Commented by Claus Larsen
In his book, “Flim-Flam!”, James Randi describes 20 points that can be applied to paranormal phenomena. Here they are, along with my comments.
- “It is claimed that the subject does not seek money or fame, and thus no motive to deceive exists.”
Mammon isn’t the only reason people deceive. Paranormal power always gives you some kind of advantage over your fellow man. Ego plays a huge part.
- “The subject (a child, peasant, or sweet little old lady) is said to be incapable of the techniques required; lack of sophistication precludes deception.”
Handling technology or knowing about trickery is not limited to a handful of people.
- “It is said that the subject has failed to pass tests designed to determine if the necessary skill is present.”
It is very difficult to test whether people have a certain skill, if they try to hide it. Any carpenter can feign ignorance over the use of a hammer.
- “Faults discovered in the story of performance tend to prove the phenomenon real, it is agreed, since a clever trickster would not make such basic errors.”
If the subject isn’t caught making mistakes, it is taken as a proof that the phenomenon is real. If the subject does make mistakes, it is also taken as proof. Who can lose with such an argument?
- “If a phenomenon is consistent with previously reported ones, this is cited as strong evidence that it is genuine.”
Anecdotal evidence is not real evidence. 10 stories are not any better than one story, and 100 stories are no better than 10.
- “It is claimed that critics give poor or insufficient reasons for doubting reported paranormal events and are therefore not to be taken seriously.”
Sometimes true, which is why we need double-blind tests, where the testers don’t even know what is being tested – they merely perform the test and record the results.
- “Prominent personalities lend their support to the claims and are considered unassailable because of prestige, academic background, and so on.”
Celebrity endorsements work well with sports athletes. But is Tiger Woods really a better judge of what car is the best?
- “Similarly, supposed experts are called in to verify the claims.”
Always check the experts’ credentials and beliefs. Are they believers themselves? Have they recanted later on?
- “The findings of experts who are critical are minimized or ignored.”
A curious aspect of false claims is that claimants point to the few experts who say they are right, while they dismiss the many who say they are right. Experts and authorities are only useful when they confirm the beliefs.
- “Those who allege paranormal events are equivocal and evasive, allowing investigators to assume facts and fill in details in support of their claims.”
It is very difficult to get a person who claims paranormal abilities to be specific about what he or she can actually do. This gives believers an opportunity to support the claim with assumptions and excuses, if they are later proven wrong.
- “Conflicting versions or details of a paranormal event are ignored.”
Only the version that supports the claim is considered. Selecting the data to fit the hypothesis is common, also known as the “File Drawer” phenomenon. You omit data that proves the theory wrong.
- “A subject’s ability to perform trickery is de-emphasized or ignored.”
Even if Uri Geller is a magician, and the spoon-bending trick can be done easily by trickery, he claims paranormal abilities when he does it.
- “Any controls that seem scientific are used to provide authentication, whether applicable or not.”
Make sure the controls test for the right thing. Just because it sounds like science doesn’t make it science.
- “It is said that the subject cannot produce phenomena on command or on a regular basis, since such abilities are ephemeral and sporadic.”
If a phenomenon could be repeated on demand, it would be easier to test it. This way, multiple cop-outs are possible: “It doesn’t work today”, “too many bad vibes”, etc. Even “there’s a skeptic in the room” has been used (which means “It only works when gullible people are present”)!
- “It is claimed that conditions that make deception possible are also those that allow the miracles to take place, and miracles are the more probable explanation.”
Lack of controls allow “miracles” to happen. A supernatural explanation is preferred over cheating.
- “Unless the critics can explain away all the reported details, the residue is considered an irreducible basis for validation.”
Prophets who make one correct prediction out of a thousand are hailed as the real thing.
- “We are told that subjects do not do well when persons with “negative vibrations” are nearby.”
Substitute “persons with negative vibrations” with “persons who don’t take crap for the real thing”.
- “It is claimed that when money is paid for the services of a psychic, or the psychic powers are used to earn money, the powers are defeated. On the other hand – since parapsychologists like to have it both ways – money rewards, they also claim, tend to encourage performance.”
Psychics usually turn down money rewards if they are willing to have their abilities tested. Money is apparently a big destroyer of paranormal phenomena. However, this doesn’t prevent the same psychics to charge often hundreds of dollars per session.
- “It is argued that too many controls on an experiment cause negative results.”
In other words: If the experiment is performed under controls, it fails. Only when the claimant is able to control the experiment will it succeed.
- “Any trickery detected by the investigators may be attributed to the subject’s desire to please.”
If you are caught cheating, it was only because you wanted the experiment to succeed. You are usually forgiven by your believers.
“James Randi has an international reputation as a magician and escape artist, but today he is best known as the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
Randi has pursued ‘psychic’ spoonbenders, exposed the dirty tricks of faith healers, investigated homeopathic water ‘with a memory,’ and generally been a thorn in the sides of those who try to pull the wool over the public’s eyes in the name of the supernatural.
He has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1986.”
From the James Randi Educational Foundation