5X5 Episode 72

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5X5 Episode 72
$1m Challenge and
Connie Sonne
16th July 2009

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5X5 71 5X5 73
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
Guest
M: Mike Lacelle
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Randi Million Dollar Psychic Challenge and Connie Sonne[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about the James Randi Million Dollar Psychic Challenge, focusing on the most recent challenge, a live test performed by one Connie Sonne, who claimed that she could dowse using a pendulum to find specific playing cards.

E: Yeah, for years now, the James Randi Educational Foundation has been offering a one million dollar paranormal challenge prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, any evidence of paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event. Now the JREF does not involve itself in the testing other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which the test is going to take place. Tests are designed with participation and approval of the applicant. In many cases the applicant will be asked to perform a preliminary test to the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. And what Connie was doing was the preliminary test at TAM 7. And just so you know, to date, nobody has passed any of the preliminary tests.

B: This specific test was fairly simple. It was started with a deck of cards that had all the jacks, queens and kings set aside. The jokers and any cards that might list the rules of certain games or whatever, they were thrown away. Then you're left with the aces through tens. They were all separated by suit and then each card was put in an envelope and then each envelope was then put in yet another envelope. So what you had when you were done was forty envelopes: ten for each suit, each card was in an envelope, and then each envelope was then put into another envelope. When Connie sat down she would have seen ten envelopes in front of her, which would have contained the ace through ten for one specific suit, whatever that was. And the ten-sided die was used to determine which number she would ideomotor—I mean dowse for, and then this was done three separate times, with three different sets of those cards, three different suits. So if she had... the odds were one in ten for each set of ten; that would be 0.1 x 0.1 x 0.1, which equals 0.001, which is 1 in a 1000. So the odds of her succeeding in this test were 1 in a 1000. Now at first blush you might think, "wow, that's pretty good odds for a million dollar prize," but like Evan said, this was a preliminary test and I think 1/1000 odds was pretty good for a preliminary test. And I'm sure if it went for the million dollar test, it would have been much higher; maybe one in a million or one in ten million.

R: Yeah, and everything went amazingly according to plan. There were, I think, about 500 people watching this challenge take place for about forty-five minutes, and the entire auditorium was absolutely silent. You could have heard a pin drop; not even a cough. No one left, no one came in—it was perfectly done according to plan. And of course, she had agreed beforehand to allow it to be filmed and to have all those people there; she agreed to everything. Immediately before starting she signed all the paperwork; verified that she had read everything and so they got to work.

And it took her a little bit of time to dowse for each card. It was weird; she had her little pendulum. She didn't go over the line of cards or anything and stop when it moved. She just sort of held it in the middle and was watching it and you couldn't really tell which way she was going to go until she chose. So Banachek rolled the die for her to find the cards 3, then 7, then 1. Each card was chosen, placed aside and at the end they were all opened and she was looking for 3, she got a 2; she was looking for 7, she got a 1; and when she was looking for 1, she got a 2. So she failed and then they proceeded to open up all of the cards so that they could make sure that the card she was looking for actually was in the bunch, to make sure that nobody was cheating. And she was asked, "how did you feel about the test? Do you feel that you were cheated or that your powers were inhibited in any way?" And she said, "no"; she verified that the challenge went according to plan, that everything was perfectly fair and that the spirits had simply chosen not to reveal themselves at that moment.

E: And Rebecca, something else she did is that she did some practicing with cards face up.

R: That's correct. They always do an open challenge before—an open test before a preliminary challenge, and that's just where the claimant has a chance to test out their powers on something that they can see and verify before everyone that it works. Yeah, you're correct; she did it, and it worked and so then they proceeded onto the real test and it did not work.

M: But the day after the test, she posted on the JREF forums saying that she was cheated. Her claim seems to be that Banachek, who handled the cards, used some sort of sleight of hand to switch the cards on her. She claims to have proof of this which she'll make available on the website in early September.

S: She agreed to the protocol; she said, "yes, this is a fair test"; she did an open challenge and said "yes my powers are working right now, everything is hunky dory", then she completely failed the test. Afterwards... you know, some people will start to reject the outcome right away; some will say, "that's interesting, I'm not sure why that failed" but they'll accept it in the short term, and then progressively the rationalizations or the special pleadings will come into play. So she followed a pretty typical course. Initially she said "I guess it was not time to reveal my powers", right? That was her initial reaction; just "things are not in alignment at this moment". But then she started to actually accuse Banachek, who's administering the test, of actually cheating. And interestingly, what she said he did was that he knew which card was in the last envelope or one of the envelopes before he actually opened it.

R: Yeah, and of course, that was the last envelope of that suit so, of course he knows the one that she was looking for; the ace happened to be the last one that they opened up. So, as he was opening that he said "and of course this is the ace" and then he revealed it to be the ace. So, it wasn't, you know, it wasn't any psychic power on Banachek's part, nor was it cheating; it was just an obvious observation.

S: Just to clarify, you can watch this on YouTube, the three target cards were opened first and Banachek absolutely did not know what those target cards were before he pulled them out of the envelope, so Connie Sonne is completely misrepresenting what happened and is really falsely accusing Banachek and the JREF of fraud; of cheating, which is the extreme that many failed testees often go to—all the way to saying, "the million dollars doesn't exist; this is fraud". And then she's also promising that her powers work and she'll demonstrate them; "you just wait" and in the next couple of months she'll give the world the proof that her powers are real. It almost gets to a sad and delusional level with some of these people who have taken the challenge.

R: Well, yeah; I mean, that's a whole other conversation that could go on for quite a while, which is whether or not she was fit to take a test like this. It's—I think it's pretty clear from watching it that she's not a con artist; she's just delusional and she—there's a very good chance she has serious mental problems. So whether or not this will actually convince her or anyone else that such powers don't exist is debatable.

S: But the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge still has profound rhetorical value. Obviously these are not rigorous scientific tests—they are reasonably scientific demonstrations; it's not publishable research or anything—but the rhetorical value of this challenge is if anyone claims to be able to do something that seems to defy science; that is "paranormal", all they have to do is demonstrate that ability under reasonably controlled observation conditions and they will get a million dollars. Why can't they do that? Why would they refuse to do that? That, I think, is a very interesting question that could be raised to anyone who claims to have these kind of powers. Yet over many years, no one has been able to demonstrate anything remotely paranormal under basic scientific observing conditions.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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