The offer comes from James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).
The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such claims.
At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the “applicant” becomes a “claimant.”
To date, no one has passed the preliminary tests.
History of the challenge
Randi got the idea for the challenge when, during a radio panel discussion, a parapsychologist challenged him to “put [his] money where [his] mouth is.” In 1964, Randi started offering $1,000, then $10,000 prizes. Later, Lexington Broadcasting wanted Randi to do a show called the $100,000 Psychic Prize, so they added $90,000 to the original $10,000 raised by Randi. Finally, in 1996, one of his friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams donated US $1,000,000 for the prize. As the prize fund grew, the rules that surround claiming the prize became more official and legal. So far, about a thousand people have taken the challenge, and not one has been successful.
To claim, one must agree to a protocol for testing, must show in a preliminary test before a foundation representative that they are likely to succeed, and finally make a demonstration in a formal test in front of independent witnesses. To date, over 1,000 applications have been filed but no one has passed a preliminary test, which is set up and agreed upon by both Randi and the applicant.
In the conditions and rules governing the one million U.S.-dollar challenge, Randi plainly states that both parties (himself and the party accepting the challenge) must agree in advance as to what conditions of the test constitute a success and what constitutes a failure. He also refuses to accept any challengers who might suffer serious injury or death as a result of the test they intend to undergo.
On March 8, 2011, the JREF announced that qualifications were being altered to open the Challenge to more applicants. Whereas applicants were previously required to submit press clippings and a letter from an academic institution to qualify, the new rules now require applicants to present either press clippings, a letter from an academic institution, or a public video demonstrating their ability. The JREF explained that these new rules would give people without media or academic documentation a way to be considered for testing, and would allow the JREF to use online video and social media to reach a wider audience.
Judging the results
The official Challenge rules stipulate that the participant must agree, in writing, to the conditions and criteria of their test. Claims that cannot be tested experimentally are not eligible for the Challenge. To ensure that the experimental conditions themselves do not negatively affect a claimant’s ability to perform, non-blinded preliminary control tests are often performed. For example, the JREF has dowsers perform a control test, in which the dowser attempts to locate the target substance or object using their dowsing ability, even though the target’s location has been revealed to the applicant. Failure to display a 100% success rate in the open test will cause their immediate disqualification. However, claimants are usually able to perform successfully during the open test, confirming that experimental conditions are adequate. According to the JREF, despite success in these open tests, no claimants have yet been able to successfully demonstrate evidence of their claims while blinded under otherwise identical conditions. Some participants have stated afterwards that the threat of disqualification is the main factor in their apparent success in the open test. Randi has said that few unsuccessful applicants ever seriously consider that their failure to perform might be due to the nonexistence of the power they believe they possess. The discussions between the JREF and applicants were at one time posted on a public discussion board for all to see. Since the resignation of Randi’s assistant, Mr. Kramer—and subsequent changes to challenge rules requiring applicants to have demonstrated considerable notability—new applications are no longer logged, but the JREF continues to maintain an archive of previous applicants.
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Another objection made by critics of the challenge is that the rules prohibit independent judging, making the success or failure of the challenge dependent on whether Randi agrees that the test has been passed. While acknowledging the prohibition of independent judges, JREF staff and affiliates point out that the nature of the experimental design makes subjective judging of results unnecessary. Since claimants agree to readily observable success criteria prior to the test, results are unambiguous and clearly indicate whether or not the criteria have been met. Critics have also claimed that Randi’s degree of control over the conditions of the challenge discourages serious applicants from applying, due to a perception of bias. Randi has said that he need not participate in any way with the actual execution of the test, and he has been willing to travel far from the test location to avoid the perception that his anti-paranormal bias could influence the test results. Additionally, claimants are able to influence all aspects of the testing procedure, including location and participants, during the initial negotiation phase of the challenge.
Example of a test (dowsing)
In 1979 Randi tested four people in Italy for dowsing ability (Mr. Fontana, Dr. Borga, Mr. Stanziola, and Mr. Senatore). The prize at the time was $10,000 of Randi’s personal money. The conditions were that a 10 meter by 10 meter test area would be used. There would be water supply and a reservoir just outside the test area. There would be three plastic pipes running underground from the source to the reservoir along different concealed paths. Each pipe would pass through the test area by entering at some point on an edge and exiting at some point on an edge. A pipe would not cross itself but it might cross others. The pipes were 3 centimeters in diameter and were buried 50 centimeters below ground. Valves would select which of the pipes water was running through, and only one would be selected at a time. At least 5 liters per second of water would flow through the selected pipe. The dowser must first check the area to see if there is any natural water or anything else that would interfere with the test, and that would be marked. Additionally, the dowser must demonstrate that the dowsing reaction works on an exposed pipe with the water running. Then one of the three pipes would be selected randomly for each trial. The dowser would place ten to one hundred pegs in the ground along the path he or she traces as the path of the active pipe. Two-thirds of the pegs placed by the dowser must be within 10 centimeters of the center of the pipe being traced for the trial to be a success. Three trials would be done for the test of each dowser and the dowser must pass two of the three trials to pass the test. A lawyer was present, in possession of Randi’s $10,000 check. If a claimant were successful, the lawyer would give him or her the check. If none were successful, the check would be returned to Randi.
All of the dowsers agreed with the conditions of the test and stated that they felt able to perform the test that day and that the water flow was sufficient. Before the test they were asked how sure they were that they would succeed. All said either “99 percent” or “100 percent” certain. They were asked what they would conclude if the water flow was 90 degrees from what they thought it was and all said that it was impossible. After the test they were asked how confident they were that they had passed the test. Three answered “100 percent” and one answered that he had not completed the test.
When all of the tests were over and the location of the pipes was revealed, none of the dowsers had passed the test. Dr. Borga had placed his markers carefully, but the nearest was a full 8 feet from the water pipe. Borga said, “We are lost”, but within two minutes he started blaming his failure on many things such as sunspots and geomagnetic variables. Two of the dowsers thought they had found natural water before the test started, but disagreed with each other about where it was, as well as with the ones who found no natural water.
Exploring psychic powers television show
Exploring Psychic Powers Live! was a television show aired live on June 7, 1989, wherein Randi examined several people claiming psychic powers. The show offered $100,000 (Randi’s then $10,000 prize plus $90,000 put up by the show’s syndicator,Lexington Broadcasting) to anyone who could demonstrate genuine psychic powers.
- An astrologer claimed that he was able to ascertain a person’s astrological sign after talking with them for a few minutes. He was presented with twelve people, one at a time, each with a different astrological sign. The people could not tell the astrologer their astrological sign or birth date, nor could they wear anything that would indicate it. After the astrologer talked to the people, he had them sit in front of a sign that the astrologer thought was theirs. By agreement, the astrologer needed to get ten of them correct to win. He got none correct.
- The next psychic claimed to be able to read auras around people. The psychic claimed that auras were visible at least five inches from the people. The psychic chose ten people who had a clearly visible aura. The people were to stand behind screens and the psychic agreed that the aura would be visible above the screens. The screens were numbered 1 through 10, and people were selected whether or not to stand behind their screen at random. The psychic was to tell whether or not a person was standing behind each screen, by seeing the aura above. Since random guessing would be expected to get about five correct, the psychic needed to get eight of the ten right. The psychic stated that she saw an aura over all ten screens, but people were behind only four of the screens.
- A dowser claimed that he could locate water, even in a bottle inside a sealed cardboard box. He was shown twenty boxes and the dowser was to indicate which boxes contained a water bottle. He indicated that eight of the boxes contained water, but only five did.
- A psychometric psychic claimed to be able to receive personal information about the owner of an object from the object. In order to avoid ambiguous statements, the psychic agreed to be presented with a watch and a key from twelve different people. The psychic was to match keys and watches belonging to the same person. According to the prior agreement, the psychic had to match nine out of the twelve sets, but she succeeded in only two of the cases.
- During the program, another psychic was doing a run of 250 Zener cards, guessing which of the five symbols was on each one. Random guessing should result in about fifty correct predictions, so it was agreed in advance that the psychic had to be right on at least eighty-two cards in order to demonstrate an ability greater than chance. However, she was able to get only fifty predictions correct, which is no better than random guessing (Polidoro 2003:19–24).
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Sources: randi.org, wikipedia