Will Another Paranormal Challenge Prove Psychic Ability?

psychic-challenge

“If you’re really psychic there’s $1million with your name on it!” 

It’s a challenge issued up by skeptics on a regular basis. I still see it to this day and recently, while being interviewed by a US-based skeptic podcast, I was surprised to discover that the hosts didn’t know the $1million challenge had ceased to exist following the retirement of James Randi in 2015.

Marcello Truzzi was right when he said ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof’ (1978), but I’ve often felt that some would use the $1million challenge as a way to not engage with people who were making paranormal claims. As a dismissal of sorts.

The JREF challenge required people to pass a preliminary test that demonstrated their paranormal claims were legit before going onto another test that, if successful, could lead to them winning the legendary $1million prize. Yet, many critics point out that the statistics involved to pass these tests were unrealistic and unachievable. (Taylor, 2008)

Indeed, Truzzi himself once wrote it was his opinion that ‘ … scientists should carefully make such assessments before judging the likelihood of some phenomenon’s actual occurence. I think that this will quickly reveal that some paranormal claims are far less unlikely than others, and this has very important implications for the amount and quality of proof a scientific skeptic should demand before accepting such claims.‘ (Truzzi, 1978)

When the JREF challenge ceased in 2015 you’d be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t anything as mainstream to replace it but there are currently at least twenty such challenges in existence around the globe which can be seen listed here.

Here in the UK, other than the Merseyside Skeptic Society’s Halloween Psychic Challenge, there hasn’t been much else actively offering an incentive for people to put their claims to the test other than their sense of curiosity and openness.

Then, in September, members of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) were informed that the organisation has relaunched The ASKE Paranormal Challenge which offers a £10,000 reward to applicants who can demonstrate a paranormal ability under controlled conditions.

The document outlining the test on the ASKE website explains that ‘Successful claimants who are resident in the UK will then be eligible, if they wish, to apply for the €25,000 Sisyphus Prize offered by SKEPP, the Belgian Skeptical society.’ (ASKE, 2016)

I asked one of the founders of ASKE, Michael Heap (MH) a few questions about the challenge. My questions are labelled as HS and our exchange follows.


HS: Did the cessation of the JREF $1million challenge have any influence upon the relaunch of the ASKE challenge?

MH: The original idea of having this kind of challenge came from Tony Youens and others when ASKE was established in the 1990s.  No doubt they were influenced by James Randi’s $1million challenge.  Several ASKE members pledged contributions to the prize, which at one time came to £14,000.  We had few applicants and the claims of those that did apply were too ill-defined or difficult test.  We were however involved in a preliminary test of a dowser (with negative results)

For this reason, and the fact that several of the people who made pledges allowed their ASKE membership to lapse, we withdrew the offer.  However, around that time the Belgian skeptical organisation SKEPP announced a temporary challenge (the Sisyphus Prize) with an award of €1 million.  Applicants had first to pass a preliminary test in their own country, overseen by their national skeptical organisation, which would give them a small prize if they passed the test. ASKE offered £400. 

ASKE’s latest venture was announced at my initiative and, in effect, continues the present arrangement but with, I hope, a higher profile and more publicity.

HS: What is the long-term aim of the challenge?

MH: It is important to express the aim of this kind of venture as being no more than to put to the test claims of paranormal abilities made by individuals from any walk of life.  The aim (expressed or unspoken) should not be to debunk the paranormal.  

If someone were to demonstrate unequivocally that they have a paranormal ability that would be a wonderful bonus, despite the loss of £10,000.  Past experience has suggested that this is extremely unlikely.  Nevertheless, as a psychologist what I find most interesting about people who believe they have a paranormal ability is why they have come to believe this and what purpose, if any, the belief serves in their lives.  This does not mean disparaging the people concerned in any way.  I hope we can build up a caseload of tests (either preliminary or formal) that have been conducted and I think this would be of interest.  

HS: What are the challenges that running such a test faces?

MH: As you will have gathered I have only limited experience of running tests, and I have spoken to those with more experience.  The main challenge seems to be devising a watertight protocol.  Science will not accept the authenticity of any unusual claim or explanation if there is a way of accounting for what is observed that is more consistent with existing knowledge.  (This does not, incidentally, mean that the unusual explanation is thus incorrect).  

It follows that if you conduct an experiment or test on an unusual claim you must eliminate every possibility that a positive outcome could be explained by normal means such as inadequate randomisation of conditions, inadvertent cueing, or the use of trickery by the claimant.  It is deceptively difficult to ensure that this condition is met and some claims do not lend themselves to this kind of investigations.

Many people see the problem of paranormal challenges such as this as the almost universal reluctance of the person tested to relinquish their claim when the test has failed.  (In answer to my question at a lecture by James Randi, he stated that very occasionally claimants have done this; at a Skeptics in the Pub meeting some years ago, Richard Wiseman’s answer was that he lived for the day when this would happen.)  However, I personally would not expect this to occur.  

I believe that it is important to inform applicants that if they do not pass the test it does not disprove their claimed ability; it simply means that they were unable to demonstrate it on this occasion.  This is also something we all need to accept.  

HS: Do you think such challenges contribute to the field of Parapsychology or is it a stand-alone thing?

MH: I believe they have a place in Parapsychology if only for the purpose given above, namely that they provide an accumulation of detailed case records.

Obviously, if a claimant passed their test that would be important for Parapsychology (but see one problem below).  More generally, a paranormal ability such as ‘a sixth sense’ would have an immense evolutionary advantage and, as with the other ‘five senses’, there is no reason why an individual should not be able to demonstrate it under controlled conditions.  (Why would it only be revealed by a group of people?)  So it only needs one person to demonstrate this ability unequivocally for its existence to be accepted.  

Unfortunately, the history of single case studies in Parapsychology (cf. Uri Geller) is not an inspiring one; nevertheless, it is a valid approach and less costly and time-consuming than group studies.  There is, however, one problem with challenges; in science, as well as a watertight experiment, the findings must be replicable.  A successful challenge claimant is quite free to go away and rest on their laurels without submitting themselves for further tests.  And – heaven forfend – what about the possibility that the prize-winner fails subsequent tests that they agree to undertake!

HS:  What sort of people do you hope will apply to take the test?

MH: So far as the personal qualities of the applicant are concerned, the words ‘sensible’ and ‘sincere’ spring to mind.  From my not-too-extensive experience, an understanding of the scientific experimental process is important.  That is, the applicant should be able to grasp the idea that, within the limited resources that can be provided, the claimed ability should be one that will produce a clear, specific and unequivocal outcome if it succeeds, and no effect if it does not and there should be tight controls on normal extraneous influences.  

Finally, there is the possibility that the claimed ability is part of a delusional system in a person with mental health problems.  If such appears to be the case it would be unwise to proceed.  With this and other considerations in mind, ASKE stipulates that it reserves the right to reject any application it wishes.


Personally, I have never been 100% sure that a financial prize is a way to approach testing paranormal abilities. I believe that if evidence of such abilities or powers is ever to be produced it will be through parapsychology or anomalistic psychology research and not through tests at conferences or conducted in front of news cameras. However, I respect that challenges of this nature are a good way to engage with the public about how important controlled tests of paranormal claims are. Just look at the damage caused by the ADE651 bomb detectors which were actually just dowsing devices. Had the right people asked the right questions, and had these devices been tested using the double-blind conditions promoted by paranormal challenges the outcome could have been so different.

Will another test of this nature find evidence of paranormal abilities? I doubt it, but time will tell.


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References

ASKE Paranormal Challenge (2016) [Online], The Association for Skeptical Enquiry. Available at http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/page13/ASKE%20Paranormal%20Challenge.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Taylor, Greg (2008), The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge [Online], Daily Grail. Available at http://www.dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Truzzi, Marcello (1978), On The Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification, Zetetic Scholar. Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11. Available to view at http://www.tricksterbook.com/truzzi/ZS-Issues-PDFs/ZeteticScholarNo1.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016)

Featured image: Business man consults glowing crystal ball, Infowire, Flickr

The problem With People Like Chip Coffey

asshole

News broke recently that a paranormal TV celebrity had been arrested in the US. I don’t know who they are and I’ve never watched any of their shows but I noticed that a guy called Chip Coffey (who claims to be a psychic) was quick to take to his social media and give his 2 cents on the subject, having worked on the same shows as this individual in the past.

I made a throwaway comment on Twitter that it’s a shame that Coffey couldn’t have warned people of what was going to happen. If only he had been psychic or something, right?

It’s a joke that skeptics make all of the time in reference to stories that involve psychics not predicting something. Haha. Ha.

Colour me surprised then when a few days later Chip Coffey started to send me tweets about how ignorant I am. He must have searched his name on Twitter and come across my random tweet. I have Storified the convo as best I can here. It got tricky once some of his adoring fans started to get involved so I’ve only included the initial conversation.

Long story short, I am an ignorant asshole for suggesting that Coffey isn’t psychic and for pointing out that there are reasons to believe this. For example, did you know that a group of US-based skeptics led by Susan Gerbic once planted false information about made up characters at a Chip Coffey stage show and he picked up messages from these fictional characters and delivered messages to the skeptics in the audience?

‘[H]e claimed to have seen the two nonexistent people we pretended to have: a sister for Jan and my son Matthew. He “spoke” to Wade’s dead mother who was really alive and is nothing like the personality that he described.’

As his Wikipedia page points out, there are a number of reasons to doubt his claims of psychic ability and I believe this gives strong justification for being hesitant to believe Chip Coffey when he says he is psychic. Yet, instead of addressing these concerns Coffey and his fans would rather dismiss people as ignorant. It’s extremely arrogant and egotistical to suggest that people should accept your claims with blind faith regardless of whether there is justification to doubt them or not.

I wasn’t exactly polite in my twitter exchange with Coffey but frankly, I don’t see why I should’ve been. He and his fans are a good reminder of what the “love and light” brigade are really like if you don’t toe their line.

On Sally Morgan Warning Her Fans About Scammers

Sally Morgan video

 

British psychic Sally Morgan recently caused a bit of a stir online when she posted a video to her official Facebook page warning fans about people on social media pretending to be her and trying to make money from her fans by scamming them.

Many people on my social media timelines have mocked this because they believe that Sally Morgan is also scamming money from her fans in one way or another, but that’s a debate for another day. In fact, I’ve blogged about Sally Morgan and her claims previously on this blog here if you’re curious.

What many people are missing here is that Sally Morgan is doing the right thing by warning her fans because by doing so she is helping them to know who they are handing their money over to and what services they are purchasing and this is good news. Why? Because it means that they have a huge range of consumer protection legislation and consumer protection services behind them to help them if they decide they’ve been tricked out of their money by Sally Morgan.

Being clear about who you are paying, what you are paying for and why makes you a clever consumer who has options if you’re not happy with what you’ve paid for.

If someone is tricked into handing their bank details over to someone who is pretending to be Sally Morgan it’s quite unlikely that they’re going to be able to trace that person very easily. A police investigation might be successful in returning their money to them eventually but it might not. It’s also a highly traumatic experience.

This is why I think we should applaud psychics (and other odd claim makers) when they warn their customers to be careful consumers and to think twice about who they’re handing their money over to. The alternative is that Sally Morgan knows that people are pretending to be her and scamming money from people and she does nothing about it and nothing to highlight it and that’s just not cool. There would quite rightly be an uproar.

Look – people claiming to be psychics are not going away regardless of how many petitions you launch or how many banners you hold up outside of their shows. People will always believe in psychics and psychics will always be around.

The best thing that people who doubt psychics can do is to ensure that those who believe in psychics know how to spot trickery when it happens and what to do when they spot it because people who believe in psychics do not deserve to be conned out of their money.

There are whole swathes of people within the skeptic community whom I refer to as “anti-psychics”. These are not the people out there raising awareness of how to spot psychic trickery (and sometimes being abused for doing so), but instead those who want to see psychics punished and shamed for what they claim. Or even harmed – the aggression I have seen aimed at people who claim to be psychic has been alarming at times.

These “anti-psychics” think that people who believe in psychics must be thick and that because they’re thick they deserve to have their money stolen through dishonest practices. ‘You reap what you sow’ they’ll say. ‘Should have listened to us’ they’ll warn, but ultimately they do nothing to solve the issues that those who want to visit psychics face.

People believe in psychics for a whole range of reasons, many of which are complex and personal and it’s their choice what they spend their money on. If we want to help we can help raise awareness of how to be a smart consumer and how to spot psychic fraud if you see it. On this occasion Sally Morgan helped us achieve that aim because people pretending to be famous psychics are psychic con artists themselves. Nice one, Sally. 👍

For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

A Psychic Died

fry

When Colin Fry died there was a huge rise in traffic to my blog because of a post I had written in the past criticising him for seeming to take advantage of the misfortune of a man who had fallen victim to a psychic mail scam. I got a number of messages telling me that what I had written was disrespectful as Fry had just died despite the fact that the piece is both informed and was written prior to his death or his cancer diagnosis. This led me to update the post to explain this and yet people continued to send their disapproval my way.

It’s sad that Colin Fry died aged 53 of terminal cancer. Cancer sucks, as does nicotine addiction and 53 is far too young to die but this doesn’t detract from the fact that Fry made dubious claims about having supernatural abilities and was once caught cheating at a seance – behaviour that justified skepticism of his claims. That stuff happened so why should we pretend it didn’t?

I wrote something similar when Fred Phelps popped his clogs in a post titled De mortuis nihil nisi bonumIf to respect the dead you have to ignore or censor whole parts of their existence then quite frankly you’re not being very respectful, are you? Fry, of course, was nothing like Phelps and I’m not suggesting he was… in fact Fry was gay and was critical of Sally Morgan’s husband when his homophobic behaviour was caught on camera.

‘I deplore all forms of prejudice, and of course I have personal reasons for particularly detesting any form of homophobia. Every one is welcome to attend my shows of any race, gender , religion or sexual orientation, even skeptics!’ – Colin Fry

I may be misguided but I always thought of Fry as the last of the old-school spiritualist mediums because he still worked with the Spiritualists National Union (SNU) and was even an SNU registered minister whereas the SNU tend to view other high-profile stage psychics in an unfavourable light. This, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that there were claims made and behaviours observed that brought doubt to the validity of what Colin Fry was claiming.

To pretend that is not deserving of such criticism does the man a disservice and for fans to pretend that Colin Fry was better than or above criticisms levelled at him in life and death is purely a selfish move. He acknowledged and, to a point, welcomed the skepticism people held of his claims and I think he’d welcome it after his death too.