Friday, January 19, 2007

Now Only Fakes Need Apply

I posted awhile back that I've gone back and forth on whether or not I think taking the Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is a particularly good idea for accomplished ritual magicians.

The arguments in favor of doing so are:
  1. It's a million dollars - I make a decent living, but I could still use the prize money.
  2. A success would help validate the existence of paranormal phenomena.
  3. It would serve James Randi right for being so smug for all these years about it.
The arguments against taking the challenge are:
  1. The deck really is stacked against anyone who wants to claim the money. I don't have a big problem with that - it is for a million dollars, after all - but magick runs on probability rather than certainty. Failure is likely at least some of the time no matter how good you think you are.
  2. If you succeed and it is widely publicized, what happens? Everyone in the world believing in magick is not necessarily a good thing for magicians. In countries where belief is widespread practitioners are routinely killed by angry mobs who blame them for all sorts of misfortune. I'd like to think that wouldn't happen in the USA, but you never know.
I've considered these issues for years, but now it looks like Randi may have made my decision for me. According to an article in Wired, Randi is revamping his Million Dollar Challenge.

Skeptic Revamps $1M Psychic Prize

The new guidelines limit applicants to those with "significant media profiles" - in other words, fakes. This may seem a surprising statement coming from a practicing ritual magician, but the truth is that magick doesn't work all the time. Media psychics who claim to just be able to turn their powers on and off like a switch and get perfect, accurate results are generally frauds. Don't misunderstand me - ritual magick gets real results, but they are not nearly as instantaneous and dramatic as what shows up in television and movies. Similarly, psychics who have to make their powers work reliably every week for a television show have to use stage magic tricks like cold reading so they appear successful often enough to keep people tuning in. As an example, read that Wikipedia link on cold reading and then watch the John Edward show sometime and see if you can pick up on what he's doing.

Randi claims that the prize is being revamped because of too many unknown people coming out of the woodwork wanting to test ridiculous claims like "I can fly by flapping my arms" and his foundation does not have the resources to deal with all of these individuals. That probably is true - I have read Randi's message board and some of the claims that are posted there are pretty laughable - but it also works out well for the Randi foundation in that most of people that fit the new guidelines do fake, at least some of the time, and the foundation gets a lot more publicity from offering to test celebrity psychics than from trying to test unknown folks with wild claims. Also, a celebrity psychic is much more likely to refuse the test. Such celebrities usually already have enough money, and a high-profile failure could cost them a lot more than a million dollars regardless of how difficult the test scenario turns out to be.

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