• Is Precognition Real?
    Skeptics Eviscerated a Cornell Psychologist Whose Published Evidence Said Yes. A Decade Later, His Data Has Stood Up.

    More than ten years ago, a prominent research psychologist, Daryl J. Bem, published a paper in a respected academic journal that presented evidence for precognition. The response was swift and withering. Critics in academia and news media called Bem's work an embarrassment; skeptics reran his trials and said they failed; one journalist argued that the clinician's results themselves proved "science is broken."

    A decade on, however, the unthinkable has occurred. Bem's data has stood up.

    ***

    When you say the word precognition it strikes many people as fantastical, as though we are entering crystal-ball territory. I do not believe in altering vocabulary to suit reactions (or that it does any good). But why the incredulity? We already know, and have known for generations, that linear time as we experience it is an illusion.

    Einstein's theories of relativity, and experiments that have affirmed them, establish that time slows in conditions of extreme velocity—at or approaching lightspeed—and in conditions of extreme gravity like a black hole. The individual traveling in a metaphorical spaceship at or near lightspeed experiences time slowing (not from their perspective but in comparison to those not at near lightspeed), and this is not a mere thought exercise.1 Space travelers in our era, although they are obviously not approaching anywhere near that velocity, experience minute effects of time reduction.2

    In short, linear time is a necessary illusion for five-sensory beings to get through life. Time is not an absolute. What's more, I hope that we as a culture are coming to a greater understanding of inter-dimensionality through models like string theory—in which all of reality, from particles to different dimensions, are connected by undulating networks of strings—and are learning further about the infinitude of objects and events, such as we glean from quantum physics and experiments that branch off from them.

    This brings us to a remarkable episode from 2011, when well-known research psychologist Daryl J. Bem of Cornell University published a paper called "Feeling the Future" in a prominent psychology journal.3 For about ten years, Bem conducted a series of nine experiments involving more than 1,000 participants into precognition or "time reversing" of widely established cognitive or psychological effects, such as memorization of a list or responding to negative or erotic stimuli flashed as images on a screen. Bem's discoveries demonstrated the capacity of cognition across boundaries of linear time.

    Bem, as with other researchers, including Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), identified factors that seem to correlate with precognition, such as the body's response to arousing or disturbing imagery. As Bem wrote of previous experiments in presentiment of stimuli: "Most of the pictures were emotionally neutral, but a highly arousing negative or erotic image was displayed on randomly selected trials. As expected, strong emotional arousal occurred when these images appeared on the screen, but the remarkable finding is that the increased arousal was observed to occur a few seconds before the picture appeared, before the computer had even selected the picture to be displayed."

    In one of Bem's trials, subjects were asked to "guess" at erotic images alternated with benign images. "Across all 100 sessions," he wrote, "participants correctly identified the future position of the erotic pictures significantly more frequently than the 50% hit rate expected by chance: 53.1%.. .In contrast, their hit rate on the nonerotic pictures did not differ significantly from chance: 49.8%…This was true across all types of nonerotic pictures: neutral pictures, 49.6%; negative pictures, 51.3%; positive pictures, 49.4%; and romantic but nonerotic pictures, 50.2%."4

    The response to either arousing or disturbing imagery is suggestive of the emotional stakes required for the presence of a psi effect, to which pioneering parapsychologist J.B. Rhine alluded in the appendix to a British edition of his 1934 monograph Extra-Sensory Perception:

    Since my greatest interest is in stimulating others to repeat some of these experiments, I should like to mention here what has seemed to me to be the most important condition for ESP. This is a spontaneity of interest in doing it. The fresh interest in the act itself, like that of a child in playing a new game, seems to me the most favorable circumstance. Add now…the freedom from distraction, the absence of disturbing skepticism, the feeling of confidence or, at least, of some hope, and I think many good subjects can be found in any community or circle.

    This begins to suggest the bridge, however delicate, between parapsychology and the kinds of causative mind metaphysics I explore in my books including The Miracle Club and Daydream Believer. In both categories—thought causation and ESP—passion is critical. Stakes must exist and strong emotions must be in play. In his 1937 New Frontiers of the Mind, Rhine emphasized the role of spontaneity, confidence, comity, novelty, curiosity, and lack of fatigue. (And, as it happens, caffeine.)

    But Bem's horizons extended further. In the most innovative element of his nine-part study, the researcher set out to discover in experiments eight and nine whether subjects displayed improved recall of lists of words that were to be practice-memorized in the future:

    Inspired by the White Queen's claim, the current experiment tested the hypothesis that memory can "work both ways" by testing whether rehearsing a set of words makes them easier to recall—even if the rehearsal takes place after the recall test is given. Participants were first shown a set of words and given a free recall test of those words. They were then given a set of practice exercises on a randomly selected subset of those words. The psi hypothesis was that the practice exercises would retroactively facilitate the recall of those words, and, hence, participants would recall more of the to-be-practiced words than the unpracticed words.

    Bem found a statistically significant improvement of recall on the lists of words studied in the near future: "The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words."

    In experiment nine, this retroactive effect was heightened when researchers added a refined practice exercise. ("A new practice exercise was introduced immediately following the recall test in an attempt to further enhance the recall of the practice words. This exercise duplicated the original presentation of each word that participants saw prior to the recall test, but only the practice words were presented.") The results improved: "This modified replication yielded an even stronger psi effect than that in the original experiment." In general, future memorization heightened current recall.

    Unsurprisingly, Bem's 2011 paper met with tremendous controversy. Some critics even suggested that his study was intended as satire or an exposé of foundational flaws in the scientific model of data gathering, although Bem's work in parapsychology had gone back many years. Abandoning tones of probity that he displayed in earlier collaborations within parapsychology,5 University of Oregon psychologist and skeptic Ray Hyman told The New York Times: "It's craziness, pure craziness. I can't believe a major journal is allowing this work in. I think it's just an embarrassment for the entire field."6

    I have observed among psi skeptics a kind of reverse habituation in matters of critical opinion. I have personally encountered skeptics who in private or after extensive discussion will ease their tone of opposition, slacken their rejectionism, allow for intellectual exchange, and even acknowledge key data. But once they return to their peer groups, including on social media, they often revert to tones of unmitigated stridency.

    Within a year of Bem's publication, a trio of professional skeptics published a rejoinder. Playing off of Bem's "Feeling the Future," their paper sported the media-friendly title, "Failing the Future."7 The experimenters reran Bem's ninth experiment. They wrote in their abstract: "Nine recently reported parapsychological experiments appear to support the existence of precognition. We describe three pre-registered independent attempts to exactly replicate one of these experiments, 'retroactive facilitation of recall', which examines whether performance on a memory test can be influenced by a post-test exercise. All three replication attempts failed to produce significant effects…and thus do not support the existence of psychic ability."

    In his 1975 presidential address to the Parapsychology Association, scientist Charles Honorton (1946-1992) observed, "Even among parapsychologists there is a rather widespread belief that most of the independent replication of the early Duke work [by J.B. Rhine] were non-confirmatory." I have often noted the confusion—some of it, I warrant, intentional—that polemical skeptics bring to this material in reference sources and media. This situation is so pronounced that on September 12, 2021, while writing this piece, I privately emailed parapsychologist and friend Dean Radin: "Would you say that the Bem word-memory experiments are too pockmarked by data-gathering problems or lack of replicability to be ranked among core literature?" In his typically understated manner, Dean replied: "The Bem experiments are fine." This began my personal efforts to sort out what is unclear in dominant media and search rankings: the skeptics have cooked the books.

    In the study that I cited above, "Failing the Future," the authors omitted a critical detail from their own database. By deadline, they possessed two independent studies that replicated Bem's results. They made no mention of the opposing studies despite their own ground rules for doing so. Bem wrote in his response:

    In their article, [coauthor Stuart J.] Ritchie et al. mention that their experiments were "pre-registered." They are referring to an online registry set up by [coauthor Richard] Wiseman himself, asking anyone planning a replication to pre-register it and then to provide him with the data when the study is completed. As he noted on the registration website: "We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies…that have been completed by 1 December 2011."

    By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.) Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman's registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article.8

    In the type of gear-grinding reply that renders these debates self-perpetuating and never-ending, the authors referenced other studies that had failed to reproduce Bem's results (at least one of them an online study that Bem disputed), without directly addressing his criticism.9 The authors were scrupulous about this much: thanking Bem for making his database, software, and instructions available gratis to any researchers who wished to retread his efforts, which runs counter to the oft-heard canard that ESP experiments elude repetition or that parapsychologists avoid repeat trials.

    In an otherwise caustic article written from the a priori assumption that ESP is impossible because it is impossible, journalist Daniel Engber noted in Slate in 2017: "To help get this project underway, Bem had granted researchers full access to his data and provided a detailed how-to guide for redoing his experiments—a level of transparency that was pretty much unheard of at the time."10 Yet without considering the plausibility of psi beyond "it couldn't be true," in the words of a counter-researcher, the writer concluded: "Bem had shown that even a smart and rigorous scientist could cart himself to crazyland, just by following the rules of the road." Science itself is broken, the piece went, with Bem's analysis as exhibit A.

    Although there unquestionably exists a significant crisis of replicability and data manipulation—not to mention fraud—in the social and natural sciences,11 no one has directly tied any of this to Bem or his methods. Contrary to the stated nature of skepticism, however, inference sometimes trumps facts. On August 27, 2015, the New York Times ran an article, "Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says" by Benedict Carey. The piece dealt with a series of high-grade failures that rocked the social sciences over the previous several years, including misreports, research retractions, and fabrications. Amid this malfeasance, the opening paragraph read, "A top journal published a study supporting the existence of ESP that was widely criticized." It hyperlinked to Bem's study.

    Bem's paper was grouped with, and cited as a prime exhibit of, polluted data. But not once in the article did the reporter further reference Bem's study or support why it was categorized with fraudulent and compromised research. At the time, the paper maintained an editorial ombudsman. I wrote her to call this out. I received no reply. I wrote a letter to the editor. It did not run. I have written for the New York Times myself on controversial topics. A year before the article, I published an op-ed on the global problem of violence against accused witches.12 In this case, however—with a controversial study coming from a respected researcher and published in a leading journal grouped without explanation with corrupted data—I could gain no evident hearing.

    What about Bem's findings and the crisis of replication? I noted that Bem opened his database and software and provided instruction manuals free to anyone who wished to rerun his experiments. As of July 2020, Bem's experiments (including the original trials) showed replication in a meta-analysis encompassing 90 experiments in 33 laboratories in 14 countries.13 Indulge my repetition of that figure. "To encourage replications," Bem and his coauthors wrote in the abstract of their follow-up paper, "all materials needed to conduct them were made available on request. We here report a meta-analysis of 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 countries which yielded an overall effect…greatly exceeding" the standard for "'decisive evidence' in support of the experimental hypothesis."

    After a January 2022 talk in which I defended Bem's data, I heard from professional skeptic Michael Shermer who wrote on Twitter: "Dear @MitchHorowitz @RupertSheldrake et al. Bem's precognition experiment was NOT 'replicated 90 times' 72 studies revealed no effect, 18 were statistically significant. 'there is as of yet no compelling reason to draw the inference precognition exists'." He linked to a critique of the aforementioned meta-analysis.

    After a degree of inconclusive back-and-forth (this being Twitter), I replied:

    Michael, I do not believe you understand meta-analysis. "Statistically significant" refers to the p-value associated with a study. It does *not* mean the effect is real or not real. What you want to know is what is the size of the effect under study. If the effect is small (which is the case for practically all experiments in the behavioral and social sciences) then the results of any single study may well not reach statistical significance (because not enough trials in the study were run). But if the effect size per study is observed to be about the same over many replications, and the overall estimate of the effect is not zero, then you are dealing with a real phenomenon. That is the purpose of meta-analysis. The Bem meta-analysis shows that the effects are indeed repeatable over many replications, and that the effect is above zero (in fact, from a statistical perspective we have very high confidence that it is above zero). But even beyond this, one would expect that 5% of studies would be statistically significant at the p = 0.05 level purely by chance. But that's not what we have here. We see 18 out of 90 studies being significant. That's 20%, far more than the chance expectation of 5%. You have a naive understanding of how to properly evaluate replication of experimental effects. The 90 studies, meta-analyzed, show significant effect. I have—now for the third (and final) time—invited you to a formal, jointedly [sic] sponsored debate since Twitter is so limited a forum. I further review this material in my forthcoming book.

    I believe that I am highlighting only the glacial tip of how parapsychological data is mishandled within much of mainstream news media and large swaths of academia. The question is: why? I have difficulty understanding human nature, which is, finally, the crux of the matter. "The itch to silence those whose opinions we disagree with, applied centuries ago against scientists of the stature of Bruno, Galileo, and others, has spread, ironically, to scientists themselves, and there are few cases as blatant as those involving the topic of parapsychology," wrote Thorsen Professor of Psychology at Lund University, Sweden, Etzel Cardeña in 2015.14 And further: "I think that a contributing factor is that research on parapsychology is seen as so emotionally (and factually) threatening because it suggests that 'things are not as they seem,' or at least as the censors believe they are."

    Indeed, after a certain point of tautological criticism of nearly a century of academic ESP research, it becomes difficult to avoid using a strong word that I prefer not to use and that I do not use lightly: suppression. Not of any centrally organized sort but of a cultural sort in which prevailing findings run so counter to materialist assumptions that critics—who ironically perceive themselves as arbiters of rationality—assume an "at any cost" stance to dispel contrary data. Winning becomes more important than proving. It is the antithesis of science. This is the irony to which professional skepticism has brought us.

    But truth has a strange way of enduring. As Bem's findings have.

    ***

    Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian whose books include Occult AmericaOne Simple IdeaThe Miracle Cluband Daydream Believer, from which this article is partly adapted. His books are published in Arabic, French, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. China's government has censored his work. Twitter @MitchHorowitz | Instagram @MitchHorowitz23 

    FOOTNOTES:

    1 Einstein famously wrote in a letter of March 1955, "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

    2 E.g., see "Here's why astronauts age slower than the rest of us here on Earth" by Kelly Dickerson, August 19, 2005, Business Insider

    3 "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect" by Daryl J. Bem, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, Vol. 100, No. 3

    4 You will note the slender but statistically significant effect that is referenced here, which is typical of parapsychology experiments. The measurable impact is not like Zeus throwing lightning bolts at earth but rather a detectable "signal in the noise," which requires precise measurement and circumstantial cultivation.

    5 "A Joint Communiqué: The Psi Ganzfeld Controversy" by Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton, Journal of Parapsychology, vol. 50, December 1986

    6 "Journal's Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage" by Benedict Carey, New York Times, Jan. 5, 2011

    7 "Failing the Future: Three Unsuccessful Attempts to Replicate Bem's 'Retroactive Facilitation of Recall' Effect" by Stuart J. Ritchie, Richard Wiseman, Christopher C. French, PLoS ONE, March 2012, Volume 7, Issue 3

    8 "Bem's response to Ritchie, Wiseman, and French," posted 15 Mar 2012: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/comment?id=10.1371/annotation/02eae6d6-af7f-41d8-b2b3-b6d32fdce7a6

    9 "Authors' response to Bem," posted 15 Mar 2012: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/comment?id=10.1371/annotation/cd8a1df4-e003-44aa-9d72-a7e1a6b26012

    10 "Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real: Which means science is broken" By Daniel Engber, Slate, June 7, 2017

    11 E.g., see "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" by John P. A. Ioannidis, PLoS Medicine, August 2005, Volume 2, Issue 8. Much is sometimes made of the "decline effect" in Rhine's experiments—a topic that he addressed in detail and hypothesized over (e.g., see the previous statements from Rhine's Extra-Sensory Perception and New Frontiers of the Mind); this issue, too, is general to the medical and social sciences, e.g., "The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?" by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, December 5, 2010.

    12 "The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style" by Mitch Horowitz, July 4, 2014

    13 "REVISED: Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events" [version 2; peer review: 2 approved] by Daryl Bem, Patrizio E. Tressoldi, Thomas Rabeyron, Michael Duggan, first published: 30 Oct 2015, latest published: 29 Jan 2016, last updated: 23 Jul 2020, F1000Research

    14 "The Unbearable Fear of Psi: On Scientific Suppression in the 21st Century," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 15, 2015

  • The man who destroyed skepticism

    Scourge of psychics James Randi was no skeptic; our culture is poorer as a result

    Several years ago I was preparing a talk on the life of occult journeyer Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Someone on Facebook asked sardonically: "Will James Randi be there?" My interlocutor was referencing the man known worldwide as a debunker of psychical and paranormal claims. (That my online critic was outspoken about his own religious beliefs posed no apparent irony for him.)

    Last week marked the death at age 92 of James "The Amazing" Randi, a stage magician who became internationally famous as a skeptic — indeed Randi rebooted the term "skepticism" as a response to the boom in psychical claims and research in the post-Woodstock era. Today, thousands of journalists, bloggers and the occasional scientist call themselves skeptics in the mold set by Randi. Over the past decade, the investigator himself was heroized in documentaries, profiles, and, now, obituaries. A Guardian columnist eulogized him as the "prince of reason."

    I mourn Randi's passing for those who loved him, and there were many. But his elevation to the Mount Rushmore of skepticism obfuscates a basic truth. In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud. This has corroded our intellectual culture — in a Trumpian age when true skepticism is desperately needed. 

    ***

    Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto in 1928, Randi became a celebrated stage magician and escape artist who appeared in prestigious venues and on television shows, including Happy Days. His stage aesthetics and devices were often brilliant and original. Randi toured with rock icon Alice Cooper in 1973, designing a mock beheading-by-guillotine for the proto-metal star. When claiming the garland of skepticism in the early 1970s, the MacArthur-winning Randi announced his intention of exposing phony faith healers and grifter psychics.

    Today, many people know Randi from the award-winning 2014 documentary An Honest Liar. But the laudatory and engaging profile tells its story in a fashion that skeptics traditionally decry: including only the magician's successful exposes (some of which were more questionable than the film allows) and obfuscating his darker and more lasting impact: making it more difficult for serious university-based and academically trained researchers to study ESP and mental anomalies, and to receive a fair hearing in the news media. Indeed, Randi ultimately cheapened an important debate over how or whether extra-physical mentality can be studied under scientifically rigorous conditions and evaluated by serious people.

    In a typical example, The New York Times ran a 2015 piece about a wave of fraudulent and flawed psychology studies; its lead paragraph cited a precognition study by Cornell University psychologist Daryl J. Bem — without justifying why it was grouped with polluted research or even further referencing Bem's study in the article. (I wrote to the Times to object. The paper has used several of my letters and op-eds, often on controversial subjects — this time, crickets.)

    J. B. Rhine (right) and Hubert Pearce experimenting with Zener cards. (Public domain)

    In the pioneering days of scholarly psychical research in the United States, roughly between the 1930s and 1960s, Duke University housed a highly regarded center for the study of ESP, founded by researchers J.B. and Louisa Rhine. Yet today the Rhine Research Center functions off-campus as a nonprofit organization and, while individual researchers and a handful of ​university labs soldier on, many college textbooks brand ESP research a pseudoscience, often citing Randi's work as the source of that opinion, so the topic is shunned by most academics and journalists who cover them. 

    As a historian and writer on metaphysical topics, I have spent time among fraudulent mediums, and I share Randi's outrage at their manipulations. I have no issue with his or others' targeting of stage psychics and woo-woo con artists — I join in it. But Randi made his name, and influenced today's professional skeptics, by smearing the work of serious researchers, such as Rhine, who, in founding the original parapsychological lab at Duke with his wife and co-researcher Louisa, labored intensively — and in a scientifically conservative manner that reverse-mirrored Randi's work—to devise research protocols for testing psychical phenomena. 

    In one of Randi's freely distributed classroom guides, he misleadingly stated that Rhine had reported only positive results in his ESP trials. In fact, in the early 1930s, when Rhine's lab opened, it was standard practice in the behavioral and life sciences to discount experiments with null or negative results. But Rhine was one of the first academic researchers to recognize this common practice as a problem, and then to explicitly reject it. By 1940, with the publication of Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, Rhine's lab took a leading role in reporting all results, positive and negative, ahead of the curve of other researchers.

    Randi's contemporaneous parapsychology skeptics, including science writer Martin Gardner and University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman, differed from Randi's uncritical dismissals by offering qualified respect to Rhine and his protégé Charles Honorton, with whom Hyman co-authored a paper validating Honorton's research methods. In a moment of intellectual probity, the skeptic Gardner wrote of Rhine in his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science: "It should be stated immediately that Rhine is clearly not a pseudoscientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book. He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily, and which deserves a far more serious treatment." (Another notable contemporary was sociologist Marcello Truzzi — a self-described "constructive skeptic" — who criticized Randi's methods in the paper linked earlier. Truzzi coined the maxim popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.")

    To Randi, such moderate tones were alien. When criticizing the parapsychological research of University of Arizona psychology professor Gary E. Schwartz, for example, Randi repeatedly accused the researcher of believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and taunted him with the Trump-worthy sobriquet "Gullible Gary." Randi showed no compunction about brutalizing reputations and ignoring complexities. 

    Indeed, Randi showed willingness to mislead the public about testing certain paranormal claims — while simultaneously touting his "results" and trashing reputations. Such was the case with his public rebuttal to Cambridge University biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance" proposes that "memory is inherent in nature." The biologist has written that "morphic fields of social groups connect together members of the group even when they are many miles apart, and provide channels of communication through which organisms can stay in touch at a distance. They help provide an explanation for telepathy." To this Randi retorted: "We at JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail." 

    Yet Sheldrake complained that Randi ignored his requests to see the test data. Reporter Will Storr of Britain's The Telegraph followed up with Randi and received a series of dog-ate-my-homework excuses — until the reporter realized that the Amazing Randi was either misleading him about the existence of tests, or was proffering an incredibly byzantine (and inconsistent) backstory that the results "got washed away in a flood." Unbelievable as Randi's responses were, he continued running down the biologist in public. This is what sociologist Truzzi dubbed "pseudoskepticism": rejection absent investigation. 

    Amid Randi's persistent and questionable media dings, academics began to recoil. John G. Kruth, executive director of the Rhine lab, experienced the chill firsthand in the 1980s. "As the old guard began to age out of the field," he said, "there were very few opportunities for new researchers to study parapsychology … younger students typically had to travel abroad or design their own study programs."

    Beyond scholarly circles, Randi set the template for a zealous band of professional skeptics, many of whom are science journalists or bloggers who focus on niche takedown pieces of people who study any form of ESP, mediumship, or anomalies. Even more damaging over the last decade has been a group of self-described "Guerrilla Skeptics" — winners of the 2017 James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Award — who wage a kind of freewheeling digital jihad on Wikipedia, tendentiously revising or trolling pages about scientific parapsychology and the lives of its key players.

    "While there are lots of anonymous trolls that have worked hard to trash any Wikipedia pages related to psi, including bios of parapsychologists," said Dean Radin, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in northern California, one of a few remaining scholarly parapsychology labs, "this group of extreme skeptics is proudly open that they are rewriting history … any attempt to edit those pages, even fixing individual words, is blocked or reverted almost instantly."

    Another case was Randi's yearly "million-dollar challenge," often held in Las Vegas, in which he tempted psychics with a cash prize. For years it was an annual charade to which virtually no serious observer or claimant would venture near. Journalist and NPR producer Stacy Horn, who wrote about Rhine's lab at Duke University in her 2009 book Unbelievable, queried Randi in June 2008 about his million-dollar prize. She told me:

    I had an exchange with Randi because I was going to have the following sentences about his million-dollar prize in my book:

    "To date, Randi's million-dollar prize has not been awarded, but according to Chris Carter, author of Parapsychology and the Skeptics, Randi backs off from any serious challenge. 'I always have an out,' he has been quoted as saying."

    I sent that to Randi to ask him if he really said that. …He wrote back saying that the quote was true, but incomplete. What he really said was, "I always have an 'out' — I'm right!"

    It seemed like he thought he was being amusing, but I didn't really know a lot about him yet. But it also seemed to indicate that the million-dollar prize might not really be a serious offer. So I asked him how a decision was made, was there a committee and who was on it? …He replied, "If someone claims they can fly by flapping their arms, the results don't need any 'decision.' What 'committee'? Why would a committee be required? I don't understand the question."

    At that point I wrote him off and decided to not mention his prize in my book since it just seemed like a publicity stunt for Randi.

    The Telegraph's Storr wondered what — besides organizing the yearly Vegas conference (discontinued in 2015) — Randi's nonprofit JREF actually does:

    More recently I've begun to wonder about his educational foundation, the JREF, which claims tax exempt status in the US and is partly dependant on public donations. I wondered what actual educative work the organisation — which between 2011 and 2013 had an average revenue of $1.2 million per year — did. Financial documents reveal just $5,100, on average, being spent on grants.

    There are some e-books, videos and lesson plans on subjects such as fairies on their website. They organise an annual fan convention. James Randi, over that period, has been paid an average annual salary of $195,000. My requests for details of the educational foundation's educational activities, over the last 12 months, were dodged and then ignored.

    The two years that follow, according to public filings, show executive compensation at an average of over $197,000, more than 20% of the Foundation's total yearly revenue. According to a contemporaneous analysis of 100,000 nonprofit CEO salaries, this figure nearly triples the average compensation in JREF's revenue class. 

    ***

    Randi proved hugely adept at sound bites. Most researchers and scientists do poorly with sound bites. Such devices contributed to his being lionized in news coverage by observers who seemed genuinely unaware of his unwillingness to distinguish between parapsychologists who perform juried and meticulous work, such as scientists Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake, versus the average storefront psychic. The "broad smear" and polarized thinking typify most professional skepticism today.

    Indeed, when encountering the efforts of clinicians, such as Rhine and Radin, Randi often played "move the goalpost." Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner made this pertinent historical observation in their book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness: "Greek science had a fatal flaw. It had no mechanism to compel consensus. The Greeks saw experimental tests of scientific conclusions as no more relevant than were experimental tests of political or aesthetic positions. Conflicting views could be argued indefinitely." Randi and his admirers embraced this flaw as a polemical device, often wearing down scientists and winning over journalists with perpetual, repeat-loop disparagement of ESP research and other science they disfavored, no matter how valid the methods.

    ***

    We urgently need good skeptics today. We are living under the cloud of a president who spreads QAnon conspiracy theories and 5 a.m. Twitter smears, while questioning the gravity of Covid, the reality of climate change (as Randi did, too — along with a proclivity for eugenics), and the facts of responsible news coverage. Even in our truth-challenged times, however, Randi never stopped baiting researchers and punching down at eccentrics who may have been self-deluded about their psychical abilities.

    Yes, Randi may have bagged some con artists along the way. Senator McCarthy may have caught a few authentic Soviet sympathizers or spies. But at what cost? Each man laid tracks for future demagogues who proved less interested in defending facts than in promulgating smears and half-truths for personal benefit.

    I sympathize with those who want to challenge credulity and generalized references to psychical phenomena — and all the more with researchers and investigators who expose frauds. I sympathize, too, with those who have lost a man, a friend, and a spouse. But to the intellectual community, and anyone concerned with critical inquiry in general, Randi's legacy should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to restore sound practices when discussing or writing about contentious topics in science or any field. These are things that a showman can deter but never erase.

    Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian whose books include Occult America; One Simple Idea; and The Miracle Club. Twitter: @MitchHorowitz | Instagram: @MitchHorowitz23