The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge was an offer by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) to pay out one million U.S. dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. A version of the challenge was first issued in 1964, and over a thousand people applied to take it, but none were successful. The challenge was terminated in 2015.
James Randi developed the idea for the challenge during a radio panel discussion when a parapsychologist challenged him to “put [his] money where [his] mouth is.” In 1964, Randi started offering $1,000, then $10,000 prizes. Later, Lexington Broadcasting wanted Randi to do a show called the $100,000 Psychic Prize, so they added $90,000 to the original $10,000 raised by Randi. Finally, in 1996, one of his friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams, donated US $1,000,000 for the prize. The prize is sometimes referred to in the media as the “Randi Prize”.
By April 1, 2007, only those with an already existing media profile and the backing of a reputable academic were allowed to apply for the challenge. It was hoped that the resources freed up by not having to test obscure and possibly mentally ill claimants would then be used to challenge high-profile alleged psychics and mediums such as Sylvia Browne and John Edward with a campaign in the media.
On January 4, 2008, it was announced that the prize would be discontinued on March 6, 2010 in order to free the money for other uses. In the meantime, claimants were welcome to vie for it. One of the reasons offered for its discontinuation is the unwillingness of higher-profile claimants to apply. However, at The Amaz!ng Meeting 7, it was announced that the $1 Million Challenge prize would not expire in 2010. The Foundation issued a formal update on its website on July 30, 2009, announcing the Challenge’s continuation, and stated more information would be provided at a later date on any possible changes to the requirements and procedures.
As an April Fool’s prank on April 1, 2008, at the MIT Media Lab, Randi pretended to award the prize to magician Seth Raphael after participating in a test of Raphael’s “psychic abilities”.
On March 8, 2011, the JREF announced that qualifications were being altered to open the challenge to more applicants. Whereas applicants were previously required to submit press clippings and a letter from an academic institution to qualify, the new rules now require applicants to present either press clippings, a letter from an academic institution, or a public video demonstrating their ability. The JREF explained that these new rules would give people without media or academic documentation a way to be considered for testing, and would allow the JREF to use online video and social media to reach a wider audience.
Since the challenge was first created by Randi in 1964, about a thousand people have applied, but no one has been successful. Randi has said that few unsuccessful applicants ever seriously consider that their failure to perform might be due to the nonexistence of the power they believe they possess.
In January 2015, James Randi announced that he was officially retiring and stepping down from his position with the JREF. In September 2015, JREF announced that their board had decided that it would convert the foundation into a grant-making foundation, and they will no longer accept applications directly from people claiming to have a paranormal power. In 2015 the James Randi paranormal challenge was officially terminated.
Rules and judging
The official challenge rules stipulated that the participant must agree, in writing, to the conditions and criteria of their test. Claims that cannot be tested experimentally are not eligible for the Challenge. Claimants were able to influence all aspects of the testing procedure and participants during the initial negotiation phase of the challenge. Applications for any challenges that might cause serious injury or death were not accepted.
To ensure that the experimental conditions themselves did not negatively affect a claimant’s ability to perform, non-blinded preliminary control tests are often performed. For example, the JREF had dowsers perform a control test, in which the dowser attempts to locate the target substance or object using their dowsing ability, even though the target’s location has been revealed to the applicant. Failure to display a 100% success rate in the open test would cause their immediate disqualification. However, claimants were usually able to perform successfully during the open test, confirming that experimental conditions are adequate.
Claimants agreed to readily observable success criteria prior to the test, results were unambiguous and clearly indicated whether or not the criteria have been met. Randi had said that he need not participate in any way with the actual execution of the test, and he has been willing to travel far from the test location to avoid the perception that his anti-paranormal bias could influence the test results.
The discussions between the JREF and applicants were at one time posted on a public discussion board for all to see. Since the resignation of Randi’s assistant, Mr. Kramer—and subsequent changes to challenge rules requiring applicants to have demonstrated considerable notability—new applications are no longer logged, but there is an archive of previous applicants.