Nice to see some skeptics can poke a bit of fun at themselves (NSFW language):
Though I think they forgot the old psychic line "they should have seen that coming"...
Alan Moore was recently interviewed by New Humanist magazine while backstage at the "Nine Lessons for Godless People" show, and the video has been posted on YouTube (see below). It's a wonderfully typical chat with the renowned story-teller, with Moore quickly pointing out that, in the context of some of the ideas in cosmology these days that rationalists find credible, "my worship of a 2nd century sock-puppet snake god seems entirely reasonable."
What I did want to share though was his response to the question "Is there a conflict between what can and can't be proven by science", as it echoes my thoughts almost exactly (though he's far more eloquent on the topic than I could hope to be):
I would prefer a two-state solution. My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of 'two lives'. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we've developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real - they're just real in different ways. The concept of a world of ideas, yes it's intangible, it can't be repeated in a laboratory, but pretty much the evidence for it is all around us. In that, every detail of our clothing, our mindsets, of the buildings and the streets and cities that surround us - that started life as an idea in someone's head.
Terence McKenna mentioned something along similar lines once, though his point was going in a different direction: "We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do." I think that the word 'reality' has come to be intimately connected to a definition of "what is measurable", when it should perhaps be more connected to something along the lines of "things that can create change in the world".
Anyhow, enough of my 2 cent philosophizing: here's Mr Moore:
And for those (like me) that have been perplexed about Alan Moore's presence at a number of 'rationalist' events (including Randi's conference a couple of years back), he's not shy in mentioning dogmatism amongst certain scientists as well:
Rationalism is under siege, by all of these witless…Fundamentalist Christians… that tends to unfortunately, to drive scientists - who are obviously concerned by those possibilities - into an almost religious position themselves…. the problem with religions is that generally, they develop dogmas, which are limitations to thought, and are never a good thing.
I can't help but wonder how Alan Moore would be treated at these events if he was just an ordinary Joe off the street, saying the exact same words...
I've mentioned this topic more than a few times, so here's some clarity on the subject from the horse's mouth, so to speak. D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), discusses the 'Million Dollar Challenge' in this interview with renowned magician and JREF advisor Jamy Ian Swiss, who makes these points about the requirements and goals of the challenge:
No matter what you make the probability...coincidences happen. Events that are one in a million happen to eight people a day in New York city. So what we've traditionally tried to do in the million dollar challenge is to make it definitive; to make the demands really significant enough that if you pass there's a good chance you're a psychic, or it was a really amazing coincidence that happened.
And of course we never say that the million dollar challenge is scientific research. It's not. It's a test that's designed to scientific protocols, but we're not doing science because we don't have enough trials, we're not doing studies. And so it's quite possible that if and when someone passed the test and took the million, we're not stamping them officially psychic at that point. We're saying that day, they passed the test, and it's for others to determine what the significance of that is, what that really means. Which would actually demand repeated studies.
But one of the things that we really want to do in the regular Million Dollar Challenge is to lower the requirements in the preliminary stages. We actually want to test people, and we actually want people to get through the test and to engage in the process, because we want to use the process of the Million Dollar Challenge to put forward and promote everything we do at the JREF.
It's not science, it's a promotional tool - are we clear on that now? Because though I've seen that caveat thrown around by the JREF and its supporters whenever the 'one-off' nature of the test is raised, it doesn't tend to show up at other times. For instance, most recently, in the 'Psychic Sally' controversy, British skeptic Simon Singh suggested that Sally Morgan could settle the matter by demonstrating "her powers in a scientific experiment" - which was simply the preliminary test for the Million Dollar Challenge (with higher-than-usual inflated odds, I might add). And if Sally had passed that test, what then?
I would have said "Great, there's another test waiting for you". And it would have shaken my current belief, which is that psychic phenomena don't exist. I wouldn't have done a complete about turn immediately, but I'd be halfway there.
I'd add that I'm not endorsing Sally Morgan here - I'm simply addressing the mis-characterisation of the Million Dollar Challenge as science. And as I've mentioned previously, there are fairly serious moral issues in lowering the bar for such a test.
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I've often been a bit amused by Derren Brown's upstanding reputation in the skeptical movement, given that he sometimes seems to step over the line somewhat in representing his own performances. In the past few weeks I've noticed this issue starting to get more play in various circles, so thought it might be worth sharing the links. The first is this interesting criticism of Brown's recent "The Experiments" television feature (embedded below) by two social psychologists:
We would like to dispute in the strongest possible terms the theoretical underpinnings and proposed implications from Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’ – The Gameshow – aired on Channel 4 on 28/10/11...
...Why is all this important? Does it really matter to anyone other than social psychologists that outdated theory is portrayed as factual on prime-time television? The point is that an understanding of crowd psychology has important consequences for society. Regarding crowds as anti-social entities acting without identity or reason can legitimate their violent repression by security forces, prevent intragroup helping in emergencies, and facilitate the dismissal of popular protest as irrational by those in positions of power.
Along with the criticism of psychologists, Derren Brown's shtick also seems to be starting to concern some skeptics, as evidenced in this thread at the JREF forum. Perhaps reacting to these online whispers, last month Brown posted a new blog entry titled "To claim or not to claim", which he wrote to "clarify a few points regarding my own work for anyone in any doubt". Nevertheless, I still came across yet another article yesterday which is fairly comprehensive on the issues at hand:
On one side, through his activities blogs and writing, Brown promotes scepticism: he challenges mediums and spiritualists, just as Houdini did; he promotes a scientific approach; he embraces Dawkins and writes about his own lapsed Christian beliefs. He encourages the asking of questions and disapproves of blind belief.
On the other hand, the Derren Brown that countless TV viewers and theatre audiences encounter does not simply create mystifying effects, his explicatory rhetoric in performance is steeped in a belief; not in a god or an afterlife but in a fuzzy set of behavioural dynamics that we non-experts call ‘psychology’. Something which, we may need to remember; just because it is an ‘ology’, doesn’t make it any more scientific than ‘astr’, ‘graph’ or ‘crani’.
Brown often explains his ability to predict words or behaviours, to duplicate drawings or influence people to act in certain ways, as achieved through a mastery of the understanding and exploitation of ‘psychological techniques’.
I must here state my own belief that, though some of his effects may have a loose psychological component, these explanations, as you might expect of any conjurer, are mainly bogus; misdirecting attention from his real methodology.
The truth is, no matter how hard you studied psychology, no matter how expert you became in understanding human motivations and frailties you still could not possibly repeat Brown’s effects without the use of age-old conjuring smoke and mirrors.
For myself, I just like the guy. He's an excellent magician, but an even better artist (in more ways than one), and he brings the trickster mentality back into an area that sorely needs it. It's just a shame that he then plops himself down into the uber-rationalist camp with James Randi etc when he could be having a lot of fun just running rampant with the rest of us...
Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, have often been lionised by the 'New Atheist' movement for their lambasting of aspects of Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Islam, alien abduction theories and other beliefs. But their personal views have a little more subtlety than most people would probably assume, given the tone of their various productions, and their disdain is not so much for religion on its own but for unthinking belief and forceful proselytising. In a recent interview with Esquire, Stone and Parker took time to criticise Richard Dawkins and his minions, and many of the South Park duo's thoughts on beliefs - and in particular, the need for story-telling and rituals - resonated pretty strongly with me. Some highlights from the interview:
[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade's most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly ... temperate. They say it themselves: "There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground." Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.
On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.
"The boys were in the middle saying, 'This is f**ked up,' " said Parker. "Any side who thinks they're totally right is f**ked up. That's the heart of every show."
...Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
"He's such a dick," said Stone. "You read his book and you're like, 'Yeah, I agree with that. But it's the most dicky way to put it... I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I'm a self-described atheist."
...You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there's some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.
..."I'm concerned about people being happy," said Stone. "With religion I was always like, Does it matter if it's true if it makes you happy?"
"As storytellers for fifteen years, we started looking at religions for their stories," Parker said..."[T]here's something about dressing up and playing the part. To me, that's religion. You can write down how to make the perfect cup of coffee. But to make it really good, you have to play something fictional, you have to dress up, you have to think, This is the most important thing."
You can also listen to Stone and Parker explaining their feelings about Richard Dawkins and 'whiny' atheism in this audio interview from earlier in the year (warning: plenty of NSFW language):
By the way, at the end of the interview they mention that they'd love to see a book on atheism by Penn Jillette. Turns out they got their wish.
A day after Randi's zombie horde (so wonderfully ironic!) challenged James Van Praagh to take the JREF's million dollar psychic challenge, the Amazing one has lent his name to a British challenge of 'Psychic Sally' Morgan's claimed abilities:
A celebrity psychic who claims to speak with the dead in sellout shows across the country has been challenged by sceptics to prove her supernatural powers. They have invited TV "star psychic" Sally Morgan to demonstrate her ability to connect with the spirit world in a specially designed test in Liverpool on Monday.
The Halloween challenge is backed by the US paranormal investigator James Randi, and qualifies as the first step towards claiming a million-dollar prize established by the James Randi Educational Foundation for any psychic who can prove their "gift" to be real.
...Sceptic groups, led by the science writer Simon Singh, arranged the test after one of Morgan's shows in Dublin last month at which some members of the audience reported hearing someone at the back of the theatre apparently feeding her information on stage.
More details are available at the Merseyside Skeptics' Society website. The test, if Morgan agrees, is to be held in three days time and is a simple one - Morgan has to match ten photos of deceased individuals to names on a list. To pass she must get 7 or more correct.
Readers will know my thoughts on these types of tests. On Twitter I mentioned that I hoped that Chris French and company would design something reasonably scientific and fair which might give some indication as to whether something interesting was happening, rather than the usual James Randi-style short test/crazy high p-value. This appears to have been optimistic on my part - my back of envelope calculations have the p-value for this test at roughly 0.00001...ie. odds of occurring by chance of around 1 in 100,000 (though I'm definitely no statistician, so please correct me if necessary!). And it would seem that no matter what the difficulty of that test is, it will not be enough, because once Sally passes that rather stringent test, then "she will be invited to enter into discussions with [the] JREF with a view to arranging a final challenge for the $1m prize." Wow, generous!
The fact that this test, just announced, is scheduled for just three days time - that is, Halloween - tells you what you need to know about this challenge. It's a publicity stunt, just like Randi's million dollar challenge is. The very brief 20 minute test, issued on short notice, with a high p-value, and with Randi's even more stringent test to follow, is no scientific or fair test of the existence of psychic abilities...it's a gimmick, plain and simple. Though I guess it's already done its job, with a mention in the Guardian already. Nevertheless, I would hope any science-minded people involved in this are at least just a little embarrassed with themselves.
But that is not to say that a test is completely off-base - in my opinion, the matter of psychic or mediumistic ability is still up in the air, and *should* be tested in a scientific manner. It would be good to see more psychics/mediums undergoing scientific testing to see if there is something genuine going on. However, with publicity stunts such as this, and obvious antipathy toward them by the 'objective scientists', why would they put themselves in that situation?
Personally, I'd like to see a short test, at an 'easy' p-value of 0.02 or similar, for absolutely no prize at all. In my opinion, if you're charging people based on your 'psychic ability', that's the sort of challenge you should expect to pass. If the challenger doesn't take the test, there's good reason to say "poor show". If they do and pass, scientists/skeptics don't have to acknowledge psychic ability, but I'm sure that would be enough to make any fair-minded person sit back and say to themselves "this deserves further study". After all, isn't that what science is all about, rather than publicity stunts and prizes?
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Before artist Jose Alvarez traveled the world with famed magician and professional skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, he was Deyvi Pena, a young man from Venezuela with a student visa to study at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
Mystery has shrouded Alvarez's true identity since he was arrested under the name "John Doe" at Randi's Plantation home on Sept. 8. The legal predicament swirling around Alvarez also raised questions in skeptic circles and beyond: How much is known by Randi, whose very reputation as a truth-seeker may now be jeopardized?
So far, neither Randi nor Alvarez and his attorneys have revealed the artist's identity, but the Sun Sentinel has learned that Alvarez initially went by the name Pena. As Alvarez, his colorful, modernist paintings have been shown in galleries in New York, San Francisco and Palm Beach.
The Sun Sentinel tracked down three people who knew Pena in the mid-1980s. They each said a photograph of the painter who now calls himself Alvarez was the man they knew as Deyvi or David Pena, who first appeared at Randi's side a year or so after the magician moved to Broward County.
Federal authorities have accused Alvarez of stealing a New York man's name, date of birth and Social Security number to obtain a U.S. passport first issued to him in 1987 – just before he and Randi began a series of international performances.
...The lawyers have told Randi, 83, not to comment on the case. "I've been advised silence is the way to go," he said.
When asked about the Sun Sentinel's determination that Alvarez was previously known as Pena, Randi would only say, "Well, if that's who you think he is."
If 'Jose Alvarez' does turn out to be Deyvi/David Pena, then it would seem that Randi has some questions to answer, as the latter is the name (at the time) of the 'assistant' he hired in the mid-80s. This article from 1986 names his assistant as David Pena, so if Pena is Alvarez, it seems certain that Randi knew about the two names to some degree. At the very least, his last quote above is deliberately vague.
Though you wouldn't know anything was happening if you get your news about James Randi from the James Randi Educational Foundation...
Update: 'Jose Alvarez' has been released on a $1,000,000 bail surety after revealing to the court that his name is indeed Deyvi 'David' Pena (full name: "Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga"). One significant aspect of the hearing was that, in trying to satisfy the judge's concern that the man's true identity had been revealed, James Randi testified under oath that he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago. The two bonds set by Judge Seltzer were a $1 million personal surety bond guaranteed by Pena and Randi, and a cash bond of $50,000. After the hearing, Pena's lawyer said that "the government and the public will know how all this happened and snowballed... That's all going to be revealed. It's a very compelling story."
We can only speculate at this stage what this "compelling story" is, though two options may be (a) claims that Pena met Randi after escaping from a cult and/or (b) that laws against gay marriage 'caused' Pena to seek another method of staying with his partner Randi. Whether a federal judge finds the story compelling may be another matter...
Also, does Randi's statement provide confirmation that he knew of the identity fraud? It seems likely, though there could be situations in which this is not the case (e.g. he continued to think David Pena was traveling on that passport, and simply believed that "Jose Alvarez" was a stage name). Randi has a tendency to come out of sticky situations rather shiny, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out...
For years those interested in anomalous phenomena have had to put up with a string of platitudes from self-labeled skeptics, not least among them the phrases "anecdotes are not evidence", and "the plural of anecdote is not data". But it appears that things have changed, because a story overnight suggests that skeptics are now more than willing to accept anecdotes as validating evidence when it comes to mediumship.
Chris French is a well-known skeptic in the United Kingdom, a Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and editor-in-chief of the UK magazine The Skeptic. I have a lot of time for Chris, because he's willing to get in and do experiments on anomalistic claims. However, in this case I find it hard to give him a pass mark.
Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Here's how he sums up the train of events:
Let me describe what happened so that you can make up your own mind. On Monday 12 September, a caller named Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station. Sue said that she had attended Morgan's show the previous night at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and had been impressed by the accuracy of the readings she made in the first half of the show.
But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her ("like a projection room") with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man's voice and "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later."
Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who – you'll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.
A member of staff realised that several people near the back of the theatre were aware of the mystery voice and the window was gently closed. The voice was not heard again.
Sue speculated, again not unreasonably given the history of psychic frauds, that the man was feeding Sally information that had been gathered by engaging members of the audience in conversation in the foyer before the show began. This is a technique widely used by psychic fraudsters, as audience members will naturally discuss with each other who they are hoping to hear from "on the other side", how their loved one died, and so on.
...Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally's followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.
So, on the basis of one person's testimony (given that the following caller on the radio show seemed to 'follow' her lead...e.g. she begins by saying she thought the voice was actually a heckler), and going against the direct testimony of the theatre manager, Chris French has written an article in a national news outlet claiming that Sally Morgan is an outright fraud who uses an ear-piece to receive information.
Now, fair play to him, French has come out on Twitter and said that he did not write the headline, which should be taken on board. However, while he may not make a direct accusation within his article, the tone and framing is rather obvious, just with the addition of legalese/weasel words - see for example his ending sentence "sadly, however". I also note that @TheSkepticMag twitter account happily tweeted the story under it's rather precise headline.
That's not to say that Sally Morgan is innocent - caller Sue may well be on the money with her accusation. Personally, I don't know 'psychic Sally' and her act from a bar of soap, just as much as I don't know "Sue". Given that Sally Morgan has psychic phone lines and the like running from her website, she certainly doesn't endear herself to me on first viewing. But that's not the point I'm trying to make here - which is that skeptics are the first to dismiss anecdotes about reports of anomalous experiences, and yet here embrace it when it validates their belief system, to the extent that they will shout it from the rooftops.
What would have been the correct course of action, given the seriousness of the allegations, is to investigate further. Try to talk to Sue in person, look for corroborating witnesses, and probably crucially, talk to the two people who were said to be in the box behind Sue (given that the theatre manager has already stated that nothing untoward was happening). That would offer a far better basis for allegations or quashing the story than going off the testimony of a caller to a radio show.
So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Shameful behaviour from so-called "rationalists" - I'm sure we all hope that each of our own reputations could not be smeared so quickly and easily to millions of people...
Interestingly, the suggestion most heard from skeptics when it was pointed out to them that there was very little supporting evidence for such a big claim? "Well, if she's innocent I guess she can sue." So, apparently, skeptics now think that it's okay to smear anyone, and the innocent can just prove themselves so through litigation. Which, given this kerfuffle over the last few years, is rather ironic...
On the flipside, this case also brings attention to the fact that people claiming mediumistic or psychic powers have no formal qualification system or standards governing them. If Sally is truly psychic, it would be nice to see her hook up with some open-minded scientists and set about showing her abilities under scientific testing, given the emotional impact her 'performances' can have on people:
In the end, if you read the comments to the Guardian article, and news spreading across Twitter, it all comes down to believers vs believers, shouting quotations from their particular gospel and/or at their particular flock. Somewhere in the middle, let's hope a few people with common sense and scientific curiosity remain...
Skeptic James 'The Amazing' Randi is renowned as a scourge of paranormal frauds and hoaxers, but it just may be that identity theft isn't one of his areas of expertise. Federal authorities have arrested his partner of more than two decades, 'Jose Luis Alvarez', saying that his identity was stolen from a man in New York some 24 years ago:
Alvarez, who purportedly is 43, was charged with stealing a New York man's date of birth and Social Security number in 1987 to obtain a U.S. passport. A grand jury indicted Alvarez on Wednesday on a charge of passport fraud, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and aggravated identity theft, which automatically tacks two years in prison onto any other sentence.
More immediately pressing for Randi, and Alvarez's attorneys, is securing Alvarez' release from the Broward Main Jail. Prosecutors have said they will seek to have him held without bond. A courtroom showdown is set for next Wednesday, when a judge will consider arguments for and against bail.
For Alvarez to be released, he may have to reveal his true identity, which would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.
"He's in an interesting box," said Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney based in Fort Lauderdale. "I can't imagine a magistrate judge giving a bond without knowing who it is they are giving the bond to."
Interestingly, when asked by a reporter if he knew about the alleged identity theft, Randi responded by saying his lawyers had told him "not to comment on our knowledge or lack of knowledge."
The irony in this arrest (beyond the alleged fraudster being the Amazing Randi's partner) is that Alvarez first came to public notice when he pretended to be a channeler of the spirit 'Carlos' in Randi's much-vaunted (not least, by Randi himself) 'sting' for Australian television in 1988. Here's Randi's YouTube summation of the hoax (actual footage starts around 5:40):
So far there has been no official comment from the James Randi Educational Foundation about Alvarez's arrest.
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Last week the James Randi Educational Foundation hit the publicity jackpot (Time, AOL, CBC, Gizmodo, Discovery) when it played a central part in a feature on ABC's Nightline dedicated to the topic of psychic powers, with Randi's famous million-dollar challenge being conducted on national TV (officiated by his trickster protege Steve Shaw, aka Banachek):
I've made my feelings about Randi's MDC pretty clear in the past (see "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge"), so there's not much need for me to repeat most of those criticisms again here. But there are a few points that I'd like to apply to this particular program.
Firstly: there is something very wrong with an organisation that is supposedly dedicated to raising the public understanding of science and skepticism deliberately obfuscating the fact that its well-known challenge is no real scientific test of the topic and thus says *nothing* about the existence or non-existence of the paranormal. Now when you raise that point, Randi and others will be quick to say that "we never claim that, it's just a one-off challenge". But the MDC is always promoted as the be-all-and-end-all of tests - "if you're psychic, you'd obviously just go and take Randi's money". For example, this is the way in which it is reported in the media:
Of course, just because psychics have not been able to find missing persons doesn't mean that they might not have other psychic abilities. It's important to keep an open mind, and try to demonstrate psychic powers in an objective, scientific manner, under conditions that rule out deception.
The Million Dollar Challenge has been around for many years... Will these celebrity psychics take Randi's challenge? If they have the powers they claim, and can demonstrate them under scientific conditions, they have nothing to lose.
In fact, the publicity of having their abilities validated would likely raise their profiles even higher (to say nothing of the satisfaction they would get from publicly proving the skeptics wrong).
Either the psychic information they give is accurate, or it isn't; there's no real way that skeptics could disprove genuine psychic powers. If the psychics have the powers they claim, they have nothing to lose and $1 million to gain.
(If any 'skeptics' want to say the above is just typical extrapolation by the media, it's worth noting that the syndicated Discovery article above is written by none other than Ben Radford, who has more than a vested interest in the skeptical movement and should know better).
As I pointed out in my MDC article, the "nothing to lose" part is absolute bollocks - when they lose (as they likely will, at Randi's normal success benchmark of beating odds of 1,000,000 to 1) they are 'outed' as non-psychic, sometimes with much media fanfare (as in the clip above). And the 'objective test' is nothing of the sort. The test itself may be scientific in some respects, but the benchmark to be considered a success is not (one-shot, extremely high odds).
And if you thought the usual million-to-one odds were a bit harsh, how about the test faced by the first 'psychic' on the Nightline version of the MDC (pick the correct photo from a set of twelve envelopes, and do that at least nine times out of twelve attempts)? I spoke to well-known parapsychology researcher Dean Radin about this particular test and he quickly did the math, and also pointed out another problem with the test setup:
Assuming each person has to select one correct reading out of 12 possibilities, then the odds of getting at least 9 correct matches is 29.6 million to 1....
In addition, the psychics selected for the test were not vetted for prior ability. Roaming around looking for storefront psychics, and assuming that they have actual talent, is roughly equivalent to roaming around random high school athletic fields, selecting a few runners at random, entering them into the Olympics, and requiring that they win. It's nonsense.
In another segment of the show, reporters went and talked to - and received 'readings' from - celebrity psychics James van Praagh and Allison Dubois. Again, this was poorly done - the reporters give their names before turning up, and then when the reading is done they compare the 'hits' to what information about themselves they can pull up online? This proves nothing either way - for example, in Van Praagh's case he nails a number of things, and then is virtually labeled a fraud because the information is online. I have no experience with Van Praagh, so have no conclusion either way, but this was really poorly executed.
But hey - more power to the JREF. They just got a big chunk of publicity on national TV, for the cheap, cheap price of a million dollars that was always going to stay in their pocket anyhow. And, coincidentally I'm sure, this week the JREF have announced a funding drive looking for ongoing donations in the range of $16 to $48 per month. So you too can help pay James Randi's $200,000/year wage so that he can continue complaining about people making money from unscientific claims...
My recommendation? Ignore it all - the phony and/or deluded psychics, and the media-hungry skeptics, and keep your eye out for real scientific investigation of these topics. Y'know, this sort of thing.