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Tests of Astrology and $1Million

In his article on this site, The Researchers Researched, Dennis Elwell criticised the James Randi Educational Foundation's 'One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge'. (For the homepage of the challenge, go to: www.randi.org/research/index.html ).

James Randi got in touch about this, and Dennis Elwell chose to defend his ground. The following discussion ensued. Some interesting points were also made in a discussion on the Skyscript forum (in the 'Philosophy and Science' area) and at the foot of this page I've included a contribution from Deborah Houlding, originally posted on that forum.

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From James Randi:

A lie on your page....

Dennis Elwell states, re my million-dollar challenge, that "So, only eyewitness evidence is allowed." That is a lie, not even suggested by the terms. The fact that the test is designed so that no "judging" is required, means that the results can be seen without any judging process. For example, if persons are asked to match or identify their horoscopes, no judging is required; they are either right, or wrong.

This is the sort of canard that the astrologers have been circulating to avoid accepting the challenge. If that is untrue, then I expect astrologers to now accept the challenge. That will result in another long silence from them....
[Posted 2 January 2004]

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From Dennis Elwell:

James Randi, typically forthright, uses the word lie. A lie is an intentionally false statement, which implies I am trying to mislead, and that is not the case. I was characterising his approach to evidence and validation across the range of phenomena, not particularly astrology.

When it comes to proving anything there is a spectrum, ranging from absolute certainty to the probable. There is laboratory proof and there is courtroom proof. Faint hearts and bigots take refuge in the simplistic, the reductionist. Plenty of people would subscribe to the view that "If you can't bite it, it don't exist." I put Randi in this category.

On his website he says: "All tests must be designed in such a way that the results are self-evident, and no judging process is required." He further says the challenger must demonstrate the claimed ability under satisfactory "observing" conditions. And again: "We are only interested in an actual demonstration." In his current complaint he once more waxes ocular, insisting that "the results can be seen".

To appreciate how abysmally naive this is, consider extending the same yardstick to respectable phenomena. Forget the supernatural, how does the natural fare in Randi's world? Perhaps the most pervasive knowledge of our time is Darwinian evolution, and yet if Randi offered his million to anybody who could demonstrate it under the conditions he seeks to impose I guarantee he would keep his money. There is much in science that cannot be eyeballed, but which depends on judgment, inference, deduction, evaluation. Even Nobel laureates do not have to measure up to his impossible standards.

It is always interesting when confirmed sceptics like Randi propose tests they imagine might prove or disprove astrology. Helpfully he suggests that if persons are asked to match or identify their horoscopes no judging would be required, because they are either right or wrong. Really?

Let us unpick this superficially plausible proposal. What does he mean by "horoscope"? Webster gives two meanings. There is "the configuration of the planets, esp. at the time of a person's birth, from which astrologers predict the future." And the other meaning is "a diagram representing the configuration of the stars and planets at any given time." So do we present test subjects with a dozen different charts, all circles and squiggles, and ask them to pick their own?

What Randi means of course is that they are given an interpretation of the charts. Question is, whose interpretation? The answer depends on making a judgment, and we all know what a tricky business that is. However, suppose assorted interpretations, from whatever source and of whatever merit, are handed to the test subjects. Here comes another judgment -- they are tasked with identifying their own. You might think this is as easy as recognising your face in the mirror. After all, you know what you are like. But is it beyond doubt that individuals actually possess the self-insight required? How good are people at recognising personality profiles of themselves, prepared by non-astrological means? Does our self-image infallibly correspond to the reality? The answer is no.

So this test superimposes two layers of uncertainty, and between them the truth could easily slip through. If judgment is to be excluded from results, as Randi insists, then it must surely be excluded from the test design.

On this matter of judgment, anyone who studies the terms and conditions of his million-dollar challenge will realise that Randi presumes to be judge and jury in his own court. If you are tempted to take the challenge seriously, remind yourself that Randi is not a scientist but an illusionist, a smoke-and-mirrors man. Conjurers raise lying to an art form. He is a showman, and his posture as the guardian of rationality is as entertaining as anything he has ever done on stage. Like his hero Houdini his speciality was escapology, and it is fair to speculate how an escape artist would react to being put in a tight corner by some importunate challenger.
[2 Jan 2004]

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From James Randi:

Rather than plough through all the spurious "reasoning" given here, I'll briefly describe a test we did of astrology, and how we have tested some dowsers.

First, in accord with our standard protocol, we asked the astrologer what he could do, under what conditions, and with what accuracy. He claimed that if we supplied him with 12 subjects, with each one born under a different "sign," he could identify their individual signs -- with 100 percent accuracy, by simply questioning them about their personal preferences and tastes. He only required that proof of their birthdate would be available to him in case of any conflict arising.

We obtained the 12 subjects for him, and went to extra pains to be sure that each one was born well "centered" in their sign. The astrologer spent about 10 minutes questioning each person, with a witness present to be sure that they were not asked questions that might point to their birth dates. The questions consisted of inquiries regarding their taste in movies, in clothing, and politics -- among other such subjects. The astrologer -- following our instructions -- gave each one of the subjects a sealed piece of paper upon which he had written the sign to which he had assigned them.

When the experiment was concluded, we asked the astrologer if he was satisfied with the conditions and the conduct of the tests. He said that he was, and repeated that he was very sure of his accuracy.

He was correct on one of the 12 persons.

Note: this was a test designed by the subject himself. We did not impose this task on him. It was his choice, and his design, in all respects. Before and after the test, he agreed that conditions were ideal, and that he had no objections and was secure in his conviction that he had been successful. I'll add that this particular applicant, for the first year following the test, made no objection nor did he offer any excuses for his failure. Shortly after that, however, he began claiming that we had deceived him in regard to the driver's licenses he'd been shown -- but following our invitation to repeat the test, satisfying this objection of his, he declined to be tested again.

We've tested many dowsers, since dowsing is a major claim made on the JREF prize. In every single instance, we have allowed -- in fact, encouraged -- the applicant to design his/her own test. Usually, they propose to be tested for locating a substance or an object concealed in one of 10 paper cups, and most of them claim that they will have 100 percent success, with a few claiming only nine out of 10. In every single one of these tests, the dowser has obtained either one or two successes out of 10.

Again, note: the applicants themselves designed the tests. Always, they supplied the materials -- the object or the substance -- that they prefer to use, and in many cases they even supplied the containers that would be used. The results -- in common with all other tests we conducted -- are perfectly evident, and require no judgment or decision to be made. I cannot understand how Mr. Elwell has such a difficult time understanding this aspect of the JREF challenge. It's not at all difficult to design such a test, and it should not be difficult to understand why it is designed in that fashion, nor how. There are no decisions to be made, no evaluations, and no uncertainty about whether or not the applicant has been successful. We very much prefer what's known as a "forced-choice" design, which allows no uncertainty. And remember, the participants MUST AGREE ON THE PROTOCOL, IN ADVANCE!

Mr. Elwell, in his response, has invented all sorts of circumstances and hypothetical situations in which applicants might find themselves, but these are not conditions that have ever applied. I agree with him that the subject of a horoscope interpretation might not be the ideal person to match up actuality with that interpretation. This would be a condition that I would not accept; for one thing, it provides the applicant was too many excuses for a failure. However, since this has never occurred -- despite Mr. Elwell's hope that it had occurred -- his objection is entirely hypothetical.

I thank you for the opportunity to appropriately respond to Mr. Elwell. If this opportunity were presented to me more frequently, I believe there would be less misunderstanding of the true nature of the JREF challenge -- which has been seriously misrepresented so many times over the years. Our challenge is a genuine one, it is serious, and those who we are tested are treated fairly, properly, and in a strictly rational and reasonable manner.
[3 Jan 2004]

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From Dennis Elwell:

It is perhaps a misfortune for James Randi's credibility that he is a professional illusionist. Someone more suspicious than myself would demand to be present at all stages of the tests he describes, studying each in forensic detail. Uppermost in his mind would be the possibility that Mr Randi has a preference for not parting with his million and, more important, wishes not to see his rationalist prejudices come unstuck. He would also be aware that the Amazing Randi (his proud boast) might have amazing ways of preventing such an unwelcome outcome.

As someone with an amateur interest in magic I am unimpressed by the continual harping on applicants designing their own test. I dare say in his own performances Mr Randi made great play of giving the audience a free choice of handcuffs, locks, ropes, and suchlike. The challenge to the magician (assuming that Mr Randi were to be wearing that hat at the time) would be to take the proposed test and see where it might be tweaked. With most experimental designs there is some weakness to be exploited.

Consider the test of the astrologer, which is wrongly described as a test of "astrology". One astrologer of unknown ability and experience, but apparently not clever enough to first run a pilot experiment on himself, is not a test of astrology, only of his claims. People in all walks of life have inflated ideas of their talents.

If I were of malevolent intent, I could load this test against the possibility of success. Knowing the attributes of each sign I would make sure I chose subjects who were atypical. I do not say this was done of course, only that tests are not automatically infallible simply because they have been chosen by the claimant, and the terms agreed in advance. A critical study of these JREF claims of failure, by an investigative journalist for instance, would include the claimant's account of what did and did not happen. (But the puzzled claimant might not always realise why the test failed.)

To have Mr Randi's version of what happened, while undoubtedly useful, may not be conclusive. There is a mysterious reference here to driving licences the astrologer had been shown. The plot thickens.

Reading the account of the dowsing experiments I am astonished that so many sincere exponents should have volunteered to make themselves look foolish. We are asked to believe that every one of them, before making their confident claim, had failed to self-test in advance. Here again Mr Randi's assertions call for a proper investigation, getting both sides of the story, and independent witnesses. This is unlikely to happen because Mr Randi, with admirable misdirection, has convinced everybody at the outset that it is the claimants on whom the suspicion falls.

Finally, Mr Randi says my objection is entirely hypothetical. I do not see why a hypothetical test of astrology, as proposed by himself, should not meet with a hypothetical response.
[5 Jan 04]

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From James Randi:

(The first paragraph is excerpted from Dennis Elwell's comments, immediately above)

"Consider the test of the astrologer, which is wrongly described as a test of "astrology". One astrologer of unknown ability and experience, but apparently not clever enough to first run a pilot experiment on himself, is not a test of astrology, only of his claims."

Exactly! And that's precisely what we were testing -- his claims -- which he defined exactly, and for which we tested! Had we been testing "astrology," it would have been necessary for us to assemble a group of reputable astrologers and obtain from them, first, an authoritative definition of astrology, second, a decision on what astrology should be able to do, and third, how that could be tested. Mr. Elwell chooses not to understand this, though I'm sure that he does. He has a great deal invested in this fruitless argument, since if our challenge is genuine -- and it most certainly is -- he doesn't have a leg to stand on. Furthermore, the man we tested was a full-time professional astrologer of some repute, and he assured us that in line with the "caveat" printed at the end of our challenge, he had tested this particular procedure several times before making his application. Mr. Elwell is simply wrong in his comments.

Since I wasn't able to spend several hours describing to Mr. Elwell exactly how the astrology test took place (NOT -- please note -- a "test of astrology,") I'll just say here that the subjects were chosen from a group of approximately 120 people in a studio audience. We merely asked individuals who were "in" each individual sign, in turn, to hold up their hands, and the nearest one was chosen to be a test subject. The only provisions we had were that they had to be adults, not children, and if their birthdate was unsatisfactory due to being too far toward the beginning or end of the "sign," we took the next-nearest person. I'll add that I had nothing to do with the choice of the subjects, since not only was I busy with other matters, but it was obviously not fair for me to have been part of that process.

The fact that Mr. Elwell refuses to grasp is that we really do know what we're doing, and that threatens his world-view rather seriously, it seems.

Again, I don’t have the time to go through every detail of this man's delusions concerning the JREF challenge. We've been perfectly forthright about this matter, and if some choose to willingly misunderstand and/or misinterpret it, we can't go about trying to educate them, continually. I’ve run out of patience with this man, and I assure you that it would be a big mistake to assume that I could not handle each and every one of his picayune objections; it should be obvious by now that he is being willfully ignorant of the reality represented by the JREF challenge. I'll enter into no more discussions with him. I'm simply too busy handling responsible questions, applications, and comments from responsible people.

Mind you, Mr. Elwell, if you wish to apply for the JREF prize, that's an entirely different matter. That may be the only way that you'll get educated. And the million dollars is not my million dollars, sir, it belongs to the foundation I represent, and it cannot be used for any purpose other than as prize money in the challenge. Ah, but you knew that.
[7 Jan 04]

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From Dennis Elwell:

I had to smile at Mr Randi's assertion that I have a great deal invested in this argument, because it threatens my world view. Any visitor to www.randi.org will be able to judge which of us has the stronger vested interest. He is running a debunking factory, inviting not only moral but financial support. After a lifetime spent in this endeavour he would look pretty foolish if he were now to be proved wrong on some major point of contention.

Indeed, if I were in his position I confess I should have long ago resolved that there was no way I could allow the prize to be won. A climb down of that magnitude would not only be a betrayal of the confidence in me of my supporters, but a propaganda boost for every loony coterie in the land. If some claimant was shaping up to be successful I should even feel justified in a little chicanery, exploiting the wriggle room my rules allowed. After all, if something can't reasonably happen, it obviously hasn't, therefore it follows I must have overlooked some vital flaw in the test.

Mr Randi is nothing if not forthright, but what I miss is transparency. He demands that test results shall be transparent, but I am not sure this is reciprocated on his part. For example, he states in his literature that the million dollars is held by an investment firm, and that validation of this account and its current status can be obtained on request. I had heard that the bulk of the million was in fact in the form of pledges from well-wishers, and anxious to correct or confirm this important point I emailed him thus: "In your million dollar challenge application you offer to validate the account with a New York investment firm. I should be grateful for this information, which I trust contains contact details." His reply simply read: "Follow the instructions. What's so difficult about that....?"

Transparency?

The astrologer he tested seems to have had belated second thoughts about the transparency of what actually happened. He raised the business of the driving licenses. We are not told what the objection was, but Mr Randi thought it sufficiently substantial that he offered to satisfy it in another test. Something else puzzles me. The most natural procedure, at the end of the interview with each subject would be to say to them "I think you're a Virgo" (or a Pisces, or an Aries, or whatever). They would then say yes or no, and the witness would keep score. But instead we hear about sealed pieces of paper, a seemingly unnecessary complication. I should like to ask this astrologer for his version of events. Perhaps Mr Randi should be prepared to open his files, with the applicants' permission of course, and a guarantee of anonymity.

There has to be an ever-present awareness that presiding over these tests are not scientists, but a conjurer. I am as solicitous of Mr Randi's reputation as he is of my education, and to protect himself from unfounded suspicions I would suggest that applicants are invited to bring their own witness (ideally a member of the Magic Circle) and that video cameras are present so that the scene can be revisited. I wonder whether the dowsers, surprised that their object or substance was not under the cup they thought it was, vaguely recalled that they had been similarly mystified by conjurers with cups and strangely migrating balls, or when they were challenged to "find the lady".

No doubt the tests were fair, but they have to be seen to be fair, and the applicants themselves may not always realise that the tests they have suggested are other than watertight. I myself have set public tests for psychics, but by proposing my own experimental design to see if it would be acceptable to them. One experiment was double-blind, a nicety that might not have occurred to psychics but which added weight to the outcome.

It is a matter of huge importance that investigations of the paranormal are properly conducted, because what is at stake here is public confidence in science itself. People have had peculiar experiences at first-hand, or have heard of them from others, and there is a widespread conviction that all the answers are not in yet. Misgivings have been expressed that the exploration of this area should have been in the hands of magicians rather than scientists. In an article in New Scientist sociologist Henry Collins warned against giving nonscientists control over scientific procedures. He was referring specifically to conjurers. Interestingly there is a high proportion of conjurers in CSICOP, the sceptics organisation, of which Mr Randi was a founding father.

Insights into CSICOP and Mr Randi are to be found in an article by George P Hansen (CSICOP and the Skeptics) at www.tricksterbook.com.

Mr Randi suggests I should apply for the million dollar prize. Since I have long believed the prize was unwinnable, and have said so, this would be a strange hypocrisy. But I might just challenge Mr Randi, using my own rules and independently audited results.
[14 Jan 04]

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From Deborah Houlding:

(for more on Deborah, see her website www.skyscript.co.uk)

Garry raised this question in the Skyscript forum:

Is it in the nature of astrology for it to 'perform' on command in order to win $1M for an astrologer? Personally I'm very much inclined to think not.”

I would never expect astrology, as I understand it, to do this. Astrology gives me evidence of connection to a spiritually animated environment that responds to our needs. From what I have experienced, the greater the need -- the more earnest we are in our attempts to find a way to manipulate difficult situations with consideration for others, as well as ourselves -- the more directly it responds. I am not against the view that natural astrological factors are capable of proof, but I don’t believe that anyone has yet found an efficient method to isolate those factors, in a way that responds to independent testing. Rather than being disheartened by that, I’m comforted by the knowledge that there is intelligence inherent in astrology that expects us to raise ourselves up to it.

The exchange between James Randi and Dennis Elwell is lively and interesting, and I lie somewhere in the middle where I recognise both viewpoints as being equally sincere. I first read Elwell’s detailed response to ‘The Researchers’ and think that, as ever, Elwell deserves to be congratulated for being prepared to challenge the critics on their own terms. He does an admirable defence job in demonstrating that if their interest is to deride astrology’s claims, then he can just as easily deride theirs. And nobody does that better than Dennis Ewell.

But what we seem to end up with is a never-ending stalemate of disproof. These are really academic mind games that circulate around the shallow perimeters of astrology. The problem is that those shallow perimeters attract all the attention. A great deal of the argument revolved around the issue of whether it is possible to identify our Sun-signs through knowledge of personality traits. How futile can we get? Yet look how many people are out there trying to make a quick buck on the back of this simplistic nonsense. James Randi gave the example of one astrologer who tried to claim the prize this way. If I had a million dollars to spare I would love to be the one saying “what rubbish – let’s see if you can prove astrology that way – put up or shut up”.

I don’t have a problem with the criteria of James Randi’s challenge at all. Astrologers wouldn’t even feel the need to defend themselves against the fact that the prize has never been claimed were it not for the way we allow astrology to be presented to the public, as if it is the simple solution to all of life’s mysteries: just pay enough money and astrology can tell you anything you want to know. It is because we have allowed astrology to be marketed as a black and white subject that our critics respond with cynicism, ridicule and challenges comprising of black and white tests.

Unlike Elwell, I don’t feel the need to defend astrology. I suppose I feel that the astrology I most admire and respect is above and beyond the academic attacks. But for the rest of it, there is much that I am happy to have criticised and in fact I believe that a certain criticism plays a useful part in deflating the sometimes irrational ego of the astrological community at large. We are too prone to present astrology in an exaggerated and over-simplified light. Dennis Elwell is quite right when he states that one of the problems of astrology is that it is client-driven and panders to the self-absorbed. There is an element within the accepted image of astrology today that I am embarrassed to be a part of, and I am sure I am not the only one. Rather than rushing to the defence of astrology every time it is attacked, why don’t astrologers act collectively to enforce a more realistic and sophisticated understanding – that astrology has great potential for benefit, but is also riddled with great potential for misuse, misunderstanding and oversimplification?

Our main organisations and associations only seem interested in ways to make astrology more popular, but to whose benefit? (As an example I am thinking of the recent suggestion, promoted at the last AA conference, to have astrology redefined as a religion in order that it receives less stringent controls over its presentation on TV. Well, no thank you - in my opinion the public have enough open doors to find their way through to astrology if they are interested without having to contort astrology into something it’s not just to get a few celeb astrologers a bit more air time).

Randi’s challenge seems to have been accepted as a criticism against astrology whereas in fact I don’t see it that way. It is a simple statement that if anyone can prove that astrology is unquestionably verifiable through a simplistic application of some of its established laws, that person will be the first to have actually achieved this. It does all astrologers some good to remember that. We shouldn’t treat astrology as infallible and independent of the need for great consideration and judgement, or be unaware of the great mystery that remains in this subject. Those that take astrology too literally will sooner or later face a massive crisis when rules they thought were simple, constant and reliable prove not to be. Such occasions call us to stretch our consciousness up to the next level of understanding. As Elwell has commented on many occasions, if the case for a reliable astrology had ever been proven we would all be driving around in limos and drinking champagne in our tea breaks.

Ultimately I think it is a healthy state to have astrology surrounded by critics, because at the moment they seem to be the only ones that are acting to stop some of the outrageous claims that are being made in the name of ‘commercial astrology’ becoming ever more popular. So I don’t mind if they are reminding us of scientific limitations, the difficulties of proving astrology statistically or observably, or taking a stance on moral obligations. (I found myself agreeing with Pope John Paul II’s New Year warning two years ago when he warned against rushing out to diviners to foresee what the future holds, instead of developing an attitude that seeks to use well the time that each one of us has available, motivated by understanding and a commitment to being responsible on a daily basis.)

Astrology has its place and within that place it deserves – and gets – respect. Whenever it becomes over-exposed or simplified to make it ‘easier’ and more popular, the claims of what astrology is capable of naturally become more extreme, creating an ever-increasing scope for critics to (justifiably) come in with their attacks.
Most of them are only doing what I’d probably do myself if they weren’t there doing it for me.
[16 Jan 04]

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From Suitbert Ertel:
(for more on Prof. Ertel, see his homepage)

My concern is not whether astrology would ever be able to win Randi's prize. I only doubt whether Elwell's concluding remark is true that this prize is unwinnable at all. It all depends on whether Randi accepts statistical evidence for anomalistic claims. Small effects interspersed with much error variance may require a great number of observations until grains of gold are retrieved from dust.

A decade or so ago, I corresponded with Randi about whether he would accept statistical evidence for Gauquelin-type planetary effects from a new sample of famous people, and he seeemed to consider that seriously. The matter got stuck because too many technical problems are involved due to necessary controls at every stage of such research. The point is that Randi accepts, or at least accepted at that time, statistical evidence in principle.

More straightforward ideas might be submitted to him for consideration. Psi effcts such as excess hit numbers in symbol card guessing tests cannot be safely demonstrated on command by individuals. Even psychics like Uri Geller might fail when tested under harsh control, which is what will probably occur at the James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida. But I would dare predict that, say, a group of 20 psi-gifted subjects selected by valid procedures, if tested simultaneously under Randi's supervision for 2 hours, would come up with highly significant deviations from chance. Individual hit scores may fluctuate, but larger groups should display sufficiently stable effects, as far as my own experimental observations go. Intricate procedural demands must be met with, sure, but they would appear manageable.

Would such group test procedure also work with astrological judgments? Would a larger selection of psi-gifted astrologers interpreting natal charts make hits above chance? I wouldn't start off with stars, but with more terrestrial phenomena which have already proved to be replicable under statistically appropriate conditions.
[20 Jan 04]

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Update - March 04

Following his last post above, Prof Ertel has been in discussion with James Randi about a test which, he is convinced, might enable him to win the $1M Paranormal Challenge.

The test would involve PSI phenomena being demonstrated by a group of psi-gifted children that Prof. Ertel would select from a larger population using a test that he developed (in which, incidentally, children's psi performance was twice as strong as the adults' performance).

If James Randi agrees with his project in principle, Prof. Ertel would try to get a German TV channel interested in televising the tests as part of a series of programmes with a betting theme. So although things may seem to have gone quiet, there are some very interesting developments behind the scenes. More news will be posted when available.
[21 Mar 04]

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