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Putt’s mulligan

by Phil Plait, May 27 2009

As you may recall, the James Randi Educational Foundation recently tested a woman named Patricia Putt who claimed she could "read" people, that is, write down statements that accurately described these people, without knowing them in advance. She applied for the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, and the preliminary test was performed in England by JREF friends Professors Christopher French and Richard Wiseman.

Briefly, 10 women were read by Ms. Putt, she wrote down descriptions of them, and then after the readings each of the ten women was allowed to look over the readings and determine which one fit her best.

In advance of the testing, Putt and the JREF agreed that if 5 of the 10 women chose correctly, then this would indicate that something interesting was happening, and she could move on to the final testing. And how did she fare?

Not one of the women picked the reading that matched her. Putt scored 0 out of ten.

When she discovered this, she was shaken, and seemed fair about it. However, that’s now changed. On his blog, Richard Wiseman described what happened, and Putt has responded. As with almost all applicants who fail, she is finding ways to rationalize her failure. However, she goes much further than this, claiming that in fact she got 10 out of 10 right! How?

Because Ms. Putt made ten readings, and according to her each one of the women read did in fact choose a reading that she thought fit her best! In other words, Putt says that because each women did pick one of the readings, there must have been something in that reading that the woman felt fit her, and therefore Putt scored a perfect 10/10.

Um. Well, not so much. First off, if I write down 30 random character traits, of course everyone will find a few that fit them! This is plainly obvious, so having the women pick one reading that fit them best is no indication at all that Putt has any psychic abilities.

Worse, though, is that in the rules, each woman was required to pick one reading! So literally, Putt could have written "You eat puppies, you push little old ladies in front of cars, you pick your teeth in public, and you belch loudly in elevators," for each reading, and the women would have had to pick that. So this indicates nothing at all.

I also find it fascinating that in the comment, she says,

I should also like to point out that neither am I a winger or a whiner, so when I decided to take up the Randi Challenge I did so with both eyes open knowing that the protocols would be completely one sided in favour of JREF, and so it was.

I willingly walked into the lion’s Den knowing it would be a long, difficult and very tiring day with apparently nothing to smile about at the finish.

That’s interesting indeed, since she had to sign a form indicating that she agreed to the terms of the Challenge. As a later comment states, she had to sign a form that in part says, "I, the undersigned, agree to all terms and conditions listed in this document outlining the protocol for my preliminary test in the James Randi Educational Foundation’s One Million Dollar Challenge. I agree that the protocol outline describes a fair test of my claimed ability."

Seems to me that I wouldn’t sign such a form if I thought the test was unfair. And we know that many, many Challenge applicants try very hard to come up with reasons why they failed the test after the fact, despite the JREF jumping through many, many hoops to make sure that before the test the applicant is happy with it. No test is conducted unless the person applying is happy with it. That’s a basic and inviolable rule of the Challenge.

But what I find most interesting of all is that after the test, Putt emailed Alison Smith, who is in charge of the Challenge protocols, saying (as quoted by French in the Guardian (see below)):

With them [the volunteers] being bound from head to foot like black mummies, they themselves felt tied so were not really free to link with Spirit making my work a great deal more difficult.

Hmmm, which is it? Did she score a perfect 10 out of 10, as she claimed in her response on Professor Wiseman’s blog, or was it impossible to do the reading because the subjects were not free to be read?

Or is there a third possibility? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

It should be noted, as Professer French points out in his Guardian article about this, that "For the record, no volunteers were “bound” and Mrs Putt did not speak to any of the volunteers after the test. One can only assume that she picked up on their feelings of being “tied” via her psychic powers."

So make of this what you will. It doesn’t prove psychic powers don’t exist, nor does it prove that Putt doesn’t possess them if they do. But it does show that when you take out the bias, take out the feedback the reader gets from the client, and take out the aspects of the readings that allow someone being read to be led to the conclusions they want to hear, Putt scored zero.

Occam’s razor slices close indeed. You may try to bandage the cut after the fact, but you’re only covering up the reality of the wound.

35 Responses to “Putt’s mulligan”

  1. Russ says:

    I wish an ‘impartial’ investigative journalist would go undercover to ‘expose’ the inner-workings of the million dollar challenge. I’m so tired of scumbags claiming ‘there’s no million dollars’, or ‘someone won the challenge, and randi refused to pay’.

    Or course the excuses will still come on thick and fast.. But this could definitely swing the minds of people who would otherwise believe these scumbags.

  2. Why not add a rule to the protocol? The JREF will record a video of someone interviewing the applicant. They describe the protocols, and ask the applicant if there’s any questions and if the applicant understands. The applicant says, right there on the video, that they understand the protocols and that they’re fair and a fair assessment of their claimed powers. Then, after the test, the JREF can post it on youtube along with the results.

    Sure, they sign a statement, but in this day and age there’s nothing quite like a video of the applicant saying in their own words that it’s a fair test.

  3. SC says:

    “I hope there is no God” Finally, an honest atheist strikes the right chord.


  4. Adam Wollet says:

    @ Keith Twombley:

    I was thinking the same thing, but the problem is there is no limit to the excuses. “Obviously” even a video showing the challenger agreeing tot he protocols doesn’t prove anything because of the coercive nature of the JREF and the Million Dollar Challenge. They simply told her her prior to recording the video what the criteria will be and if she doesn’t agree to them she can’t test her ability. And because she is such a team player and willing to put her abilities on the line despite the unfair advantages woven into the challenge by the testers, there is no way she could be lying about all of this. :-)

    • John says:

      It just adds another layer of excuses, though. The more layers of excuses, the less likely they sound to the “regular” person.

  5. tmac57 says:

    When I was a teenager, I saw a ‘psychic’ energy demonstration where the ‘psychic’ could cause a piece of paper folded into a sort of propeller, to rotate while balanced on a needle ,set upright with the base of the needle stuck into a cork. I tried this myself and to my amazement found out that I could also do this! If I wanted it to rotate clockwise I just concentrated and there it went in that direction, and likewise for counter-clockwise.
    Well, after awhile I began to wonder if what I thought was happening was really something ‘paranormal’,or if there was a simpler explanation. Hmmmm…what if I was inadvertently breathing on the paper when I turned my head slightly to the left or right as I tried to mentally influence the rotation? The bottom line is when I put this to the test, with a glass jar covering the test rig, the ‘psychic effect disappeared. Sure I was disappointed, but that was an early lesson in personal skepticism for me, and I’ve never forgotten it. If I had been of the Putt mindset, I would have concluded that the glass jar was somehow ‘blocking’ my psychic energy. Putt, and others like her, think that special pleading and moving the goalposts are legitimate and reasonable tactics. You will almost never win with a person who is that invested in their delusions.

  6. BillDarryl says:

    I don’t think the JREF has to do anything differently, really.

    The only people who whine about “it’s not a fair test” are those who won’t do it, or who have done it and failed. And they whine to their fanatic base, who won’t be swayed no matter how many youtube videos you show them. The rest of the public either chuckles at the sore losers, or just doesn’t care.

    The only danger to the JREF would be if any of these whiners decides to move on to a lawsuit. As far as I know, no one has. And if anyone did, sounds like the JREF has its legal ducks in a row already.

    And statements like “there is no million dollars” or “I won and Randi didn’t pay” don’t need an investigation – they can be immediately falsified. The JREF has been more than open with releasing information that counter these claims.

    Nah, Phil & co. really don’t need to take on additional work to attempt to silence a few whiners (who won’t be silenced anyway). It’s funnier to watch them spin their lies and get shot down, as was done here.

  7. Mark Edward says:

    Putts after the fact pleading is no surprise to me. THIS IS WHAT THESE PEOPLE DO FOR A LIVING!

    • Pat in Montreal says:


      But I’m sure by now the JREF folks have seen it so often that they expect it in almost every test.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Mark, isn’t this also what you do for a living? One difference, though, is that you don’t whine about your failures. (Another difference is that you don’t fail quite so frequently.) ;)

  8. bill babishoff says:

    I’ve never met anyone with “psychic” powers. I’ve only seen them on the media. There are so few of them I don’t think they make an impact in society past silly entertainment. Anyone who falls for their b.s. is deserving. Remember what the great W.C. fields said, “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Amazing Randi, your wasting your time.

    • Ranson says:

      I have only one answer to that, Bill: What’s the Harm?

      Working to alleviate needless suffering is never a waste.

      • bill babishoff says:

        Are you saying that the Amazing Randi is a savior for the suckers?
        I don’t think that was his purpose. I believe he wanted to expose the charlatans, and make a nice show. Helping the suckers of the world is just a byproduct. Let’s not forget what the Amazing Randi’s occupation is.

        I never said there was a harm. I believe this to be showmanship, the likes of P.T. Barnum would be proud. Why try to prove something by means in which it cannot be experienced?

        The skeptics may be satisfied but the believers will keep on with their illusions.

      • tmac57 says:

        Bill, did you see that Ranson was directing you to the ‘What’s The Harm’ web site? Your response seemed to be a non sequitur .

      • bill babishoff says:

        No I didn’t, My error.

      • bill babishoff says:

        After viewing the “What’s the harm” webpage you kindly linked I have to say It’s BUNK!
        These are lame “sound bite” comments with no in depth look at the real stories. Most all of these stories can be explained by stupidity rather than a belief structure. Also by circumstance.
        Cancer patients don’t refuse chemo or radiation because they work, they refuse them because they DON’T work in most cases and they don’t feel they will work for them. People NEED alternative therapies at least up until the point that modern medicine can actually cure diseases with a reasonable level of certainty. Once that happens the alternative therapies will die off like the horse and wagon. Few people desire to be lab rats, They simply feel it’s their only other option. Look what happened to Steve McQeen. He died because he had an incurable disease. The treatments did nothing.
        The only harm believing in the moon landing hoax is Buzz Aldrin might punch you in the face?
        Wouldn’t “most Americans will laugh at you” be a better response?
        C’mon, this site is insulting. Sound bite news is not worthy news.
        But, thanks for the entertainment!

      • Max says:

        “Cancer patients don’t refuse chemo or radiation because they work, they refuse them because they DON’T work in most cases and they don’t feel they will work for them.”

        We just saw with that Daniel kid that some cancer patients refuse chemo that works, and instead take alternative therapies that don’t work, opting for a 5% chance of survival over a 90% chance of survival.

      • bill babishoff says:

        A 90% chance of surviving (not thriving) for only FIVE years is not a cure. If I were sick like Daniel, I too would consider alternative therapies.

      • catgirl says:

        A 90% chance of surviving (not thriving) for only FIVE years is not a cure. If I were sick like Daniel, I too would consider alternative therapies.

        Umm, I don’t think you understand the basic concept of a five-year survival rate. People don’t drop dead at five years and one day. And Daniel will thrive once his cancer is destroyed. Most people are as healthy after treatment as they were before they had cancer. Even in the few cases where treatment leaves a permanent effect, it’s still better than what would have happened if the cancer were left untreated, which would probably result in death.

        The problem with alternative therapies is that they do not get rid of cancer. They’ll make you feel happy because someone will lie and tell you it’s 100% effective so they can get your money. But in the end, you’ll still have cancer. Daniel’s cancer got worse while he was using only herbs and magic water. You have to get past your emotional need to have a guarantee and realize that people are lying to you because they know how much you want that guarantee. The actual evidence means more than what some charlatan says. If herbs and magic water give me a 5% cure rate and chemo gives me a 90% cure rate, I’ll take the 90% and be thankful for it.

  9. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    I like the part about “I eat puppies”.

  10. Max says:

    What’s the probability that 5 of the 10 women would choose correctly by chance alone? I calculated about 1/625.

    • Max says:

      0.16% seems awfully small. Even clinical trials are happy with p-values of 5% or 1%. Did I miscalculate?
      I bet Patricia Putt expected to score 9 or 10.

    • Max says:

      Sorry, I meant to say at least 5 of the 10 women.
      [ C(10,5)*9^5 + C(10,6)*9^4 + ... C(10,10)*9^0 ] / 10^10

  11. As with all failures of this kind, the safety net barrage of excuses seems to raise it’s ugly head again. Why these people simply can’t accept they have failed is beyond me.

    • Max says:

      You never had any difficulty accepting your own failures?
      How easy was it to give up your beliefs in the paranormal?

      • Failures in what exactly? My attempt at the million dollar challenge? I am always happy to acknowledge failure. It’s the only way to learn.

        In order to give up my beliefs, I’d have to have beliefs to give up. My stint in the paranormal scene went a little like this…”Walks into a dark room not expecting much. Walks out of dark room with a hilarious comical script.”

        I guess it would be unfair of me to say I got nothing out of the paranormal scene. I got a good laugh, met some interesting people, undertook a three year character reference and gained script content I could never possibly make up on my own.

        Now back to the blundering of another failed attempt for some easy money.

  12. kabol says:

    i am so sad.

    i want psychic psychicity to be real.

    ****”…there is no limit to the excuses…”****


  13. itchy says:

    Surely Putt must have supernatural powers to have scored SO poorly!

  14. Mark says:

    I think itchy has hit the nail on the head here, how could we all have missed it? Even a normal person doing random guessing must get one or two “correct” hits, thus the need to get at least 5 to make this claim worth pursuing further. To get all 10 wrong? Not only does that show she does have psychic talents, but she is also clearly from the Bizarro planet, where everything is the opposite of the Earth. And thus, obviously, we now have proof that everything in the Superman comics must be looked at again as history, rather than fiction. Wow, I can just feel the flood of new websites starting up…

    • Max says:

      A normal person doing random guessing would score zero (9/10)^10 = 35% of the time, get exactly one right (9/10)^9 = 39% of the time, get exactly two right (9/10)^9/2 = 19% of the time.
      So the most probable score is 1, but zero is a close second.

    • Actually, the paranormalists have codeified the very thing Itchy decribes, where a psychic’s power may be registered negatively. I can’t quite be certain of the term, but some of them are very serious about it… skeptical negation? Skeptical Negativity? Something like that. Whatever its title, the premise was that psychics ought not be expected to pass testing because the skeptical…. what, spirit? essence? air? … the skeptical presence negates the psychi powers. Since all testing is skeptical in nature, a psychic is hard-pressed to pass them. No, really!

      I am certain it is merely a coincidence that this theoretical force neatly transfers responsibility for one’s abject failure at testing from the psychic to the skeptic. I am equally certain it’s a coincidence this force also makes psychic powers untestable and entirely a matter of faith.

      • tmac57 says:

        Devil’s Advocate- Now you act like you don’t believe in the power of ‘expectation cancellation'(Trade Mark!). Well, how about when you loan someone money, and expect them to pay you back? Everyone knows, that the higher your expectations are that a loan be paid back, the less likely that the loanee will be able to come up with the money!