The James Randi Educational Foundation has repeatedly offered “psychic” James Van Praagh a million dollars if he can demonstrate under scientific controls that he has the ability to speak to the dead. They have been ignored. Repeatedly. So, they tried something new:

I had the chance to ask Sadie Crabtree, JREF’s Communications Director, a few questions about the stunt:

You’ve offered James Van Praagh a million dollars if he can scientifically demonstrate his ability to speak with the dead. Prior to hiring zombies, how did you attempt to communicate with him about the test?

Well, we didn’t actually hire zombies. They were all enthusiastic volunteers from around Los Angeles and Orange County. We tried reaching Van Praagh this way because no one else seems to be able to get an answer from him. We sent him a certified letter, which we confirmed was received. We’ve sent him emails, and we even tried Twitter. D.J. Grothe published an open letter to him on The Huffington Post. The news media has tried to reach him about it. No one’s been able to get an answer from him.

Now, we haven’t been hounding the guy, we’re just trying to reach him to offer him the opportunity to back up the claims he’s making, and maybe win a million dollars. His performances look to us just like the same old psychological tricks that other psychic performers use, and if he’s faking psychic powers to take advantage of people, that’s harmful.

What kind of test did you have in mind for Van Praagh’s Million Dollar Challenge?

We’re open to any suggestions from Van Praagh as to what the test would look like. All of our tests are mutually agreed upon by the JREF and by the applicant for the Million Dollar Challenge. Van Praagh’s claim, as we understand it, is that he can receive messages from people’s dearly departed relatives. One question that needs to be answered is, do these messages he claims to receive actually contain any substantive information that could be verified independently? Or are they just vague “Barnum statements” and educated guesses that are likely to apply to anyone, and which don’t mean anything until the gaps are filled in by the person being “read?” If Van Praagh would agree to fair conditions in which he couldn’t ask questions of a living subject who knew the deceased, it should be pretty easy to determine if he’s getting real information from the dead.

The video shows what appears to be an upset stage manager asking the horde of zombies to leave. Did you manage to get any face time with Van Praagh? Did you get any reaction from the audience at the seance?

Van Praagh’s people seemed to know who we were. They told us they’d get someone to come talk to us, but then they just had us removed by security, so we didn’t get any face time with Van Praagh. The paid attendees—who we think James Van Praagh is taking advantage of—may have been a bit confused by the situation, but they were respectful and calm. They seemed to understand that we weren’t there to make fun of them, but to confront James Van Praagh himself.

I think a lot of skeptics will really love the zombie horde, but what do you think – or what are you hoping – will be the reaction of people who are unfamiliar with organized skepticism or those who are believers in psychics?

True believers in Van Praagh’s powers will probably be unimpressed, but there’s not always a lot we can do to win those folks over. For people who aren’t sure what they think of psychics, and might be swayed by Van Praagh’s TV performances, we want to draw attention to the fact that this guy is a performer who is unable to demonstrate ‘psychic’ abilities without cheating, and he refuses to even talk about it—to the media or to anyone else—even for a million dollars. Hopefully, more people will think twice before giving their money to people like this.

Since some consider zombies to be more “undead” than dead, have you considered that they might be out of Van Praagh’s area of expertise? Might he be more amenable to speaking with, say, a possessed doll or a disembodied spirit captured in a magical jam jar?

We actually brought several dozen of the silent-and-invisible kind of disembodied spirits that I guess are the sort Van Praagh normally talks to, but they were less helpful carrying the signs and Van Praagh wouldn’t talk to them either.

Will the JREF’s horde of zombies be visiting any other famous psychics’ events?

You’ll have to pry that secret from our cold, dead hands.

For those out there who are interested in more creative ways to take action against so-called “psychics” and con artists, do you have any advice for how they can get involved?

Folks who are interested in skeptical activism and local organizing should get in touch with JREF’s field director, Brian Thompson, at [email protected] We’re pulling together a kit of grassroots organizing materials to help local groups plan their actions and outreach, in ways that go beyond rabble-rousing and that continue to help build a skeptical movement and shine a light on the harm done by paranormal and pseudo-scientific scams. We think James Van Praagh should be ashamed of what he’s doing, and that the media should stop giving an uncritical platform to those who use blatant trickery to prey on people’s feelings of guilt and grief. Anyone who wants to join our efforts can go to Randi.org and get involved.

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For more info, here’s the JREF’s press release on the event.

Photo courtesy of JREF and Eduard Pastor.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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18 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Madfishmonger
    October 25, 2011 at 11:00 am —

    BRILLIANT!! I want to do one of these :P

  2. Profile photo of mrmisconception
    October 25, 2011 at 11:12 am —

    Cute. But it’s kind of like challenging Brad Pitt to show just how good an actor he is by starring in your community theater production of Our Town.
    There is nothing in it for the person who is being challenged to even acknowledge it.
    I love the JREF and the Million Dollar Challenge is a great tool for skepticism; I’m not so sure it works as well as an offensive weapon.
    IMHO

    • Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
      October 25, 2011 at 11:33 am —

      Interesting. I think it ONLY works as an offensive weapon, or more accurately, as a rhetorical device.

      • Profile photo of mrmisconception
        October 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm —

        A rhetorical device was what I meant when I said a tool for skepticism.
        I don’t believe it works well to challenge someone with (what I meant by offensive weapon), at least not someone with as lucrative a carreer as Van Praagh.
        .
        My analogy was mostly to point out that, to people like JVP being challenged to the Million Dollar Challenge has little upside. The analogy was flawed in a couple of ways.
        First it seemed that I was selling short the size of the prize. I wasn’t I simply wanted to point out that, to Van Praagh, a million is peanuts.
        But secondly, and this is where it really falls down, comparing JVP to Brad Pitt in this scenario was a bad choice because Brad Pitt is actually an actor.
        .
        Maybe it would be more like challenging Charlie Sheen to contact the rest of his bandmates on Mars and give us a little concert by dangling a half a key of coke and a case of Jack in front of him.
        Still more likely then JVP contacting the dead and far more entertaining. :)

      • Profile photo of DataJack
        October 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm —

        Exactly. If they can win it, they don’t exist, and therefore cannot try.
        If they think they can, they are crazy, and do try, and fail.
        If they know they can’t win, they will make excuses to not try.
        Therefore, we only get the crazies (but we get to keep the crystal-on-a-string).

    • Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
      October 25, 2011 at 11:36 am —

      Also, I’d say it’s more akin to asking Brad Pitt to prove he’s an actor by asking him to star in your multi-million dollar film.

    • Profile photo of carriepoppy
      October 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm —

      I think it’s more like asking Brad Pitt to submit his next film for Oscar consideration. If you win, everyone takes you a thousand times more seriously, and it sends your potential profits shooting into the stratosphere.

      Plus, Van Praagh was charging about $200 a ticket for this event, and about 200 people were in attendance. That’s a $4000 gross, before costs. If he’s willing to take in only a couple thousand dollars for a couple hours of work, surely he can spare a couple of hours for the JREF’s million.

      • Profile photo of mrmisconception
        October 25, 2011 at 1:25 pm —

        Carrie, it’s even more depressing then that.
        $40,000 is the actual gross. And I do meant gross.

  3. Profile photo of phlebas
    October 25, 2011 at 11:22 am —

    Next time, they should bite the bullet and buy tickets to the event for their zombie horde :) They’d be tougher to throw out that way.

    • Profile photo of Rebecca Watson
      October 25, 2011 at 11:34 am —

      Agreed. As much as I’d hate giving money to a charlatan, it would be worth it if the video got enough traction.

    • Profile photo of carriepoppy
      October 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm —

      The problem is that then you have much bigger copyright/image usage issues when you actually go into an event. And actually, it’s very easy for them to throw you out. All they have to do is refund your ticket.

      I think the JREF also wanted to be as respectful as possible to the attendees– after all, they are the ones potentially being scammed. So they didn’t want to cause too much of a scene for them.

      • Profile photo of phlebas
        October 25, 2011 at 12:46 pm —

        True enough. But there’s a different vibe to being thrown out as a paying attendee if all you are doing is making the organizers worried. Getting denied entry because you didn’t pay to get in doesn’t exactly create any sympathy — but if you can say Van Praagh had you tossed because he didn’t want to deal with skeptics, you have a much more powerful message. If he didn’t throw them out, some of them may have been able to shamble to the microphone if he takes questions.

        Also, they might have at least watched his show once. I have had countless arguments with my brother over his decision to protest and petition against movies he hadn’t seen (The Last Temptation of Christ, Harry Potter, etc.) The last thing we need is for someone to say “have you seen him do his thing” and we have to come back with “no, but…”

  4. Profile photo of criticaldragon1177
    October 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm —

    Rebecca Watson,

    I’ve got to admit, it was a very creative idea. I’m glad the zombies didn’t eat James Van Praagh’s brain. LOL!

  5. Profile photo of DataJack
    October 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm —

    I love Sadie: “Well, we didn’t actually hire zombies.”

    Ever the consummate communicator, she is. :)

  6. Profile photo of susangerbic
    October 27, 2011 at 1:35 am —

    The message was directly to Van Praagh, I’m sure he is going to think twice about his public appearances. On his twitter account he appears unmoved by the event but past experience with Sylvia Browne and her being punked by Mark Edward live at one of her shows really pissed her off. She has not been back to Hollywood since.

    Now Van Praagh knows that we are organized and motivated, and can get close! He is going to really start feeling the pressure and may just start slowing down the public appearances.

    Way to go JREF!

    Sylvia Browne vs Mark Edward http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BradlE-Uloc

  7. Profile photo of tom49
    November 4, 2011 at 11:46 am —

    i dont get the zombie bit what purpose does it serve and who will it benefit the most him or jref will it stop him babbling his nonsense to other believers no i think it will make no differance at all
    tom

    • Profile photo of phlebas
      November 8, 2011 at 9:02 am —

      I had to read this out loud to understand what you were saying. Toss a brother a punctuation mark once in awhile.

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