed third in the rank ordering.

It is my opinion that the most logical reason for so many irregularities, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies occurring at this one time is that after the first large scale trial had succeeded dramatically, Richard, perhaps unconsciously, feared that the final trial might succeed, perhaps even live on national television. Clearly this would have compromised his consistent message that psi probably doesn’t exist and therefore presumably tarnished his growing media profile as a debunker of psi.

I trust this analysis helps show the type of distinct but subtle influences which produce the Wiseman experimenter effect. In the interest of balanced scientific endeavour it seems important that Richard continue his ‘experimenter effect’ work in order to decide whether it is indeed true that any experiment he is involved in will fail. In the interim, it seems unfair to present others’ experiments as failures, sometimes in a blaze of publicity, when the most likely explanation is not that the experiment does not manifest psi, rather that Richard as the experimenter has subconsciously manipulated the experiment to fail.

 
Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Pat Harris and several anonymous reviewers whose comments helped meet a tight deadline and to Richard Wiseman himself who clarified some other concerns.

 
References:

Hyman, R. & Honorton, C. (1986) A joint communiqué: the Psi Ganzfeld Controversy. Journal Of Parapsychology, 50, 356.

Spottiswoode, S. J. P., (1997) Apparent Association Between Effect Size in Free Response Anomalous Cognition Experiments and Local Sidereal Time. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2, 109-122.

Ullman, M., Krippner S. & Vaughan A. (1973). Dream Telepathy. Turnstone, 174-177. (1983 2nd edition 134-137)

Wiseman, R. & Schlitz, M. (1998) Experimenter effects and the Remote Detection of Staring Journal Of Parapsychology, 61, 197-208.

Mick O’Neill: m.on@virgin.net

 
Go to “A Reply to O’Neill” by Richard Wiseman below:

Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research

 

Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research

 

The Wiseman & Milton Controversy

by the Editors

 


On Richard Wiseman’s “obvious self-interest”.


 
Since the 1970s one of the most popular kinds of telepathy experiment among parapsychologists has been the ganzfeld procedure.

The German word “ganzfeld” means “whole field”. In these experiments subjects are placed in conditions of mild sensory deprivation, sitting in a comfortable reclining chair, listening to white noise played through headphones, and wearing translucent hemispheres over the eyes – halved ping-pong balls – while red light shines on the face. Meanwhile, a “sender” in another room looks at photos or video clips, and the subject speaks about any feelings or images that come to mind. At the end of the session the subject is shown four different stimuli, only one of which was shown to the “sender”, and ranks them. There is a 1 in 4 or 25% chance of scoring a hit by chance, by ranking the actual image first.

In many such trials subjects have scored very significantly above chance levels, and several meta-analyses have shown a very significant overall effect. In 1999, Richard Wiseman and his colleague Julie Milton published a meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin that they claimed shown no overall significant effect, and publicized their findings widely in the media, claiming that ESP did not exist.

This skeptical claim generated a great deal of controversy in technical scientific journals, because most of their colleagues considered their analysis to be biased and seriously flawed, both in the methods they had used, and in the way they had selected the data. In particular, they had chosen to omit some recent and highly successful experiments. Milton (1999) later admitted that when these data were included in the analysis, the results were indeed positive and statistically significant.

Nancy L. Zingrone, Ph.D., then the President of the Parapsychological Association, the professional society to which Wiseman and Milton criticized Wiseman for “obvious self-interest”. In a letter to the Journal of Parapsychology, he objected that she had not supported her criticism with appropriate references, and she replied as follows (in The Journal of Parapsychology (2002), 66 (2), 212-216):

The Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis … sparked controversy to some extent because it seems to have been conducted and published more from self-interest than from a sincere wish to test the hypothesis at hand…. In response to his letter, I have returned to my database and discovered that I did not, in fact, cite all the criticism and response available. Therefore, taking his comment into account and keeping to my intention of not allowing heavily criticized work to be cited without qualification, I would like to amend my reference citation to the following:

(See Milton & Wiseman, 1999. For criticism see Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001; Errata, 2001; Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 335-360; Storm, 2000 & Ertel, 2001; and Storm & Thalbourne, 2000, pp. 298-299. For response to criticism see Milton, 1999; Milton & Wiseman, 2001; and Schmeidler & Edge 1999, pp 335-360).

I would also like to qualify the use of the word “obvious” in reference to the self-interest that, in my opinion, seems to underlie the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis. What is “obvious” to me may only be apparent to other readers of the published literature. The context in which I have read the published record of this controversy may be different from other readers because: I had read a draft of the paper before it was published in Psychological Bulletin; I was present at the 1997 PA Convention where a previous version of the Psychological Bulletin paper was presented; I have had other critical contact with other writings of Milton and Wiseman in normal scientific interactions (such as participating in the peer review process); and I have analysed other writings of Dr. Wiseman for my thesis research which focuses on criticism and response. Finally, I have also been present on email chat lists in which Dr. Wiseman’s work in general and the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis in particular have been discussed. My opinion arises from that context and as such what is obvious to me may only be apparent or a faint suspicion to others. Of course, there must also be those who would disagree with my position, having formed an equally strong but opposite opinion.

There are also, however, some specific characteristics of the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis and the way in which they present and defend it (Milton, 1999; Milton & Wiseman, 1999; Milton & Wiseman 2001) that signal to me rather than asking the underlying scientific question – is the ganzfeld still a useful method of parapsychological research?-Milton and Wiseman were gathering evidence to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed. I realize I am also making a very strong claim. I am aware that I could be in error. But I provide here some published evidence to support my points.

The first is the following. Milton and Wiseman seemed to have missed an obvious opportunity for peer review in their rush to publish their 1999 Psychological Bulletin paper “Does Psi Exist? Lack of Replication of an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer.” It is usual in the parapsychological community for people to “try out” papers that will eventually be published by presenting them at the annual Parapsychological Association conventions. An extra layer of pre-publication protection from errors of fact or method is provided to authors first by the convention refereeing process and, second, by the experience of presenting at the convention and fielding questions and criticisms both on the convention floor and in informal encounters. It seemed to me to be odd at the time that Milton and Wiseman chose to submit their convention version to Psychological Bulletin after it had been accepted for the Proceedings of Presented Papers but before the actual presentation at the convention. That is, they submitted “Does Psi Exist?” to the Psychological Bulletin slightly more than six weeks prior to the PA Convention. The submission was received by Psychological Bulletin on June 23rd, 1997 (Milton & Wiseman, 1999, p.391), and the convention took place from August 7th – 10th, 1997.

One wonders why Milton and Wiseman made the decision to forego the opportunity for more detailed critique which could reasonably have been expected to be available at the convention just over six weeks later. It seems to me that it would have been in the best interest of science to wait to revise the paper until after they had heard and considered the criticisms raised by their colleagues on the convention floor. Their decision seems especially unfortunately given the number of errors in their original work that they have since been identified in print. These errors have included statistical problems in the original meta-analysis (Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 340-349; Storm, 2000, pp. 411-413; Storm & Ertel, 2001, pp 425, 427, 429-430; Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001, pp. 208-209); procedural problems in coding, blocking, and inclusion criteria (Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 336-339, 349-360); and a miscalculation in the original study table (Milton & Wiseman, 1999, p. 388) that was used in a later meta-analysis (Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001, p. 210) and then corrected by the editors of the Journal of Parapsychology (Errata, 2001, p. 428).

Dr. Wiseman would probably argue that he and his colleague, Dr. Julie Milton, have answered all the criticism adequately (Milton, 1999; Schmeidler & Edge, 1999; pp. 349, 353, 354, 358, 360; Milton & Wiseman, 2001) but the fact that the controversy re-erupts on a regular basis shows that closure has by no means been reached. That is, Milton and Wiseman have not convinced their critics that their procedural and analytical decisions were correct nor have they convinced their critics that their conclusions were warranted.

The second is the following. There is a rhetorical problem with the way in which Milton & Wiseman have made very strong claims for the conclusions they reached in their meta-analysis. For example, in the original Psychological Bulletin paper, they stated in the abstract “The authors conclude that the ganzfeld technique does not at present offer a replicable method for producing ESP in the laboratory” (Milton & Wiseman, 1999. p. 387). This particular statement rests on their assumption that the effect obtained in the original Bem and Honorton paper had not been replicated in their own database (a conclusion disputed by several of their critics).

Based on their meta-analysis then, Milton and Wiseman have claimed in effect, that the ganzfeld research program was a waste of time and resources. This is a very strong claim that is, as the criticisms have shown, supported by a heavily-flawed meta-analysis (and I have barely skimmed the surface of the published criticisms that have been made in this letter). Yet in the face of these criticisms, Milton and Wiseman have continued to issue their strong claim both in Milton’s (1999) discussion paper and in their reply (Milton & Wiseman, 2001) to Storm and Ertel (2001), where they chide Storm and Ertel for inattention to the many identified flaws of the ganzfeld database. The only reason I can propose to explain why Milton and Wiseman steadfastly deflect criticism of their own work, presenting it as unproblematic and unflawed, is that they are unshakeably convinced of their conclusion and may well have been convinced of it long before they even began their work.

Of course, I may be in error, but that is the opinion I have formed. It is possible that I have assessed the magnitude and depth of the criticism incorrectly, but to be frank, I do not think that is the case. Whether I am correct or incorrect however, does not remove the fact that Milton and Wiseman have continued to ignore the controversy that has surrounded their meta-analysis. One can only hope that in future citations of their own work, they will show the same attention to flaws and criticisms they show when they cite the work of others.

 
References:

BEM, D.J., PALMER, J., & BROUGHTON, R.S. (2001). Updating the Ganzfeld database: A victim of its own success? Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 207-218.

ERRATA (2001). Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 427-428.

MILTON, J. (1999). Should Ganzfeld research continue to be crucial in the search for a replicable psi effect? Park 1. Discussion paper and introduction to an electronic mail discussion. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 309-335.

MILTON, J., & WISEMAN, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 378-391.

MILTON, J., & WISEMAN, R. (2001). Does psi exist? Reply to Storm and Ertel (2001) Psychological Bulletin, 127, 434-438.

SCHMEIDLER, G. R., & EDGE, H. (1999). Should Ganzfeld research continue to be crucial in the search for a replicable psi effect? Part II Edited Ganzfeld debate. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 335-388.

STORM, L. (2000). Research note: Replicable evidence of psi: A revision of Milton’s (1999) meta-analysis of the Ganzfeld databases. Journal of Parapsychology, 64, 411-416.

STORM, L., & ERTEL, S. (2001). Does psi exist? Comments on Milton and Wiseman’s (1999) meta-analysis of Ganzfeld research. Parapsychology Bulletin, 127, 424-433.

STORM, L., & THALBOURNE, M.A. (2000). A paradigm shift away from the ESP-PK dichotomy: The theory of psychopraxia. Journal of Parapsychology, 64, 279-300.

ZINGRONE, N.L. (2002). Controversy and the problems of parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 66, 3-30.

 
 
 
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JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing


By Ted Dace

The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, were repeatedly reminded that it’s all about science. At the media workshop that kicked it off, magician Andrew Mayne defined the goal of skepticism as the use of the scientific process to understand the world. He added that this is the opposite of dogmatism. In his “points to remember,” he noted that skepticism is not cynicism and that skeptics must be open-minded. “If you have evidence,” he said, “bring it on.”

So it’s ironic that actual science was hardly touched on. Instead it was one speaker after another reinforcing the conceit, almost universal among conference participants, that they are the enlightened ones, that they are charged with the burden of defending sense against nonsense, that they alone can be counted on to stand their ground against the tide of irrationalism that threatens to engulf our civilization and undo all the gains that have been wrought in the name of Science. Even scientists themselves, it turns out, are no match for the diabolical paranormalists. Only skeptics, educated by James “Amazing” Randi and other magicians, are capable of spotting the tricks of the trade. “Scientists are easily fooled,” explained Randi, “because they think they know.” But only skeptics really know.

Communicating Skepticism to the Public, the manual handed out at the media workshop, contains a brief passage that illustrates the gulf between science and the skeptics. In part three, “The Media Skeptic: Encouraging a skeptical media attitude,” we learn how to become a media authority: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

As we know, it works a little differently in science. You can’t just say you’re an expert in, say, paleoanthropology unless you’ve actually done the work, either at an accredited university or on your own. By contrast, a skeptic need only form a club with like-minded people. “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

On the whole, the media manual is a well-intentioned and useful guide to dealing with a mass media that doesn’t always care about truth and accuracy. And if the skeptics are willing to bend the rules here and there, at least it’s in the service of a worthy cause. It’s not easy getting across to non-US citizens just how profoundly and dangerously uncorked the citizens of this great country can be. Fully one-half of our population now favors creationism, while under 30% believe in evolution. As Randi pointed out, our government issues patents for “perpetual motion machines,” and TV producers promote whatever junk they think will sell, such as talk shows with the dead and “documentaries” claiming that the moon shots were a hoax or that the corpses of space aliens are under lock and key in government laboratories. At my workplace recently, a colleague “informed” me that Bin Laden is holed up at Area 51 where he denounces America on a soundstage made to look like a cave! Surely there’s a connection between popular irrationalism and the fact that the White House can pursue deranged policies at home and abroad with impunity. I agree with the skeptics that those of us trying to slap our fellow citizens back to their senses can be forgiven for cutting a few corners now and then.

Unfortunately, with its sense of being assaulted by legions of loonies on the one hand and a cynical media on the other, the skeptic movement tends to be both defensive and hostile. After noting that Sylvia Browne – a huckster psychic who appears often on CNN’s Larry King Live – is known as “claws” among JREF staff because of her long fingernails, Randi expressed the hope that while scratching herself, she would tear an artery and die, a prospect which evoked hearty laughter from the audience. Later, as I looked over the books for sale by notable skeptics, I overheard a JREF staff member explain to a potential customer that The Ancestor’s Tale, the weighty new hardback by Richard Dawkins, was “excellent for bludgeoning a creationist.” Needless to say, the siege mentality and the spirit of scientific inquiry have never exactly been bedfellows.

The tone of the conference was geared more toward ridiculing the enemy than engaging in thoughtful scientific discussion. Bad jokes about crackpot chiropractors got big laughs. In this environment a discussion of possible evidence in favor of chiropractic would have been inconceivable. Alternative medicine is a favored target of skeptics, despite the fact that no scientific discipline is ever perfect or complete and that we can expect at least some trends from the periphery of medical practice to be taken up eventually within the scientific mainstream. Granted, certain aspects of alternative medicine are obviously fraudulent, such as ear candling and magnetic bracelets, but to denounce anything at all that’s outside accepted, traditional medicine is to promote a view of science more akin to religion – with its unreflective, ossified dogmas – than science as it actually exists.

When the topic did turn to science, the discussion most likely focused on optimum tactics in the battle against irrationalism. For instance, when a husky, white-haired gentleman raised the topic of evolution during a small-group discussion with Dr. Shermer, his point was simply that skeptics should refer to it as the “law of evolution” rather than the “theory of evolution.” This way, creationists would have to stop saying, “it’s only a theory, not a fact.” Shermer, who was having none of it, allowed a JREF staff member to respond that no scientist would take this suggestion seriously. Another skeptic vociferously disagreed and stated that we must begin referring to evolution as a law. After this the discussion meandered along pointlessly, with no one stating the obvious: that evolution can’t be referred to as a law because it’s not a law. In contrast to atoms that have no choice but to obey the law of gravity, species don’t have to evolve. Often the species knocked out by natural selection are precisely those that have evolved too far and become overspecialized. So it’s not as if you become extinct if you disobey the “law of evolution.” Beyond that, the very idea reeks of vitalism, as if biology has its own laws separate from physics. To top it off, the whole point of evolution is that you don’t need transcendent laws of nature (or a creative deity, for that matter) to explain the emergence of novel life forms.

But all this seemed beyond the understanding of the assembled skeptics. The man who originally made the suggestion had no idea he was advocating a shift to a vitalistic conception of life. As Shermer looked on impassively, I got the feeling he wished some of his acolytes were a little more scientifically astute. Yet he himself may be partly to blame. In his bestselling handbook on logical and not-so-logical thinking, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer describes a great many “weird” ideas harbored by ordinary people. What he fails to mention is that the chief source for weird ideas in the modern world is none other than science itself, starting with Copernicus’ assertion that the earth is in motion around the sun, an observation that flies in the face of common sense. After all, as anyone can plainly see, the sun rises in the east and crosses the sky to set in the west. But Copernicus’ weird idea prevailed, and it’s been like that for 400 years now, with gravitational and electromagnetic fields, the divisibility and vacuity of the atom, the convertibility of energy and mass, warped space-time, wave-particle duality, quantum complementarity and uncertainty, nonlocality, a ten dimensional universe, and on and on. The history of science can be summarized as the story of weird ideas displacing “common sense.” As long as skeptics view the world in terms of science versus weirdness, they are guaranteed to remain parochial in their outlook.

Telepathy is a pretty strange idea. According to Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe, scientific evidence for its existence has been accruing for decades. So do we follow the evidence and, at the very least, provisionally grant the possibility that telepathy is real, or do we simply banish it as being too weird? While the former is the scientific approach, the latter appears to be the favored response of skeptics.

As any ESP or “7th sense” researcher knows, the only way to scientifically demonstrate telepathy is through statistics. When I asked Randi if it’s true that he refuses to accept statistical evidence in his famous million dollar contest, not only did he deny this charge, but after a skeptic protested that statistics can be bent any old way to prove whatever you want, Randi informed him that statistics is a branch of mathematics. While he would insist on checking the findings with his own statistician, this would only be to ensure that the math was done correctly.

Two days later, Richard Dawkins said he was worried that Randi would eventually have to pay up. Dr. Dawkins had just delivered a truly fine lecture – the high point of the conference, in fact – and Randi had joined the famed author onstage for a public chat. “About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.” Dawkins had just introduced this neologism during his talk. An alleged phenomenon is perinormal (from the Greek “peri,” in the vicinity of) if it seems impossible but which, in contrast to the “paranormal,” turns out to be a 100% natural, skeptic-approved phenomenon. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, were once perinormal but eventually came to be recognized as real. The question, then, is which phenomena currently dismissed by skeptics as paranormal are actually perinormal. “I mean, what if somebody-what if there really is a perinormal phenomenon which is then embraced within science and will become normal, but at present is classified conventionally as paranormal?”

Randi agreed he might have to pay up someday. But Dawkins had a trick up his sleeve. If a “psychic” phenomenon turns out to be real, then by definition it is physical and therefore not really psychic after all, and thus Randi still shouldn’t have to pay.

Dawkins’ sleight-of-hand notwithstanding, according to the rules of Randi’s competition, if a psychic ability is proven, he must pay up. Randi stated to me that a preliminary test would have to yield a probability of one in a thousand that the results were due to chance. After passing the preliminary, the investigator could commence with the formal test, which would have to yield a probability against chance of one in a million. As Dr. Radin notes, a meta-analysis of all ganzfeld telepathy experiments up to 1997 revealed a probability of a million billion to one. So if Randi is true to his word, it ought to be possible to perform an experiment that would garner the prize. Of course, it would take a huge number of sessions to demonstrate such a high level of improbability. In the end, the million dollars might do nothing more than pay for the experiment. But it would be worth it for no other reason than to put an end to allegations that the unclaimed prize is itself evidence against psychic phenomena.

If Dawkins’ reductionistic school of biology is correct – and organisms are DNA-programmed and operated machines – then psychic talents are not the only phenomena to be dismissed as paranormal. The property of being “alive” would itself be paranormal, a mere construct of the mind-brain. You’re not likely to encounter discussion on this or any other topic that challenges the beliefs of skeptics at an Amazing conference. Though Dawkins proclaimed that skepticism, in contrast to religion, welcomes dissent and debate, alas, there was little evidence of this during the conference. Indeed, the star-struck crowd showed a religious-like enthusiasm for having their preconceived beliefs reinforced by one celebrity speaker after another.

Oddly enough, of all the luminaries who showed up at this tacky Vegas hotel, the most truly amazing of them all was a nondescript JREF staff member who goes by the name of Kramer. 15 years ago, Kramer was among the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters in American rock. If you’ve ever seen Wayne’s World, in particular the scene where Wayne and Garth are prostrating before Aerosmith wailing, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” then you have an idea of how Kramer is perceived by fans the world over. So it was a bit stunning to see him humbly carrying out his duties in the background while the celebrities got all the attention. Why is an ex-rock star working as a JREF staffer? Because he felt there are more important things in life than rock ‘n roll and that JREF offers some hope of restoring sanity to a deranged world.

Despite its flaws, the skeptic movement is attracting dedicated idealists, like Kramer, who believe in the potential of science and rational thought to cast out our many demons. Given what they’re up against-from resurgent creationism to widespread new age nuttery-the people manning this movement deserve praise. But if they’re to be true to their ideals, they must open the floor to scientifically-minded people who are skeptical of the skeptics.

How about Randi vs. Radin at next year’s conference? Now, that would be amazing.

Susan Blackmore’s Research

Chris Carter

Charles Honorton, in his classic article ‘Rhetoric Over Substance’ noted an important difference between the psi controversy and more conventional scientific disputes. Controversies in science normally occur between groups of researchers who formulate hypotheses, design experiments, and then collect data in order to test their hypotheses. But as Honorton wrote, “In contrast, the psi controversy is largely characterized by disputes between a group of researchers, the parapsychologists, and a group of critics who do not do experimental research to test psi claims or the viability of their counterhypotheses.”

This lack of research may surprise anyone whose main source of information has been the skeptical literature. For instance, in 1983 the well-known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote:

“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.”

But as Honorton pointed out, “Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptics’ experiments and see what you find.” For the most part, skeptics have simply criticized from the sidelines, and have produced no experimental research of their own.

One notable exception to this rule has been British psychologist Susan Blackmore. She began working on a PhD in parapsychology in the 1970’s, but has repeatedly claimed that she has failed to find any evidence for the existence of psi. For instance, she wrote in 1996: “When I decided to become a parapsychologist I had no idea it would mean 20 years of failing to find the paranormal.” Blackmore has made a career for herself as one of the world’s most well known skeptics of psi, and in 1988 was elected a Fellow of CSICOP.

In a number of publications Blackmore claims to have become increasingly skeptical of the existence of psi phenomena after “ten years of intensive research in parapsychology.” These claims led parapsychologist Rick Berger to critically examine the Blackmore experiments in great detail, and he found that “The claim of ‘ten years of psi research’ actually represents a series of hastily constructed, executed, and reported studies that were primarily conducted during a 2-year period.’” These consisted of a set of experiments conducted between October 1976 and December 1978 for her PhD dissertation.

Blackmore reported 29 experiments completed over this two-year period, of which 21 were eventually published as separate experiments in five parapsychology journal papers. Seven of these experiments produced statistically significant results. Although these experiments form the basis of Blackmore’s claim of “failing to find the paranormal”, the odds against 7 successes out of 21 happening by chance are over 20,000 to one!

So, how does Blackmore reconcile the fact of 7 successful experiments out of 21 with her often-repeated claim that her own research led her to become a skeptic? Simple: results from successful experiments were dismissed as due to flaws in the experiment, yet study quality was simply ignored when the results were nonsignificant. There are many design flaws that can lead to false positive results, but there are also many that can lead to false negatives, such as inadequate sample size (low statistical power), inappropriate sampling, and so forth. Berger writes “Blackmore’s database is replete with examples of such flaws”, and continues:

“Some skeptics, including Blackmore, argue that differing standards of experimental design can be held depending on study outcome: Significant positive outcomes must have tighter designs than the same study with a negative outcome. This post hoc determination of experimental criticism leads to the paradox exemplified by the Blackmore work: Had such work produced consistently positive outcomes, the results could all be dismissed as having arisen from design flaws… Negative conclusions based on flawed experiments must not be given more weight than positive conclusions based on the same flawed experiments.”

In other words, our decision to invoke study flaws to dismiss the results of an experiment should not be influenced by our preconceptions of what the result “should have been.” But this seems to have been exactly what Blackmore has done in order to justify her beliefs, as evidenced in the following remark of hers:

“Well, if you don’t find evidence of ESP, what can you say? Only that you have failed to find something which, according to science, shouldn’t have been there in the first place!”

As we shall see, this appeal to ‘science’ as a monolithic body of conclusions that tell you in advance what should and should not be the case is a rhetorical tactic often used by Blackmore. But at any rate, Berger finally concluded:

“Blackmore’s claims that her database shows no evidence of psi are unfounded, because the vast majority of her studies were carelessly designed, executed, and reported, and in Blackmore’s own assessment, individually flawed. As such, no conclusions should be drawn from this database…. Blackmore is extremely vocal in decrying psi research in her writings, on television and radio, and before the skeptical advocacy group CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), citing her own work as the basis for her strong convictions. … [She] has achieved a notable position in the skeptical community based on her conversion from believer to skeptic during her “ten years of negative research.” Her insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe that my review of her psi research has achieved a constructive end by showing that her conversion from parapsychologist to CSICOP Fellow had no scientific basis in her own experimental work.”

The same journal issue also includes a response by Blackmore to Berger’s critique, in which Blackmore conceded “I agree that one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi based on these experiments.” Near the end of his critique Berger had written “During my aborted meta-analysis of Blackmore’s published work, I was struck by patterns in the data suggestive of the operation of psi…. Without a serious meta-analysis of the original unpublished source material, complete with weighting for flaws…the issue of whether the Blackmore experiments show evidence for psi cannot be resolved.” Presumably eager to nip this embarrassment in the bud, Blackmore hastened to say “I am glad to be able to agree with his final conclusion – ‘that drawing any conclusion, positive or negative, about the reality of psi that are based on the Blackmore psi experiments must be considered unwarranted.’”

It is interesting to examine Blackmore’s writings before and after Berger’s critique. Two years earlier, in an article for Skeptical Inquirer entitled “The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology”, she wrote:

“How could I weigh my own results against the results of other people, bearing in mind that mine tended to be negative ones while everyone else’s tended to be positive ones? I had to find some kind of balance here. At one extreme I could not just believe my own results and ignore everyone else’s…. At the other extreme I could not believe everyone else’s results and ignore my own. That would be even more pointless. There would have been no point in all those years of experiments if I didn’t take my own results seriously.” (Emphasis added.)

In another article written at about the same time she wrote:

“The other major challenge to the skeptic’s position is, of course, the fact that opposing positive evidence exists in the parapsychological literature. I couldn’t dismiss it all. This raises an interesting question: Just how much weight can you or should you give the results of your own experiments over those of other people? On the one hand, your own should carry more weight, since you know exactly how they were done… On the other hand, science is necessarily a collective enterprise…. So I couldn’t use my own failures as justifiable evidence that psi does not exist. I had to consider everyone else’s success.

“I asked myself a thousand times, as I ask the reader now: Is there a right conclusion?

“The only answer I can give, after ten years of intensive research in parapsychology, is that I don’t know.”

Although after Berger’s critique Blackmore was willing to concede in an academic journal that “I agree that one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi based on these experiments”, her writings in the popular press have not reflected this admission. Commenting on the ganzfeld experiments in a newspaper article in 1996, she wrote:

“My own conclusion is biased by my own personal experience. I tried my first ganzfeld experiment in 1978, when the procedure was new…. Of course the new auto-ganzfeld results are even better. Why should I doubt them because of events in the past? The problem is that my personal experience conflicts with the successes I read about in the literature and I cannot ignore either side. The only honest reaction is to say ‘I don’t know’.”

Wouldn’t a more honest reaction be for Blackmore to admit in the popular press that “one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi” based on her own experiments, and that a scientific opinion should be based only upon a critical evaluation of other peoples’ published works?

But perhaps this is asking too much. After all, Blackmore pursued a PhD in parapsychology in order to become a “famous parapsychologist”. Having failed to produce research supporting the psi hypothesis, she evidently decided to try to make a name for herself by attacking the psi hypothesis, which must at the time have seemed to be an easy target. Apparently, though, in a recent article she claims to have given up. “At last, I’ve done it. I’ve thrown in the towel”, she wrote.

“Come to think of it, I feel slightly sad. It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena… Just of few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena… I became a sceptic. (Emphasis added.)

“So why didn’t I give up then? There are lots of bad reasons. Admitting you are wrong is always hard, even though it’s a skill every scientist needs to learn. And starting again as a baby in a new field is a daunting prospect. So is losing all the status and power of being an expert. I have to confess I enjoyed my hard-won knowledge.

“… None of it ever gets anywhere. That’s a good enough reason for leaving.

But perhaps the real reason is that I am just too tired – and tired above all of working to maintain an open mind. I couldn’t dismiss all those extraordinary claims out of hand. After all, they just might be true… ”

We’ll miss you, Susan.

Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness


There has been a plethora of books on consciousness in the last ten to fifteen years; most of these are recognisably each author’s particular take on the subject. Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained (1991) was an early example of the genre. Rita Carter’s Exploring Consciousness (2002) is one of the most obvious recent examples, and one that explores similar ground to that covered by Blackmore. As a science writer, Carter takes a journalistic approach to science and philosophy, whereas Blackmore, a former research academic and now a full time writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is an interested figure in the science field taking an insider’s view of the material.

Blackmore taught the psychology of consciousness at universities in Bristol, UK for over ten years and her book Consciousness: An Introduction is a distillation of the courses she ran combined with an extraordinary array of wider reading. She also brings her teaching experience to the style of the text.

This is unashamedly a course reader, written with an undergraduate student group in mind. Indeed, the book is dedicated to all the students who took Blackmore’s consciousness course. Nevertheless, the book is clearly aimed at a wider audience and allows for anyone with an enquiring mind to engage with the material, tackle the questions, and carry out the suggested activities and exercises. Numerous illustrations enhance the readability, although at times pages have a somewhat ‘busy’ look and feel.

Blackmore begins with the old saw: if you think you have a solution to the problem (consciousness) then you haven’t understood the problem. She states that the text is ‘aimed at increasing your perplexity rather than reducing it’. The book is organised around nine sections each comprising three chapters. The sections are the problem, the world, the self, evolution, artificial consciousness, the brain, borderlands (containing the paranormal and unconscious processing), altered states of consciousness, and first-person approaches. The idea is that each section can form the basis of a lecture session in a consciousness studies course. Moreover, each chapter can be read on its own allowing any reader to dip into arguments and evidence concerning a particular facet of the subject.

Each chapter has sidebars setting out a profile of a key figure, a key concept, exercises to do, and questions to mull over. So, for example, chapter one has a profile of Descartes, an explanation of the “hard problem” as its key concept, and a suggested task, which is to ask yourself ‘Am I conscious now?’ as many times as you can. The format is similar to many Open University texts in that it encourages active reading through exercises and self-assessment questions; it can also be used as easily on one’s own as in a group. There is a distinctly academic and scientific tone throughout, although Blackmore is careful to address a lay reader and keep arguments accessible. Nonetheless, the writing is scholarly such that references and suggestions for further reading might put off some readers. While not a populist book, it should have popular appeal through its engaging style. This review will focus on two of the nine sections: The Problem (of Consciousness and The Self).

Starting with the problem of consciousness, chapter one gives an outline of the mystery of consciousness, its historical trajectory and contemporary salience. In keeping with a frontier metaphor, consciousness is given the status of the last surviving mystery awaiting a scientific solution. Blackmore illustrates with the example of ‘your experience of a pencil’. The problem of consciousness is posed as one of understanding how ‘subjective, private, ineffable suchness of experience, arises from an objective world of actual pencils and living brain cells’.

Blackmore describes Chalmers’ notion of ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problems. The supposedly easy problems relate to aspects of cognitive function, such as attention, and these may well have solutions in neural mechanisms. The hard problem is to do with subjective experience. The perennial problem is posed anew as how do ‘physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?’ As Blackmore acknowledges, this is simply the latest form of an age-old question relating to the mysterious gap between inner and outer, subject and object or mind and (brain) body.

Chapter two draws us into the classic debate about subjectivity by way of Nagel’s immortal question: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ The reader is engaged to think about the problem of whether other creatures are conscious and if so, is there something it is like to be a bat from the point of view of the bat, ie., from the inside or subjective viewpoint. If there is, can we know it?

Section three takes up the problem of self or selves. The idea of a conscious self or an experiencer seems so obvious as to go without saying. Here, as elsewhere, Blackmore documents how although there seems to be a centre of experience, a self of some kind, this is an illusion. By illusion, Blackmore does not mean self does not exist, rather that self is not what it seems to be. However, later she discusses Strawson’s intuition (from introspection) that self for him is like ‘pearls on a string’, ie., that it seems to Strawson that he is a succession of selves existing discretely one after another (from Strawson, 1997). Here is an example of a theory of self derived from introspection that does not fit with Blackmore’s illusion. On many occasions scientific findings are ‘counter-intuitive’; nonetheless, this does not entail that everyone shares the same intuition on a subject. Many readers may want to argue with the suggestion that they share a certain mistaken conception of what self is, but perhaps should accept the caveat that they could still be wrong from a strictly research science perspective. Blackmore sets out a good deal of research evidence asking only that we take the findings seriously.

Evidently, Blackmore’s book is not exhaustive of all-possible explanations, theories or positions. Nonetheless, it does offer a sufficiently wide range of arguments, viewpoints and evidence to introduce the problem of consciousness to a readership beyond the academy.

Blackmore has trawled through an extraordinary range of material. Perhaps not surprising that in some places this reads as a disparate collection of disorganised elements. The advantage in this approach is that the readers are put in a position to come to their own judgement. There are some running themes, for example concerning conscious experience and subjective point of view. Blackmore does manage to revisit some long-running debates throughout the book. Nonetheless, the style of the book lays down a challenge to the reader: to enter perplexity. Any reader carrying out the activities and practices is likely to engage personally with the subject matter in ways other texts cannot reach.

Some might be dissatisfied. Many will be appalled at the strange mixture of themes, issues and debates. Even when Blackmore shows her hand, as in her admiration for William James and most of Daniel Dennett’s work, or in her irritation with dualists and those who fall for various illusions, she still retains a beginner’s mind. Her urgent sense of enquiry coupled with a scientific mentality allows her to range freely across a complex landscape that is ‘consciousness studies’. And she carries this off in the manner most appealing to any student: she is always engaging you.

References

Exploring Consciousness
Carter, R., University of California Press, 2002.

The Conscious Mind
Chalmers, D., Oxford University Press, 1996.

Consciousness Explained
Dennett, D.C., Little, Brown & Co., 1991.

Mortal Questions
Nagel, T., Cambridge University Press, 1979.

“The Self”
Strawson, G., Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, 405-428 (1997).

Guy Saunders teaches the psychology of consciousness at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

Reproduced from Scientific and Medical Review December 2003
© Scientific and Medical Network

James Randi’s Dishonest Claims about Dogs

James Randi’s Dishonest Claims about Dogs
by Rupert Sheldrake

The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research.

In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail.” No details were given of these tests.

I emailed James Randi to ask for details of this JREF research. He did not reply. He ignored a second request for information too.

I then asked members of the JREF Scientific Advisory Board to help me find out more about this claim. They did indeed help by advising Randi to reply.

In an email sent on February 6, 2000 he told me that the tests he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal”. They involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost.

He wrote: “I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so.”

Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off.

In Dog World, Randi stated: “Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.”

This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape.

James Randi is Taken for a Ride

 

James Randi is Taken for a Ride

 

Skeptics Can Be Fooled

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.


 
“If a trick is well done, it doesn’t look like a trick. It looks real,” conjuror James Randi has been quoted as saying.

He is absolutely right, and he should know, since on more than one occasion he has himself mistaken trickery for reality.

It all began in 1981, when his ‘Project Alpha’ managed to sabotage a research programme by infiltrating a couple of young magicians, Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw, into the parapsychology laboratory funded by the late James McDonnell, a pioneer of the aerospace industry. There, they did their best for nearly two years to trick the researchers into proclaiming them genuine Geller-type spoon benders, which they never did in print.

However, Randi’s revelation of his attempted hoax at a news conference sponsored by Time Inc.’s science magazine Discover encouraged the public to believe that since parapsychologists could so easily be hoaxed, although in this case they weren’t, none of their claimed findings could be taken seriously. It was a successful smear campaign, and may have had something to do with the closing of the ‘Mac Lab’ in 1985.

Then it was Randi’s turn to be taken for a ride. Soon after his outing in January 1983 of Edwards and Shaw, the newsletter of a small Minneapolis research group, the Archaeus Project, announced that a fund of $217,000 had been set up for a metal-bending research programme under Archaeus director Dennis Stillings, to whom gifted subjects should apply.

The newsletter was a fake. No such fund existed. Stillings printed just two copies of his fake newsletter and sent them to Edwards and Shaw, confident that they would pass them on to Randi, as indeed they did.

Randi then started asking around as to what the source of this funding was, and was told it might be Medtronic, Inc., the Minneapolis-based company making pacemakers where Stillings worked as librarian.

Without bothering to check with the company, Randi assumed that it was the source, and on April 1, 1983, a Discover news release signed by Randi had this to say about the latest of his ‘Uri Awards’ for the ‘silliest and most irrational claims in relation to the paranormal’:

“To the Metronics [sic] Corporation of Minneapolis, who gave $250,000 [sic] to a Mr. Stillings of that city to fund the Archaeus Project, devoted to observing people who bend spoons at parties. Mr. Stillings then offered financial assistance to a prominent young spoon bender who turned out to be one of the masquerading magicians of Project Alpha – a confessed fake.”

Not only had Randi fallen hook, line and sinker for Stillings’s bait, but he had managed to make a total of four mistakes in his brief news release: the nonexistent fund had been increased from $217,000 to $250,000, the Medtronic Corporation had nothing to do with it, and was misspelled into the bargain, and Stillings had never ‘offered financial assistance’ to Shaw, Edwards, or anybody else.

Having shown that it is really quite easy to hoax somebody who does not check his facts very carefully, or indeed in this case not at all, Stillings promptly did it again. A couple of weeks after the Discover news release, Randi received a letter from ‘Reid Becker, Program Manager, Charon Investments’ telling him that ‘a rumour has come to my ears that Medtronic, Inc., has received a “Uri” award for contributing a large sum of money to psychic research’ and asking for further details as some of his clients held stock in the company.

Randi replied with the extraordinary allegation that the naming of Medtronic had not originated from him – but from Stillings. He suggested that Becker should contact him for clarification.

Becker had no need to do this, for it was Stillings himself who had written the ‘Becker’ letter, on clumsily faked notepaper with no address or telephone number. He concluded that:

‘This is a case where one is dealing with the very gullible. Randi and his associates, with the full force of their will to disbelieve, are unable to apply sound judgment about either their statements or their actions. Information supporting their beliefs is uncritically assimilated and then passed on in distorted form to the media.’

In other words, sceptics and even magicians can be, and have been, fooled as easily as anyone else.

Some are honest enough to admit it. Martin Gardner, for example, has confessed that ‘I consider myself a knowledgeable student of conjuring, yet I am frequently mystified by new tricks.’

So, as we have seen, are others.

 
 
 
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“Randi’s Prize” by Robert McLuhan

 
"Randis Prize" by Robert McLuhan


Journalist Robert McLuhan compares the views of James Randi
and other leading sceptics against the investigative literature of
parapsychology and psychical research.


 
“The ‘prize’ of the title is the Million Dollar Challenge offered by stage magician James Randi for anyone who passes his test for psychic powers. So far, Randi says, no one has even passed the preliminaries. This confirms the belief held by sceptics and many scientists that so-called ‘psychics’ are delusional or dishonest.

“Randi’s Prize agrees that this is sometimes the case, but sympathises with scientists who have investigated paranormal claims in depth and consider some of what they have observed to be genuinely anomalous. It pays close attention to the arguments of well-known sceptics like Randi, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore. However it concludes that these fall short of a full explanation.”

McLuhan proposes that “we develop a more mature and discerning approach to these hugely challenging issues”.

 
More details at Robert McLuhan’s website “Paranormalia”,
with links to excerpts and other relevant materials.

 
Randi’s Prize (Amazon – US)
Randi’s Prize (Amazon – UK)
Robert McLuhan
Matador/Troubador (2010)

 
 
 
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James Randi and The Ultimate Psychic Challenge

 

James Randi and The Ultimate Psychic Challenge

 

Thoughts from a Respondent to the Discovery Channel’s
Television Program “The Ultimate Psychic Challenge”

by Montague Keen

 


Montague Keen was a psychic researcher, journalist, agricultural administrator, magazine editor and farmer. A member of the Council of the Society for Psychical Research for 55 years, chairman of its Image and Publicity Committee and secretary of its Survival Research Committee, he was principal investigator of the Scole Group of physical mediums, and author, with his co-investigators Professors Arthur Ellison and David Fontana, of the Scole Report, published in the Proceedings of the SPR in 1999 (Vol. 54, p. 220).


 
This note is written in response to a request to comment on James Randi’s observations on his website on “The Ultimate Psychic Challenge” programme screened on the Discovery Channel on August 17 [2003], and to be repeated both on that channel and on Channel 4 (on August 23rd); and it embodies a challenge to Mr. Randi to live up to his repeated assertion on the programme that if only adequate evidence of paranormality could be demonstrated to him, he would be happy to acknowledge it – and give the claimant the $1million prize he so publicly and consistently pledges. I have already commented on the programme as edited, although I reproduce below both my pre-edited and post-edited comments for the benefit of those, including Mr. Randi, who may not have had the opportunity to see them.

Unethical treatment

A preliminary comment on Mr. Randi’s ethics – and those of Fulcrum TV’s producers: When he practices as a stage illusionist, the audience know they are being entertained and deceived: they suspend their disbelief and enjoy the show. To pretend to be a genuine psychic, and to connive with the TV staff without the knowledge or consent of the victims to garner details about members of the audience, their friends and their sitting positions, with a view to misleading them – even though the ruse is later acknowledged – is to employ deception in what was claimed to be a serious programme about a very serious subject.

Three Randiesque escapes

I should first note that Mr. Randi may consider himself fortunate on at least three counts:

1. The edited version omitted his first extended but futile attempts at cold reading which was so unsuccessful that the embarrassed floor manager had to announce a technical fault and stop the show.

2. The editing omitted what was probably the single most impressive piece of evidence, told to me beforehand in the Green Room and later to the audience, of an anonymous and untraceable booking made by a grieving father for a private reading with Keith Charles, the medium, who described to him the detailed contents and design of a sealed letter that had been placed, unbeknown to the father, in the coffin of his daughter by her sister. When Mr Randi asserted what he has since reiterated on his website, that all such messages could be attributable to cold reading as evidenced in Ian Rowland’s instruction book, it was lucky for him that no-one had an opportunity to challenge this insult to our credulity. Even with hot reading prior research at his disposal, a stage illusionist could not have struck oil this rich. Charles himself, exceptionally restrained, was shut up, doubtless because of the severe time overrun.

Finally, 3., it was lucky for Mr. Randi that Charles was given no opportunity to say why the $1m challenge was both misleading and worthless, an omission I hope to remedy below.

I need hardly say that the excision of the very brief comment I was allowed to make, explaining that serious scientists had long been fully aware of the cold and hot reading techniques, and had safeguarded against them by single or double-blind or proxy sittings, constituted a serious breach of trust by the producers, as well as letting Mr. Randi off the hook. Some idea of the sort of evidence Mr. Randi escaped answering is contained in an attached letter to the Glasgow Herald from one of the principal experimenters in a major investigation into the authenticity of mediumship.

A fraudulent insult

As an aside, and to illustrate Mr. Randi’s dedication to objectivity, I must also provide a more accurate account of the incident to which he devotes so much spleen on his website: his encounter in the exit corridor with a “very obese, unattractive woman” and his reaction to her “direct affront, a rude insult and an uncalled-for accusation” who “stabbed her finger at me, her face red and contorted with hatred” who called him a fake and a fraud, to which he calmly retorted in his best Churchillian manner, “Madam, you are ugly, but I can reform.”

I am sure this is how Mr. Randi would like to remember the episode, but since I was alongside the lady at the time, and observed what went on, as did Dr. Parker and Dr. Puhle who were immediately in front of me, I should say that she takes (USA) size 10 clothes at Macy’s, which is way down the obesity scale, is regarded as attractive for her age, smiled at Mr. Randi and said quite politely but firmly, with no finger stabbing, and to his obvious astonishment, “Mr. Randi you’re a fraud”, whereupon he staggered back and stammered, “And you, you, you, you’re ugly,” to which the lady responded as he disappeared backwards through the double doors, “But at least I’m honest”. There was no Churchillian suffix. The classic Churchillian riposte, by the way, occurred when Mrs Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP of vast dimensions, accused him of being drunk; to which Churchill responded, “Yes, Madam, and you’re ugly, but I shall be sober in the morning.” This sets the standard for Mr. Randi’s dedication to factual reality.]

That $1 million offer

Now for the more serious bit: first, the $1million prize. Loyd Auerbach, a leading USA psychologist and President of the Psychic Entertainers Association (some 80% of the members of his Psychic Entertainers’ Association believe in the paranormal, according to Dr. Adrian Parker, who was on the programme, but given no opportunity to reveal this) exposed some of the deficiencies in this challenge in an article in Fate magazine.

Under Article 3, the applicant allows all his test data to be used by the Foundation in any way Mr. Randi may choose. That means that Mr. Randi can pick and chose the data at will and decide what to do with it and what verdict to pronounce on it. Under Article 7, the applicant surrenders all rights to legal action against the Foundation, or Mr. Randi, no matter what emotional, professional or financial injury he may consider he has sustained. Thus even if Mr. Randi comes to a conclusion different from that reached by his judges and publicly denounces the test, the applicant would have no redress. The Foundation and Mr. Randi own all the data. Mr. Randi can claim that the judges were fooled. The implicit accusation of fraud would leave the challenger devoid of remedy.

These rules, be it noted, are in stark contrast to Mr. Randi’s frequent public assertions that he wanted demonstrable proof of psychic powers. First, his rules are confined to a single, live applicant. No matter how potent the published evidence, how incontestable the facts or rigorous the precautions against fraud, the number, qualifications or expertise of the witnesses and investigators, the duration, thoroughness and frequency of their tests or (where statistical evaluation is possible) the astronomical odds against a chance explanation: all must be ignored. Mr. Randi thrusts every case into the bin labelled ‘anecdotal’ (which means not written down), and thereby believes he may safely avoid any invitation to account for them.

Likewise, the production of a spanner bent by a force considerably in excess of the capacity of the strongest man, created at the request and in the presence of a group of mechanics gathered round a racing car at a pit stop by Mr. Randi’s long-time enemy, Uri Geller, would run foul of the small print, which requires a certificate of a successful preliminary demonstration before troubling Mr. Randi himself. A pity, because scientists at Imperial College have tested the spanner, which its current possessor, the researcher and author Guy Lyon Playfair, not unnaturally regards as a permanent paranormal object, and there is a standing challenge to skeptics to explain its appearance.

The Randi/Schwartz episode

That these doubts about the genuineness of Mr. Randi’s dedication to objective research are far from theoretical may be concluded from the efforts made by Professor Gary Schwartz of Arizona University in designing his multi-centre, double-blind procedure for testing mediums. Schwartz was not interested in the prize money: he merely sought to obtain Mr. Randi’s approval for his protocol for testing mediums – and he duly modified it to met Mr. Randi’s suggestions. Having falsely declared that the eminent parapsychologist Professor Stanley Krippner had agreed to serve on his referee panel, Mr. Randi ensured that the other judges would be his skeptical friends Drs Minsky, Sherman and Hyman, all well-known and dedicated opponents of anything allegedly paranormal.

As the ensuing Randi/Schwartz correspondence (which Mr. Randi declined to print on his website) makes clear, when the outcome of the experiment proved an overwhelming success, Mr. Randi subsequently confused a binary (yes/no) analysis with the statistical method required to score for accuracy each statement made by a medium, and falsely accused Dr Schwartz and his colleagues of selecting only half the data for analysis. He then derided the publication of Professor Schwartz’s findings in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the world’s oldest scientific peer-reviewed publication devoted to the paranormal, and in which Mr. Randi himself has published contributions. He criticised the fact that the Schwartz findings appeared in neither Nature nor Science, although he must have been aware of the long-standing refusal of these two leading scientific journals to publish anything touching on the paranormal. He then reported that one of the gifted mediums, John Edward, could have seen the sitter through a 2″ curtain gap, regardless of the facts that the crack was about quarter of an inch, was subsequently sealed from ceiling to floor, and that readings were later done long distance. Mr. Randi declined an invitation to see all the raw footage for himself, while protesting that he would never [be allowed to] see it. Yet all the media representatives who visited the Arizona laboratory saw the raw footage, as did magicians and visiting scientists. Mr Randi specifically declined an invitation to be videoed viewing the data and commenting on it.

Equally, despite his confident assertions that cold reading can produce results as impressive as any from a platform medium, he declined an offer to prove it by comparing his performance with that of a genuine medium, surely a crucial test. Similarly, Mr. Randi accused the experimenters of “blatant data searching”, i.e. remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. This was false, and could readily have been shown to be so . He thereafter publicly declined to read any of Professor Schwartz’s emails, having confined himself to deriding the Professor for believing in the tooth fairy, making wild claims and being a “doctor who embraces bump-in-the-night theories without a trace of shame”. Further, that he had been a colleague at Harvard of Dr John Mack, “the man who has never met anyone who hasn’t been abducted by aliens”, and similar abuse. This is the language and conduct of the gutter, not of an honest difference of opinion expressed in civilized and restrained terms about scientific issues..

Mr. Randi notoriously failed to fulfil his boast to be able to replicate Ted Serios’ “thoughtography” tests (as described by his investigator, Dr Jule Eisenbud in The World of Ted Serios, Jonathan Cape, 1968) and has consistently ignored efforts by Mr. Maurice Grosse, the principal investigator of Britain’s most famous recent poltergeist event, the Enfield Case (See Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, Souvenir Press, 1980), to examine the recorded visual and aural evidence to support a claim of paranormality and apparent veridical messages from a discarnate entity.

Worse still are the multiple errors of fact, admixed with derision, abuse and misrepresentation, which Mr. Randi makes in his book Flim-Flam (1980) about a number of distinguished scientists, notably Russell Targ, Harold Puthoff and Charles Tart and their roles in the remote viewing experiments with Ingo Swann and the clairvoyant claims of Uri Geller. That Randi’s denunciations turned out to be mainly a tissue of lies is apparent from the penetrating account given by parapsychologist D. Scott Rogo in Psychic Breakthroughs Today (Aquarian Press, 1987, p. 216-226), and devastatingly amplified in a recent website publication by Michael Prescott.

The challenge to Mr. Randi (and friends)

I am not applying for Mr. Randi’s $million but only for some evidence that his challenge is genuine. Before I reproduce my comments on the television programme , I present Mr. Randi, and any of his fellow-skeptics, with a list of some of the classical cases of paranormality with most or all of which Mr. Randi will be familiar. I know he will be because he has been studying the subject for half a century, he tells us. And just as I would not pretend to authority and expertise in conjuring unless I could perform some party tricks to bedazzle a troop of intelligent ten year olds, or apply for an assistant professorship in physics while admitting I had never heard of Boyle’s Law or the Second Law of Thermodynamics, nor seek admission to the Bar without first having some familiarity with the leading cases, so I would not imply that Mr. Randi is ignorant of these cases, many of which have long awaited the advent of a critic who could discover flaws in the paranormality claims. For me to suggest this would imply the grossest hypocrisy on Mr. Randi’s part. But to refresh his memory, and help him along, and despite the refusal of some of his colleagues like Professor Kurtz, Professor Hyman and Dr. Susan Blackmore to meet the challenge, I list the requisite references. They are based on (although not identical to) a list of twenty cases suggestive of survival prepared by Professor Archie Roy and published some years ago in the SPR’s magazine, The Paranormal Review as an invitation or challenge to skeptics to demonstrate how any of these cases could be explained by “normal” i.e. non-paranormal, means. Thus far there have been no takers. It is now Mr. Randi’s chance to vindicate his claims.

Here are the cases from which Mr. Randi may wish to select a handful to answer:

1. The Watseka Wonder, 1887. Stevens, E.W. 1887 The Watseka Wonder, Chicago; Religio-philosophical Publishing House, and Hodgson R., Religio-Philosophical Journal Dec. 20th, 1890, investigated by Dr. Hodgson.

2. Uttara Huddar and Sharada. Stevenson I. and Pasricha S, 1980. A preliminary report on an unusual case of the reincarnation type with Xenoglossy. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 74, 331-348; and Akolkar V.V. Search for Sharada: Report of a case and its investigation. Journal of the American SPR 86,209-247.

3. Sumitra and Shiva-Tripathy. Stevenson I. and Pasricha S, and McLean-Rice, N 1989. A Case of the Possession Type in India with evidence of Paranormal Knowledge. Journal of the Society for Scientific Exploration 3, 81-101.

4. Jasbir Lal Jat. Stevenson, I, 1974. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (2nd edition) Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

5. The Thompson/Gifford case. Hyslop, J.H. 1909. A Case of Veridical Hallucinations Proceedings, American SPR 3, 1-469.

6. Past-life regression. Tarazi, L. 1990. An Unusual Case of Hypnotic Regression with some Unexplained Contents. Journal of the American SPR, 84, 309-344.

7. Cross-correspondence communications. Balfour J. (Countess of) 1958-60 The Palm Sunday Case: New Light On an Old Love Story. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 52, 79-267.

8. Book and Newspaper Tests. Thomas, C.D. 1935. A Proxy Case extending over Eleven Sittings with Mrs Osborne Leonard. Proceedings SPR 43, 439-519. <

9. “Bim's” book-test. Lady Glenconnor. 1921. The Earthen Vessel, London, John Lane.

10. The Harry Stockbridge communicator. Gauld, A. 1966-72. A Series of Drop-in Communicators. PSPR 55, 273-340.

11. The Bobby Newlove case. Thomas, C. D. 1935. A proxy case extending over Eleven Sittings with Mrs. Osborne Leonard. PSPR 43, 439-519.

12. The Runki missing leg case. Haraldsson E. and Stevenson, I, 1975. A Communicator of the Drop-in Type in Iceland: the case of Runolfur Runolfsson. JASPR 69. 33-59.

13. The Beidermann drop-in case. Gauld, A. 1966-72. A Series of Drop-in Communicators. PSPR 55, 273-340.

14. The death of Gudmundur Magnusson. Haraldsson E. and Stevenson, I, 1975. A Communicator of the Drop-in Type in Iceland: the case of Gudni Magnusson, JASPR 69, 245-261.

15. Identification of deceased officer. Lodge, O. 1916. Raymond, or Life and Death. London. Methuen & Co. Ltd.

16. Mediumistic evidence of the Vandy death. Gay, K. 1957. The Case of Edgar Vandy, JSPR 39, 1-64; Mackenzie, A. 1971. An Edgar Vandy Proxy Sitting. JSPR 46, 166-173; Keen, M. 2002. The case of Edgar Vandy: Defending the Evidence, JSPR 64.3 247-259; Letters, 2003, JSPR 67.3. 221-224.

17. Mrs Leonore Piper and the George “Pelham” communicator. Hodgson, R. 1897-8. A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance. PSPR, 13, 284-582.

18. Messages from “Mrs. Willett” to her sons. Cummins, G. 1965. Swan on a Black Sea. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

19. Ghostly aeroplane phenomena. Fuller, J.G. 1981 The Airmen Who Would Not Die, Souvenir Press, London.

20. Intelligent responses via two mediums: the Lethe case. Piddington, J.G. 1910. Three incidents from the Sittings. Proc. SPR 24, 86-143; Lodge, O. 1911. Evidence of Classical Scholarship and of Cross-Correspondence in some New Automatic Writing. Proc. 25, 129-142,

Comments (August 7th) on the pre-edited TV show

These comments are written in response to those eager to know how last night's Fulcrum TV programme The Ultimate Psychic Challenge was conducted at the London Television Studios. It purported to be a serious television programme aimed at discovering whether there was sound evidence of after-death communication. More immediately, this is an appeal to those responsible for the production to correct in the cutting room the serious imbalance and misleading message of the taped programme.

I had been pressed to attend the studio in order to help provide that evidence, as a counterbalance to whatever James Randi might be presenting or arguing. The filming lasted three hours+ . The show is to be edited down to one and a half hours, less commercial breaks.

Despite doubts of several who believed that Fulcrum TV deliberately conceived the programme to rubbish the concept of survival, and not to present a balanced assessment of the case for and against communication with the dead; and despite at least two pieces of evidence suggesting that this is what they did, I am prepared to acquit those responsible of any charges worse than naiveté, arrogance and inadequate research. But first let me summarise what happened.

The audience was first asked to vote whether they believed, disbelieved or were uncertain about discarnate communication. The initial voting percentages, from a self-selected audience, were respectively 44, 19 and 37. Randi was introduced pseudonymously as a psychic and proceeded to attempt cold readings, with embarrassingly negative results. He was eventually stopped, ostensibly because of some technical hitch, left the room, and later returned to resume his act, this time with more success. The presenter, Kate Galloway, who did a difficult job with considerable skill, then revealed to a far from astonished audience, most of whom said they had recognised Randi from the outset, that it was all faked, and that Randi had access to audience names and addresses, and indeed employed a researcher to show how easily fake mediums could discover information about potential sitters, or clients.

All of this, which took up most of the first hour, was simply to demonstrate how cold and hot reading works. The implication was absolutely clear: this was typical of how mediums, platform or face-to-face, operated. To illustrate this further, we saw a screening of a freshly-coached actor under the guidance of sceptic Tony Youens giving a fake reading to a young and clearly inexperienced client who confessed himself impressed with the evidential standard achieved.

To make certain we got the message there was another clip, this time of a genuine medium, who was present. Her statements were interlarded with comments from Youens aimed at showing how each of them could be reasonably deduced from responses, facial expressions, guesswork, etc. The medium herself, from the front row of the audience, protested most vehemently that by omitting much more evidential material the extract of her filmed sitting had given a false impression, stigmatising her as a fake.

Additional pieces were aimed solely at proving how gullible people are. Randi produced half a dozen so-called psychological studies based on questionnaires previously completed by members of the audience. Each was asked to score the results for accuracy/appropriateness. Only one gave him top marks. The analyses were, of course, identical, and were simply designed to show how readily people attributed general characteristics to themselves.

Interspersed with this were responses by Professor Chris French to questions on a range of associated psychological and sociological issues. French, a noted sceptic of the less unenlightened kind, gave fairly reasonable responses, and appeared to have ample time to do so. He was not asked to deal with either the leading cases indicating survival (readers of his magazine The Skeptic will have noted that he is too busy to study this sort of evidence) or even the current work of Professors Archie Roy and Gary Schwartz.

The principal – indeed virtually the only – counterbalance to this was the performance of a genuine medium, Keith Charles, an ex-detective. Two of his former clients gave impressive testimony to the accuracy of statements he had made, e.g. about the precise contents of a sealed letter deposited in the coffin of their daughter. His appearance in person was preceded by a clip in which Philadelphia police officials testified to their conviction that Charles could help trace missing persons. His on-floor readings were likewise impressive, save when an opaque screen precluded sight of a studio guinea pig.

The only other person of whose presence I had previously been advised was Dr Adrian Parker, who spoke briefly on Near Death Experiences as an indication of the independence of consciousness from brain.

I had been given four questions the responses to which, albeit necessarily brief, were aimed at addressing the issue of communication evidence. One related to the SPR and its membership; a second asked how compelling was the evidence from people like Professor Gary Schwartz, Professor Fontana and myself. A third asked why I thought some within the scientific community had rejected that evidence, and a fourth asked whether there was any particular experience that had convinced me – with special reference to the Scole investigation and report.

I was given very little time to deal even with the first and last question, but had virtually no opportunity to explain the steps that had been taken both in the distant past and at present to eliminate all of the sensory clues on which skeptics like Randi continued to dwell, and to indicate the measure and importance of the recent work of Roy, Robertson and Schwartz, with which I had assumed the programme to be essentially concerned.

The programme ended with a slightly botched experiment in psychometric reading by Charles for which there was quite inadequate time, and then an entertaining card trick by Randi, who stated that everything Charles had told the audience could be attributed to cold reading, a statement so grotesquely at variance with his own performance as to be risible. Clearly a good many of the audience felt the same way, since at the end the percentages of believers, non-believers and uncertains had changed to 54, 24 and 22.

But, as Randi rightly said, the evidence is determined by scientific investigation (plug for his $1,000,000 offer amid cries of “phoney”) not by votes.

Comment

Before offering my general comments on what was wrong with the entire conception of the programme, which is likely to be seen by a very large number of people, may I examine the two aspects which I find disquieting? One is the vehemence and distress of the medium who said her interview gave a wholly false impression and left the clear impression that she was a fraud. I believe an independent person or group should be invited to examine the uncut and the edited version and issue a report.

The second concern relates to a very positive instruction I received from the person whom I believed to be the producer (actually assistant producer, I later learned) that I was not to mention the Jacqui Poole case when giving examples of impressive evidence of posthumous messages. (Many will know that this refers to a large number of highly evidential statements about a murdered woman given to the police shortly after the crime and resulting eventually in the conviction of the person accurately described and named). Ostensibly this was because it would cause distress to the relatives. The murder was more than 20 years ago. Details have been widely circulated on the Net and in the Police Gazette, and the case was the subject of a half hour TV programme in Ireland where the medium lives. It seems to me far more likely that the producers did not wish to confront Youens and French, both of whom are familiar with the strength of the case, with evidence they couldn't answer. I may be wrong, but this arbitrary prohibition is suspicious, all the more so since I learn that Youens, desperate to find holes in the evidence, has contacted the police officer responsible and found his theories shot to pieces by facts.

Although it will be seen that some attempt at balance was achieved, undue emphasis was given, and time devoted, to the views of Youens and French, neither of whom addressed themselves to the evidence, but concentrated (as indeed they were doubtless asked to) on such interesting but strictly irrelevant issues as human gullibility and techniques for fraud.

The deepest flaw in the entire programme was obsession with entertainment, based on the conviction that audiences interested in the most profoundly important issue for mankind need gimmickry, and are liable to switch off or over because “talking heads” aren't stimulating enough. While this is a belief common to television producers generally, when a serious topic is supposed to be under expert examination and discussion, it constitutes an insult both to the television studio audience and to subsequent viewers.

So quite apart from the more personal issues arising from cavalier and misleading treatment of invitees (one man told me he had spent three days rehearsing the answers he was to give to three questions from the production team, but was not only ignored but left stranded at the studio late at night after the departure of his last train), the uncut programme spent far too much time on matters essentially irrelevant to the question at issue, and on sheer gimmickry, and far too little time to learn from those familiar with the evidence what it was, how strong, and why all of the demonstrations seen by the audience were based on the wholly false premise that serious investigators of mediums were either unaware of those dangers or had been unable to devise safeguards against them when experimenting with mediums.

Despite the fact that there was a significant swing towards belief, the audience did so in the absence of the scientific evidence they should have been given the chance to consider, and for the presentation of which I had been specifically invited. Had I been given one quarter the time devoted to Randi the audience would have been in a better position to form a judgement.

As it is, I trust this message arrives in time to influence the cutting process.

Post-edited comments (August 18, 2003)

Not all addressees will have seen my earlier note of August 7th written immediately after the filming of Fulcrum TV’s “Ultimate Psychic Challenge” which was screened last night on Discovery Channel on Saturday, August 23rd, in advance of its repeat on Channel 4 during a Paranormal evening devoted to three programmes on mediumship and associated phenomena. I therefore append my original note (in italics) which explains the reasons for the criticisms which I and others had of the manner in which the show was formulated.

To fit over three hours of programming into the (slightly less than) one and a half hour slot, some severe cutting was necessary. The substance of this complaint is not that the programme as edited lacked balance between the negative and positive approaches, but that there was deliberate suppression of important and relevant material in favour of irrelevant gimmickry, with the result that viewers were denied what small opportunity they could have had to be aware of at least one crucial fact about the scientific evidence from mediumship.

We were constantly reminded that the programme was devoted solely to discovering the answer to the question: can we talk to the dead? I had been invited to give the scientific evidence, and given prior notification of four questions, previously discussed with the assistant producer Victoria Coker (see below) and recorded on email. Probably the most crucial question, which I was given all too little opportunity to answer, was:

“There are a number of scientists who are investigating the existence of the spirit world: how compelling is the evidence they are producing? (you, Fontana, Gary Schwartz etc.).”

It would be reasonable to conclude that this went to the heart of the issue. As stated below, I had barely an opportunity during the filming to point out that from the earliest days scientists had been aware of the need to guard against sensory leakage when testing mediums. However, this question and answer was cut entirely from the edited text. My contribution lasted a fraction over one minute. This compares with the minimum of five which I had been led to believe I would have, and contrasts with 40 or more minutes devoted to Randi.

What made this worse, and which I cite to justify my accusation that this crucial omission from what was already a severely truncated contribution was dishonest as well as deliberate, was that three and a half minutes at the end of the programme was devoted to a card trick by Randi which had not the remotest bearing on the subject.

Yet the brief passage excised from my remarks would have shown that most of the programme devoted to Randi’s hot and cold readings, and to two film clips and subsequent discussions by Tony Youens on the same subject, were irrelevant to the scientific evidence, particularly in the light of the single and double blind procedures adopted by Gary Schwartz and Robertson and Roy during the past five years.

 
Copyright © Montague Keen. 22nd August 2003

 
Acknowledgement: thanks to Victor Zammit for permission to reproduce this article from his website.

 
 
 
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