This stuff keeps coming back.
Someone cheerfully declares something to the effect that “Telepathy and other ‘Psi’ phenomena have been demonstrated conclusively so many times that if they were a dieting pill it would have been on the market fifty years ago”. So it’s a bit odd that even in our kee-razy capitalist world, the only ‘psi’-based commercial products continue to be frank scams, isn’t it, but never mind.
The usual next move in this common opening to the chess-game of reason versus woo is someone mentioning the fact that any psychic (or aura-seer, or astral traveller, or dowser, or therapeutic toucher) could make a million dollars by simply demonstrating the ability to do even some small subset of what they claim they do with little effort every day.
Next, without fail, someone else says there’s “fine print” in the Randi challenge, and Randi’s a big cheat, and so on and so forth.
(There sure is fine print in the Challenge! Well, more of a FAQ, really, which explains the 1500-word Challenge itself in plain terms, so that busy communicators with the dead can get the gist in a hurry. But that print is still fine if you set your browser text size small. And it says things like, you have to agree on what you promise to do at the beginning, and since you get to set your own terms in cooperation with the James Randi Educational Foundation before taking even the not-passed-by-anyone-yet preliminary test, it’s fine for Randi to be a thousand miles away during the testing if you think he’s a big cheat. So you can see how people might object to it. It’s obviously a total screw-job.)
More than nine years ago now, I observed an expanded version of this time-honoured square-dance in progress on Usenet, and wrote the following:
At 23:50 4/12/99 -0500, [someone else on the Skeptic list] wrote:
Garrison Hilliard [whose Web page has a picture of a naked woman on it, if you scroll down. So don’t go there, or scroll down, if that sort of thing bothers you] started a few threads on the alt.out-of-body newsgroup. It’s been pretty interesting, and especially some of the apparent anger at the questions.
Please feel free to visit the place, or at least review it through dejanews. [I told you this was old!]
For those who haven’t had time to review the discussion (there are a few hundred relevant messages), allow me to condense it:
Garrison: Please provide evidence that Out-of-body Experiences are anything other than delusions, hallucinations, or outright lies.
Someone Else: Hey, man, try it for yourself, you’ll see!
Garrison: I have. I didn’t see anything.
Someone Else: Well, we don’t need to either, then!
Someone Else: You can’t prove you like having orgasms, so we don’t have to prove nothin’!
Garrison: <scratches head> Uh, well, gee…
Someone Else: ACUPUNCTURE IS REAL! VISIT MY SITE!
John Stone: Naff off.
Someone Else: OOBEs are a parallel reality, different from ours.
Garrison: How’s that different from a hallucination?
Someone Else: Kirlian photography shows they’re real!
Garrison: Oh, give me a break.
Someone Else: Get fucked!
Someone Else: You’re doing the work of Satan, you know!
Someone Else: <WEBTVHTMLBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH><font color=mediumslategreen>Let’s</font> <font color=puce>ignore</font> <I><U><B><STRONG><BIG><BIG><BIG><BIG>Garrison.</BIG></BIG></BIG></BIG></STRONG></B></U></I><BLINK>He’s</BLINK><FONT SIZE=18237>rude.</FONT><EMBED sig_with_a_midi_file_in_it></WEBTVHTMLBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH>
Someone Else: I agree.
Someone Else: Me too.
Someone Else: How profound.
Someone Else: Yes, I have killfiled that rude asshole.
Someone Else: I always killfile anyone who flames me by asking me why I believe what I believe.
Garrison: I’m still heeeee-re!
Someone Else: That’s because, in your heart, you know the world is flat. Uh, no, I mean…
Someone Else: Photocopiers can’t see colour, which explains perfectly why OOBEs don’t let you read things you couldn’t ordinarily see.
Someone Else: That’s it in a nutshell.
Someone Else: Yup, you got it.
Someone Else: That oughta shut him up, huh!
Someone Else: Anyway, if we read some piece of paper in another room, that might just prove we’re telepathic or remote viewers. It wouldn’t necessarily be an OOBE at all. So it’d be no good for anything!
Garrison: <cough, splutter>
Barry Williams (not that one): All of this is amusing me enormously.
Someone Vaguely Sensible: Uh, doesn’t Garrison kinda have a point?
Someone Else: Does not!
Someone Vaguely Sensible: Does too!
Garrison: This isn’t an argument.
John Cleese: Yes it is.
Someone Else: Go away! Leave us alone! What do you care, anyway!
Garrison: I’m researching OOBEs. You could [the fateful moment!] make a million dollars, you know.
Someone Else: I’m not in this for the money.
Garrison: What, you couldn’t think of ANYONE to give it to?
The Anti-Randi Marching Band: There is no money/there is too little money/there is too much money/I want to see the money in a pile/proximity to cash compromises my spiritual enlightenment/Randi is a powerful anti-psi ray emitter/Randi is a cannibal and I am afraid of him/Randi would just say we were never in our bodies to start with/the FBI will forcibly change my gender if I win/I want it in Tongan Pa’anga, not US dollars/money is an illusion/property is theft/I’m a teapot! I’m a teapot!
James Randi: Bring it on, girlymen.
Someone Else: You’re not James Randi.
Someone Vaguely Sensible: Yes he is.
Someone Else: No he isn’t. See, I’ll e-mail him, and… oh. Sorry.
Someone Else: ISN’T ISN’T ISN’T ISN’T ISN’T!
Someone Vaguely Sensible: OK, so minds go flying around without bodies, but James Randi can’t possibly post to a newsgroup?
Someone Else: Ah, but there’s lots of evidence that minds fly around without bodies.
Garrison: <vein stands out on forehead> Well, if you’d care to PRESENT it…
Someone Else: Child molester!! Look! Look! A nudie pic on Garrison’s Web site! [Which, as mentioned above, is still there!] My pubic-hairometer clearly identifies her as underage!
Various Appreciators Of The Female Form: Phwoar.
Gary Glitter: Run for your life, man. [This was topical humour at the time.]
Someone Else: I badly misunderstand the laws of thermodynamics.
Someone Else: T HATS NOTHING!!!!!!!! ICANT'’ EVEn typE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Various people: Standard spelling and punctuation thread #1.
Someone Else: What’s Garrison doing here, anyway?
Someone Vaguely Sensible: Discussing OOBEs, just like the rest of us.
Someone Else: He is restricting our freedom of speech! Let’s complain to his ISP and get him gagged!
Someone Else: I so totally would rather have the blue pill than the red one.
People who dismiss the Randi Challenge out of hand usually aren’t just nuts. They’re actually using deductive reasoning, from a less-than-solid premise:
A: Everybody knows that paranormal phenomena are real.
B: Nobody has ever passed even a preliminary test for the Randi Challenge.
Therefore, the Randi Challenge must be rigged.
This reasoning works perfectly for the few challenges out there that really are rigged, and impossible for anybody to win, even if they could pass with flying colours a fair version of the test. Kent Hovind’s evolution challenge, for instance, and Jock Doubleday’s vaccine challenge.
I also like the example that’s currently in the Wikipedia article about deduction:
All fire-breathing rabbits live on Earth.
All humans are fire-breathing rabbits.
(Therefore,) all humans live on Earth.
You do, to be fair, now have to have a “media presence” of some sort in order to apply for the Randi Challenge - there have to be newspaper or other media stories about your amazing abilities. You also now need to come up with “at least one signed document from an academic who has witnessed the powers or abilities”, but this shouldn’t be very difficult to achieve, if you’re doing whatever paranormal thing you do all the time. (These rules are relatively new, I think; they’re there to discourage all the people with delusional disorders who can’t even convince their local newspaper that they have paranormal abilities, yet invariably figure that the Randi Challenge will be a piece of cake.)