January 12, 2007
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If anyone in the UK does not recognize the name of Adam Hart-Davis, I’ll be very surprised. He is seen there frequently on TV and in the press explaining science to the public in a forthright and clear manner. That is why I chose to send him this letter:
Dear Mr. Hart-Davis:
I am of course familiar with you through your work on UK TV and via many comments that my readers (at www.randi.org) offer on your efforts, which they much admire. However, a recent comment attributed to you has my surprised – I might say, “jaw-dropping” – attention. It was a response to a Mr. Chris Oldman, shown here:
Dear Chris Oldman,
Thanks for your jaw-dropping letter.
I am no sort of believer in the paranormal, but I have seen too much dowsing success to dismiss it out of hand, and I have seen a sensible professor of engineering set up a successful investigative test.
Yes I do know about Randi’s cheque, and I have also looked critically at the footage of a massive dowsing test he carried out in Australia. In that test he bamboozled the contestants with muddled statistics. They did indeed show a significant effect, but he managed to flannel his way out of it.
So I am not prepared to deny dowsing out of hand.
I must tell you that the majority – some 80% – of those who apply for our million-dollar prize, claim they are dowsers. In all parts of the world – the UK, the USA, Australia, Russia, Canada, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Japan – they have tried to perform their stunt, with very average – but expected – results. As for the “bamboozling” you say I did with the Australian dowsers, they attained less than their own estimated success rate, so they did not win the prize – which at that point was only US$10,000. You should know that the two Aussies who got slightly over the expected success rate – not statistically significant, but over expectation – were re-tried in Perth, Australia, a few weeks later after I had left the country, and at that time they attained results significantly below expectation. There was no “bamboozling,” nor “flannelling,” except by those who claimed that there was. Even Arthur C. Clarke now understands this; he had been misinformed.
Dowsing simply does not work. We at the JREF wager our million-dollar prize on that statement.
Please bear in mind that our prize still stands, for dowsing or for any other paranormal claim, and we regularly test claimants; none have ever passed the preliminaries. If your “sensible professor of engineering” should wish to try for the prize – under conditions, a protocol and parameters that he himself designs and supervises – we are prepared to offer him the opportunity. And, please, think of what reasons he might have for refusing to do so, if he chooses to refuse. Why would a man who claims to be a violinist, refuse to play the violin for a prize of US$1,000,000…? A dowsing test could probably be done within a 2-hour period; that’s an exceedingly fine rate of remuneration, I think…
Please offer the prize to your un-named “sensible professor of engineering.” Simply filling out the application at www.randi.org/research/challenge.html will begin the process...
Thank you for your attention to this letter, sir. With respect, James Randi.
Let us see what transpires…
An anonymous reader in Essex, UK, tells us something unsurprising. Few of these “believer” folks are only woo-woo in one direction; to them, dowsing, spoon-bending, goblins, perpetual motion, quackery, fairies, and angels are all equally likely to be true. He writes:
You've mentioned Peter Lloyd again, but I don't recall you mentioning the other services mentioned on his web pages: www.ursasoft.com/angelika/index.htm and www.ursasoft.com/psychicsolutions/index.htm. As a wearer of glasses for many years now, it would be nice to believe that I could improve my eyesight with games and good humor….
Try to keep your sense of humor, sir. As I well know, it’s not easy… To Peter Lloyd, who has now announced his acceptance of the prime quack Bates Method of eyesight improvement, as well as Tarot readers for “corporate entertainment,” I repeat my oft-asked question: Sir, is there anything you don’t believe is true? Is the Father Christmas/Santa Claus question at least somewhat doubtful for you…?
As I will formally announce at TAM5 in Las Vegas, and I hinted at some time back, we’ve been planning to revise the rules of the JREF million-dollar challenge to make it more manageable and practical. Frankly, when we introduced it in 1998, we had great expectations that it would attract heavy attention from the media and from the woo-woos. Yes, the media have contacted us for their perfunctory “contrasting opinion” needs, but those prominent among the strange folks who embrace the Dark Side have hidden under the Sylvia Browne Rock, which gets more crowded every day…
Here are the changes we intend to make, and I would welcome comments:
REVISION OF THE JAMES RANDI EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION CHALLENGE.
As we presently conduct the James Randi Educational Foundation challenge, there are inherent drawbacks, some of which we will address with these changes. This revision will be in effect as of April 1st, 2007. Until that date, the old rules will stay in effect. We confidently expect that there will be many objections to this move from those who will celebrate that we have abandoned the challenge because of fear that it will be met; nothing could be further from the truth but that won't prevent this sort of invented objection, of course.
The new format will cut down on our workload, increase our efficiency, and present a clearer picture to the public and the media. It will also, we believe, be a more attractive subject for the media to handle and pursue.
THE PRESENT SITUATION
With the old format, we’ve been swamped with frivolous claims rather than with serious responses to the challenge. By far the majority of applicants have been unable to state their claims coherently, have failed to comply with the simple requirements of the rules, and have used a great deal of our time and attention just to get them to provide us with a clear and concise description of what they believe they can do to win the prize. We have asked them to say what they could do, with what accuracy, and under what conditions; it frequently took several exchanges of correspondence before we've been able to get such a statement, and it was an additional task to get them to have their claim notarized and/or witnessed properly.
Some 80% of the applications have involved dowsing/divining, and these folks run on for weeks with endless clarifications, philosophical meanderings, theories, and anecdotal accounts, despite specific instructions not to engage in these distractions.
Also, going after the little fish in this big pond tends to give us a weak profile in the media; it appears that we’re only going after easy targets, when actually we include everyone.
We have not effectively elicited responses from the most prominent practitioners – such as Uri Geller and John Edward – and we believe that the new format will remedy that.
There are two main revisions we are now making with the challenge: first, we are changing the qualifications of those who will be eligible to become applicants, and second, we are actively pursuing the prominent figures in the field, rather than simply allowing them to come to us.
As of April 1, 2007, we will require two major qualifications of all those who will be eligible. First, any applicant will be required to have a media profile. By that, we mean that there must be some media recognition – a television interview, a newspaper account, some press writeup, or a reference in a book, that provides details of the claimed abilities of the applicant. Note: something more authoritative than an offhand reference during a local TV newscast or a paragraph in a local shopper handout, will be required. The second requirement will be that the applicant must provide an endorsement of an academic nature. That means some sort of validation from an appropriately-qualified academic. This does not include the local chiropractor or Sunday-school teacher.
Once these qualifications have been offered, we will follow up on them, asking for validation; we’ll require that the cited authorities verify that they did make such a statement about the applicant, or that they hold such an opinion, and that they still stand by that statement. Anecdotal material will not be accepted.
We may be prepared to possibly waive the requirement for a preliminary test as soon as these two qualifications have been validated. In such a case we will be prepared to move right into the second phase: the formal test.
Rather than merely waiting for applicants to present themselves, we will regularly and officially highlight well-known persons in the field and challenge them directly by name. Those challenged will then have a six-month period during which they may respond; during that period the JREF will heavily publicize the fact that such a challenge has been issued, we will issue press releases on the matter, and we will be frequently asking that those challenged make a response. Tentatively, we will begin by formally challenging Uri Geller, James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward, on April 1st.
A CHANGE IN APPROACH
For too long now, the JREF has been on the defensive rather than on the offensive. That will be changed as of April 1, when we will begin actively pursuing the possibility of legal actions being brought against prominent figures in the field to investigate whether or not any laws are being broken by false promises to clients, incorrect attributions, accepting fees for services not met, or other deceptive procedures whereby the public has been misinformed and/or taken advantage of. This will include both civil and criminal actions.
We will seek to bring civil lawsuits against offenders, we will inform the Securities Exchange Commission [SEC] of possible infractions in which they might be interested, and we will bring attention to possible violations involving 501(c)3 requirements in the case of claimed religious exemptions.
We will henceforth be pursuing the media from a different angle, pointing out to them that we have items of general public interest and importance to offer them. We will emphasize that education should include equipping students to use critical thinking. We will make the media aware that we are also prepared to go after religious claims – if and when they can be actually examined. And, religious claims will be treated exactly as any other paranormal claims.
The JREF will be looking for a responsible media agent to represent our needs and send out regular media releases. Our previous experiences in this regard have not been at all satisfactory, so we will be highly selective in choosing an agency.
To bring more attention to the JREF million-dollar challenge, to simplify our work, and to attain better efficiency in administering the matter, these changes will be initiated. Suggestions and ideas from interested persons are encouraged; this organization is a public-oriented one, and we wish to meet the needs of the general public.
The “F.A.Qs,” the challenge rules, and the pertinent parts of the Challenge description contained in www.randi.org/research/index.html will be re-written to conform with the above, beginning April 1st, 2007. Any person who can attain the required media profile and the academic recognition will become eligible to try for the prize.
(I’ll mention, in passing , that the 400+ filed applications we have, constitute a fabulous treasure-trove of data for some graduate student to use to prepare a study on the varieties of woo-woo ideas that have come our way over the years. This could result in a major book, an analysis of belief vs. reality that would be valuable to psychologists…)
As further evidence of the profundity with which the amateurs receive our challenge, these are a few of the actual reasons we’ve received over the years, for not taking the challenge:
I can't afford to be in a higher tax bracket.
I'm already rich.
I don't want the money; I'm totally spiritual.
You wouldn't pay me the money, anyway.
It's all a lie; there is no prize.
It's a trap by the CIA to identify and murder me.
The prize comes from the CIA (or from the communists).
God told me not to get into it.
If I win, you'll have me killed to save paying out the money.
You'll put out negative vibes to inhibit my powers.
Since you're a trickster, you'll fool me somehow.
It's too much money.
It's not enough money.
I want the money in a pile, in cash, (or a certified check) before I try.
And it goes on and on.....
As an example of how frustrating this game of challenge dodge-ball is, consider this statement, found on “The Official Ed Dames RV Community Forum Index” site, authored by their “administrator.” (The “RV” refers to the supposed art of “remote viewing,” in which the performers cast their souls or minds – your choice – off to remote locations like Jupiter or Damascus.) We cannot tell what initiated this statement, but it refers to the JREF million-dollar prize. It reads:
Yes, Major Dames and his team of professional Remote Viewers on many occasions has [sic] offered to take up this challenge. The request has always been declined with the statement that Remote Viewers are not allowed to partake in this challenge.
This is a blatant, knowing, lie. Dames has never applied for the prize, has never asked to be considered for it, has never even been in touch with us. Other “remote viewers” have, however. One Dr. Wayne E. Carr, a PhD in California who heads the Western Institute of Remote Viewing and the American Association of Remote Viewers, Inc., exchanged literally hundreds of pages of correspondence with us via fax, postal mail, and e-mail beginning at the first of May, 1999, and running for two years after that. He constantly changed the protocol, the target list, the rules, the required statistics, and the dates, and finally ended up by transferring the test to an RV group in Hawaii who never responded to us when we agreed to work with them, then Dr. Carr refused to pursue the matter any further. We spent months negotiating the matter, we gave Carr every possible advantage, we respected his academic qualifications, and it was all for naught. In fact, as you’ll note, that matter is well within the new requirements for the JREF prize: the media profile is there, as well as the academic support. But that case is now closed.
Ed Dames hasn’t even done what Carr tried to do. His “administrator” knows full well that “RV” is one of the abilities we clearly agree is eligible, but he lies by saying that it isn’t, so as to avoid any testing procedure – which they understandably fear. Dames proudly advertises a group of RVers he calls “The Magnificent Seven.” What’s at all magnificent about them, I cannot say, but if they want to win a million dollars – divided eight ways, I presume – all they have to do is “remote” to Fort Lauderdale and discern what’s in the special “target” locker in my office. It’s a test object best described by
That’s a definitive encoding, since we always call our shots in advance. A year after The Magnificent Seven has declined to apply – that will be January 12th, 2008 – we’ll publish the decoding key…
Reader Andrés Diplotti, in Argentina, writes:
First of all, I must commend you for your job and your weekly commentary. It's a read I thoroughly enjoy every time.
A few days ago, I ran into a guy from Spain who goes by the online handle of Santosrios and claims to be an astrologer. Consequently, he feels the need to bash scientists and skeptics alike. It's generally the usual drivel: scientists are evil, power-seeking people who live off public money; skeptics are fascist ignoramuses on payroll, yadda, yadda...
Of course, when presented with the chance to claim the million dollars from the JREF, he readily refuses. Again, it's the same old tired excuses: the challenge is rigged, you will never let go of the money... You've heard it all.
There is, however, a noteworthy thing he has to say about you in his latest tirade against skeptics. It's in http://www.santosrios.com/?p=128. I'll translate the relevant parts for you:
One of the leaders against astrology, which is also opposed by the Catholic Church, is a character who used to be a magician and who now teaches courses and sells books based on denying that phenomena unexplained by science, exist. He has even offered one million dollars for anyone who proves anything unexplained, which, evidently, no one has achieved to date, and I don't think anyone will: it's difficult to let go of a million dollars, especially if it's yours.
The Catholic Church, the oldest fascist institution ever, asks for two miracles to make someone a saint.... Only Pope John Paul II has turned 483 persons into saints, which implies the acceptance of 966 miracles...: either the Church is lying and none of these 966 miracles exist, or the guy with the million dollars is lying and should have given the money to the Catholic Church already…
The funny thing is, the one who says miracles don't exist and the ones who claim to have proof of 966 miracles not only don't mess with each other, but they have agreed to bash the astrologers with the motto "dupers in deadly sin."
Really, it's a funny thing, don't you agree?
Yes, Andrés, it is funny, particularly where he puts me in league with the Church. This chap doesn’t appear to have either a grasp on reality, or the ability to read and understand, but why should we be surprised at that?
As we prepare to head off to Las Vegas for an exciting TAM5, I have to give proper credit to a pair of volunteer workers who attached themselves to the JREF and have been turning out the Randi Dolls in great number. Incidentally, sales of this item are very brisk. That doll-grooming job required a great deal of work, many hours over many days, of combing, trimming, brushing, and tidying up these miniature Randi’s, as well as equipping them with glasses, handcuffs, care-and-feeding instructions, and suitably-placed voodoo pins. The concealed "secret" feature of each Randi Doll was, I will admit, put in place by yours truly. After all, that's highly specialized work, don't you know?
You see here the busy team of Keith and Helena, in the final stages of bagging up the finished products. These brave persons turned out 600 of the little guys, and we've shipped off about two hundred of them to Las Vegas so they'll be available to TAM5 customers.
It's due to willing and industrious volunteers like Keith and Helena that the JREF can do so well. Our grateful thanks to them, and I trust that they will have enjoyed their experience with us and will return to assist us with other projects.
Several readers have jumped on me for the www.randi.org/jr/2007-01/010507phil.html#i8 item, pointing out that the National Park Service describes on their website – accurately – the age of the Grand Canyon. True, but my argument is that the average tourist is not going to be carrying a computer into the NPS bookstore to be confronted with the creationist book that gives that age as 6,000 years. One reader sent me this press statement:
There is no evidence that anyone associated with the Bush administration or anyone else ordered park officials to withhold scientific information from visitors, let alone ordered them to "suspend" their own belief in geology. There is a decent case to be made that any book that proclaims the Grand Canyon is only 6,000 years old shouldn’t be sold on federal property. But that case should be made decently, which is to say, honestly.
I’ve had two letters from visitors who were told by staff at the park that they were not to answer questions about the Canyon’s age, but both added that they referred the questioners to the NPS website. That appears to be significant, to me, but I cannot imagine any staffer there discussing what his/her orders are in that direction…
I’ve also been accused of searching for evidence that the present administration is favoring religion over science. Searching? No, I’ve found it, and so have millions of other observers. The White House invokes God at every possible opportunity – though I’m encouraged by the fact that this last Wednesday night’s speech by George W. Bush did not use a closing reference to God, but only an appeal to “the Author of Liberty,” who could be a real person, for all we know. We are being gradually herded into a theocracy, and we’d better recognize that fact.
Reporter Gil Spencer, who provided the caveat quoted above at www.delcotimes.com, also wrote that he’d called PEER’s director, Jeff Ruch, and asked him if park rangers were being punished or otherwise prevented by any order from the Bush administration from informing visitors of the geological age of the Grand Canyon. Says Spencer, he admitted that they were not:
We are not suggesting (they are) being censored..., we are not alleging censorship so much as a lack of guidance… I can’t speak to the impression we left (to readers)… What we said was accurate.
Well, apparently it wasn’t. Here’s what Ruch said in his own press release:
In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology.
PEER has tested our patience and our trust with this misrepresentation. I regret that I accepted their statements at face value. I still think that they have a valid case concerning the NPS bias about the creationist book, but it’s not helped by hyperbole…
I’ll be seeing almost 800 of you folks in Las Vegas at TAM5. I urge all of you to introduce yourselves personally on that occasion, please. I’ll be happy to answer your questions and explain anything you inquire about.
We’re flattered and encouraged by the reaction The Amaz!ng Meetings have invoked. Next year we just may change the venue, so stay tuned. My staff have labored long and hard to make this happen. Linda and Karl Shallenberger, Jeff Wagg, Hal Bidlack, and Scott & Susan Hurst, Eric, Keith, Helena, and Chris have worked tirelessly to keep me aware and active in regard to my duties. I think you’ll find that my recovery from recent medical problems has been more than satisfactory, and as Daniel Dennett recently declared, at www.randi.org/jr/2006-11/111006big.html#i4, we owe recovery to the efforts of trained medical persons, not to prayer, magnets in our shoes, nor homeopathy… Viva science!
And this just in: The JREF Challenge is featured in this article: wired.com. Take a look!
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