If you're an undiscovered psychic, soothsayer, dowser or medium, time may be running out for you to put your supernatural powers to the test and claim a million dollar prize.
But you already knew that, didn't you?
Ten years after stage magician and avowed skeptic James Randi first offered a seven-figure payday to anyone capable of demonstrating paranormal phenomenon under scientific scrutiny, the 79-year-old clear-eyed curmudgeon is revising the rules of his nonprofit foundation's Million Dollar Challenge to better target high-profile charlatans, and spend less time on unknown psychics, who too often turn out to be delusional instead of deceptive.
"We can't waste the hundreds of hours that we spend every year on the nutcases out there -- people who say they can fly by flapping their arms," says Randi. "We have three file drawers jam-packed with those collections.... There are over 300 claims that we have handled in detail."
A skeptic since his teen years, Randi launched his challenge in 1964, after growing outraged with fake mediums and fortunetellers using simple conjurers' tricks to prey on the public. A challenge was an efficient alternative to trying to prove a negative: Instead of traveling the world investigating and debunking miracle workers one-by-one, an unclaimed cash prize stands as a fact on the ground -- an immovable obstacle around which anyone purporting supernatural powers must eventually navigate.
The challenge started small. Randi initially offered $1,000 of his own money to anyone who could read a mind or bend a spoon under controlled conditions. He later upped the ante to $10,000, but still didn't get a lot of takers. "There wasn't much interest in $10,000, and frankly I couldn't afford more than that," he says.
Then in 1996, an unnamed donor contributed a million dollars to the cause. Today the James Randi Education Foundation has an office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a small staff to keep pace with a steady stream of applicants, all supported by member contributions, grants and the interest off the million bucks, which remains unclaimed.
Currently, claiming the money takes a few steps: An initiate first has to submit a notarized application, agree with the foundation on a test protocol, then pass a preliminary test administered by independent local investigators. Should the would-be psychic pass the first test, under the agreed-upon rules, all that remains is to repeat his or her success in front of Randi -- then, poof, a psychic millionaire is born.
In 10 years, though, nobody's passed the preliminary exam. The most recent one was administered in Stockholm in October, when Swedish medium Carina Landin tried to identify the gender of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers. She got 12 right; 16 was the agreed-upon threshold for success. (The foundation plans to re-administer Landin's test following revelations that several of the diaries were older than stipulated in the protocol.)
Before that, the last preliminary test was in July 2005, when a Hawaiian psychic named Achau Nguyen traveled to Los Angeles to demonstrate he could mentally transmit his thoughts to a friend in another room. Under the watchful eyes of paranormal investigators, a video camera and a small audience, Nguyen selected 20 index cards from a deck of 30 and focused on the words written on each of them in turn -- while one floor below his "receiver" wrote down the wrong word, 20 out of 20 times.
These tests, however unsuccessful, represent the cream of the crop for the Million Dollar Challenge -- polite, sincere applicants able to agree to a reasonable testing protocol. The vast majority of the people applying for the money don't get that far.
A Nevada man legally named "The Prophet Yahweh" planned to seize the prize for charity by summoning two spaceships to a Las Vegas park last year, but negotiations broke down when he announced he was bringing several armed guards to the demonstration in case any "negative personalities" showed up. An inventor who claimed to have built a device that could sense the psychic distress of an egg about to be dropped into a pot of boiling water recently abandoned his application when the foundation suggested the egg be threatened by a hammer instead, in case the invention was really just detecting steam.
"One a week gets as far as a protocol negotiation, and then drops off," says Jeff Wagg, who administers the challenge.
Those are the easy ones. In some of the applications, perhaps most of them, the foundation has to deal with the thorny dilemma of where to draw the line between upholding its commitment, and potentially exploiting or feeding someone's mental illness. The demarcation is inherently tricky, since the entire theatre of paranormal testing is located in the realm of extra-rational belief.
A San Francisco woman, for example, was determined to prove that she wasn't human. She had trouble articulating why she believed that, but somehow the Secret Service was involved. In a more recent application, a New York state man claimed that he could summon the appearance of small objects while walking down a road. "The results are plain to see and obviously appear by themselves, in various random arrangements," he wrote the foundation. "I will these phenomenon into being, and/or they happen because of my physical presence alone, therefore I claim to have these powers."
What a psychiatrist might interpret as a warning sign for schizophrenia, the James Randi Educational Foundation is obliged to take seriously. After all, who's to say that random objects teleporting into existence is any more unlikely than Uri Geller telekinetically bending a spoon? But at some point, the process becomes distasteful.
"If we get them to go to a challenge and they lose, we're exposing someone who had serious mental illness," says Wagg. "That doesn't do us any good, and it doesn't do them any good. It doesn't prove anything."
Culling these applications from the process is a major goal of the revamped rules, which take effect April 1st.
Starting then, the challenge will be closed to undiscovered psychic talent; to submit an application, the aspirant will have to demonstrate a "media profile" -- television reports, newspaper articles or a reference in a book that chronicles his or her extraordinary abilities.
"We're not going to deal with unknown people who have silly claims," says Wagg. "Let's say, somebody claims they can walk on water. We'll say, prove it to somebody else first. Get on the local news. Then bring it to us."
The applicant has to back up those press clippings with validation from the hallowed halls of academia. "They have to get some academic to endorse their claims," says Randi. "And that academic is not the local chiropractor or some such thing." The academic also has to stand behind the endorsement when contacted by the skeptics.
With the new criteria in place, the foundation will, at its option, dispense with the preliminary test and move right to the money game.
Using resources freed up by dropping unknown and mentally ill applicants, Randi hopes to make things uncomfortable for his real prey: the high-profile psychics who make their living off a credulous public, and who so far won't touch the Million Dollar Challenge with a 10-foot dowsing rod.
Randi says he'll start actively investigating professional mind-readers and mediums for proof of criminal fraud, or opportunities for civil lawsuits. Like Elliot Ness stalking Al Capone, he's not above busting a psychic for tangential infractions like tax code violations or an SEC matter.
At the same time, the foundation will choose six to eight high-profile targets each year, meticulously outline their claims, and then call them out one-by-one.
"We're going to pick people every year and hammer on them," says Wagg. "We're going to send certified mail, we're going to do advertising. We're going to pick a few people and say, we are actively challenging you. We may advertise in The New York Times. This will make the challenge a better tool, to be what it is supposed to be."
The foundation will launch this public-shaming initiative with a list of four targets, including self-proclaimed medium John Edward, and daytime talk show darling Sylvia Browne, who claims she can tell the future and see angels.
Browne is one of the United States' best known psychics, a best-selling author who frequently appears on Montel Williams and CNN's Larry King Live. In a 2001 appearance on Larry King, goaded by Randi, she seemed to agree to take the Million Dollar Challenge. She later backed away in an open letter to Randi on her website.
"As the saying goes, my self worth is completely unrelated to your opinion of me, and I've worked far too hard for far too many years, and have far too much left to do, to jump through hoops in the hope of proving something you've staked your reputations on mocking," she wrote. "I have no interest in your $1 million or any intention of pursuing it."
That's a disappointment, because if Browne's claims were ever to stand up to a scientific test in an adversarial process, it would be an unprecedented event in modern history, potentially changing our scientific understanding of the universe. Instead, you can buy a psychic phone call with her for $700.
Unlike Browne, Edward has never flip-flopped on the Randi test. He won't do it. In an appearance on CNN Headline News last October, he dismissed the notion with a quip. "Would I allow myself to be tested by somebody's whose got an adjective as a first name?" he said -- a reference to Randi's stage name, "The Amazing Randi."
CNN host Glenn Beck didn't press Edward for a serious answer. Instead he asked Edward about the time he contacted his mother beyond the grave -- "What was that like?" -- then opened the phones to callers looking for psychic advice. Edward specializes in passing messages between bereaved family members and their deceased loved ones; he told the first caller that someone in his family has cancer.
Edward didn't respond to an e-mail query for this story; Browne didn't return a phone call, and neither responded to several minutes of intense concentration. The other two psychics in Randi's fantastic four are Israeli spoon-bende Uri Geller and James Van Praagh, co-executive producer of CBS' Ghost Whisperer.
The media's lightweight treatment of professional psychics is a deadly serious matter to Randi. "People like Sylvia Browne have a very high profile, and she's always going to be on Montel Williams and she's going to be on Larry King," he says. "And they know what's going on, they're smart people. They know what's going on and they don't care."
Riled by clips like Edward's Headline News appearance, Randi's made media skepticism the theme of the 5th annual The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, a four-day skepticism conference kicking off Jan. 18 at the Riviera, where the full details of the revamped Million Dollar Challenge will be revealed to 800 attendees without the gift of prophecy.