From 1996 to 2017, the James Randi Educational Foundation offered a prize of one million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under scientific conditions. No one was ever able to claim the prize, and many hard skeptics will point to this as evidence that psychic abilities do not exist. However, these skeptics are rather selective – being very skeptical of psychic abilities, but not so much of people like Randi. As a wise man said, a real skeptic would question whether Randi even has a million dollars, and whether he has any intention of giving it to anyone. In fact, there are many reasons to doubt the idea that Randi’s prize has any bearing on the existence of psychic powers.
To get the prize, you had to submit an application. After that, the foundation would decide whether or not you were accepted to negotiate a test for the claimed abilities. At that point, the foundation could just reject every single application, and there would be no legal consequences for them. It’s unclear if any applicant has ever been successful at this stage, however, no applicant has ever passed the stage of preliminary testing.
Randi could literally offer the prize to the whole world, subject to his conditions, reject every applicant, and tell the world about the great evidence he had against psychic phenomena, and it wouldn’t cost him a hand-engraved, plastic-coated wooden dime.
It’s about the money
A condition of the prize was that all costs had to be paid by the applicant. How much does it cost to conduct a scientific experiment? Grants for $100,000 and even $1 MM are common in science, for series of experiments.
In the conditions of the prize, it states “ The final test may be longer, or require more conclusive results through more sets of the test to ensure that the preliminary test was not a fluke.” If the experiment got to that stage, the foundation could have demanded several sets of tests – so many that they knew it would go beyond the budget of the applicant, raising the bet like an open-stakes poker game from a movie.
Lack of transparency
There doesn’t seem to be any public information about how many people have applied, or what their claims were, or what happened during the preliminary tests. The only information we have is the foundation’s word that they all failed.
What do you gain from giving away $1 MM?
To award someone the prize might advance the body of scientific knowledge, which would be a great thing for humanity in general, but it wouldn’t be so great for the JREF itself.
In fact, it would probably be terrible for them. Randi has spent decades of his life rallying against psychics and other paranormal claims. To say he is invested in his beliefs would be an understatement. If he did give away the money, skeptics would decry him as a fool, say he’d been conned or lost his marbles. Just have a look at how Sam Harris was treated when he admittedthere were cases of people speaking other languages that science could not explain.
Many people compare the foundation’s prize to the Ansari X prize where ten million dollars were awarded for the creation of a reusable manned spacecraft. The difference is, the X Prize Foundation gains reputation by giving out a prize, whereas the JREF would lose it. If X Prize were maintained and funded by people who spent their lives trying to disprove the possibility space travel, and started the organisation with that intention, then it might be a fair comparison.
So, in the event of the prize being awarded, Randi would lose his money, his reputation, possibly his platform, and not gain any practical knowledge from the experience. In that situation, the satisfaction of helping humanity might seem pretty dismal.
Randi is not a scientist; he is a showman. By offering this prize to the world he has indeed performed a work of magic – creating the illusion that something has been disproven without having to provide any evidence for it, while avoiding scrutiny by those who call themselves “skeptics”.
If we want to look for the truth, we shouldn’t look to extravagant, grandiose gestures from dogmatic doubters with an axe to grind, but to controlled studies from competent and open-minded scientists, and careful, patient examination of our own experience.