reply to James Randi
By Montagye Keen
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 skeptic,
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.
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
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 premiss 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.
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);
one of the sitters, had a tattoo on an indicated part of her body;
had been engaged twice but her mother did not live to see her married;
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 (
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.
exchange illustrates one cardinal rule of the Resolute Skeptic: 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.
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.
A flawed approach to psychic phenomena
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.
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 trusted?
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.
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 3.5" 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
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.
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 videod scrutiny. Naturally
Randi shied away. The offer is still open. Randi dare not accept.
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?
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 skeptical check on the Crossing Over programme which I have written
for the forthcoming edition of the SPR's Paranormal Review.
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 skeptical,
made it clear that he had not agreed. Randi, left with four card-carrying skeptical
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
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
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
Randi dismisses the fact that a survey of magicians specializing
in psychic entertainment show 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.
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