Oct 23 2020

Randi vs The Psychics

My skeptical colleague, James Randi, died earlier this week at the age of 92. He led a long, happy, and rich life and died with few meaningful regrets, and that is something to be celebrated. But we will also miss his wit and keen mind. He was one of the founders of modern skepticism, focusing his attention mainly on the consumer protection angle. He particularly delighted in exposing frauds and hucksters.

Randi came at skepticism through the magician path, which is not uncommon. Houdini, perhaps the most famous stage magician of all time, began this tradition by setting to expose the fake mediums of his time. Houdini realized that many of them were using standard magician stage tricks in order to fake seances. This is fine as a form of entertainment, but they were essentially tricking people into thinking they were contacting lost loved-ones in order to relieve them of excess cash. This practice continues to this day. As a magician himself, Houdini knew how to detect and expose their tricks.

Randi’s career in many ways is similar to Houdini’s but he helped spawn an entire movement of people, including scientists and philosophers, to help in the task. Randi told a story of his youth when he attended a faith-healing session. The pastor had people fill out “prayer cards” with their basic information and the ailment for which they sought healing. The pastor would appeal to the angels to bring him divine information about the next person who needed help. One person in the audience would cry out in joy and the pastor, seemingly through divine means, rattled off very specific information about them – information he could not have known.

Randi instantly recognized this as the old “one ahead trick”. The pastor was simply reciting the information he just read on the previous card, as if it were for the next person. This is a mentalism trick, meant to entertain, but being used to deceive. So Randi exposed the pastor for the trickster that he was, but those present did not thank him. They yelled at him, called him names, and ran him off. They were surprisingly ungrateful that Randi had popped their bubble of illusion and deception.

I’m sure that this was just one of many experiences that helped forge Randi’s perspective on such things, but he told it as a moment that crystallized his understanding of what was going on. It is not enough to show people the truth – they have to want it. So if Randi wanted to do something about fraud he had to do more than expose, he had to educate, which means he had a lot to learn himself. That pretty much defines Randi’s career. Having known Randi for over two decades, I occasionally saw him make mistakes, or state opinions that were not in alignment with the current consensus of scientific opinion. He expressed doubt, for example, of global warming that was not in line with the evidence, but was very open to learning more and changed his mind accordingly. For a showman and celebrity, he knew when to be humble, a critical skill for any skeptic.

One of the things for which Randi is probably most famous is his million dollar challenge. He offered one million dollars – which did exist, and was held in trust (donated, it was eventually revealed, by Johnny Carson) to anyone who could prove, under proper scientific conditions, any paranormal or supernatural phenomenon. I was honored to conduct several preliminary tests for the challenge myself, and participate in some others.

The vast majority of claims were for some form of dowsing. I think this is due to the fact that it is quite easy to fool oneself that dowsing works, because of the ideomotor effect.  And so there are legions of self-deluded dowsers out there, all confident they could snatch the million dollars. None could even get past the preliminary test. Once properly blinded, the dowsing effect vanishes. Most of the other testers were similarly self-deluded believers.

Many could not even get past the hurdle of filling out the application, which required them to specifically state what it is they can do. This may seem like a trivial task, but it is very revealing. Some people just don’t think in scientific terms. Their claims were vague, shifting, and subjective, and when pushed they simply could not state what they could allegedly do in the form of a testable claim.

Others had specific claims, but could not agree on a protocol. I also was involved in this stage on a few applicants. The problem was that every time I tried to introduce a basic scientific control, they had an objection. I worked really hard to accommodate their needs within a scientific protocol, but it just wasn’t happening. In fact, this issue became the out for psychics and proponents of ESP in general. Randi’s test was unfair, they proclaimed. The demands were too strict, and not compatible with psi. You cannot just perform on demand – psi is more mystical and mysterious.

Here is on typical complaint by a proponent of ESP:

The psi effect demanded, even for the GWUP test = Randi’s preliminary test, was so large that I was not hopeful that I would be able to show so much of psi, with the help of my psi-gifted students which I selected by my “pingpong ball test”. My only goal was to achieve a statistically significant effect so as to make the skeptics admit that they observed a significant psi effect. This goal was achieved by my first test trial (one psi-gifted participant) in 2005. In 2006 another test was conducted with the presence of GWUP people: two of my students, psi-gifted in earlier tests, participated. In this test the effect was not significant.

One of the apparent reasons for this failure was that the skeptics had changed the conditions of this test arbitrarily in many ways so that the participants felt uneasy under strong control – such feelings have psi-reducing effects.

So when the researcher did the test himself, he got significant results. When the skeptics were present to ensure proper scientific protocol, the effect vanished. The researcher concluded that scientific controls cause negative feelings that have a “psi-reducing effect”. Right.

Many also complained about the high statistical standards. One person actually said to me directly – why not just use the standard scientific p-value of 0.05? They did not seem to have a problem with giving $1 million dollars to one in every 20 applicants on random chance alone. In the article above they complain over and over about how a highly significant effect would still not meet Randi’s demanding criteria. But this ignores the fact that no-one ever got close. No one got passed the screening test, with still strict but much lower standards, so this hypothetical person with highly significant results never existed.

All of this gets filed under special pleading – psi just happens to have the features necessary to keep it from being properly tested. It only works under favorable conditions (those that also happen to allow for p-hacking and other cheats). The power disappears under conditions that don’t allow cheating – not because they are fake, but because of other unrelated reasons having to do with something.

We don’t need the history of Randi’s million dollar challenge to make this case. The history of ESP research makes it quite well, and there are plenty of scientists who have taken a serious look at this research and shown it to be unconvincing of any psi effect. But Randi’s challenge brought public attention to this fact, much more so than published scientific papers.

I heard Randi tell hundreds of stories over the years, each as interesting and informative. Again – he led quite the full life. I’m sad I won’t get to hear any more. But it was an honor to know him as a friend and colleague. It is impossible to even estimate the ripple effect that his amazing life had on others, and I am lucky to count myself among those on whom he had such an effect.

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