Why the Million Dollar Challenge Is Not a Fair Test of Psychic Powers


Many of you are already familiar with the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge: A Million Dollar prize awaits anyone who can prove the paranormal. The prize has been a banner for skeptics to rally behind and a point of contention in the paranormal community. While many have claimed the testing process is biased or outright fraudulent there is a more glaring and fundamental issue is the area of ESP.

One of the top types of paranormal phenomena tested is psychic ability. A “psychic” will contact the James Randi foundation and agree on a set of testing procedures. The test is conducted in a controlled environment and the “psychic” fails. This is at least the pattern so far. These results have raised the eyebrows of many believers who think the test itself is biased, and I’m here to tell you it is, but not out of intention, more likely out of ignorance. 

I’ve had my own experiences with psychic powers which you can read more about here. After my life-changing experiences I sought out others with similar tales. I found that the profile of a psychic is similar: People experience uncontrolled premonitions that are extraordinarily vivid and accurate. 

Today in my statistics class we discussed hypothesis testing (statistically). One example my professor used was the ESP experiment conducted by Helmudt Schmidt. This test involved 6 participants guessing coin flips correctly for a total of 15,000 trials. The results were interesting. Schmidt’s test resulted in the participants guessing 7,760 correct times. This may not sound significant to the casual observer but statistically it is. This is over 4 standard deviations from the expected result, which is extremely unusual! But there are two explanations:

1. The participants had some ESP.

2. Bias influenced the test results.

Knowing the history of paranormal testing, number two is probably more likely.

But then my stats professor said something interesting. He believed in ESP. I was taken aback that an extremely logical man with a PhD in stats would make such a bold statement in class. He met a friend in Texas who had convinced him. In one event this friend had a dream that a couple’s baby would be born with black hair. The couple had red and brown hair so the probability of a black haired baby was small. But she was correct, the baby was born with black hair.

Event 2 happened after my professor went on a diet. He signed a check at the bank and noticed his signature appeared different. He wondered if the diet could be affecting his handwriting. A few days later at a lunch with the Psychic friend she said his new diet would change his handwriting.

In true statistician style he went on to say that several more events occurred, many of which were 10 SDs beyond the expected. This is statistician’s talk for extremely implausible.

When asked about her abilities my professor’s psychic friend claimed she had no control over them; it was spontaneous. Then it clicked for me. In my personal experiences and interactions with others, genuine psychic ability appeared to be spontaneous. Most people who say they have had psychic experiences will tell you they have no control over them. They cannot guess coin flips or what’s on the other side of a card. This brings us back to the Million Dollar Challenge.

If genuine psychic abilities are spontaneous, influenced by some variable beyond our understanding, this challenge will never prove ESP even if it is 100% real! In which case the challenge is working like a big dose of confirmation bias for the modern skepticism movement.

But there is good news. There is a way spontaneous psychic ability could be proven. Often I have argued why many paranormal claims cannot be fairly tested under scientific conditions because too little is known or technology is too limited, but this is not the case here. What it will take is a rapid response team.

This team will field predictions from psychics as they happen. When a prediction is received it will be evaluated to determine if the prediction is specific, measurable, and cannot be influenced or known by the predictor. For example a vision of taking out the trash does not fit the criteria but a vision of a specific unborn baby’s hair color does. If the case fits, the team will deploy and rapidly set up the proper controls to test the prediction. 

There will be complication and challenges of course, but it is certainly possible to test.

One last note on response bias: There is so much stigma attached with being an admitted psychic today that many who have genuine experiences will not come forward. It is unfortunate and will undoubtedly influence test results. Efforts should be made to keep the identity of the test subjects concealed from the public to encourage better response. The way many of these psychic challenges operate involves public disclosure of the subjects name. There is no need for this. 

In closing I encourage everyone with a critical mind to be critical not just of the claims, but of the methods used to evaluate claims. A flawed method will yield flawed results. If we cannot even get the method right we can never hope to accurately determine the veracity of a paranormal claim.

The history of science is filled with claims long considered false that were later proved true. Using the wrong approach to test a paranormal claim is like using a screwdriver to drive a nail. It doesn’t work very well. We should not assume test failures mean the phenomena doesn’t exist. Instead the first step is to examine the test. That is critical thinking in action!