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Tales from the Million Dollar Challenge

by Phil Plait, May 13 2009
A MILLION dollars!

A MILLION dollars!

I think one of the coolest things — if not the coolest thing — the James Randi Educational Foundation does is the Million Dollar Challenge: if you can prove you have paranormal abilities (you can dowse, you’re psychic, you can make objects float or catch fire or turn into cheese just with the power of your mind), then we’ll give you a million bucks.

Of course, lots of people claim the money doesn’t exist (yes it does), or that the rules are unfair (no they’re not; we negotiate protocols with the claimant until both parties are satisfied), or that we’re out to disprove the paranormal (not true; or else why have the MDC in the first place?). Despite these complaints, there is a long list of people attempting to win the Challenge.

But first they have to pass a preliminary Challenge, a test run if you will. If they can pass muster, then they move on to the Megabuck test.

The latest person to take this test was Patrica Putt. She claims she can listen to a person’s voice and be able to tell all sorts of information about them, which, if true, would clearly be paranormal. She took the preliminary Challenge last week, tested by Professors Christopher French and Richard Wiseman.

The results? Well, read Professor French’s account of it at The Guardian. Or you could read Professor Wiseman’s account. Or you could read JREF staff member (and MDC Research Assistant) Alison Smith’s account on the JREF’s Swift blog (and an earlier quick post of the results right after the trial here).

All in all, it went pretty much as you’d expect… if you’re skeptical.

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Tales from the Million Dollar Challenge, 4.8 out of 5 based on 5 ratings

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19 Responses to “Tales from the Million Dollar Challenge”

  1. Ranson says:

    I’va always loved the MDC. It’s one of the better tools a skeptic has in conversation, particularly if the other party doesn’t know much about it. The fact that all parties agree to the protocol is what makes it so strong, I think. Sure, there’s always backpedaling and denial, but you can always point to the protocol and say, “You agreed you could do this.

    I’m hearing things about a continuation past the previously announced close date of the MDC, but I’m a month behind on my podcasts and videos, so I’m in the dark. Can anyone else fill me in?

  2. gski says:

    What am I missing? Why can’t the believers simply claim, each volunteer picked a reading that they knew wasn’t their’s?

    • Kneil says:

      The alleged psychic was a party to the negotiation to the testing protocol so the subjects should have been drawn from a fairly representative pool (probably university students) and surveys generally show that slightly more than half of the population believes.

      I say if she really had her powers she should have been able to get all 10 right. With that assumption either all 10 (9 if she was having a bad day) must have been independently chosen to lie, or she has no magical powers. The later seems a bit more likely…

  3. Max says:

    Phil, I have a challenge for you. How much money would you bet that in 20 years, the best estimate of the age of the universe will still be between 13.5 and 14 billion years? Would you bet your retirement savings?

  4. Dave Taylor says:

    I love the existence of the MDC but also heard it was being removed. I think I heard it on the podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. If I remember correctly it was because the money had never been claimed and needed to be put to fight more important fights (for example, the attempts to teach Intelligent Design in science lessons).

    Hopefully it will stay. There is nothing funnier to just saying to a ‘psychic’: “Well if you believe you can do it take the MDC and claim your $1 million.” Strangely, they never collect this easy money in demonstration of their powers.

    • BillDarryl says:

      You’re half right… tho they could (and I’m sure will) use the money better, the driving reason was that weeding through all the claimants became way too time consuming. The sheer volume of paperwork, correspondence, etc. involved for just the preliminary challenges is overwhelming. And most flunk them, anyway.

      After decades of no one winning (or coming close to winning) the prize, Randi felt comfortable putting it to rest, as his point has been proven. Nevertheless, he gave a few years’ heads up, in case there are any procrastinating paranormtards out there.

      (I would love it if after the challenge closes, a “psychic” claims that (s)he has true powers, and would have easily won were it still offered. I can almost hear Randi’s retort: “Wait, aren’t you psychic? You really should have seen this coming!”)

      • Dave Taylor says:

        Thanks for the extra information Bill. Of course, the day it ends psychics, mediums, homeopaths and accupuncturists will be flocking around saying, “I HAVE THE POWER” like some weird, deluded He-Man.

  5. Max says:

    I was hoping to see a definition of “paranormal abilities” instead of a list of examples. Is it anything testable that’s not recognized by modern science, like homeopathy? Could Barry Marshall have won the challenge by successfully treating peptic ulcer with antibiotics, back when it was still considered implausible? Could Trevor Marshall win it now by successfully treating autoimmune diseases with antibiotics, as part of the Marshall Protocol?
    Can savants and synesthetes like Daniel Tammet win it by sensing whether a given number is prime and reciting pi to 22,514 digits?

  6. Ranson says:

    @Max

    A good rule of thumb I’ve found for “paranormal” in these cases is to ask the question, “Would the reality of the ability require us to rewrite or re-examine a substantial part of modern physics, biology, chemistry, or other sciences?”

    Homeopathy is a good example, as it’s purported mechanism flies in the face of pretty much any scientific field you choose to apply; predictably enough, well-controlled tests provide evidence indicating that it’s bunk. As for the antibiotic examples, those things both fall under things that may have been considered implausible under current knowledge, but nothing about them makes the laws of physics blush. Regrow a human limb with antibiotics, and you’ve probably got a winner.

    A similar argument can be made of the savant abilities you mention. Odd human abilities are nothing new (see someone like Wim Hof for a favorite example of mine), but should Tammet be able to reliably determine whether or not an unseen number is prime…that’s a different story.

    • BillDarryl says:

      AND I’m sure the MDC would subject any medical breakthrough claim to multiple rigorous double-blind testings, to insure it does what the claimant purports it does.

      But if the claim can withstand that… why on earth would the submitter be wasting his time at JREF? He’s got a game-changer on his hands! Go for the Nobel!

      • Max says:

        The Nobel prize is only $1.2 million, the claimant can’t apply for it, and he may die of old age before winning.

        Trevor Marshall is certain that his protocol will be so obviously effective, that it will be unethical to continue a double-blind study with a control group.

      • Kneil says:

        I’m not aware of the details of Marshall’s treatment, but wouldn’t the usual test protocol of standard therapy + New therapy vs. standard therapy + placebo work?

      • Max says:

        If it becomes obvious that the new therapy is curing everyone while the old therapy barely helps, then it becomes unethical to deny the control group the effective new therapy.

  7. Ranson says:

    Max, that’s downright silly. “We can’t prove efficacy scientifically because it might be so effective that everyone would want it!” Is it more ethical to have an unproven, anecdotally-supported (but possibly ultimately useless) method sold to the public, or a method that has real scientific backing that could likely be offered to the control group after the study is completed (it’s not like drug or treatment studies last forever — if nothing else, we have to evaluate what happens when someone comes off a treatment)? You’re not going to find a lot of sympathy for option 1 in this group. One has to show the science, or they don’t have shit.

    A spectacularly effective treatment has to go through the same evidentiary hoops as a very effective treatment, and moderately effective treatment, a slightly effective treatment, or a useless treatment. Otherwise, it’s probably a scam.

    I’ll admit an intense personal distaste for medical scammers, partly because I’ve seen the benefits of real medicine in my family, partly because I work in the periphery of the medical system, and mostly because, sometimes, BAD MEDICINE KILLS PEOPLE. Laetrile kills. Hoxsey kills. Homeopathy kills. Every time someone turns away from proven medicine for bunk, there’s a chance they won’t get the chance to change their mind. Sometimes people who don’t have a chance to get better no matter what miss out on pallative care that improves their quality life for what time they have left. Sometimes it’s just that little infection that gets out of hand, and ends a life.

    Better to do the damned tests and treat the world as a hero with a proven therapy than to be a rebel, bucking the institution. Be a Jonas Salk, not Clark Stanley.

  8. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Over the years, the Challenge has produced prime examples of the logical falacy, “Special Pleading”. If one wants to learn about Special Pleading, all one has to do is read about the challenges over the years and pay attention to the excuses.

  9. Kari says:

    From the Marshall protocol website:

    Furthermore it is more difficult to obtain acceptance of the Marshall Protocol because, like surgical operations, its efficacy and safety cannot be easily proven with double blind clinical trials. See Why isn’t the MP being used by more doctors?

    Jeez, if science were easy, there would be no reason to give out Nobel Prizes. Charlatanism is much easier.

    • Max says:

      Their hostility to double-blind clinical trials and peer-reviewed publications are definitely red flags, but they make some good points. Here I think they’re saying that the Marshall Protocol has some specific side-effects, like sensitivity to light, that are hard to reproduce in a placebo.