This article was written October 13, 2003, in response to
comments by James Randi (www.randi.org/jr/091903.html)
on The Ultimate Psychic Challenge programme screened on the Discovery Channel, August
17, 2003. To read Keen's original response to James Randi click
JAMES RANDI'S lengthy denunciation of my challenge to him, arising from his performance and claims on
The Ultimate Psychic Challenge, illustrates almost all the wiles of the practised
sceptic, plus ample derision and abuse: evasion of the main issues; obsessive concentration on minor or unimportant matters in order to divert attention from the major issues; contemptuous dismissal of evidence inconsistent with his conviction that all evidence for the paranormal is bunk, and all who contend otherwise are deluded fools.
To keep this response, and the correspondence generally, within bounds, let me deal with the real issues which divide me from Randi. First, some clarifying points about the programme in which we both appeared, and the reason for my protest, which Randi ignores. Then a few observations about the $1 million offer; then some comments on Randi's behaviour in connection with Professor
Gary Schwartz's work with mediums, and finally a word on Randi's standards of integrity and record of trustworthiness.
Since Randi confesses that he had not seen a copy of the videotape of The Ultimate Psychic
Challenge, which presented a substantially slimmed-down version of the taped event, he may not appreciate the substance of my complaint, and the reason why I devoted so much space to describing the programme. The stated intention of the programme was to answer the question: Can we talk to the Dead? I had been invited specifically to summarise the scientific evidence. If the programme had been genuinely concerned with this question, rather than with entertainment, they would have allowed me, and any others who had seriously studied the subject, at least to say what precautions had been taken by scientists to preclude the familiar tricks known as hot reading, and to eliminate any possibility of cold reading. It was irresponsible programming and misleading to the viewing public that this was not done.
Randi's performance, all of it based on secretly obtaining prior information about some members of the audience, and then pretending to give psychic readings, was founded on the
premise that this is how all mediums and clairvoyants invariably operate. This is demonstrably untrue. Some of the twenty outstanding cases I cited in my invitation to Randi to provide "normal" explanations for even a handful of them provide incontestable evidence of this. If Randi wants a handy example of this, he can see my exposure (in the peer-reviewed
Journal of the Society for Psychical
Research) of a futile attempt in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer to account for veridical statements made by various mediums following the death of Edgar Vandy. He and his colleagues were sent copies. None has challenged the evidence.
I was not aware that Randi isn't much of a hand at cold reading (which requires much skill), as distinct from hot reading (which requires a good memory and a capacity to cheat); one wonders why, in the circumstances, they dragged him over from America for what was a pathetically inadequate demonstration. But he can't get away from the fact that he did less impressively when armed with secretly obtained information about a member of the audience, than did Keith Charles without that advantage. I described Charles' performance as impressive, but like most psychic readings, it was uneven. Whereas his efforts with the woman who said all his statements were true, but whose ambiguous and muffled responses often indicated otherwise, was far from convincing, as I am ready to recognise, Randi prefers to ignore the case of the father who described a private sitting he had attended with Charles, having taken great pains to conceal his identity, at which he learned for the first time of the existence and contents of a sealed farewell letter placed by his daughter in the coffin of her sister. I do not believe cold reading could account for this, or for Charles's accurate description of the manner in which the sister's embellished signature had been placed at the end of the letter below a range of crosses. (But more on cold reading when we come to Randi's attack on Gary Schwartz.)
That evidence was cut from the broadcast version, but the audience heard it. So did Randi, who prefers to forget it. As for Charles's switched target reading that Randi makes so much of, no-one can judge its worth without knowing more about the person who acknowledged the applicability of Charles' statements to herself and family. And Randi's ridicule of the final botched experiment clearly implies that it was botched by Charles. In fact the botching was that of the organisers. They were running so seriously overtime that Dr Adrian Parker, the experimenter, had to declare the experiment invalid because he was not allowed to open the control photograph.
What was not cut, but equally carefully ignored by Randi in his search for objectivity, was the film of two young women, apparently sisters, having a private reading. Charles correctly stated:
The name of the mother (Linda);
That Michelle, one of the sitters, had a tattoo on an indicated part of her body;
That she had been engaged twice but her mother did not live to see her married;
That she wore a garish dress at the mother's funeral;
That she had talked to her mother on her deathbed about her small son's teeth problems;
That she was ill around February 26th (Michelle initially denied this, but was reminded that she had fainted on the stairs around that date);
That she had had a dispute with her father who had said she was just like her (…….) mother;
That her mother was pleased that her daughters had kept papers referring to her which had been framed in some way (the daughters had kept annual
in memoriam notices and placed them behind the mother framed photograph).
A blow-by-blow analysis of this might be less easy to reconcile with a cold-reading explanation. Even more disconcerting for Randi's scepticism was the enthusiastic endorsement by the chieftains of Philadelphia police of Charles' psychic detective work. Unless they are all stupid, deluded, incompetent, naïve and ineffective liars, we must assume that Charles has actually helped them trace missing bodies or persons. I could find no reference to this in Randi's careful analysis.
This little exchange illustrates one cardinal rule of the Resolute Sceptic: always seize on the weakest and least evidential and always ignore the more impressive. If forced into a corner, trade off one with the other. Thus a medium who correctly divines that the sitter's uncle was a James McConochie MacDougall may be safely ignored if he also fails to get a response to the name of Charlie.
Randi seems positively proud of the fact that he and his associates researched the audience in preparation for the so-called hot readings. Whereas the implication is that this is the way all psychics work, a genuine platform medium rarely has any opportunity to know anything about the composition of his audience; and only the foolish give mediums in private sittings information that can be fed back to them. It would be easy enough for Randi or some less well-recognised person to discover this for himself simply by attending readings given by prominent platform psychics, or in spiritualist churches.
flawed approach to psychic phenomena
Ignore, for the moment, the small print of Randi's $1 million challenge, and consider how fundamentally his entire approach is flawed. Randi has frequently said that all he wants is convincing evidence of the paranormal, or psychic powers, and his prize goes to anyone who can provide evidence of any paranormal, occult or supernatural event of any kind under proper observing conditions. "This Foundation offers a million-dollar challenge to those who believe they can offer evidence of the paranormal, occult or supernatural matters" Randi wrote to the President of the University of Arizona Foundation on March 27th, 2001.
This is untrue. In the Larry King Live show on USA television on April 3rd, 2001, after Ed Woods talked about his ghosts, Randi said, "I think that may be the $1 million prize that we offer here at the James Randi Educational Foundation might be his… I think I'd better take a trip out to Washington." This implies, however jocularly, that a haunted house might qualify, or may be the man who introduces a ghost who agrees to all the Randi rules. It is clear that what is actually demanded is not persuasive evidence of carefully investigated and thoroughly documented cases, of which he has been offered numerous examples, but an individual, or just conceivably more than one, to undertake agreed on the spot tests of psychic ability. We are dealing with a mysterious faculty that does not subscribe to the normal rules governing the senses, cannot be turned on and off to order, and which manifests itself in all manner of odd ways and unpredictable occasions.
If the offer were a genuine attempt to discover the truth, then it ought to apply to anyone who can provide evidence with adequate records, oral and written, from several or more witnesses or participants, backed up by photographic records. That could well apply to the Enfield Poltergeist case where there were some 30 witnesses to paranormal events continuing over a period of many months, backed up by tape recordings and video camera footage, to say nothing of bruises from apports hurled from nowhere across a room. The man who witnessed much of this and recorded the events for a year, Maurice Grosse, has been waiting for quarter of a century for sceptics to account for this, but without response.
The reason is simple: neither Randi nor anyone else can begin to explain such events without arguing that all the witnesses were mistaken, that all the participants were lying, deluded or permanently hallucinating, and that the children around whom the phenomena occurred were both cheating, even when video camera evidence appeared to prove otherwise. The same arguments have to be adduced in all the twenty cases which I have challenged him to explain. This is Randi at his most evasive. He maintains that the authors of these "miracles" are dead or unreachable, and we have no indication that any of the cases are factual. He then conveniently diverts to other cases where fraud was likely or proved, in the same way that one could argue that, since some banknotes have been faked, all banknotes must be fakes.
The facts are wholly against Randi. All these cases have been documented, and many of them are still subject to checkable investigation. The fact that the principal authors of several may be dead in no way invalidates the strength of evidence, any more than it does in any other area of human inquiry or scientific exploration. But many of the authors are not only alive but readily reachable, e.g. numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 12, 13 and 14 on my list. We are left to conclude that only when evidence is personally demonstrated by one or more individuals to Randi's satisfaction is there the theoretical possibility of acceptance.
Is Randi to be
Could it be that the reputation for deception which Randi has built up over thirty years accounts for the dearth of applicants? One reason to doubt whether any money would ever be paid out of his fund derives from Randi's misrepresentation of Puthoff and Targ's work in the 1970s after they had documented a number of his mistakes. As George Hansen points out in
The Trickster and the Paranormal (2003, p. 47, footnote 25), in a published, handwritten, signed letter, Randi replied offering $1,000 if any claimed error could be demonstrated. Curtis Fuller proved Randi wrong. Randi later admitted his error, in writing, but he never did pay the $1,000.
Perhaps the most damaging illustration of Randi's moral standards concerns his celebrated dispute with Uri Geller back in the mid Seventies. Fresh from falsely representing Professor Tart's phenomenally high ESP scores as simply a product of random-number generator bias (when even fellow critic Martin Gardner had to back down and acknowledge that the statistics would be only marginally altered by the lack of double digits), Randi then focused on Geller's success in reproducing from a sealed chamber a number of drawings made in another room. To support his accusation of fraud, Randi produced a diagram showing a 4½" diameter hole three feet above the floor, later altering this to
3½" enabling Geller to peep though it and copy the drawings. In fact the hole was 3¼ inch diameter, located a little above floor level, allowing a small piece of the exterior floor and opposing wall to be seen through the 12½ inch thick wall. Even so, the hole was covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run, and an equipment rack further covered the hole during the experiments. Still more uncomfortably for Randi's invented evidence, the drawings were placed on a different wall. And the hole was under constant observation lest an optical probe had been used. To imagine a group of experienced scientists would conduct such an experiment with a wide vacant peep-hole facing the drawings Geller was supposed to visualize and draw is in itself absurd. But in a vendetta against Geller there is nothing to limit the qualities of imaginative deception and fanciful invention which are Randi's hallmark.
Far from withdrawing or acknowledging his attacks on the integrity of the two scientists, to say nothing of Geller, Randi then accused them of lying when they produced a film showing Geller scoring phenomenally high in guessing the uppermost face of a well-shaken die. Based on information said to have come from the photographer who filmed the experiment, Randi maintained that Targ and Puthoff had lied by claiming the film to have been taken during the actual tests. But Pressman, the photographer in question, signed an affidavit that the film was genuine and had been taken during the actual tests. Pressman angrily described Randi's statements as a total fabrication, and in current old age has forcefully reiterated the statement.
What trust can one repose in such a person? His attack on the early remote viewing experiments, when minor procedural flaws were uncovered, have not been affected let alone withdrawn in the light of subsequent experiments in which all the flaws were eliminated, and independent testing took place, producing the same, positive results, results which have since been massively and frequently replicated.
A more topical illustration of Randi's care with facts is given by his defence of his attack on Professor Gary Schwartz's experiments with five mediums, among them the well-known television performer, John Edward. Whether the gap in the curtain through which Edwards is supposed to have peaked in order to see the sitter and hence divine all manner of facts about her dead relatives was ¼ inch or 2 inches isn't all that important. Randi ignores the fact that, even if Edward saw the sitter for an instant, his head was not turned towards the slit during the reading itself, that the slit was later sealed, that subsequent experiments were conducted with floor-to-ceiling double-sheeted cloth screens, and that long-distance phone calls were successfully conducted with other mediums. The video-taped evidence refutes Randi's charge: here is a typical instance where a small and inconsequential fact is blown out of proportion as an excuse to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence.
And what of Professor Schwartz's failure to follow the protocol Randi and co. "outlined to him for testing" and to supply him with all the raw data before Schwartz's report was issued? The fact is that there was no such protocol provided by Randi. He gave his opinion in response to questions Schwartz put to him, some his answers indicating a pretty naïve understanding of the technique of scoring and assessment. Schwartz would have been mad to entrust his raw data to anyone with Randi's record of misrepresentation, exaggeration and falsification: hence the invitation for Randi to examine the material at first hand, but under
videoed scrutiny. Naturally Randi shied away. The offer is still open. Randi dare not accept.
Randi denounces the evidence Schwartz "imagined he had obtained." Unless all the scientific experimenters, the mediums, the subjects and the assistants videoing the proceedings were fabricating the entire scenario from beginning to end, that evidence is as real as any respectable scientific experiment. As for the unnamed statisticians who are alleged to have examined "the very limited amount of data" Schwartz published, and who are aghast at the "twisting and misapplication he made there of statistical methods": who are these statisticians, and how come the statistical methods employed escaped the notice of the vigilant referees of the Journal of the SPR? One wonders what Randi's qualifications are in statistics. Schwartz obtained a grade of 100 in complex analysis of variance at the University of Wisconsin graduate school in psychology; he invariably obtained A and A+ in statistics at Cornell, Wisconsin and Harvard, and he has published more than 400 articles, including six in the journal
Science, using statistics. How does this contrast with Randi's qualifications, save as an escapologist?
Now for my cold reading challenge. Randi disclaims expertise in cold reading, but says he knows those who possess it. How come, then, that no cold reader has yet agreed to visit Schwartz's laboratory for testing? Could it be because Schwartz has yet to meet anyone who can do what the mediums proved able to do under the ruling experimental conditions? When all visual and oral feedback was given to Edward in the third experiment with all possibility of sensory leakage eliminated, Edward continued to provide highly accurate information. Perhaps Randi can explain how this is done by cold reading? And how about the single and double-blind experiments with a telephone line as the only means of one way contact? If Randi is so convinced of Edwards' fraudulence, let him offer a cold reading explanation of the
Crossing Over extracts Michael Prescott has reproduced on his website; and if he resorts to the fraudulent charge that Edwards plays the same tricks with his audience as Randi did in the
Ultimate Challenge programme. I urge him to read my brief account of a
sceptical check on the
Crossing Over programme which I have written for the forthcoming edition of the SPR's
The gap between bluster and reality becomes more evident when we look at the $1,000,000 small print. Randi is outraged that I should have referred to a verdict and to judges when there are no judges. Well, call them something else. Randi proposed four or five scientists to serve on a review committee for Schwartz's experiment, and purportedly they had all agreed. One of the most distinguished psychologists in the business, Professor Stanley Krippner, and the only one not overtly
sceptical, made it clear that he had not agreed. Randi, left with four card-carrying
sceptical friends as panel members, undertook to push a peanut naked down Times Square if he was wrong. We await the spectacle.
Randi accuses me of gross misrepresentation of the rules of his Foundation. However, he acknowledges that there hasn't ever yet been a challenger who has got to the stage of undergoing tests with him, so we don't really know just what would happen. It is difficult to envisage any test of psychic ability where there is no verdict, there are no judges (well not called by that name, anyway) and where the outcome is self-evident. Nothing remotely paranormal is ever likely to be self-evident to Randi, judging by his record over the past 30 years. He concedes that evaluation of the outcome may be done independently but the binding result will be plainly evident. Why evaluation should be required when the results have to be self-evident is among the several ambiguities peppering this challenge.
Randi makes a big meal of the fact that I said the test data rather than all data associated with the test becomes the sole property of Randi's Foundation. That makes it even worse! It's like complaining that I had accused him of manslaughter when I ought to have charged him with murder! Equally silly is his fuss about my omission of the Article 7 rule which safeguards the applicant's statutory rights - as though these were not automatic.
Just a couple more points: Randi's dismissive references to anything appearing in
Fate magazine may owe something to the fact that it was in this Journal that the organisation with which he is most closely associated, CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) revealed how his friend Paul Kurtz, its founder and leader, had conspired to suppress some awkward evidence relating to the famous or infamous alleged Mars effect in astrology. As for the obviously contemptible contents of this magazine, his CSICOP associates Susan Blackmore, Kendrick Frazier, David Marks, Joe Nickell and Philip Klass are numbered among its contributors.
Randi dismisses the fact that a survey of magicians specializing in psychic entertainment showed that four fifths of them believe in the existence of extra-sensory perception. More fool they! To a large extent that is based on their close observation of demonstrations by those appearing to possess and usually claiming psychic powers. They may all be deluded, like half the population of the USA who claim to have had some sort of psychic experience or to believe in ESP. But they join a list of some of the most eminent scientists, philosophers, writers, psychologists, medical men and - yes! - professional illusionists who also came to the same conclusion, often after years of critical investigation.
What has this to do with my challenge to Randi or the JREF prize? Not a lot; but it does help put Randi's campaign into perspective, since few would realize that magicians have been well represented among those who have attested to the genuineness of extra-sensory perception.
This article is copyright © Veronica Keen 2004. It
is published on this website with permission.