Science: Putting psychics to the test

An arch-sceptic is offering $1m in a challenge to belief in the paranormal, writes Wendy Grossman

You could become a millionaire if you have psychic powers. A fortnight ago, James Randi, the magician and noted debunker of paranormal claims, announced that he has $1,073,000 waiting as a challenge prize for anyone who demonstrates psychic powers under controlled conditions.

"Just ask for an application form: send a letter plus a stamped, self- addressed envelope to this address (international applicants can forget the stamp) and fill it out, have it notarised, make the claim, demonstrate it, and walk away with more than one million dollars! It's that simple," he said on his Internet mailing list recently. "Again I ask, why isn't the lobby of the James Randi Educational Foundation jammed with psychics? Perhaps they were waiting for the prize to be worthwhile? Well, now it is."

If things go well, you might pick up another $1m from Uri Geller, who has promised to pay that to anyone who can bend the spoon in his transparent safe, via a link across the World Wide Web. (Though you will have to do it again in front of a representative from his insurance company.)

But generally, these are hard times for those who approach all paranormal claims sceptically. (They are often known as skeptics - the "k" harks back to the American origins of their movement.) At June's World Congress to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), speakers contended that anti-science is growing everywhere, even within academia.

Yet comparing polls since 1989 suggests little change in the public's belief in topics such as precognition, lucky charms, and exchanging messages with the dead. If anything, they're slightly down. A sample: in 1989 42 per cent of those polled said they believed in life after death, while 42 per cent said they didn't; by 1995 those numbers were 39 and 44 per cent respectively. The only exception is belief in flying saucers, which showed a small rise in belief, from 21 per cent yes and 69 per cent no to 24 per cent yes and 67 per cent no.

But Randi, who has been investigating paranormal claims for more than 50 years, and was a founding fellow of CSICOP, questions the polls' accuracy. He cites other indicators: in 1965 Books in Print listed 131 books promoting paranormal claims; in 1996, it was 2,860. And look at homeopathic remedies (untested in double-blind trials) and the prevalence of programmes such as The X-Files, which some think is documentary.

"If you had asked me six years ago, I would have been encouraged. But immediately after that there started a rapid slide downhill, and it's just catastrophic today. Scientifically, we're in a dark age," he says. The sceptics' attitude "is just so unpopular - to be logical, informed, to be rational. Thinking is out, acceptance is in."

Earlier this year he set up The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), intended to conduct and finance research into paranormal claims, run classes and seminars, award scholarships, and maintain a library of relevant research material, including a presence on the World Wide Web. JREF also awards the annual Pigasus trophy ("trophies will be sent via psychokinesis"). And now there's that $1m awaiting a psychic willing to be tested.

The prize won't be easily won. In 1986 Randi exposed the faith healing televangelist Peter Popoff by playing the information being fed into Popoff's ear by his wife backstage to nationwide television audiences. (Popoff had claimed that the information came from God.) Randi has tested dowsers in Australia, table-tippers in Italy, and, most recently, therapeutic touch practitioners in Colorado.

But Randi is best known for challenging Uri Geller, the Israeli who since the Seventies has drawn attention to his claims that he is able to use the power of his mind to bend spoons, start stopped watches, read minds, and even speak to aliens. Randi does a very persuasive job of imitating parts of Geller's act using the tricks of the stage magician's trade.

His experience with Geller demonstrates what a tricky business both testing psychic claims and reporting the results can be. In 1991, Geller sued CSICOP and Randi jointly over comments that Randi - then a member of CSICOP's executive council - made in an interview with the International Herald Tribune. Randi suggested that Geller had "tricked even reputable scientists" with techniques that "are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid. Apparently scientists don't eat cornflakes any more."

The case against CSICOP was dismissed in 1993, with Geller ordered to pay almost $150,000 in costs - though CSICOP later settled for $70,000. Randi and Geller settled separately in December 1994, when Geller's case was effectively dismissed, but without damages. Randi reckoned he was about $240,000 out of pocket. Geller also sued Randi in a number of other countries, winning amounts under $5,000.

Why does it matter to Randi or other sceptics whether Geller has the abilities he claims? The sceptics reply that if a human being really can bend metal using only his mind, it constitutes a serious challenge to humanity's store of accumulated scientific knowledge, painstakingly built up by careful research over the centuries. If you can't investigate such claims to open the way for further testing and debate and report the results, it is a loss to science and that public store of knowledge.

What can be done? The state of Colorado has passed a law to tackle a similar problem, after environmentalists complained of legal harassment from companies which they accused of pollution. The Colorado law requires any suit in which government decisions are at stake (for example, permission to build a nuclear power plant) to pass a test to show that it's not frivolous.

Perhaps something of the kind is needed to protect scientific inquiry in the field of paranormal research. Meanwhile, while Randi would say that $1m has never been safer, he himself is still at risk. And science is the loser.

The Skeptic magazine can be reached at PO Box 275, Manchester M60 2TH, skeptic@cs.man.ac.uk, or http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/skeptic/.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is at http://www.randi.org/

CSICOP is at http://www.csicop.org.

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