Astrology & James Randi
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If your argument is not supported by science, ...
get a magician to perform trickery and deception.

Whenever I am asked why don't I attempt to claim the Randi Million Dollar Prize or a sceptic has to resort to citing a 'test' by a magician to support his case, it usually means one thing. He now needs the performance of an illusionist to do what he has discovered that science is unable to do. Magicians have no compunction about violating scientific rules. For magicians, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, deception, showmanship, hidden technology, editing media are essential to get the desired results. This makes great entertainment, but in the wrong hands it becomes prejudice masquerading as science. If you believe a magician's tricks to be real evidence, you have been taken for a fool.

Who wants to be a Randi millionaire?

The James Randi ‘Educational’ Foundation (JREF) offers a million dollars to anyone who can show evidence of powers that cannot be explained by known scientific laws. On the face of it, this seems a reasonable challenge. However, Randi has a hidden agenda. Though there is a huge amount of (albeit) anecodotal evidence[1] questioning his motives and methods, it is my personal experience that has convinced me that Randi, the magician would do everything in his considerable power to prevent a good applicant receiving a fair opportunity. As he used to say, you decide...
"I can go into a lab and fool the rear ends off any group of scientists." ~ James Randi[2]

James Randi Show - bad science and not credible magic

In the mid 80s I was contacted by a researcher who wanted to know if I wished to appear on the James Randi TV show and do an experiment involving astrology. I was excited at the prospect. However, the experiment involved a spurious technique for matching Sun Signs. It is something I would never use as an astrologer. I told the researcher it would not possibly work, but that I could devise a test that could work. The researcher was not interested and asked if I knew an astrologer who would perform the spoof test.

Another astrologer, Carole Golder, took my place and as expected failed. She told me that she knew it wouldn't work but was delighted to be on national television!

So my experience left me with a strong impression that Randi the magician, plays according to his rules and his agenda, which is the reinforcement of his sceptical bias packaged as entertainment.

Randi holds no science qualification & lacks basic mathematical skills

Since writing this article, I reconsidered the Randi challenge.   Perhaps, his researcher was out of line and Randi was the victim of TV execs looking for entertainment rather than the truth. So I began to wonder if it might really be a genuine opportunity to demonstrate astrology using a test (where I could be involved in the design) to a group of sceptics. This is what I discovered:

Randi likes to claim that he can fool any group of scientists. While critical thinking is important in science, trickery to cover up undesirable results is counter to the openness of science. So this anti-scientific attitude together with his (self-admitted) abysmal knowledge of statistics[3] and his lack of scientific training or indeed any higher education, makes him wholly unsuitable for involvement or arbitration in objective tests especially those that put an individual’s career and reputation at risk.(Randi 2008)
"My abysmal ignorance of statistics requires that I frequently appeal to statistician, Chip Denman ..." James Randi, 2008 announcing why he had to make a 'drastic change to the rules' and scrap the impossibly high performance levels he had set for his Millionaire Challenge - only to reinstate equally impossible odds![3]

Randi holds all the Aces - with a few up his sleeve

But despite the problem of trust, which has put off most professional astrologers, the JREF terms are created in a way that deters anyone other than 'fringe performers' who are purely seeking a publicity stunt. Contesting the Million Dollar Challenge is like playing a game of cards where Randi holds all the Aces ... with a few spare up his sleeve!
Randi "assured me how cautious he was in the testing for his well-publicized $10,000 prize for proof of psychic abilities (for which he acts as policeman, judge and jury -- and thus never has supported my idea of neutral judgment of CSICOP tests. 'I ALWAYS have an out,' he said." ~ Dennis Rawlins, a co founder of CSICOP and colleague of Randi, in discussing Randi's original $10k prize.[4]

Three Sound Reasons why Randi's Challenge is unreasonable for astrology

  1. Unreasonable Levels of Proof Demanded: 1 in 10 million!
    To demonstrate Randi's unreasonably high levels of proof, requires huge sample sizes and costly research.

    Randi insists on results that are much higher than generally accepted in scientific research. Scientific convention operates with P-values of less than 0.05 for results to be considered statistically significant within the social sciences.[5] Up until Randi made a 'drastic change to the rules', candidates for the test claimed that Randi required P-values ranging from p < 0.005 to p <= 0.0000001! [6]

    Equally Impossible Odds now disguised in two tests: In response to widespread criticism, Randi switched to two tests. The first, a preliminary test, is 1 in 100 or p < 0.01 and then replication requires in 1 in 100,000 or p < 0.00001. Now, this supposed 'lowering of the bar' may sound reasonable. However, by requiring two separate tests, the probability of success must be measured by both tests. This is the result of multiplying the probability of each test. Therefore, a winner is still required to outperform odds of one in ten million (100 x 100k) or p < 0.0000001. With a sleight of hand and mathematical incompetence (see footnote [3]) the odds are now the same as the most demanding previous claims!
    You are 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning in any one year than beating the Randi odds![7]
    You are twice as likely to be killed on a single airline flight with any of the top 78 airlines than you are of winning the JREF Millionaire Challenge.[7] So if the aviation authorities applied Randi's pseudostats to flights we would all be grounded!
    An Impossible Test for Unwise Participants. Now you may argue that it is only fair to expect a claimant to produce results which are well over a million to one before the Randi Foundation forks out $1,000,000 - even if their rules are more demanding than tests required before releasing a powerful drug onto the market. Fair enough - if he has the money he can do what he wants. But let us not pretend that an impossible test reveals anything about the skills of the participants - other than they were not as wise as those who refused to participate. On Randi's behalf, I have no doubt that plenty of claimants are deluded about their psychic or other abilities. But Randi fails to test it in a scientific or fair manner.

    Statistical Illusion masks a lottery: So to suggest that the Randi's test gives claimants a fair chance to prove their paranormal abilities is false. The test is a statisical illusion - using a simple number trick that makes success no more than a lottery. Is this a deliberate con trick or down to Randi's (self-confessed) mathematical ineptitude or are the figures incorrect? I leave it to you to judge.

  2. 'Procedural Problems' with Astrology
    Requirement of Vast Sample Sizes: Now a standard sceptical argument is that exceptional claims require exceptional proof. This sounds eminently reasonable. However, we are dealing in fringe fields where there are no binary results as in physics or simple proofs. Otherwise the paranormal would be a core part of the scientific canon. Now in the case of astrology (as in any field that involves the vagaries of the human mind and behaviour) conclusions are based on probabilities.[8] So to show solid results to the level of significance required, astrological tests must have vast sample sizes and in each case the horoscope data must be analyzed. The costs of such tests could make the prize money look like petty cash and well beyond the budget of almost every astrologer or astrological organisation.

    The Challenge has a procedural problem with astrology. As a stage magician, Randi can only handle a performance rather than scientific or statistical evidence. So while he can test an amateur who claims to guess people’s Sun signs (which is not what professional astrologers do), Randi cannot (and I believe will not) address considered analysis and large scale data of the type that are required to test astrology. This is evidenced by Professor Ertel's experience in attempting an astrology test.[9] The implication is that Randi is well aware that Michel Gauquelin's Mars Effect works.

  3. Independently Qualified Panel of Sceptics
    Randi’s ‘independently qualified panel’ who judge the tests are about as independent as a court of Ayatollahs assessing an educated woman’s intelligence! Last time I checked, they are all senior members of CSICOP (renamed CSI) - a predominantly male[10] sceptical organisation dedicated to debunking the 'Paranormal' even when the scientific evidence goes against them as it has done with astrology.[11] Randi, himself is a CSICOP Fellow. It is a classic example of pseudoscience since their in-house journal the Skeptical Inquirer will not publish articles that oppose or question their dogma.
To find out more about the unrealistic and unacceptable demands[12] of the Randi Test see The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge. As far as astrology is concerned, unless they change the rules and the culture within the misnomered JREF, Randi’s challenge is an irrelevant charade. But then it makes economic sense to protect their million bucks with a subject like astrology where to date, the small number of valid scientific tests show results that cannot be explained by chance.[11]

If the Paranormal is obvious bunkum as Randi claims, why does he go to extraordinary lengths to suppress evidence that supposedly does not exist? Maybe even Randi has a sneaky feeling that he might be wrong.

References & Footnotes

  1. "I don’t take the prize seriously, and above all I don’t trust Randi since I’ve found him to be dishonest...He is not a scientist, has no scientific credentials, and is essentially a showman and an expert in deception". ~ Rupert Sheldrake, PhD. biochemist, plant physiologist, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge & author [Quote Source]
  2. The Science of Star Wars ~ Cavelos, Jeanne [2000 p.220]
  3. The Grubbies Attack ~ SWIFT February 29, 2008. Written by James Randi Thursday, 28 February 2008. "In any case, here comes an announcement, a drastic change in the rules. My abysmal ignorance of statistics requires that I frequently appeal to statistician Chip Denman of the University of Maryland for frequently sobering advice and counsel. Having just received some of that wisdom, I’m announcing a further refinement – and generous it is! – to the JREF million-dollar challenge. These changes will go up on the rules page as soon as we can get around to it… "
    Chip Denman is manager of the Statistics Laboratory at the University of Maryland, where he also teaches “Science and Pseudoscience” for the University Honors Program. He is past-president of the National Capital Area Skeptics and is quoted as saying "Luck is probability taken personally."
    Randi quotes Chip Denman "For instance, you could use .01 (which is frequently seen in the scientific and statistical literature) for the preliminary, and a 1 out of 100,000 rule for the final test – and taken together, you'd know there was only a one-in-a-million shot that someone could get lucky on both."
    Now perhaps I am just one of those soft-in-the-head pseudoscientists who misunderstands probability and Denman is the JREF's hot statistician, but when I combine 1 in 100 (.01) and 1 out of 100,000 (.00001) the end result is 1 in 10 million (0.0000001) not one-in-a-million shot as calculated by Denman! (Check with your own calculator by multiplying the numbers.) You'd think they would bother to get the odds right with a million dollars at stake. It's not just the mathematical oversights of Randi, Denman and Carlson, I have found self-styled 'rational sceptics' to be below average mathematicians. Maybe this instance was an unlucky mistake which can be blamed on probability!
    [Note: This article has been removed from the website but I was able to track it down on the Wayback Machine.] Source: James Randi Educational Foundation
  4. Rawlins, Dennis (1981): sTARBABY, Fate, No: 34, "They call themselves the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. In fact, they are a group of would-be debunkers who bungled their major investigation, falsified the results, covered up their errors and gave the boot to a colleague who threatened to tell the truth."
  5. What is a P-value? ~ Dr Ronald Thisted. [University of Chicago 1998 & 2020]
  6. The JREF appears to have responded to the article exposing the Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge by claiming to reduce the odds to 1 in 100 for the preliminary test and 1 in 100,000 for the main challenge or p=0.00001. (see note [3])
  7. Comparison of odds that must be surpassed to win the million dollar challenge.
    1. The odds of being struck by lightning in the USA in a given year are 1 in a million according to data from NWS Storm Data, collected over the last 30 years (1981-2010). National Weather Service.
    2. Official Airline Guide (OAG) Aviation &, 20 years of data (1993 - 2012): The odds of being killed on a single airline flight on any of 78 major world airlines is 1 in 4.7 million.
  8. An astrologer cannot predict that someone will be a medical doctor as genetic inheritance, environmental factors and free-will come into the mix. Over a number of charts, similar patterns appear and this may coincide with success in the healing profession. Some subjects may claim to have long desired to work in the field. Some subjects might never have considered using their latent talent because for example they 'had to follow into the family business'.
  9. "My first approach [to Randi] was made because I thought the prize might be achieved by the Gauquelin planetary effect, a statistical "paranormal" or "neo-astrological" effect, with which I was very familiar as researcher. The problem was that decisions regarding the sample which would amount to 1000 natal charts was dependent on much informed thought, and Randi didn't know how to deal with the conditions. So the correspondence came to an end." ~ Suitbert Ertel, Professor Emeritus of Georg-August University of Göttingen [Quote Source]
  10. In my experience, most sceptics are male. <85% of the CSICOP/CSI Fellows are male and we have to ask why the few female CSICOP Fellows are not hard-line sceptics.
  11. U-Turn in Carlson's Astrology Test? (2011) Robert Currey. Correlation Journal. Vol: 27(2), July 2011 (pp.7-33)
  12. JREF terms include:
    1. JREF can use all data (including photos) freely - so your image and name could be used as part of an ad campaign or publicity material to promote JREF for an unlimited period.
    2. Applicant surrenders any and all rights to legal action against Randi or the JREF.
Note: These comments are based on evidence from reliable sources about the activities of James Randi and his associates. There is no suggestion that the JREF under its present leadership engages in showmanship that attempts to subvert science. If you feel any facts are incorrect, please message me directly via Facebook (Robert Currey) and I will make modifications.

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P.S. Are the million dollars underwritten by a bank in hard cash or in junk bonds?

Having written this article over a year ago, someone alerted me to the possibility that like other matters associated with Randi and his challenge, the million dollars may be a sham as well. The reason is that the money is, as they state, held in negotiable bonds "to publicly show that the money really does exist" and according to the JREF these can be converted into cash. What is not clear is who is underwriting these bonds? If it is the JREF, then these bonds could be worthless if the organization chooses to fold. If there is nothing in the paranormal, why do they need so many escape clauses just in case?

With this type of prize-money on offer, it is customary for a bank to hold a bond to the value of the prize on behalf of the prize-giver who would in this instance renew the bond annually for a fee. The underwriting bank has to pay legitimate claimants regardless of the status of the company. Travel companies who book holidays in advance do the same thing to prevent the owner liquidating the company and leaving claimants out of pocket. When promoting their competition, the JREF should publish past and present copies of this bank guarantee and the JREF assets so there can be absolutely no question in anyone's mind that these promises may have no basis. Contestants invest time, money and their reputation in this contest and should know that their investment could bring a return.

Even the exchange according to the enquirer in response to his question suggests questionable practices. His record of the dialogue starts with evasiveness on the part of Randi and Kramer (who handles paranormal claims), then the emails are edited before publication on the JREF website and finally the enquirer claims that the JREF published an email allegedly from him that he "complimented Kramer's hard work, and told him the issue was resolved." was fabricated. Read the full exchange and you be the judge.
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