Loyd Auerbach, M.S.
Note: This essay was published as the majority of my “Psychic Frontiers” column in the February 2004 issue of FATE magazine.
I might actually title this essay “Why I no longer care about Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge,” but honestly, “So What!” sums up my feelings these days.
Over the last several years, I’ve been somewhat outspoken about the specific details of the rules of Randi’s Challenge (http://www.randi.org/research/index.html). But recently, when being harassed by yet another disbelieving type about the test, some kind of light – an epiphany of sorts – went on in my head. The individual made a statement, with a question, that I often hear in variations from self-described Skeptics (actually disbelievers): “The Amazing Randi offers one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate something paranormal. If psychic abilities are real, why has no one won the prize?”
Rather than responding as I have in the past with a discourse as to why I don’t believe anyone will win that money, I spontaneously switched gears.
The following is just an approximation of the conversation, with (yes, I admit it) a little dramatic license thrown in.
“What would that prove?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Why is Randi offering the money?” I asked.
“For anyone who can prove something paranormal,” said the Skeptic.
“If someone did win the million, what would that actually prove?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“I mean, if a psychic won the million dollars, other than the psychic walking away one million dollars richer, what would that prove to the skeptical community or to Science?” I asked.
“That someone could do something psychic,” said the Skeptic with some confusion in his voice.
“Would it? If someone won Randi’s million dollars, would YOU accept that psychic abilities are real? Or even just possible?” I asked.
“Huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Would mainstream Science accept the probability of psi, if not the reality, if some psychic won Randi’s million?” I asked.
“Uh … uh … huh?” said the Skeptic.
“Would the organized Skeptics accept that psi is real, or would they be more likely to believe that Randi was simply fooled, scammed out of his million? Would you?” I asked.
I received a blank stare from the Skeptic, then saw confusion appearing on his face.
I continued to push at him. “The fact is that people who do not accept the laboratory and other evidence for psi that already exists are unlikely to change their minds or their beliefs simply because someone beats Randi’s challenge and wins Randi’s money. In the name of Science, many keep raising the issue of parsimony, of Occam’s Razor where psi is concerned. In this case, wouldn’t the simpler explanation as far as the Skeptics are concerned be that Randi was scammed out of the money? In the name of Science, many raise the issue of repeatability. If someone beat Randi’s Challenge once, how does this meet the criteria of repeatability? What does this prove?”
The Skeptic was silent, confusion and frustration (and a little anger) continuing on his face.
I finished with “If you can honestly tell me – I mean look me in the eye and tell me honestly – that you would be open to psi’s existence if a psychic won Randi’s money, I’ll give you 20 dollars** right here and now. It’s not a million, but to be honest, your opinion isn’t worth that much to me.”
He walked away (okay, he stormed off).
**[Note: Okay, I didn’t really offer the 20 bucks when this first happened. I only thought of it afterwards. But now, I often do!]
I’ve since used this argument on a few others, whenever Randi’s Challenge is raised like a weapon against the field of Parapsychology, and against the existence (real or just potential) of psi.
To recap: If someone wins Randi’s million, he/she will be one million dollars richer. However, as far as Science and the Skeptics are concerned, the simpler answer to this conundrum is that Randi (or his chosen panel of judges) was fooled.
In other words, So What if someone wins the money. It won’t change the prevailing attitudes towards parapsychology, or the prevailing beliefs of most who waiver to the disbelieving side of the center where psi is concerned.
As this is the case (go ahead…prove me wrong, somebody…please!), we waste our time even giving Randi’s Challenge the time of day (though I am somewhat in his corner where Sylvia Browne is concerned. – see his website at www.randi.org).
I respect the position of true skeptics, and even the beliefs and opinions of debunkers if they’re honest about their beliefs and opinions. But holding forth Randi’s Challenge as the benchmark for proof of the paranormal is as silly as someone telling Randi to “prove it does not exist.”
It’s not a benchmark for Science, or even for skepticism. So, why should we care?
“So What!” I say.
Let me finish with another observation.
In the September 19, 2003 issue of SWIFT, Online Newsletter of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) entitled “Yellow Bamboo Surprise, Fear of Technology, and Answering Montague Keen…” (http://www.randi.org/jr/091903.html), Randi responds to comments by researcher Montague Keen, who (Keen) mentions me and FATE in his discussion of Randi’s Challenge. Randi had this to say about FATE:
“For those unfamiliar with Fate Magazine, from their own web page we see that they publish stories on ‘alien abductions, angels, archaeological hotspots, fringe science, ghosts, hauntings, life after death, monsters, paranormal investigations, psychic pets, psychics, readers’ personal mystic experiences, reports of the strange and unknown, spirit animals, spiritualists, and UFOs’ — to only begin. Not recognized as a scholarly journal, in my opinion.”
Randi’s correct. In no way could FATE be labeled a “scholarly journal.” It is a publication for the general public. While I’m not sure where on FATE’s website Randi got the quote from (as with many websites, FATE’s changes from time to time), what Randi lists is in fact a good description for FATE’s content coverage.
However, this could easily be a description of the contents of THE SKEPTICAL INQUIRER and THE SKEPTIC magazines, neither of which is recognized as a “scholarly journal.” Of course, that’s my opinion.