Amazing Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge

First and last, he’s a charlatan.

Amazing Randi passed recently.

James Randi, Magician and Paranormal Debunker, Dies at 92

For years, he posed a “Million Dollar Challenge” for anyone who might demonstrate any paranormal ability under agreed-upon conditions that would pass scientific muster.

Wikipedia: One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge

Presuming to be subject to various psi phenomena myself, one time, many years ago, I decided to take a shot at it.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I can’t find it.

I contacted the James Randi Educational Foundation and enquired.  There was ongoing correspondence for 18 months or so between me and one of Randi’s assistants, probably the Mr. Kramer mentioned in the Wikipedia article.  I had to sign various forms, including a waiver acknowledging that if the “applicant’s” “demonstration” fails, she or he may experience severe emotional distress.  I will return to that below.  He and I discussed various possible “demonstrations” I might undertake.

One plan was to take, say, 50 sunflower seeds; pray over half of them; plant them, and a few weeks later have independent judges say which seedlings were thriving and which were not.  I gave that up because of the complicated work it would take to make it double-blind.

The last one I came up with, seeing that I seemed to have particular skill at precognition, would have involved predicting lottery numbers.  In January, I might predict all the daily evening Maryland Pick 3 lottery numbers for the month of April.  I would write them down, keep a copy for myself, and send a copy to Randi by certified mail.  Sometime after April 30, we would open the envelopes and compare my predictions to the actual results.

Advantages of this approach: it’s statistically simple, and no one would need to travel.  A disadvantage, from Randi’s perspective, was that it would not lend itself to videotaping.  And then there was the motivational issue that he ultimately vetoed; see below.

To hone my skills until the demonstration, I began to practice every night with a deck of cards.  As I recall, I used the cards of just one suit, so that I’d only have to predict the number.  I would call each card, turn it over, and if I had called correctly put the card in a pile to my left; if I’d missed, it went into a pile on my right.  One could take a score based on just that one run-through, but to boost my own spirits, I picked up the stack of cards I’d missed, and repeated the process until I had correctly called every card.

I had a scoring system, also for my gratification so I could see how well I’d done from day to day.  I don’t recall specifics, but the system proved to be perfect; it somehow accounted for the odds for every single card.  But my math skills were and are too limited, to figure out at what score I was actually beginning to beat the odds.

A curious twist on all that:  my mistakes weren’t random.  It happened often enough, that the card I called was not “this” one, but “the next” one.  So I began keeping track of those events.

Then Randi re-appeared.

It may be that he had been in ill health, or that he had been in jail.  Sometime, he was incarcerated for producing child pornography; he’d taken photos of his siblings’ children in the bath.  Quote: “The only difference between art and porn is the lighting.”  Keep in mind, this is consistent with how he made his fortune: preying on the innocent.

But I didn’t learn about that till years later.

In psi research, motivations are paramount …

… and everything about the Million Dollar Challenge was motivationally backward.

It is notoriously difficult to design replicable controlled experiments in psi, for reason of the need to control the affective field — the emotional atmosphere surrounding the events.  Psi will occur in a context of skepticism; it will not occur in a context of hostility.  “Experimenter effect,” or “observer effect,” prevails: researchers who want to observe psi will; researchers who don’t, won’t.

So I recall saying in my first telling of this story, whenever and wherever that was, that Randi was hostile from the get-go, “and the closer I got to a proposal that might actually work, the more hostile he became.”

Greed is another emotion that strongly frustrates psi.  In order to control for that, in my own “demonstration,” I proposed to Randi that, should I succeed, the money should not go to me, but rather to a charity we would agree upon.  I proposed the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders.  He refused.

His first real goal was not to discover bona fide clairvoyance, but draw out and expose charlatans.  His second goal was not to award anyone the money, but instead keep it — and he was going to fight tooth and nail to do that.

For some years after my exchanges with him, he had the requirement that any “applicant” demonstrate, first, a significant media footprint.  He wanted the “big fish,” and when the demonstration failed, followed by whatever verbal abuse he might heap on the victim — all normally on videotape — he would have a media splash of his own.  Thus the waiver about significant emotional distress.

Any bona fide clairvoyant will not likely have a significant media footprint.  Such people normally avoid the media, for reason that they are subject to hostility from dogmatists of every stripe.  Nor are they likely to be moved by the prospect of a million dollars.  Greedy charlatans, yes; real psychics, no.

Final failure

I finally gave up, for two reasons.

FIRST, I realized that predicting future lottery numbers isn’t do-able, even for a talented clairvoyant.  The number for a given future date actually doesn’t exist until the first ticket is sold, and then is in constant flux until the last ticket is bought.  It has the potential to change every time someone buys a ticket.  This was confirmed for me years later, by a remark from one Judy Ann Cannizzaro, who had worked as a telephone psychic for Miss Cleo.  ”I’ve been a clairvoyant all my life,” Ms. Cannizzaro said. ”If I could get the lottery numbers, would I be working as a telephone psychic?”

SECOND, I had no good reason to continue to subject myself to Randi’s hostility.  Not for a million dollars.


From the post, About Edgar Cayce:  “In preparing for this post, I came across an excerpt from Amazing Randi’s Flim Flam that presumes to debunk Edgar Cayce completely.  By turns sarcastic and — sarcastic — Randi opines that many of the concoctions Cayce prescribed were probably noxious, and that many patients would likely have gotten better without following Cayce’s directions at all.  It came to me:  anyone wanting to confirm or disconfirm Cayce’s accuracy could easily do so by checking the astrological information present in each life reading.  The subjects’ birthdates are all in the record.”

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