For years superskeptic James Randi has touted his million-dollar challenge as his ultimate argument against the paranormal. If these phenomena are genuine, Randi and his many fans insist, why hasn't anyone won the million dollars yet?
Randi's detractors counter that the challenge is a publicity stunt, and that Randi and JREF (the James Randi Educational Foundation) make it difficult for people to apply successfully for the challenge, or to be tested even if their applications have been successful. They also argue that JREF's standards are loose and ambiguous, and that they can ignore or dismiss an applicant for any number of reasons, some of which are purely subjective.
An interesting document in this regard is The JREF Million Dollar Challenge FAQ, which attempts to answer such criticisms but ends up only raising more questions.
It's a long document, but I would urge you to click on the link above and read the whole thing. The flavor of this material cannot be adequately captured by brief excerpts.
There are many points one could make about this series of questions and answers, but I'll limit myself to just a few. Even so, it will take a while to cover this much ground, so I am dividing this post into multiple parts.
First, how objective are JREF's standards when it comes to deciding whose applications will be taken seriously?
Section 2.3 addresses this issue. (Note: In quoted material, all emphases in bold are added.)
There are some claims that are far too implausible to warrant any serious examination, such as the "Breatharian" claims in which the applicant states that he can survive without food or water. Science conclusively tells us all we need to know about such matters, and the JREF feels no obligation to engage applicants in such delusions....
Other claims, such as "Crop Circles" and UFO's are rejected because they have been definitively proven to be the result of hoaxes or mass hysteria. Claims involving "Cloud-Busting", for example, are rejected because Science (along with keen observation) tells us conclusively that clouds will move and disperse despite the efforts of humankind to move them according to their wishes. The phenomenon behind Oujia boards, for example, is attributed to ideomotor reflexes, and not to anything paranormal.
So it appears that quite a wide variety of phenomena will not even be considered by JREF because Science (the word is always capitalized in the FAQ) has already "definitively" or "conclusively" refuted such claims. It may come as news to most of us that all (not just some) UFO sightings have been "definitively proven to be the result of hoaxes or mass hysteria," or that because clouds ordinarily move according to natural forces they cannot be moved by any other means. It is equally surprising to learn that all Ouija board motions are "attributed to ideomotor reflexes." Attributed by whom? By Science, presumably.
What's odd about all this is that JREF seems to be starting with the presumption that huge swaths of paranormal phenomena have already been explained or are not worth explaining. Later we learn that there are even more areas that are problematic for testing. In section 4.9 we're told:
Claims of psychic healing border on the miraculous, and the JREF declines to investigate them unless extraordinary proof (in the form of actual medical documentation of the disease, "pre" & "post" psychic treatment) is submitted along with your application.
In his Personal FAQ at the end of the document, Randi observes,
The [applicants'] claims are sometimes interesting variations on very old misconceptions or delusions, but seldom is there anything that surprises us or that requires very much heavy analysis.
No analysis is needed, since the claimants are delusional. Back to Section 4.9:
Most investigators will not want to waste their time with the most implausible claims, and claims involving "psychic healing" most certainly fall within the realm of the highly implausible....
Some of the more "miraculous" claims simply cannot be considered without strong proof that it is worthy of the enormous effort involved in investigating it. This places such applicants in a more difficult position than some other applicants (such as dowsers and remote readers), but keep in mind...there's a million dollars at stake.
Note that in the last paragraph quoted above, we are told that dowsers and remote viewers are in a better position than psychic healers, because their claims are easier to test and, apparently, not so implausibly miraculous. Yet later, in his Personal FAQ, Randi says,
Of course, when confronted with a particularly incredible claim like "remote viewing" (the current version of "clairvoyance") we can easily stop short and ask ourselves just why we are involved with such obvious nonsense.
Evidently, then, remote viewing is to be categorized with the miraculous and incredible claims that are hard to take seriously, after all.
Bearing in mind that the definition of "extraordinary" or "miraculous" or "incredible" claims seems rather fluid, what happens if an applicant does make such a claim? Section 4.3 tells us:
Also, if your claim seems extraordinarily implausible (such as: "I can place my thoughts within the minds of others"...or, "I can make lights shoot out of the top of my head"), you will more than likely be asked to submit three (3) notarized affidavits from professional individuals — doctors, lawyers, professors...no janitor, dishwashers or busboys — stating that they have witnessed this phenomenon and can offer no rational explanation for it. In fact, if you have such a claim and wish to see the application process expedited, don't wait to be asked; provide it along with your application.
Thus, placing your "thoughts within the minds of others" is also included among the most implausible claims. This means that telepathy, in the sense of sending thoughts (as opposed to receiving them), is another of the apparently miraculous claims. One begins to wonder if JREF would consider any paranormal claim to be anything other than "extraordinary, incredible, and miraculous." (One also wonders what JREF has against janitors and busboys.)
Section 4.8 elaborates at length on what the applicant with an "extraordinary" claim must do:
... there is a certain criteria applied for the acceptance of affidavits. Try to find persons who are skeptical by nature, and try to avoid enlisting the aid of friends who share your beliefs. Do your very best to seek impartial individuals who work in professional fields, if you want your affidavits accepted quickly....
The following is a list of examples of persons who would NOT be acceptable as affidavit providers:
Family members, minors, persons you have met while in "treatment" or during the course of any "psychic studies" you may have embarked upon, persons presently taking medication for bi-polar disease, schizophrenia or other forms of mental illness, alcoholics & drug addicts, spiritual advisors or priests/rabbis, anyone involved in any way with the so-called "psychic arts", etc.
In the last paragraph you may have noticed a reference to being in "treatment." There's a reason for this. JREF seems to assume that a very large number of applicants are, to put it bluntly, nuts.
Many people who claim to have paranormal powers are, sadly, suffering from an advanced state of delusion. That isn't to say that you are, but it's a hypothesis that may be raised during the application process. So, be prepared for this in advance, especially if your claim is extremely remote by reasonable standards.
We've already seen that almost any claim likely to be fielded by JREF can be judged "extremely remote by reasonable standards" (whatever that means). Now we learn that the "hypothesis" of mental illness "may be raised during the application process."
The JREF will also not waste its time (or jeopardize the applicant's safety and well being) with claims from applicants who exhibit clear signs of paranoid delusions, schizophrenia or other mental illness, feeling strongly that it is their moral responsibility to avoid the furthering of such delusions in the minds of those who may be in need of immediate psychiatric attention. What this means is that it is OK for you to be deluded, as the JREF feels many applicants may well be, but it is not OK for the JREF to support your illness, if you have shown clear, clinical signs of suffering from one. Randi feels that his personal and moral obligations in this regard far supercede [sic] the JREF's professional obligation to test all applicants.
And Section 5.3 warns,
While you may be neither mistaken nor a cheater, the JREF will always assume that you are one or the other.
Now we return to our question: How objective is JREF in deciding which applicants will be accepted? Well, it appears that JREF categorizes virtually all paranormal claims as "extraordinarily implausible" and assumes that many, perhaps most, applicants are mentally ill. JREF reserves the right to ignore an application from anyone whose claim is too "incredible" to be taken seriously, or whose claim contradicts the findings of "Science," as understood by JREF. Further, JREF reserves the right to ignore applications from people who are psychologically impaired - a determination that can be made by JREF alone.
Now, given all of the above, just how easy is it to get an application approved by JREF, and how many people have managed it? Those are questions we'll look at in part two.