The Ethical Skeptic

Challenging Pseudo-Skepticism, Institutional Propaganda and Cultivated Ignorance

The JREF Million Dollar Challenge is Profitable Pseudoscience

The quintessential example of how Social Skeptics flee from the scientific method when it does not suit their purpose. The hypocritical employment of pseudoscience quackery in order to mislead and make $millions$.

JREF Challenge is Pseudoscience Public BeheadingThe JREF “Million Dollar Challenge” should be defined as a ‘contest’ under 12 Unites States Code Lottery Laws.  Legally it is not a test, experiment, study nor research investigation. Rather it stands as nothing more than a public beheading, crafted to mislead a target demographic, incite and reap from the gullible, millions of dollars. To entertain the SSkeptic faithful and serve as a warning to wayward scientists.
An actual scientific method approach, involving professional testing could be easily executed under the millions of dollars JREF brings in annually,³ …but yet they chose to run away from science. Why? Ironically, their patrons would not pay, if they did actual real science. Take that as a hint. 
If you, JREF, are a self appointed trustee and representative of the scientific method, and can trust the discipline to perform ethical science and show this as bunk, then why not do it?
Why employ lottery odds? When someone does win, it will not be a proof of the contention, they will have simply gotten very very lucky. And further then you can employ this luck excuse to dismiss the outcome, when they do win.

I met a colleague for lunch sometime back who teaches at a local university establishment, we stopped by the an old fave’ the Tin Pot for a scoop and talked, whereupon the topic of The JREF Challenge came up in the matter of our discourse.  He mentioned that such a science challenge stands as an exemplary sentinel of the willingness of SSkeptics to address the contentions of pseudoscience.  I disagreed with him and explained why the Challenge is the exact antithesis of what should be done inside Ethical Skepticism and ethical science. He and I disagreed as to both the nature and the efficacy of such a public stunt. The crafters of the study enjoy the luxury of its misperception, and despite their declarations to the contrary, wallow in the sunshine of the Challenge’s misleadingly inferred message that they are conducting scientific evaluations of the paranormal.  I tend to think more like a businessman, sensitive to that which will produce results; and my colleague like a politician, more keenly tuned in to what sounds good. Firmly within the ranks of social and political ‘acceptable sounding’ discourse reside the antics of fake SSkepticism.  Nothing elucidates this better than the JREF Challenge itself. In the opinion of the Ethical Skeptic, crafting a display of public intimidation such as the JREF Million Dollar Challenge would constitute a misleading act as well as dis-service to humanity and science.

The Challenge allegorically sheds light into the two primary reasons why there exists a wall preventing specific disdained topics from being taken seriously:

  1. your funding is in real danger if you research these subjects, and
  2. there is NO WAY SSkeptics are going to afford these subjects any access to the scientific method.

The Challenge sheds so much light into the unethical heart of many SSkeptics, factors elucidated no better than by Dr. Steven Novella himself, a senior fellow at the JREF:

JREF challenge is a beheading lotteryBy admission in his blog post (Neurologica: Defending the Million Dollar Challenge), “The purpose of the [JREF Million Dollar] challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon. Randi and the JREF have always been crystal clear about this. Rather, the point of the challenge is to be a public demonstration.”  In other words the challenge is propaganda, a public beheading employed to intimidate budding scientists, entertain the religious faithful of fake skepticism and vilify those whom his fellows disdain.

Steven understates above what the JREF Million Dollar Challenge is NOT, but fails to cite what the Challenge indeed IS.  Thankfully he further expounds that,  “The threshold for statistical significance is often set at 0.05 (Steven is equivocating between probability math and scientific series testing confidence interval significance measures here, which are not the same thing at all even though the numbers sound similar to a layman), which essentially means that, by random chance (see bullet point 3 below) alone, 1 experiment in 20 will reach statistical significance. If Randi were to set the threshold at a P-value of 0.05 then he would be giving $1 million dollars to every 20th applicant (“p-value” …this is not how science or Confidence Intervals work in the least,¹ he has shifted from Confidence Interval verbiage now to a misunderstanding of p-value application (see Scientific American April 16, 2015), but let’s let Steven continue to dig deeper). It should be obvious why this is not done. Even a level of 1 in 100 would be ruinous. It is perfectly reasonable to set the threshold at 1 in a million, where it has traditionally been set. In other words, the JREF challenge is faking both the understanding and application of Null Hypothesis Significance Testing methodology.ε It is not one test to which a ‘P-value’ is applied, as if it were simple probability math, as Mr. Novella either cluelessly or disingenuously mis-frames, in this amateur understanding of research analytics; rather actual science involves a series of controlled tests regarding input variables, under who’s arrival distributions and/or sensitivity functions, a confidence interval (theoretical domain tolerance) is developed regarding summary variable outputs expressed in terms of a P-value. ¹ (Lehmann) ² (Madsen).

A ‘p-value’ applied as probability math upon a single instance test (as is the case for the JREF Challenge) is  …wait for it  … pseudoscience.ε

The employment of simple probability math in lieu of professional confidence interval science, is a principle misuse of statistics, and stands as a litmus test which distinguishes pseudoscience from science. †ε

“Many researchers have labored under the misbelief that the p-value gives the probability that their study’s results are just pure random chance.ε

  ~ Scientific American: The Sciences; Regina Nuzzo on April 16, 2015

Novellas New ClothesReasonable,” in Dr. Novella’s portrayal? Yes, if your only goal is to protect a cache of money and donation/grant stream, this uneducated ploy is totally reasonable. In science, it is unreasonable. “Traditionally,” he implies a long history of practice of this understanding of p-values and science. Equivocation to say the least, implying to the layman and outsider that science has reasonably and traditionally employed Dr. Novella’s cited method and further then implying its vetting over time by numerous science peers. And of course, it is incumbent that he explain because otherwise I would be too stupid to understand this reasonable and traditional setting of science, right? This would embody a fallacy of relative privation, even if the technical merit were indeed correct.

Such is exemplary of the habitually misrepresentative practices of the Cabal. It makes no difference that Steven Novella has explained what the Challenge is, if JREF enjoys the leverage of a misperception, and utilizes that misperception in order to make money off of and spin pseuodoscience for the public, then JREF/Novella are promoting that misperception – there is no difference. Were the JREF Challenge generally regarded to be cure for cancer, wherein in no way did JREF itself claim to be such, yet throngs of outsiders continually promote the cure claim to JREF’s profit and enjoyment, well then Steven Novella would be decrying the quackery involved. There would be FDA letters. Here we have an exact parallel of applied SSkeptical Science quackery, a practice in which the participants make millions benefiting from the pseudoscience and misperception. Steven Novella supports this type of quackery. Through such planned Emperor’s New Clothes Cozenage (see under Science Fallacies) JREF seeks to leverage three demographic profiles to their deceptive advantage:

How the Emperor’s New Clothes Cozenage Works:

  • 97% of the population, is easily fooled by celebrity and sciencey sounding jargon used out of proper context (like ‘statistical significance’ and ‘P-values’)
  • 2% real scientists who are not fooled and have actually published studies employing P-values in a professional scientific context.  That group they simply intimidate, and keep them in line with career threats, and ‡ (PRB – U.S. Census Bureau)
  • the final 1% are the nasty skeptic patrol sycophants who do the dirty work, never question the propaganda, and simply spin their pseudo-intellectual discourse to keep these first two bullet point groups in line. (Trust me, the number is way less than 1%, who constitute fake skeptics, but their deleterious impact is enormous. 1% is assumed here for simplicity’s sake). Those who alert to the issue are:  woo pushers, stupid, irrational, credulous, fringe, idiots, pundits, etc.

Stage Magician’s Joy in Consummating Broadscale Deception

sleight of hand of misrepresentationSteven Novella is defending a non-professional protocol developed by non-scientist, non-degreed, non-trained, ‘self-educated,’ self-reported IQ, stage magician, Mr. Amazing, James Randi. The mistake has already been published, so the Cabal is here to defend their mascot with whatever bamboozling rhetoric will fall on receptive dilettante ears and mislead the 97% demographic outlined in bullet point 1 above. Both men here demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how science regards probability and confidence under the scientific method.

The ethical employment of repetitive testing, establishing a 95% confidence interval (If they are desiring a ‘P-value’ of .05) under disciplined observation arrival and distribution protocols (ie. the scientific method) is the only way for real science to effectively address the types of challenge nominated by the JREF Contest. Legally it should be called a ‘contest’ under lottery laws as it is neither a test, challenge nor a study; and it is certainly not a controlled experiment.² (Madsen)

An actual scientific method approach, involving professional testing could be easily executed under the millions of dollars JREF brings in annually,³ …but yet they chose to run away from science. Why? Ironically, their patrons would not pay, if they did actual real science. Take that as a hint.

They chose to charter instead a flawed approach very early on in the JREF Challenge charter development? The motive? As always: The Magician’s Rush of Deception, Organizational Power …and Money.

The Problem is that This Sleight-of-Hand is Employed to Extract Lottery Money from Hapless Victims of its Deception

This is akin to the “auction” site Beezid, where hapless victims are deceived into believing that they are observing execution of an ethical auction, when in fact the shenanigans are nothing but a lottery. A charade in which they do not understand that they will rarely, if ever, win. This is a very common practice of stage magician-ship and deception. A sleight-of-hand as to what game is actually being played, by dressing it up as a more familiar, but different, game.

So in essence the Challenge threshold of evidence is set ridiculously higher than, and out of context from, that employed in the real scientific method, so that JREF does not have to perform science which might threaten their club beliefs, and so that JREF can maximize total assets and annual income. Therefore JREF fellows and membership must circumvent the scientific method (ie. practice pseudoscience) to avoid something which would “be ruinous” in their words.  Dr. Novella makes it clear that the charter of the challenge is to “[not] be ruinous.” This whole charade is an abrogation of science, and an offense to those who are seeking truth regarding the subjects it is purporting to test. This is deceptive to the victims of misapplied statistics and procedural pseudoscience, and disservice against those who have entered the contest and wagered their reputation, travel expense investment, contracting and idea or skill. Deception against the donors who do not understand the delineation between jargon and science and ultimately a hoodwinking of the audience (all of us) who believes this rabbit hat trick to constitute real scientific experimentation.

SSkeptics bitch and moan about the potential of paranormal researchers employing pseudoscience to make money, when the fact is that their Cabal is committing monetary graft on a large scale. JREF reported a total income from this scientific masquerade of $1 million and a balance sheet asset base of $1,750,000 in 2010 alone.³ (IRS Form 990)

To express it in the inverse, the JREF Challenge is a fairground-lottery,ƒ (12 US Code CS § 25a), as framed by Steven Novella’s own words above.  Eventually someone will win the 1,000,000 : 1 odds and pass the “Challenge” because it does not use science in its protocols; rather –

Fatal Problems:

The Challenge employes 1M:1 gambling/gaming odds, rather than science based protocols and confidence intervals.

When someone does eventually win the 1 million to 1 lottery, it will have nothing whatsoever to do with the scientific veracity of the tested subject.  They will have simply gotten very very lucky. 

Let’s put it even a third way:  JREF – calls all this bunk – but was not willing to wager $1 million that the subjects would be shown by the scientific method to indeed be bunk.  What do they fear? Why would they not put their money where their mouth is?  If you are a self appointed trustee and representative of the scientific method, and can trust the process to perform ethical science and show this as bunk, then why not do it?

When a lottery winner is actually successful in the demonstration, then ‘being very lucky in the lottery’ stands as the ready-made excuse, deployed to dismiss the outcome.

All this is done to bilk the easily deceived, out of millions in donations in support of the contest. Money from people who would not donate, if the JREF challenge were to actually practice scientific protocols.³

In his own words, Dr. Novella has not only framed in my opinion, the irrational context behind the JREF Million Dollar Challenge; but moreover elucidated with it, the principles motivations of many persons inside the Social Skepticism movement:

1.  Its fellows crafted it as a non-scientific lottery with the penalty of a public beheading/warning

2.  Its fellows charter is to make money, not lose money, “craft any charade necessary to protect the money (funding)”

3.  Its fellows forbid its adherence to scientific methods because of the real danger that a claim might show scientific validity under ethical protocols

Thank you Dr. Steven Novella for clearing that up for The Ethical Skeptic 8-).

Pseudoscience is the deceptive act of intimating or claiming to use or represent the scientific method or science in attaining conclusions, when in fact such contentions are false.  Pseudoscience is not a set of beliefs nor an undesirable topic of credulity, contrary to what SSkeptics claim; rather, is an action constituted by errant methodology and pretense.

I have a better idea.  Let’s correct this errant methodology and pretense by issuing the ZERO Dollar Paranormal ChallengeBy eliminating the funding as the threat risk, we free up the ethical participants, so that they can do actual science and not conduct unethical activity with the testing standards.  Such an idea! But, bear with me dear reader, in reality there exists no such thing as a Zero Dollar Challenge in science.  Sadly today, implicit in every “Challenge” is the threat of loss of funding.  This is why the science does not get done; that is the charter of celebrity skeptics like Dr. Novella and Mr. Amazing, to visibly display an analogy to this this funding threat, to demonstrate why everyone is too afraid to pursue the science, while we all wallow in anecdote and ignorance.

This constitutes vigilante town-square-beheading ethics, destroying just as many innocents as it does villains.  Gentlemen, you are very good at enacting your magician-ship charter. Congratulations.

TES Signature


¹  Lehmann, E.L., Testing Statistical Hypotheses, 2010; University of California at Berkeley, Springer-Wiley, pp. 21-114.

²  Madsen, Richard W., Statistical Concepts, 1986; University of Missouri-Columbia, Simon & Schuster, Inc., pp. 314-340 and 448-468.

³  JREF reported, in 2010, a total income of $999,971.00 and a Total Asset claim of $1,736,101. Click here to see the available JREF Form 990. – See more at: http://www.bolenreport.com/feature_articles/Doctor%27s-Data-v-Barrett/RandiArrested.htm#sthash.zU4kQ7f9.dpuf

†  European Journal of General Medicine 2007; 4 (Vol. 3), pp.128-134; Misuse of Stastics In Medical Research, Ercan, Yazıcı et al., Uludag University, Department of Biostatistics, Anadolu University; Science Faculty, Department of Statistics, Eskisehir, Turkey

†  Misreporting or Misunderstanding of Estimated Error, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misuse_of_statistics

‡  PRB analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial census and American Community Survey

ƒ  12 United States Code CS § 25a , defines a “lottery” as being that which includes any arrangement whereby three or more persons (the “participants”) advance money or credit to another in exchange for the possibility or expectation that one or more but not all of the participants (the “winners”) will receive by reason of their advances more than the amounts they have advanced, the identity of the winners being determined by any means which includes–(A) a random selection;(B) a game, race, or contest; or(C) any record or tabulation of the result of one or more events in which any participant has no interest except for its bearing upon the possibility that he may become a winner.

ε  Nuzzo, Regina, “Scientists Perturbed by Loss of Stat Tool to Sift Research Fudge from Fact,” Scientific American, April 16 2015; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-perturbed-by-loss-of-stat-tool-to-sift-research-fudge-from-fact/?WT.mc_id=SA_Twitter.

February 16, 2013 - Posted by | Argument Fallacies, Institutional Mandates, Social Disdain | , , , , , ,

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