A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge". It's one of the most read pages of all time here on the Grail, so it's obviously a topic that many people are interested in. Apart from the flaws in the MDC that I pointed out in my article, another element of this (and other) 'paranormal prizes' which disturbs me somewhat is the use of 'cannon fodder', in order to maintain the (somewhat dubious) validity of these challenges. And by 'cannon fodder', I mean those people that apply for these challenges, who truly believe they can win the money. To my mind, some may not understand the odds properly, some are misleading themselves about their 'talents', and some are just plain unbalanced. That's a worrying thing when combined with a high-profile test which is undertaken with the intention of publicity based on the challenger being unable to succeed.
A perfect illustration of this occurred last month, when the IIG (the 'Independent Investigations Group', a volunteer-run organization based with the Center for Inquiry) tested Regan Traynor, an individual trying to win the CFI's $50,000 paranormal challenge with his alleged telepathic powers. Unfortunately, this skeptical publicity event didn't go exactly to plan:
On February 20th, Regen Traynor and his receiver, Fernando arrived at the Center for Inquiry. Not only were they searched for electronic devices but for weapons as well. We had a retired police officer assist with the check. Both men were found to have no weapons and no electronic devices other that a cell phone which was removed for the duration of the test. Both men signed release forms agreeing to be photographed and agreeing to the proposed protocol. I should mention at this point that both men were visibly drunk.
These men weren’t just slightly inebriated. They were wasted, stumbling, swaying side-to-side smell-vodka-across-the-room drunk. They both freely admitted to being drunk and in no way regentried to hide the fact. At one point during the test Traynor referred to himself as not only being drunk but also being “a drunk” and asked for more alcohol a few times during the test. None was provided.
I should also mention that we found out both men were homeless. When asked to sign the release forms they said they had no address and that they were “homeless.” They had traveled from the state of Washington to Los Angeles via bus. I was told the bus trip was a 14-hour drive. They informed us that they planned to travel to Texas after this test to participate in another psychic challenge that offered a $12,000 prize.
This is just really sad. Are skeptical groups really so desperate for publicity that they feel comfortable exploiting disadvantaged and psychologically unstable people for their purposes? The Skepchick blog entry does voice concerns about how this all turned out, but still finishes by saying these sorts of challenges should continue, because they are "very important, especially in the sharing of factual information about these claims and the outcomes of the tests with the public". As I pointed out in my MDC article, this is nonsense. The odds required by paranormal challenges are insanely high - meant to guarantee the prizemoney, not to assess whether someone has a talent which might suggest some sort of anomalous power. For instance, the odds against chance required for success in Regan Traynor's IIG test were 13,000 to 1 - and this was just the "preliminary test" needing to be passed before applying for the CFI's actual $50,000 challenge!
These paranormal challenges are designed for one thing: publicity. They do not offer a scientific evaluation of claims of the paranormal, and as such there are very logical reasons why people should avoid taking part in them. The outcome of this is that the people that do end up applying for them are exactly the sort of people that should be protected from public ridicule.
Skepticism would be better served by helping out these people, and engaging in genuine scientific examination of claims of the paranormal. At the moment, such challenges make them not much better than the 'hucksters' they claim to be trying to out, profiting off the misfortunes of others.