Rupert Sheldrake

James “The Amazing” Randi and Dogs Who Know More Than He Does


James “The Amazing” Randi
And Dogs Who Know More Than He Does


by Rupert Sheldrake


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.

James Randi is a showman, conjurer and a former Principal Investigator of CSICOP. For years, he frequently appeared in the media as a debunker of the paranormal. He was named “Skeptic of the Century” in the January 2000 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and in 2003 received the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International.

In 1996 he founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and is most famous for offering a $1 million “paranormal challenge” to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of a paranormal event under conditions to which he agrees.

Randi has no scientific credentials, and has disarmingly said of himself, “I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living.”

In January, 2000, Dog World magazine published an article on the sixth sense of dogs, which discussed my research. The author contacted Randi to ask his opinion. Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF have tested these claims. They fail.” Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with Jaytee, in which Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home at a randomly-selected time, but did not do so beforehand. 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.”

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

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

In an email on February 6, 2000 Randi told me that the tests with dogs he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal”. He said 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.” 

I also asked him for details of tape he claimed to have watched, so I could compare his observations of Jaytee’s behaviour with my own. He was unable to give a single detail, and under pressure from the JREF Advisory Board, he had to admit that he had never seen the tape. His claim was a lie.

For many years the million dollar “prize” has been Randi’s stock-in-trade as a media skeptic, but even other skeptics are skeptical about its value as anything but a publicity stunt. For example, CSICOP founding member Dennis Rawlins pointed out that Randi acts as “policeman, judge and jury” and quoted him as saying “I always have an out.” Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology and Fellow of CSICOP, pointed out, this “prize” cannot be taken seriously from a scientific point of view: “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.”

Nevertheless I asked the Smart family if they would be willing to have Jaytee tested by Randi. But they wanted nothing to do with him. Jaytee had already taken part in some tests organized by a skeptic, Richard Wiseman, as discussed below, and the Smart family were disgusted by the way he had misrepresented these tests in the media.

In 2008, Alex Tsakiris, who runs a U.S.-based “Open Source Science Project” and a podcast called Skeptiko, started replicating experiments with dogs that knew when their owners were coming home, posting videos of tests on the internet. Tsakiris asked Dr. Clive Wynne, an expert on dog behaviour at the University of Florida, to participate in this research, and Wynne agreed. Randi challenged Tsakiris to apply for the Million Dollar Challenge, Tsakiris took him up on it, and asked Randi by email if Dr. Wynne’s involvement was acceptable to him. Randi eventually replied, “You appear to think that your needs are uppermost on my schedule. What would give you that impression? Looking into a silly dog claim is among my lowest priority projects. When I’m prepared to give you some time, I’ll let you know. There are some forty plus persons ahead of you.”

For me, the most surprising feature of the Randi phenomenon is that so many journalists and fellow skeptics take him seriously.

Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

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