Skepticism

Regen Traynor and the Testing of Paranormal Claims

I am a member of the IIG, a volunteer-run organization based out of The Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles, California. The IIG investigates fringe science, paranormal activity and extraordinary claims from a scientific viewpoint. I am a rather new member as I have only actively participated in the cardsgroup for just under a year. I am quite fond of the group and the work that is done there. In the short time that I have participated in IIG I have been very impressed by the professionalism combined with an open door policy and willingness to explain science and skepticism to anyone who expresses interest. There is definitely some wonderful skeptical outreach being done by the group and I am happy to be an active member.

Recently while investigating a paranormal claim with the IIG a few issues came to my attention that I feel are worthy of a discussion.

On February 20th at the Center For Inquiry the IIG conducted a preliminary test of a man who claimed he was a telepath. This recent test of Regan Traynor seems like a relevant example to use while discussing the ethical implications and difficulties in scientific testing of subjects who believe they have paranormal abilities.

Let me start off by explaining the IIG’s $50,000 challenge. Many of you are familiar with the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge, which is offered to anyone who can prove a psychic ability or a supernatural claim under controlled scientific conditions. The IIG offers a similar lesser prize under the same conditions and also stands as a preliminary test to The JREF’s million-dollar challenge. If you pass IIG’s test and win the $50,000 you can then move on to apply for the larger prize offered by the JREF.

Taken from the IIG website:

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG works with the applicant in designing the test protocol, and defining the conditions under which a test will take place. IIG representatives will then administer the actual test. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform an informal demonstration of the claimed ability or phenomenon, which if successful will be followed by the formal test. The IIG conducts all demonstrations and tests at our site in Hollywood, California, except in special circumstances.

In 2008 a man by the name of Regen Traynor contacted the IIG with the claim that he can telepathically transmit the value of a playing card to a receiver (another person) in a different room. In regenother words if you held up a card and it was the ace of hearts, with out using any communication other than the power of his mind he could send that information to the mind of his friend in the other room who could then write down on a piece of paper, the ace of hearts. After two years of emailing the subject, a protocol was put in place. Mr. Traynor would travel to Los Angeles with a receiver of his choosing and the test would consist of him in one room and his receiver in another room. He would then telepathically send the values of each card in a deck of 52 to his receiver who would then write the values down on a piece of paper. In order to pass the preliminary challenge Mr. Traynor and his partner would need to get 7 out of 52 cards* correct. The event would be documented and live streamed to the Internet. Both subjects would be searched for electronic sending devices and would be monitored by the members of the IIG who would administer the test.

The test was originally scheduled to take place on Sunday January 17th, 2010. Regen Trayner and his receiver did not show up on the scheduled date. A few days passed before Mr.Traynor contacted the IIG to apologize for missing the date and explained that he was in jail at the time. The IIG agreed to reschedule the test and a new date was set for Saturday February 20th.

On February 20th, Regen Traynor and his receiver, Fernando arrived at the Center for Inquiry. Not only were they searched for electronic devices but for weapons as well. We had a retired police officer assist with the check. Both men were found to have no weapons and no electronic devices other that a cell phone which was removed for the duration of the test. Both men signed release forms agreeing to be photographed and agreeing to the proposed protocol. I should mention at this point that both men were visibly drunk.

These men weren’t just slightly inebriated. They were wasted, stumbling, swaying side-to-side smell-vodka-across-the-room drunk. They both freely admitted to being drunk and in no way regentried to hide the fact. At one point during the test Traynor referred to himself as not only being drunk but also being a drunk and asked for more alcohol a few times during the test. None was provided.

I should also mention that we found out both men were homeless. When asked to sign the release forms they said they had no address and that they were, “homeless.” They had traveled from the state of Washington to Los Angeles via bus. I was told the bus trip was a 14-hour drive. They informed us that they planned to travel to Texas after this test to participate in another psychic challenge that offered a $12,000 prize.

It was at this point that I brought up the issue that a contract signed by an inebriated person might not be considered valid, as the inebriated person is not of sound mind. Being that nothing was written in to the test protocol regarding inebriation and that both these men had traveled such a distance, the group decided for better or worse to go ahead with the test at that time.

The test in its entirety was recorded and broadcast live across the Internet. A saved ustream of the test can be viewed here. Fernando, who Regen Traynor brought as his receiver, could not write. It was not clear to me if he did not know how to write or simply could not write in English. He instead told his answers to one of the IIG members who wrote his answers down for him on a piece of paper. At one point during the test Fernando gave an answer similar to 7 of Jacks and was allowed a second try at naming the card. It was not clear if his difficulty stemmed from an English as a second language issue, illiteracy or if it was due to inebriation.

The actual card transfer part of test itself took approximately 1 hour to conduct with one minute allowed per transfer of each card from alleged telepath to receiver. In the end when the results were tallied the final score was 0 out of 52. Audience members who guessed got on average 1 card out of 52. Regen and Fernando did not get a single card correct.

resultsWhen asked, both test subjects on several occasions said that they felt that the test was fair and even commented that this was a “good day” for them and that they had “fun” and they were headed off to try somewhere else. This brings me to the main issues I feel need to be discussed when dealing with paranormal challenges.

First of all, there is the issue of science itself when dealing with paranormal claims. Science is actually the best device we can use to make predictions about the future. Science beats out the psychics every time. Science builds upon itself with testable reproducible claims. We know something is accurate because we can reproduce the findings again and again. Every time you drop a shoe, it falls to the floor. Again and again gravity’s effect on the shoe are shown. You can test it, I can test it, your mom can test it and under normal circumstances the effects will be the same.

This also applies to paranormal claims. Many paranormal claims such as telepathy have been tested already, again and again. We have established via physics, neurology, physiology and other branches of science and via prior paranormal testing that there is no mechanism through which to transfer the thoughts from one mind to another mind without the assistance of electronic or other man-made devices. And while statistically possible (although very unlikely) to pass a preliminary test by luck alone the second more rigorous test would expose any guesswork and show the subject as a failure. Therefore, when we go into a situation where we plan to test someone with the claim of telepathy, we already know the answer. If we already know the answer, is it ethical to put a human being on display when we know they are going to fail?

Second, one could easily argue that at the very least Regen and his friend, Fernando had personal and financial problems and at the farther end of the spectrum it is quite possible that they reading resultsharbored some severe mental illness accompanied with delusions and had rather obvious alcohol and possible drug dependency issues. This is not an unusual circumstance for many people who claim to have supernatural experiences or abilities. Many, though not all applicants turn out to be suffering from mental illness.

And while the members of the IIG conducted themselves in a very professional manner and treated the test subjects with kindness and respect, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a circus sideshow. I felt sorry for Regen. Either he was just trying to get lucky and hoped that he and his buddy could guess enough cards to get them enough easy money to get off the streets, or he was delusional and actually believed that he could send psychic messages.

However I looked at it, it was a sad story. It was a story that I felt didn’t need to be broadcast across the Internet. In this particular case I felt we could have better directed our energy in helping these men and that a broadcast test did little to prove the existence or non-existence of telepathy. It may have indirectly shown that alcohol inhibits ones abilities and that substance abuse can lead to delusional belief systems but that wasn’t what the test was designed to examine.

Another issue that I feel exists in testing of paranormal claims is that if we don’t test subjects who claim paranormal abilities we will also come under deserved scrutiny. I agree that in order to combat the actual charlatans and con artists that are out there trying to make a living off of deliberate lies we need to show the general population that science is open to possibilities and that we are willing to investigate with an open mind. If a novel claim is presented we must be willing to use the tools of science to rationally look into each and every possible topic. We also need to explain in simple terms how testing is done and how and why claims such as telepathy have been shown not to exist. We need to test people who exhibit special abilities in order to examine all claims in a fair and open-minded fashion but I feel in this aspect of paranormal testing and scientific inquiry that after the facts concerning a particular topic are established then our energy is best directed towards the people who intentionally deceive and manipulate the truth for personal gain.

We have already established in a scientific setting that telepathy does not exist. Exploiting the delusional or uneducated in order to show what is already established does little good. However, a public test of a public persona who claims to have paranormal ability and accepts money for their abilities should be our focus. If we are going to reproduce our findings on human subjects we should go after the subjects that are high profile and cause intentional harm.

I realize that these people are less likely to accept a challenge because they are aware of their own con work and because the prize money is irrelevant to them. They have no reason to take the test. They know they will lose. We should still actively and publicly pursue these people while simultaneously trying to cause as little harm as possible when testing the uninformed or the true believers, for it is the latter we hope to help.

I am not advocating that scientific testing of the paranormal should cease. I feel the million-dollar JREF prize and the work being done by organizations such as the IIG is very important, especially in the sharing of factual information about these claims and the outcomes of the tests with the public. I feel the work should continue and novel claims should be examined but I recommend building on our current knowledge in a cautious and compassionate manner.

*7 out of 52 cards would be approximately 13,000 to 1 odds if one were guessing

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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22 Comments

  1. You put your self in a catch 22 situation when you offer prizes like this. If you do not let them test, then the people that claim these special ability’s can say that you are not serious or that you know that they can do what they say but do not want to pay out. If you do test. You can have all the wackos come out of the wood work. This is what the JREF has run unto and this is why the JREF makes everyone qualify to take their test.
    In the long run I think testing is good and has it’s place. Testing allows skeptics to show that the paranormal have no evidence that they can do what they do. It is sad on how truly delusional some people can be. Some really do believe that they can do what they can do. Reality has no bearing on them.

  2. I am reminded of the story of Earl Curley, who was also a drunk ‘psychic’ as well as possibly being homeless during the last years of his life. Earl was abusive and cruel, and could be seen spiraling out of control in his last rants on USENET. When he crossed the line libeling James Randi he only managed to escape a crushing lawsuit by dying.

    Can’t say that I have a lot of sympathy for folks who are self-medicating and trying to do psychic scams, but that is what experience has led me to.

  3. Great article, Amy. Thank you. I don’t know how ethical the testing of this particular individual was. The combination of inebriation, homelessness and possible psychiatric disability makes this more like a sideshow of crazy than a scientific exposure of a fraud. I feel uneasy about it, like we as skeptics are poking fun at the disabled. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when schizophrenic people say something REALLY out there, and I am not above laughing when they do- but I don’t put them on display for their illness.

    It is a catch 22, though. How do you offer the opportunity to “prove” a psychic ability without exploiting the unstable? Could the offer instead be presented specifically to people who make a living off of this sort of thing? Maybe participants should have to show proof that they have attempted to benefit from their ability by attempting to gain money or fame. Really, those are the people we want to target anyway, so why not make that a requirement for being tested?

  4. oh yeah I don’t think test really proves anything other than some drunk guys were trying to raise some money. I wish they had said “no, we aren’t testing you, you admit you are drunk”. It’s kinda like kicking a dog. I mean, these guys are to be pitied. They aren’t real psychics. They aren’t the ones you want to test. It won’t convince anyone that believes in the paranormal as they will look at those guys and just say “those drunk losers? Well ofcourse they failed! You see they don’t actually test REAL psychics, I told you that prize was a rip off!” (A lot of psychics claim Randi and others only test people they know will fail, that a real paranormal power is never tested – I know it’s not true, but if you google it’s out there).

    I think there should perhaps be a more stringent weeding out policy. Still, maybe what was learned was adding something about people not being drunk or high on drugs. If something goes wrong, it isn’t a failure, it’s a learning experience.

    This seems just such a waste of time. It’s not going to convince anyone, becaues the guys are so pathetic and sad. It kinda makes skeptics look mean, because while everyone was very professional, it’s almost hearbreaking to see.

    Still, they were there and willing to give it a go! But to broadcast it is still rather sad.

  5. Wow. I had not heard of that particular challenge before.

    It does sound like a catch22. There wasn’t anything constructive about that particular test I think. Kittynh has a point, regarding the “well, those weren’t *real* psychics” angle.

  6. Regen provided a lot of firsts for the IIG.

    We never had an applicant miss a testing date due to being in jail before. We never had an applicant show up to a Demonstration drunk before.

    The question of “chemical adjustment” has come up before. We once had an applicant who stated as part of the protocol that he needed to drink six cans of Red Bull in order to “get into the proper frequency” to perform his ability. That applicant failed as well.

    It really was a “catch-22”. These people arrived after a 14 hour bus ride from Seattle, Washington. If we had said that we wouldn’t continue with the Demonstration then we would have potentially been legally liable if they decided to sue the IIG.

    I think we did the best that we could do under the circumstances, but it definitely forces us to ask more questions during the protocol discussions and add a clause saying that if someone is chemically impaired then the applicant forfeits the Demonstration.

    It was a very weird day.

    -Derek

  7. Amy, first of all, you did a great job of reporting.

    I realize this is your first paranormal challenge. I have been actively involved with the IIG for all of it’s 10-year run, so I may be able to help you with some of your fears and give you some insights.

    From the time I saw our first applicant try and fail to prove their claim, I was saddened. This sadness stays with me with every claimant we have tested so far. We have not, so far, come upon anyone who I would call a fraud or hoaxer, which makes this job even more difficult. It is not fun to see anyone fail at anything, paranormally or not. The dejected look on some of our applicants still haunts me sometimes (OK, not literally haunting).

    I submit to you all that testing each individual is important in several ways:

    1. We can all learn how the scientific method works by using double-blinding testing methods. As non-scientists, we can all use well-known and useful techniques to separate fact from fiction.
    .
    2. We can teach a new generation of skeptics how do approach and test each claimant anew. Each one requires a unique testing methodology and working out the protocols involved is a tremendous learning experience.

    3. We may actually help the claimant get a firmer grip on reality. I know this is almost an impossibility, but several of our members are mental health professionals, and they assure us that this is a step in the right direction for someone who may be delusional.

    4. Sometimes, if warranted, we may actually refer the person to a psychiatric hospital, so they can get the help they need.

    So, I suggest we all keep testing these folks. I agree with Derek, however, that in the future, we should probably have some of provision for inebriation. See, we learned something new after 10 years!

    -Brian

  8. @Displaced Northerner: Yes, I really am more for the idea of going after those who cause harm by collecting money for their alleged abilities or those who mislead the public. The IIG does a lot of good work in that respect. They are always available to go on TV to show the skeptical/logical side of say, ghost-hunting or what have you and are obviously willing to test public psychics.

    But as you can imagine it is nearly impossible to get the high profile charlatans to attempt to prove themselves in a scientific setting. One is almost forced to use the willing true-believers as examples.

  9. @zaphod900: I agree with what you are saying in terms of explaining science to the public and documentation of applicants and I think testing should continue. I just feel that this particular case sheds light on how the parameters of the testing may need some adjusting. I also think that while testing on true believers continues that we should simultaneously focus some of our resources on going after the media circus of ghost-hunters and professional psychics. Those who cause harm should be of a higher priority and that at the very least the public should be made aware of the fact that we are actively pursuing these people and that they refuse to prove themselves.

  10. People with varying degrees of sanity used to strap on wings and attempt to win prizes by demonstrating human-powered flight. Such competitions have passed with the advent of cheap air travel. The thought of unaided flight just doesn’t have the same grip on the cultural consciousness that it once did. In a generation or two, when wireless telecommunication is so ubiquitous that we barely notice it, will we stop seeing these claims for telepathy?

  11. @Gammidgy: Interesting point. I would guess that yes, telepathy would fall by the wayside but something else will creep in and take its place. Then that claim will need to be tested and the basic ethical implications will still need to be dealt with.

  12. When I worked with Randi on the Challenge at the JREF we had many similar sad cases including a very poor individual who traveled all the way from Mexico (much of it on a bus) to come to the JREF. He even brought an empty suitcase for the million dollars.

    I agree with you compassion in this situation but feel differently about a couple points.

    The first difference is when you say, “We have already established in a scientific setting that telepathy does not exist. ”

    This is simply not true. While you and I have a certain degree of certainty about this based upon our knowledge and experience in this area, that’s a scientifically inaccurate statement. While saying that telepathy has never been proven in a proper scientific setting is true, it doesn’t mean that it’s been proven false.

    I went into every test with willingness to be proven wrong. I was doubtful it would happen but I was aware of my own fallibility in understanding the world around me. To assume my view or Randi’s was not only superior but the objective truth is dogmatic and anti-skeptical.

    That said, we had a number of people who were clearly off-balanced. The kind that were very delusional and prone to writing manifestos in crayons on the backs of shopping bags.

    We’d make every effort to make sure that they had run the idea by family members and/or mental health professionals if they consulted with them.

    Like you, we didn’t want to embarrass anybody. But at the end of the day, if someone is considered by the state to be responsible for their own behavior it’s disrespectful in my opinion to treat them otherwise.

    If the opportunity is available to test someone, then I think it’s valuable to us as skeptics to gain the experience in conducting the test and just as importantly it’s valuable to the claimant to have someone who will do a sincere job to give them an opportunity to prove themselves. That alone can be a service to them. You’re not likely to get a retraction from them, but at least you treated them like a human being and listened to what they had to say.

    These people are dismissed all the time because their worldview is different than the people around them. Which is understandable given the claims they make. But as skeptics and scientists it’s disingenuous to our own beliefs to dismiss them out of hand without giving them an opportunity to prove their claims.

    I have tested and helped administrate tests for thousands of individuals. I didn’t do this to prove that my worldview is superior. I did it because I believe in the methods of science and objectivity.

    If we refuse to test these people and give them a forum to let their claim be heard by objective people we aren’t being as compassionate as we can be. On the flip side, it’s incumbent upon us to not unnecessarily embarrass or humiliate these people. I think we can find a balance there.

  13. The problem with paranormal experiments is you are guaranteed a large percentage of people who are not functioning normally. I think if you continue to do the experiments, I and I think you should for the reasons already cited, an occasional brush with people like this is to be expected. I doubt I would have dealt with it with as much poise as you guys did.

  14. I definitely think there needs to be more screening of test subjects before they can be tested. The JREF prize requires the subject to have some kind of media attention, no? In other words, a subject already needs to be in the public eye in some way because of their special ability. Perhaps the IIG needs the same criteria?

    Also, I really think that if a person is too wasted to be able to stand up straight on his own two feet he should be either disqualified or given ample time to sober up.

    This whole thing WAS a circus side show. Regen obviously wasn’t taking it very seriously. Why should the IIG? After all, doesn’t it cost the organization money to set up and broadcast a test like this? Why waste time and money with people who don’t qualify to be tested?

    I think it’s important to keep testing publicly. I want to be able to see the video of a success (if there is ever one). And to see it live on the Internet would be truly amazing.

    Great commentary, though. It did shed a whole different light on the testing process. Thanks!

  15. @Andrew Mayne: “To assume my view or Randi’s was not only superior but the objective truth is dogmatic and anti-skeptical.”

    I have to disagree with this. Your view point IS superior because it’s grounded in reality. Science is about being able to predict future outcomes. We can use our knowledge of neurology and physics to correctly predict the outcomes of these studies.

    I understand that you have to be open to the possibility that your view of reality can be altered based on the outcomes of the studies but that doesn’t prevent a hypothesis being formed going into the study.

    I don’t want to sound like a snob, but there is such a thing as a superior opinion. It’s the difference between the opinions of a pediatrician and Jenny McCarthy on vaccines: her opinion is less valid because she has no professional expertise or foundation in science or reality.

  16. @Andrew Mayne: Thank you very much for taking the time to post. You clearly are more experienced in this field and I really do appreciate your input.

    While I still feel that telepathy existing is as unlikely as a God existing, I do realize that neither of these types of claims can be proven to be false. I also acknowledge it is our responsibility to look into claims in a fair and open-minded manner. I would love to be involved in a test that shows some special ability in a scientific setting. I am just extremely doubtful that it will be the claim of telepathy that is shown to exist.

    I also appreciate the view that not testing these people would be disrespectful. I think it was that outlook that allowed this test to take place in the first place. I just worry that more harm than good may come from broadcasting some of these tests.

  17. First to Displaced Northerner’s comment on my comment:

    “I have to disagree with this. Your view point IS superior because it’s grounded in reality. Science is about being able to predict future outcomes. We can use our knowledge of neurology and physics to correctly predict the outcomes of these studies.”

    My full statement was “superior” AND “the objective truth”. I certainly believe my view is superior – that’s why it’s the one I chose! But I can’t believe it “is” the objective truth. Objectivity is something we try for but it have to use the tools of science to approximate and clumsily at so.

    At the risk of sounding pedantic with people who know these arguments just as well as I do: we have to be careful about confusing scientism with science. One is a process, the other uses the nomenclature of science as a cloak of authority.

    Scientists, doctors, quacks and skeptics can all be guilty of this. The more we employ arguments from authority (no matter how credible) the more we undermine the base of all our beliefs: empirical evidence.

    Amy:

    I should have prefaced my comment with how much I appreciate the fact that you are taking the well-being of the claimants into consideration and not just using them as subjects of ridicule. This is a very thoughtful approach that doesn’t get talked about enough in skepticism.

    We very often try to polarize the larger issues into us versus them, bad guys versus good guys. I think framing the discussion in a humane way as you did is far more productive.

    I think we’ve gone about a lot of things in skepticism completely wrong because we failed to go about things in a humane way as you suggest. Calling anti-vaxxers evil instead of ignorant and scared, mocking the beliefs of people who didn’t have the same life experiences we did, politicizing things when any kind of politicalization of the issues is irrational, etc., hasn’t been as helpful as taking a more objective approach and really solving these problems. It’s always encouraging to see someone like you take a more thoughtful approach.

    So please keep up what you’re doing.

  18. “While saying that telepathy has never been proven in a proper scientific setting is true, it doesn’t mean that it’s been proven false.”

    Andrew:

    I think you’ve brought up an exceptionally valid point about science in general. I was a scientist and now I teach science. One of the fundamental things I teach (and was fortunate enough to be taught) is that science doesn’t Prove anything, all theories are merely not dis-proven. We have to be careful not to mistake one for the other. As a general principle, as we learn more about the world around us we must be willing to shift our view rather than sticking to past ‘facts’.

    I don’t think that any biological component will ever be found that would explain telepathy, but if experiments demonstrate it, I won’t dismiss it outright. All experiments require rigor and repetition, but I believe we must remain open-minded to continue to learn and explain these concepts to others.

  19. Jules0512 wrote:

    “I don’t think that any biological component will ever be found that would explain telepathy, but if experiments demonstrate it, I won’t dismiss it outright. All experiments require rigor and repetition, but I believe we must remain open-minded to continue to learn and explain these concepts to others.”

    It’s a funny thing. As science advances two things have happened; we have a telling lack of evidence to support telepathy and other forms of ESP while we’ve found all these weird mechanisms that *could* make something kind of like it possible; EMF sensitive proteins, biological processes that may use quantum tunneling, “message” carrying pheromones, etc.

    Parapsychology has been around longer than most fields of physics and it’s got nothing to show for itself. Meanwhile science has found all these mechanisms that could make some of this stuff at least theoretically possible – if only there was phenomena to observe!

  20. Amy, this is a really fantastic article about the workings of such a test. Thank you for that! I think it is incredibly unfortunate that two men in such a state were broadcast like that, and so I hope some pre-preliminary testing of some kind can be used in the future. But these tests are important, for the reasons that Zaphod described above. If skeptics are going to claim the backing and knowledge of science, then we have to use its tools to the best of our abilities.

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