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 group 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 other 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 tried 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.
When 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 harbored 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