As Brian discussed in a recent Skeptoid episode, a number of groups in the US and around the world have issued challenges offering to pay the first person who can prove they have paranormal, psychic or supernatural abilities.
But even if you don’t have paranormal powers, there still might be money out there for you. There are a wide range of individuals and groups who claim they are willing to shell out cash to those who can prove or disprove a number of scientific hypotheses, from the origin of HIV to whether the Bible is a literal document to whether aliens actually exist. But beware, because while a few of these do seem to be genuine offers made out of a desire to be proven wrong, most are just cynical publicity grabs that will never pay out a nickel. In fact, most aren’t winnable at all.
The most common of these faux challenges involves young earth creationists offering prizes for anyone who can prove evolution is real. Since evolution has compelling, abundant evidence to support its existence, and creationism has not a molecule of evidence in its favor, this should be easy money for any biologist worth their degree. However, anyone tempted to take one of these challenges should know that virtually all of them come with myriad conditions, exceptions and trap doors that make the offers unwinnable.
One “challenge” that made mainstream headlines was from Joseph Mastropaolo, a California kinesiologist who offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could scientifically disprove the Genesis creation story in an adjudicated trial. As in a trial. With a judge and a bailiff. To protect his investment, Mastropaolo and his backers at the “Creation Science Hall of Fame” slapped a number of arbitrary terms on the venture. The most egregious is that the “Genesis non-literalist” challenging him has to put up $10,000 of their own money, with the winner netting both prizes. Of course, the null hypothesis demands not proof Genesis is false, but proof Genesis is true. But one gets the sense that’s not the method Mastropaolo would prefer be used in his sham, un-winnable “trial.”
If ten grand isn’t enough to tempt you, Creation Science Evangelism founder Kent Hovind has a cool quarter of a million smackers on the line for “anyone who can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution.” Hovind, or Dr. Dino as his supporters call him (his non-scientific doctorate being from a diploma mill housed in a trailer), is behind the charming theme park Dinosaur Adventure Land, as well as a hit speaker on the evangelical circuit. He also developed the so-called “Hovind Theory” – a ludicrously complicated creation hypothesis that accounts for everything on the planet older than 6,000 years without actually explaining any of it.
In the years after he put up the $250,000, Hovind continuously dodged any kind of specifics for how and by whom the proof would be judged. And despite a number of evolutionary biologists rising to meet the challenge with strange concepts like evidence and research, Dr. Dino managed to come up with excuse after excuse why their responses weren’t valid. Finally, in 2006, a higher power intervened in Hovind’s challenge – the IRS, who arrested Hovind on charges of failing to pay over half a million dollars in federal taxes. He’s currently serving a ten year stretch in prison for tax evasion, having used a number of debunked conspiracy-driven arguments to avoid paying up – a tactic familiar to anyone who took his now defunct challenge.
Kent Hovind may be out of the picture, but there’s always the “Missing Universe Museum,” a website created by a “Bible-believing Christian” offering a reward of “at least” one million dollars for “proof of evolution.” But judging by the crude layout of the website, which is mostly incoherent nonsense about creationism and long lists of Bible quotes, it’s probably not worth putting together a claim on the money, which almost certainly doesn’t exist. Or at least wasn’t plowed into web design.
Then there’s the largesse of flamboyant Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, a man so committed to his cause that he’s publicly offered ten trillion Turkish lira (or $5,146,950,000,000 as of press time) for a single transitional fossil that demonstrates evolution has ever taken place in any form. Oktar is well known in creation circles for advocating the censorship of websites that disagree with him, the long string of legal claims and lawsuits he’s facing, his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and his 786 page anti-evolution book Atlas of Creation. Of course, evolutionary biologists have dismissed his evidence as completely lacking in anything resembling scientific rigor. And with many transitional fossils having been discovered and Oktar not sitting on a fortune the size of Japan’s GDP, it’s a safe bet that his offer is much less about getting to the truth about how humans came to be and much more about publicity.
Young Earth creationists aren’t the only ones putting up money for proof of things that either already have been proven or can’t be proven, since they don’t exist. The motives for these offers are all over the map, from publicity to public shaming.
The pH Miracle Living Foundation offered $500,000 (plus an equal donation to Heifer International) for scientific proof of HIV. They claimed to be looking for “a study published in a peer-reviewed medical journal that shows the validation of any HIV test by the direct isolation of the HIV virus from the fresh, uncultured fluids or tissues of positive testing persons.” HIV tests are remarkably accurate and the science on HIV causing AIDS is completely settled, but no researcher took the group up on their bet before it was rescinded in 2009. AIDS denial happens to be just one of the “Foundation’s” areas of interest, and their website is full of conspiracies, pseudoscientific nonsense, pitches for Kangen water and reiki, and most hilarious of all, a plea to abolish money.
There are also numerous prizes available for anyone who can create a free energy machine. Even though many, many inventors claim to have developed such devices (and that their inventions have been suppressed by Big Oil or the government), the money remains unclaimed – where it will remain until the laws of physics are altered to make free energy a real thing.
Filmmaker James Fox, promoting his new movie The 701, recently made an offer of $100,000 for definitive proof of the existence of aliens. This would take the form of “a photograph, video or film footage or debris from an alleged crash site” and be judged by an independent (and unnamed) panel. Given the number of people who have had alleged UFO encounters, one would think the money would be snapped up the moment it was offered, but as of now, it’s still out there.
Finally, University of Pennsylvania bio-ethicist Art Caplan put up $10,000 for anyone who could produce a patient that suffered brain damage as a result of being given the HPV vaccine Gardasil – a response to science-denying US Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s claim that one of her constituents told her the vaccine made her daughter “retarded.” The father of a girl who had allegedly been injured by a Gardasil injection fired back with his own $10,000 offer for proof that the vaccine was safe, and anti-vaccine outfit SAFE Vax Inc. got in on the action with $10,000 for anyone who could prove Gardasil had prevented a single case of HPV. Dr. Caplan imposed a three-day limit on his offer, and as of now, the others remain unclaimed.
Of course, when you make an offer for prove of something and that offer is accepted and proven, you always have the option of weaseling your way out of paying.
This was the case for Holocaust denial group the Institute for Historical Review, who offered $50,000 to anyone who could definitively prove that any Jews were murdered by gassing at Auschwitz. Camp survivor Mel Mermelstein took the IHR up on their challenge, and submitted a notarized letter detailing his experience of watching his parents and sisters led to gas chambers and killed. The IHR refused to pay, and Mermelstein sued the group, winning the $50,000 plus another $40,000 in compensatory damages. The judge in the case found in Mermelstein’s favor because the offer made by the IHR was legally binding and that the murder of Jews in concentration camps “was not reasonably subject to dispute.” Of course, this hasn’t stopped Holocaust deniers from carving out their own toxic niche of the internet, but none have made the same bet that the IHR was foolish enough to offer.
And if there were a hall of fame for insincere offers of money for proof, an entire wing would be devoted to former football star OJ Simpson, who, in the days after being arrested for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, offered a $500,000 reward for information leading to “the real killer” of the two. And despite Simpson being found legally not guilty of the murder, the money was never claimed – until most likely being garnished as a result of Simpson being found guilty in a civil trial.
Will any of these prizes ever be claimed? Probably not, since most of them don’t exist. But they seem to be worth their weight in gold for the publicity they’ve brought to those that offer them.