Prove Your Supernatural Power and Get Rich
Houdini's psychic challenge letter
Photo: Chris Perley
It can sometimes be quite mind-boggling to hear a friend or family member reveal that they have some kind of supernatural ability. Often they feel an empathetic connection to others, sometimes the ability to perform minor healings, or to predict future events. Many times, these are abilities for which "supernatural" seems too strong a word; they are more spiritual or metaphysical, or based on some sensing of an energy. It's more than likely that you yourself believe you have such an ability, or perhaps did at one time. Nearly all of us have. But whether the ability is energetic or spiritual, supernatural truly is the best word that applies. A supernatural ability could almost be seen as a superpower, something a fictional superhero might be able to do. And we all want superpowers. We all want your supernatural ability to be proven true. And we want it so much that a large number of groups around the world will pay you to prove it.
Such prizes have been available at least since Houdini, who had a standing $10,000 offer for anyone who could create a paranormal manifestation that he could not duplicate. The granddaddy of today's challenges is the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge (no longer accepting applications since the retirement of James Randi), which offered to pay anyone who can prove an ability unknown to science one million dollars, and Chinese journalist Sima Nan will kick in a million Yuan (about $150,000) on top of it. It's not the only big prize out there: the Belgian group SKEPP offers the Sisyphus Prize for one million Euros, which at current exchange rates, is about a quarter million dollars more than the Million Dollar Challenge. The Independent Investigation Group, with affiliates throughout the United States, offers a $100,000 prize. Puzzling World in New Zealand has long offered the $100,000 Pyschic Challenge, and just across the pond, the Australian Skeptics offer a $100,000 prize. The Science and Rationalists' Association of India offers a IN₹2 million Miracle Challenge, worth about $50,000. These are most of the largest prizes, but many, many smaller prizes are offered all around the world. If you have a supernatural ability of any kind, you owe it to yourself — or at least to your favorite charity — to prove it and use the reward however you see fit.
Update: some of these prizes are no longer current. An updated list of similar prizes is on Wikipedia. - BD
It's easy to dismiss the groups who run these challenges as cynics who just want to gloat over someone's failure, and for sure, such people are found in those groups. But many members of the groups joined because they, too, have always dreamed of having a superpower. Should you win the money and prove that a supernatural ability is possible, you'll not only turn the world on its head, you'll be handed money by people who have never been happier to sign a check.
I truly do encourage you to go for it. Here are three big pieces of advice, based on the experiences of the many previous claimants:
1. Be able to succinctly describe a testable ability.
The biggest headache for the people who offer these prizes is that the claimant can almost never provide a simple, clear description of their ability. For example, if you believe you have the power to influence a cat telepathically, you have to give a specific and testable example. Most claimants usually write in with a great lengthy email, telling about the many examples they've experienced of a cat doing whatever they wanted it to do; or perhaps with long rambling experiences of sharing the cat's feelings or of their history of owning cats with whom they felt empathetic.
The challengers have no use for a long letter. You truly must be able to describe one specific ability in a single sentence. If you have many, then pick exactly one, one that you are most confident you can consistently prove.
Nobody is going to give you a cash prize for the length of your letter, or for the number of cats you've felt empathetic toward. You must be able to provide a clear, testable ability. If your ability is broad-reaching and vague, it will not be possible to construct a test protocol, and you will not be able to prove it. You must be able to select, within the scope of your broad-reaching abilities, something specific that's testable and repeatable. For example, "I can make my cat jump onto its perch, within five seconds of giving it a mental command, when the cat neither see me nor hear me, and I can do it 8 out of 10 times."
It has to be something concise, specific, and unmistakable. If you feel that your ability is too broad to be fairly represented by such a precise example, then you are unlikely to convince anyone, and will certainly be unable to prove your ability to the satisfaction of whatever criteria are agreed upon.
Many claimants report that they feel it's unfair to try and represent their ability with a single demonstration that's so much more specific than what they generally do. If you feel the same way and can't agree to a simple test protocol, then you're likely to leave the impression that your abilities are really just your own misinterpretation of ordinary coincidences. It's something the psychologists call confirmation bias — you happen to notice when your cat jumps onto his perch while you were thinking of him, but you failed to weigh it against the far larger number of times your cat jumped onto the perch when you weren't around and had nothing to do with it.
2. Be aware of why previous claimants failed.
Many people have taken such tests, and so far, all have failed. However, they've almost always cited an excuse or some external reason out of their control that the test failed. You must be aware of why previous claimants have failed, and be prepared not to suffer their same fate. This means preparation and anticipation of the problems.
Claimants are generally required to sign a paper stating that the test they've agreed to is a fair one and that they're satisfied with the protocol. However, after each fails, they almost always say that the test was not fair, or that there was some unanticipated interference.
In 2002, the Australian Skeptics ran a large test with many water dowsers who came out to locate which covered bottles placed around a tennis court contained water. The dowsers were satisfied that no ground water or other interfering effects were present before the bottles were placed. After they all ran their dowsing tests, all felt they'd done a good job and expressed no dissatisfaction, agreed the test was fair, and that they'd scored well. But once the bottles were uncovered, scores were tallied, and it was determined that none of the dowsers scored better than random chance, the excuses came flooding:
Truly able dowsers should have been aware of all of these limitations of their abilities beforehand. They had failed to explicitly understand their own ability, or lack thereof. All of these failures could have been avoided if they'd followed piece of advice #3:
3. Test yourself first.
When claimants do show up and take their tests, the testers often report that it seems clear the claimants have never tested themselves before. They truly believe in their ability, and they simply "know" that they'll be able to pass the test. Unfortunately it seems that very few actually run the test on themselves at home before spending the time and money to travel and have the test given for real.
One case of a dowser involved finding a glass of water using a pair of divining rods. The first stage involved the glasses exposed and clearly visible; the claimant passed, as expected. Next, the claimant himself covered the glasses of water with boxes, and also placed empty boxes. Again, the claimant passed. This is probably as far as the claimant ever got on his own at home; he "felt" or "knew" that he could actually detect the water, and that he would have similar success under any test condition. Unfortunately the third stage involved glasses of water under boxes that were placed randomly by a third party out of the dowser's view, and when so blinded, the dowser discovered he was unable to find the water. He lost the test, and his time and money to travel had been wasted. If he'd run this simple test at home, having a neighbor or friend hide the glasses for him, he would have discovered that his ability disppeared whenever the location of the water was unknown to him. Hopefully he would have second guessed his decision to spend money getting tested, or at least gone back to the drawing board to reformulate his ability and find something that worked reliably under the test protocol.
When you do test yourself at home, be sure to bring along friends or neighbors who doubt your ability. Have them challenge you. This may give you a better idea of how reliable is your ability, or under what conditions it may or may not work. Most of these challenges allow — in fact, require — you to design your own testing protocol, subject to the challengers certifying that it will be a satisfactory proof. So you'd better be able to go in knowing exactly what kind of test you can pass, and be sure that you've passed it many times, reliably, in concert with your friends and the biggest skeptics you can dig up. If you can't satisfy your friends and neighbors, you certainly won't be able to satisfy the professional statisticians and magicians at the challenge.
So again, I encourage you to go for. Nearly everyone is rooting for you. We human beings have looked in a lot of places trying to find real magic or real superpowers, and we haven't found any yet. I hope, for all our sakes, that you will be the one who does.
Correction: An earlier version of this listed the IIG's paranormal prize amount as $50,000. They have upped it to $100,000.
Correction: Please note that with the retirement of James Randi, the JREF Million Dollar Challenge is no longer accepting applications.
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