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Bogus Challenges

PigasusThere are several well-known prizes available for anyone who can demonstrate that they have an ability which cannot be explained by science or reason. The most famous of these is probably James Randi's $1,000,000 Challenge, but there is also a significant prize offered by the Australian SkepticsAustralian Skeptics Challenge. The rules of these contests are relatively simple. All anyone with a paranormal ability has to do is 1) say exactly what it is they can do, 2) specify the conditions under which the powers work, 3) agree to a test protocol, mutually developed by the challenger and the prize granter, 4) do it, 5) bank the money. The test has to have unambiguous results and must require no judgment - the power either obviously works or it doesn't. This all should be quite easy for anyone with super powers, although many seem reluctant to submit themselves to testing. Many also claim that they have satisfied the conditions for winning the money without the bother of actually going through the first four steps.

As well as these legitimate challenges there are several false offers made across the Internet by people claiming that they will pay money to anyone who can prove certain things. Actually, they usually make the offer to pay if someone can prove the non-existence of something, and by doing this they guarantee that they will never have to pay anything out. This is not an oversight on their part - it is a deliberate tactic which allows them to lie about how nobody is prepared to accept the challenge. Here are three examples.


Victor Zammit
Challenge at http://www.victorzammit.com/skeptics/challenge.html

(This was originally written in June 2003)

Victor Zammit is an Australian lawyer who believes in an afterlife. It is of course his right to believe anything he wants to, but he seems mightily irked by the fact that some skeptics have suggested that there is no evidence of such a thing existing. He has written a book detailing his beliefs and has challenged skeptics to prove him wrong, upon which proof he will give them $1,000,000. As it is impossible to prove that something does not exist, his money is safe (and he knows it). Here is his challenge:

The applicant has to rebut the substantive objective evidence presented in Victor Zammit's A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife (see chapters 3 to 24) which includes: Materialisation, Electronic Voice Phenomena, Instrumental Transcommunication, the Scole Experiments, Professor Gary Schwartz' Experiments, Mediumship - Mental, Physical and Direct Voice, Xenoglossy, the Cross-Correspondences, Proxy Sittings, Automatic Etheric Writing, Laboratory Experiments, Poltergeists, Apparitions together with the evidence provided by Near Death Experiences and Out of Body Experiences which psychics claim are supportive of and are directly linked with the afterlife.

Further, the applicant has to rebut the afterlife evidence presented by the following: Arthur Findlay's On the Edge of the Etheric, Sir William Crookes' On Human Personality and Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism; Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond and Geraldine Cummins' Swan on a Black Sea and the evidence provided by the Inner Peace Movement.

Here is the challenge for those skeptics who have been continuously campaigning in the media that there is no afterlife: those closed-minded skeptics who have been crusading around the world denigrating, destroying and demeaning the credibility of gifted psychics, trying to dismiss the positive evidence being produced for the afterlife; those skeptics who have been cruelly twisting and manipulating psychic truth to reduce its effect; those who unconscionably have tried to destroy the reputations of some of the greatest and most brilliant 'classical' scientists and psychic writers who ever walked this planet earth like Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Barrett, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Findlay and so many others!

It should be quite obvious to anyone reading the words above that Zammit has no intention of ever paying any money to anyone, but he is positioning himself to be able to claim that the skeptics either will not or can not meet his challenge. As further evidence of his hypocrisy, consider the following conditions that any challenger must agree to before even starting any attempt to rebut the nonsense in Zammit's book.

The offeror and the applicant will agree that the applicant has demonstrated the technical skills to rebut the evidence. This is a fundamental and most important condition.

Straight away, Zammit is allowing himself the sole right to choose who will apply. Anyone who exhibits the slightest vestige of knowledge of either science or logic will recognise the futility of trying to prove a negative or of rebutting the diverse collection of crackpottery that Zammit includes in his list. This makes it highly unlikely that anyone with the critical skills necessary to rebut the nonsense would even bother to apply, but if they did I am sure that Zammit could find some fault with them.

If by some remote chance a qualified person actually felt like applying and thought that they might pass the initial competency screening, they then have to consider this:

The applicant agrees that the level of proof required to rebut the evidence will be the Cartesian test, "beyond any doubt". This means that there has to be absolutely no doubt at all in the minds of the Committee that the 'evidence' has been rebutted.

This is real evidence of either Zammit's hypocrisy or his lack of reasoning ability. It also contradicts the condition mentioned above, because anyone qualified to rebut the nonsense will also have the sense to know that it is not possible to prove such a rebuttal "beyond any doubt". And who is this "committee"?

'The Committee' refers to a group of people expert in afterlife evidence.

And you don't need to know anything more than that. Any applicant must be approved by Zammitt and must convince an an unnamed group of crackpots that their delusions are 100% false.

Victor Zammit's "challenge" is a farce. There is no such challenge, and for him to keep saying so can only make reasonable people suspect his honesty. Skeptics do not run from his challenge because it threatens them, they ignore it because it is ridiculous.


Kent Hovind
Challenge at http://www.drdino.com/Ministry/250k/

(This was originally written in June 2003)

Kent Hovind is a creationist who, unbelievable as it may seem, is regarded by other creationists such as Answers in Genesis to be somewhat rigid in his thinking. Hovind offers a prize of $250,000 for anyone who can perform the intellectual miracle of proving that all imaginable ways except one to get to the current state of the universe are false. Little more needs to be done to convince thinking people of the vacuity of Hovind's "challenge" than to quote the words of it, although I can see why creationists might think it means something.

Prove beyond reasonable doubt that the process of evolution [the universe came into being by itself by purely natural processes (known as evolution) so that no appeal to the supernatural is needed] is the only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence. Only empirical evidence is acceptable. Persons wishing to collect the $250,000 may submit their evidence in writing or schedule time for a public presentation. A committee of trained scientists will provide peer review of the evidence offered and, to the best of their ability, will be fair and honest in their evaluation and judgment as to the validity of the evidence presented.

Like Victor Zammit, Kent Hovind has an anonymous committee to judge the arguments. It would be presumptuous to suggest that this committee might consist of people who, like Hovind, hold to the literal truth of the Biblical account of creation and therefore might be somewhat biased in their judgments, but this presumption has an almost infinitely greater possibility of matching reality than the assumption that the universe is only 6,000 years old. In probability terms, if the probability of the committee being biased and prejudicial is P1 and the probability of the age of the universe being anything like 6,000 years is P2, then P1=P2 + 1.

Update: A check of Dr Hovind's web site in December 2006 did not reveal any evidence of the challenge still being in effect. This could be because his new site is an internal mess and the challenge might be there somewhere but impossible to find easily, or he could have dropped the challenge. As Dr Hovind had recently been sentenced to 288 years in prison for various inconsequential legal oversights, it might just be something which had slipped his mind recently.

Jock Doubleday
Challenge at http://www.spontaneouscreation.org/SC/20,000Offer.htm

(This was originally written in June 2003)

I typed the name "Jock Doubleday" into Google and it told me that there were about 263 matches. Most of these are anti-vaccination liar sites, and most of them report the following $20,000 offer from Doubleday (some say it's $25,000)

THE FOLLOWING OFFER is made to U.S.-licensed medical doctors who routinely administer childhood vaccinations and to pharmaceutical company CEOs worldwide.

Jock Doubleday, president of the California nonprofit corporation Natural Woman, Natural Man, Inc., hereby offers $20,000.00 (U.S.) to the first medical doctor or pharmaceutical company CEO who publicly drinks a mixture of standard vaccine additive ingredients in the same amount as a six-year-old child is recommended to receive under the year-2000 guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The mixture will not contain viruses or bacteria dead or alive, but will contain standard vaccine additive ingredients in their usual forms and proportions. The mixture will include, but will not be limited to: thimerosal (a mercury derivative), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), phenol (a disinfectant dye), benzethonium chloride (a disinfectant), formaldehyde (a preservative and disinfectant), and aluminum.

The mixture will be prepared by Jock Doubleday, three medical professionals that he names, and three medical professionals that the participant names. The mixture will be body weight calibrated.

The sites often go on to say that no doctor has ever accepted the challenge, because they all know how dangerous it would be. It would not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with The Millenium Project to find that I think Doubleday and his supporters are lying both about his intentions and the reactions of doctors. I happen to know several doctors who contacted Doubleday and offered to accept his challenge. In every case something was found to be wrong with the application. An anti-vaccinator wrote to Doubleday in early 2001 to ask him how the challenge was going. Part of his reply was:

There are two possible candidates, but they may turn out to be hoaxes. In any event, I don't foresee them really following through. A person would have to be of unsound mind, and I don't particularly relish the idea of sending a person of unsound mind (or any person, for that matter) to heaven before his or her time.

At the time I said: "He's already making excuses about why he won't be paying anyone anything. He'll refuse to go ahead because of his unwillingness to hurt someone ("first, do no harm") and, a year from now, the anti-vax mythology will be talking about how nobody took up the challenge". Was I right?

More about Jock's "challenge" here.



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