The Million Dollar Challenge Offered Cash for Proof of the Paranormal

Psychics, mediums, dowsers, and other practitioners of the supernatural all say they have seemingly magical abilities. But do they? The only way to know for sure is with a scientific test. That's exactly what magician James Randi did for more than 50 years with the Million Dollar Challenge, which offered a massive sum of money to anyone who could prove paranormal abilities under controlled scientific conditions. Spoiler alert: nobody ever won.

Step Right Up

The Million Dollar Challenge is the most famous challenge of its kind, but it isn't the first. In 1923, Harry Houdini offered $10,000 of his own money to any spirit medium who could prove their powers were genuine. It might seem strange that a magician would set out to debunk magic, but in Houdini's case — and in the case of many other magicians since — he wanted to mark a distinction between entertainers doing harmless tricks for a willing audience and con artists preying on vulnerable people.

In 1964, The Amazing Randi followed in Houdini's footsteps by offering his own money for proof of paranormal abilities: first $1,000, then $10,000 soon after. Internet pioneer Rick Adams donated the challenge's titular $1 million in 1996. By then, Randi had appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson multiple times and earned a MacArthur Genius grant, but nobody had won the challenge prize.

It wasn't for lack of trying. There was a man who claimed to send thoughts to a friend in another room, a woman who said she could identify playing cards through sealed envelopes using a crystal, a man who purported to send a mysterious but perceptible "force" through any material, a pair saying they could use energy to detect breast tumors without touch, and "dowsers" claiming they could find water using a particular shape of stick. From 1964 until the challenge's termination in 2015, at least 1,000 people put their abilities to the test.

Putting the "No" in Paranormal

To apply for the challenge, a participant first had to submit a notarized application, complete with two paragraphs describing their ability. "People can write very long paragraphs," Randi said in 2005. "Some of those paragraphs run three pages."

If their application was accepted, the person worked with the James Randi Educational Foundation to design an acceptable testing protocol that both sides deemed fair. This is where the scientific rigor came in: a psychic might usually look into someone's face while they do a reading, for instance, but the protocol might require a double-blind setup with the person standing behind a curtain instead. That protocol is what the challenge used to run the preliminary test of the applicant's abilities. If they passed the preliminary test, they moved on to the formal test. If they passed the formal test, they won the $1 million. No one ever passed the preliminary test.

Understandably, believers in the paranormal have their critiques of the challenge. For decades, it required applicants to prove a 1 in 1,000 chance of success — an unreasonably, even unscientifically high bar, according to critics. As Randi argues, " ... a pole-vaulter should be able to pole-vault, a cook should be able to cook, and a psychic should be able to do what he/she claims, to better than 1/100 odds." Even so, he lowered the statistical requirements for the preliminary test to one in 100, but that didn't help anyone beat it.

In 2015, after 50 years of testing, the challenge was officially terminated. The James Randi Educational Foundation was converted into a grant-making organization in order to put the money toward "promoting activities that encourage critical thinking and a fact-based world view."

But believers needn't fret. Today, there are a number of similar challenges throughout the world, all waiting for someone to prove to the world that the paranormal is real — under controlled scientific conditions, of course.

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Hear more about Randi's mythbusting from the horse's mouth in James Randi's classic book, "Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions," with a foreword by Isaac Asimov. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 12, 2018

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