“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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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