One Million Dollar Challenge

When working on the James Randi Educational Foundation One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, the number one question I’m asked is, “How do you find these people?” And the answer is, they find us.

Basically, they need to state their claim on our official application, send us a letter of recommendation (If you claim you can dismiss gravity, you need to have a letter from a physicist saying that he can’t explain what you’re doing.), a piece of publicity about their power (and not a self-published book!), or a video of their power (and we vary rarely get these). All of this needs to be notarized, and then they mail it in to our offices. Simple, right?

Apparently not, because the majority of our applications are incomplete, which often inadvertently works out in our favor.

Because you get some crazy claims, and it’s not our job to say, “That’s impossible; you’re stupid!” That’s just not accomplishing anything for the applicant, or for our skeptic movement.

And you can’t say, those voices aren’t demons, they’re perhaps symptoms of a mental illness. MDC is about testing paranormal claims, not telling crazy people that they’re crazy.

So fortunately for the sake of tact we can dismiss these claims saying, sorry, but you don’t have all of the right documentation… We give them a 60 day document hold, and very rarely hear back.

Which is kind of too bad, because often I’d really like to write back and start asking them questions… Like we got this one guy, “I’ve seen several supernatural things and I was wondering if it would be included in your contest to give me a lie detector test to see if I was telling the truth and get the million bucks?”

Ok, 1, polygraphs aren’t reliable, and even if we used one, all it would prove is if you honestly believe that you say these supernatural things… And what are these supernatural things, even? And pretty much no matter what they would be, we run into another problem… Say it’s ghosts. And if we prove he saw a ghost, that only works on the assumption that ghosts exist. So whoever proved that would get the million dollars… You can’t win, guy!

So you get these seemingly wacky claims, and you’ve got to figure out what they’re saying or trying to say… And that’s the real fun in this job. I studied philosophy at UCLA with an emphasis in causation. I spent ten weeks on a term paper about two sentences of Frege, so I looooove sinking my teeth into these applications. It’s like this sentence could mean so many things!

I understand that it’s easy to write it off, saying, “Whatever, the guy just wrote it without thinking. He’s crazy, anyway…” But no, I take them very seriously.

Ideally we find someone who actually has these powers. That’d be amazing… for humanity. But for all practical purposes, the Million Dollar Challenge is basically saying, “Calling all charlatans! Calling all quacks!” So we can’t scoff when they actually come.

And if they’re taking this Challenge seriously, and if we’re taking this Challenge seriously, which everyone should since we’re dealing with one million dollars, then we need to take their application seriously.

Besides the million-dollar aspect of the Challenge, the more important point is education. People realizing, “Oh, if this is the sort of testing, maybe I can’t or shouldn’t cheat, “Or maybe these voices in my head aren’t god.”

By not laughing off their emails, and taking them seriously, at least on paper, we’re able to point out the holes in his “claim,” and explain why testing his claim, as is, would be impossible. While they most likely shrug it off, there’s still a chance that they read the email, and take in what we were saying. Maybe now they won’t be so hasty not only in their analysis of their experiences, but also in their analysis of how to interpret their experiences.

So you’ve got to figure out, what’s the claim? Sometimes you can find more than one potential claim in an application. Those are really fun! If that’s the case, which it is most of the time, I write down every option, and try to parse it down to 1-2 sentences.

Then you look and see if there are any glaring problems inherent in the claim. And if there are big problems, should we test is? Can we test it? “I will live if I jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.” Yeah, no, we shouldn’t test that… We’re not testing that. “I am the second coming of Christ,” sorry, but I don’t think we can test that. Sorry sir, but the Bible just ain’t science.

But I still get to reply to those people, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Ok, so assuming the claim is testable, you get to move on to the best part, my favorite part. Because obviously, if it’s testable in theory, you’re still going to need a lot more information before you can dig into designing protocol.

So you need to find out what their claim actually means. And if they’ve posed multiple potential claims, and you’re not sure what it is, here’s where you ask that, too. And sometimes you may think they’re claiming one thing, but they’re really claiming something else. Remember whom you’re dealing with.

And then you need to find out the scope of their claim… What does it entail? Can they do it in a box, in a boat, in a house, with a mouse? Here’s where you get to ask all your nitty-gritty questions.

And the nittier and grittier the questions are, the better, because we need to nail them down on every last detail in order to create protocol. Because protocol has to encompass each and every finer point of their claim in order to ensure that we’re conducting the most thorough and scientific test.

What if the claim were “I can make people fall asleep!” Um, what’s the timeframe there? Can you do it immediately or over the course of six hours? Is there any particular time of day your powers work, i.e. from 10pm on? Or can you do this at any time?

And most applicants will be wormy and vague, because they don’t know, don’t care, or want to keep their options loose so they can cheat. It’s our job to keep them on track. And for better or for worse, I’ve had quite a few applicants simply stop replying to me, presumably because they weren’t quite up to this sort of highly specific back and forth. For the philosopher in me, that’s a source of pride. Especially since I’m anything but an asshole in my correspondence.

Because being an asshole would just be too easy. Not to mention, taking these applicants really seriously, as I discussed earlier, it’s a lot more effective in exposing their ridiculousness. Of course they’re more likely to listen and think about what I’m saying if they don’t feel attacked… And as I also said earlier, one of our objectives is education.

But to a more subtle point, I think that a super formal tone HIGHLIGHTS the ridiculousness. Some of the funniest Monty Python sketches work because you’ve got these serious businessmen doing silly things. The dissonance is a riot! It’s the same with your email: a formal tone saying silly things.

“Dear Sir, how did you initially come to postulate that you would be able to survive a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?” “When you use the phrase, ‘Second Coming,’ are you referring to the description in the Book of Acts or Revelation?”

Ok, so that’s kind of overly pedantic. But the point is, when you’re formal, friendly, and polite, there’s a sharper contrast better than responding like an asshole.

And maybe it’s just my own sadistic pleasure to sit there and craft the most disgustingly polite ways to say, “For the love of Dawkins and all things holy! What does that even mean?” But that is the fun of it… And what was necessary to complete prior to creating our protocol. And I relish every moment.