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A Simple Test

I have spent many years debating with believers in various forms of pseudoscience including topics ranging from bigfoot to god, and from vaccine denial to UFOs. In most cases I have argued from a logical, scientific, and facts-based perspective, but I am now wondering whether that is such a good idea.

Anyone who is going to debate this way should realise that it’s no a fair competition. I don’t mean that it is unfair to my opposition, I mean it is unfair to me! I have to be honest and admit I could be wrong. I have to admit that science doesn’t have all the answers (far from it). And I have to admit that I don’t have absolute proof against my opponent’s ideas.

The reason I never reach the aspirational heights of 100% certainty is that I never can. But no person making a statement about the real world can ever be 100% certain. Of course this includes my opponents but they rarely admit that. How often have I heard phrases such as “I know with 100% certainty that God answers my prayers”. No, they don’t. And if they really thought about it they would realise they can never be certain about it.

So I am honest enough to say that I think evolution is 99% likely to be true or that global warming is 90% likely to be true (which are both imprecise statements, I know) but that honesty doesn’t generally extend to the other side.

So here’s the answer: don’t argue that way.

Most of my opponents argue from an emotional or “common sense” perspective so they are unlikely to be convinced by a scientific argument with all of its built-in uncertainties. But I need to adopt an intellectually honest approach of some sort, because that’s just the sort of person I am! And I think I have an answer which can be used against many of my opponents…

I recently listened to a podcast in the excellent “Skeptoid” series which discussed how no one has ever managed to claim any of the prizes for demonstrating paranormal abilities. Unsurprisingly the failed attempts are always explained with some post hoc reasoning but it’s clear enough: paranormal (or magical or supernatural or whatever similar term you prefer) abilities have never been demonstrated to work.

There are several prizes being offered around the world. The most famous is the “Million Dollar Challenge” from the James Randi Education Foundation in the US, but there are also prizes in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and many other countries, and at least one is even more than that offered by the JREF.

Many people who prefer to denigrate these prizes say that the bar is set too high, that the standard of testing is impossible considering the type of phenomenon being studied, and that the organisations administering the prizes have no intention of admitting that paranormal phenomena exist and therefore will never need to pay up.

But I don’t think that’s true. Here’s roughly how the test works for the JREF’s prize: the person with the abilities goes through an initial process to make sure they aren’t insane, dangerous etc; they present the JREF with their claim; a method of testing it with well defined outcomes is decided and agreed on by both parties and a document is signed agreeing on that; the participant is asked if they are happy with the conditions and how confident they are that they will win; then the test is done. And finally, in every case, the person who claims the special abilities fails.

In every case where a test is performed both the person claiming the abilities and the person running the test agree to a protocol. And in most cases the person being tested is confident they will be able to demonstrate the reality of the ability through that process. Yet they can’t.

There are a few possible objections to this methodology. First, it could be said that people with genuine gifts don’t want to cheapen them by using them to make money. Well in that case, if the person is so genuine about doing the right thing, they could give the money away to a charity. Isn’t that better than having a million sitting in the JREF’s bank account?

Another might be that these special abilities don’t ever show up during an experiment. Maybe they have some mystical energy field which is blocked by skeptical thought, for example. But it seems unlikely that everything from dowsing to faith healing is affected this way. A far simpler explanation is that the abilities simply don’t exist.

Finally it might be claimed that the people who are tested are the fakes and that the genuine cases are all filtered out by the selection process. But these tests have been going on for many years now and it seems unlikely that the selection process wouldn’t have made one error and let one person with a genuine ability through. Again, the most sensible conclusion is that paranormal phenomena just don’t exist.

So this is what I say to all psychics, faith healers, homeopaths, those who can speak to god, communicate with aliens, teleport, levitate, time travel, fly, see through walls, receive messages from the dead, or whatever else… Take the test. Prove your abilities. Win the million dollars. Spend it, give it to me (as a reward for giving you the idea), or give it to a good charity. Why wouldn’t you?

It’s informative to note that many celebrity psychics and other people who use their alleged abilities in high visibility areas (TV, live shows, etc) don’t seem to hesitate to make a lot of money from them, but they refuse to make a quick million by passing one of these tests. Maybe the “professionals” know their abilities aren’t real. Maybe they prefer to operate in an environment where their continued fakery isn’t as apparent.

But whatever the case I don’t think there is a good excuse which can be offered as a credible reason that these prizes still go unclaimed. There’s my skeptical evidence against the paranormal. Not a single scientific study cited. Not a single piece of advanced maths or physics required. Just a simple observation, and a hard one to refute!

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