Richard Saunders provides the background, foreground, inside and outside of this year's Million Dollar Challenge test in front of a live audience at TAM 2014.
The Amazing Meeting, the annual gathering of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in Las Vegas, is amazing for a number of reasons. I, for one, find it amazing that although a whole year goes by from one meeting to the next, once ensconced in the venue, the South Point Casino, one can be forgiven for thinking the last meeting was only the other week. In the six years I have been going to the South Point, it has scarcely changed while I just get a little older.
In 2012 and 2013 it was my pleasure to assist the JREF in organising and staging the preliminary test for the Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) which over the years, has become the grand finale of TAM. In 2014, shortly before heading off to Las Vegas, members of the MDC committee, Banachek, Jamy Ian Swiss and Chip Denman, asked if I would once again come to the aid of the party. With such highly regarded people as these acting on behalf of James Randi, the answer was easy.
The emails started following my way a day or two before my arrival, followed by Skype meetings with Banachek and new to the MDC Krystyn Lambert, a highly respected up and coming magician who works with the likes of Cris Angel.
This year the claimant was one Mr. Fei Wang (pronounced 'Wong'), a Chinese national living and studying in Boston. He had already been tested by "The New England Center for the Advancement of Paranormal Science" with seemingly positive results. This report together with letters of recommendation satisfied the MDC committee that it was worth proceeding with testing this claimant.
Mr. Wang's claim in his words is: "I have some supernatural power that I can send out from right hand and other people can simply feel it in distance about 30cm away."
Mr. Wang claims that he can project or transmit a power, force or energy, hitherto unknown to science, from his right hand into the hand of a receptive subject. The subject will be able to feel this energy as warmth, movement, tingling or other notable sensations in their hand. It is also claimed that this energy (possibly known as "Qigong") can be transmitted through various materials including wood, plastic and metal. It is important to note that this claimed ability still works even if the subject is unaware of the direct actions of Mr. Wang.
On the surface of it, this may appear to be a relatively simple claim to test, but experience has shown us that even simple claims can be quite a task.
I arrived at South Point the day before the first official TAM events. Before long I found myself in the Del Mar Bar (the unofficial TAM hangout spot) working on the formal MDC document that would not only serve as the agreement between the JREF and Mr. Wang, but would also be the step-by-step protocol for the test itself. This document would change many times each day as the committee and Mr. Wang worked together to fine-tune the test.
The first hurdle to overcome was to make sure that the subjects of the test, those who were to be on the receiving end of Mr. Wang's powers, were ultimately unaware when or if Mr. Wang was sending his power. At first the idea was to set an aluminium partition on a table, with a subject on one side and Mr. Wang on the other. There would be two holes in the partition through which the subject could extend their hands, coming to rest inside two boxes. Mr. Wang could then 'work' on either the left or right hand, sending his energy through the box, without the subject knowing.
In our first meeting with Mr. Wang on Thursday, we realised that he found this arrangement unacceptable as he claimed that the power or energy would travel from his right hand, through the box, into the the left hand of the subject and keep going out the other side into the right box! Banachek, Jamy, Chip, Mr. Wang and I, all walked around the room for sometime with our hands on chins, voicing ideas, arguing the merits of each, going back to the drawing board and so on. Then the idea came up that the screen or partition (by which time was agreed could be made from cardboard) be at an angle so the energy would miss the other hand of the subject as it was being projected. We also toyed for a long time with the idea that Mr. Wang and a ''placebo clamant", ie. someone with no special powers, would approach the subject at the same time, one working on the right hand, the other on the left. These ideas bounced around the room for the next couple of hours as we changed this and that, drew diagrams, and argued the small points.
This all goes to remind us all of how complex and involved these preliminary tests can be, especially when you consider that we are also constructing a live performance for an audience. But the overriding consideration during the whole process was to ensure that Mr. Wang was in agreement and comfortable with what we were suggesting. He, like any other claimant at this stage of the planning, had the right to veto what we put forward. I must say that we found Mr. Wang to be very helpful and polite throughout and was understanding of what we were trying to achieve.
Somewhere along the way the idea developed that we only use the right hand of the subject and that Mr. Wang and our placebo claimant should take it in turns. This met with universal agreement as it eliminated quite a few problems. We also agreed that two ping-pong balls, one white, the other black, placed in paper bag and shaken, would be used to determine at random who would approach the subject first and second. By now we all needed a rest and it was agreed we would meet again the next day when Mr. Wang could start meeting and assessing possible subjects for the test.
I headed back to my room and rewrote the MDC document with the new conditions worked out in our meeting complete with new diagrams.
Friday arrived and TAM was in full swing - hundreds of people from all over the world with many old friends to meet once again. Mr. Wang arrived at the reception desk around 12.45pm and was escorted to the 'Press Room' which we commandeered for the next few hours. Soon Krystyn brought in the first group of possible subjects from the Las Vegas area, all of whom were very keen to help. In the week before TAM, Krystyn went about finding the subjects by placing flyers at yoga studios, Whole Foods, mystic bookstores, psychic reading places, crystal dealers, and even used Craig's List. Mr. Wong had mentioned that people who practice meditation, etc. are more likely to be empaths for his energy, but Mr. Wang was happy to use TAM delegates if needed.
The next three hours were spent with Mr. Wang slowly and methodically testing each subject who placed their right hands inside a cardboard box. We even went to the trouble of blindfolding and placing industrial headphones on the subjects to make sure they and Mr. Wang were comfortable with this extra layer of security. Then Banachek or I and Mr. Wang would ask them if they felt any sensation in their hand when the energy seemed to be transmitted. Some said yes, some said they were not sure, most said no. Mr. Wang had the final say as to whether an individual was deemed acceptable and they were asked to return for the live show. Noticing Mr. Wang's right hand was getting very close to the box, it was agreed that a line be drawn to form a 6cm barrier.
A great deal of time was used to work out just how long Mr. Wang needed to concentrate between each subject in order for him to feel his energy levels were just right. It was during this session that it was decided that he would have exactly one minute to work on each subject which was more time than he said he really needed. We also had to agree on how much time should elapse if we were to use the same subject more than once. Other details included where to put the curtains and who should stand where and do what! I videoed the entire session for the archives with the permission of Mr. Wang.
One of the details that changed during this session was that the subject would face away from the audience instead of at right angles. The stage curtains would also be used to help conceal Mr. Wang and our placebo clamant (Jamy Ian Swiss) from the audience. A copy of the document was emailed to Mr. Wang for his records and comments.
Saturday rolled around and once again we found ourselves in the Press Room with another group of possible subjects to be assessed by Mr. Wang. Yet more alterations to the test were made as we learnt more about just what was needed and who we might be using the following night. Krystyn also took this opportunity to find out more about Mr. Wang's background for the benefit of the audience. Like the day before, this session took some hours and more of the protocol was fine tuned. By the end we had only five subjects with whom Mr. Wang was happy from the two days of these pre-tests.
More rewrites followed with me making two new versions of the testing plan document. One version was to cater for the possibility of using our five subjects twice giving us ten tests, the other was a safety in case only three of the subjects turned up on the night in which case we would use them up to three times each giving us a total of nine tests. As it turned out it was good to have a 'plan B'.
Finally Sunday, the day of the preliminary challenge arrived. All the members of the MDC committee were very busy that day with talks or workshops and it was not until late into the afternoon after the last TAM talk (which happened to be mine) that we had access to the main stage to start constructing the testing table, cardboard screen and box and practice moving the curtains. A video camera was also installed at the back of the stage to capture for the record what would be hidden from the audience. Mr. Wang joined us during this time to inspect the setup and go over the final protocols, as did James Randi who took great care to examine the stage.
Delegates may be forgiven if they think they saw a strange flash with a yellow tie tearing up and down the great hall, laptop in hand, as I ran to see to last minute lose ends including finding a printer to make copies of the now many times re-written formal document.
All was ready, however we only had three of the five subjects turn up for the test, so plan B it was. We parked them in the service corridor near the main stage, had Mr. Wang wait in the wings, let the audience in and started the show.
Banachek and Jamy took to the stage to introduce the night. Then Chip came out and covered the stats and calculations. For Mr. Wang to pass, he would need to score at least eight hits out of nine trials. Krystyn gave an overview of Mr Wang and his claim, then I entered the stage last and as it happened really had nothing to say! We then did a demonstration run of the test with Brian Walker taking the part of the subject for the benefit of the audience as they would not be able to see the vital part of the test. Maybe the most important procedure at this point was to have Mr. Wang agree to and sign a copy of the formal document. This made it clear that we were testing his claimed ability under conditions to which he agreed.
Now Banachek, Jamy, Chip and Mr. Wang went to the back of the stage while Krystyn and I stayed near the front. Subject #1 was brought from the corridor and I showed her to the seat in front of the cardboard screen and box. I placed her hand into the box for a few moments so she could get accustomed to her arm being at that angle. Banachek gave the word that Mr. Wang was ready, the curtains were drawn, I helped the subject with the blindfold and headphones and guided her hand once again into the box. Behind the curtains and unseen to the audience, Chip reached into the bag and pulled out one of the ping-pong balls and trial #1 was underway with either Mr. Wang or Jamy approaching the box.
As I stood there on the stage, my mind ticking over the seconds, I looked over to Krystyn and thought, "How come she gets a chair?" The audience, as ever at TAM, showed great respect... you could hear a pin drop.
Banachek announced when the time for session #1 was up and I walked over and told the subject. A few moments later we were ready for session #2.
When session #2 was over I removed the blindfold and headphones from the subject. The curtains opened, Banachek came around from the back of the stage and asked the subject "Did you feel something during the first session?" - The subject answered "Yes". "Did you feel something during the second session?" -"No". Krystyn wrote a "1" on the score board. Now Chip revealed who went first and second. It turned out that in this case it was Jamy who had stepped up first, so this trial was a fail for Mr. Wang.
The subject was thanked and shown off the stage and the next subject sent in from the corridor. The same process followed with resting her hand in the box for a few moments, then the placing on of the blindfold and headphone. Trial #2, session #1 proceeded as normal and at the end Banachek instructed me to remove the blindfold and headphones which was not originally planned but gave our subject a slight rest. Then the gear went back on for the next session.
When the time was up for session #2 I removed the blindfold and headphones. The curtains opened, Banachek came around from the back of the stage and asked the subject "Did you feel something during the first session?" - The subject answered "Yes". "Did you feel something during the second session?" - Also "Yes". We had anticipated this possibility so Banachek then asked "In which session did it feel stronger". The answer, "The second session." Krystyn wrote a "2" on the score board. Now Chip revealed who went first and second. It turned out that in this case it was Mr. Wang who had stepped up first, so the trial again was a fail.
Unfortunately this meant the test overall was considered a fail for Mr. Wang as he needed to score at least eight out of nine to pass on the night. Even though two first up fails was always on the cards, it was still a little disappointing.
In what I consider to be a sign of his sincerity, Mr.Wang was happy to answer questions from the audience. I ducked down to have a word to Randi who wanted us to be sure that Mr. Wang received a warm applause, which is exactly what happened.
As the crowd filed out, some people came up to question details of the test or to get a better idea of why we did this or that. One concern raised was that it should have been me and not Banachek who asked the questions of the subjects after each trial to maintain a double-blind aspect. We took that point into consideration as important should we have progressed to the full blown challenge.
Despite Mr. Wang's confidence in his abilities, choosing the subjects for the test himself, taking part in the planning, and agreeing to the conditions, members of the MDC committee and the TAM audience remained skeptical of his claim. The energy or power or force he believes he possesses was seemingly absent during the preliminary test and also failed on most of the subjects during the pre-tests in the days before. It is a possibility that any reported sensation is more likely to be a psychological effect or simply a consequence of the arm and hand being held out during the process, rather than a mystical, unknown power.
I would like to thank the members of the MDC committee for once again allowing me to take part in the event and especially Mr. Wang who had the courage of his convictions.
RIchard Saunders is a Life Member of Australian Skeptics Inc., Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, author and documentary film maker.