Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why investigate?

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) is a local organization which fights on the front lines against paranormalism and pseudoscience. That means that they're actively investigating and testing paranormal claims, and informing the public about the results. Similar to the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge, IIG offers $50,000 to people who can show evidence, under proper testing conditions, of the paranormal.

Among the people they are currently investigating is a guy who claims he can psychically determine whether there are mirrors in a covered box, and a woman who claims that she can psychically determine whether or not someone is missing a kidney. The silliness of these claims prompted a friend of mine to ask, what is the point? Why are we even bothering to debunk things that are already self-evidently bunk?

I agree, there are some problems inherent with the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges. The vast majority of people who apply for these challenges are delusional rather than dishonest. If they were simply dishonest about their claims, they wouldn't attempt the challenge, because they already know they'd lose. In fact, this is what the big time psychics do (ie Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh). When publicly asked about the Million Dollar Challenge, they pretend that they've heard about it for the first time, and claim that they will try it at a later date. Then they simply forget that it was ever mentioned. Repeat as necessary.

Instead, the challenge applicants mostly consist of obscure cranks, the kind who mostly keep their crazy ideas to themselves. They're a particularly harmless breed of crazy. A lot of them have no understanding of how to construct a proper scientific test, and some of them just seem like they need help.
The Million Dollar Challenge solves this problem by only allowing applicants who have some media presence, but I imagine that the $50,000 challenge gets all sorts of weird folks.

But perhaps it's not quite as worthless as I've made it sound. The mirror guy is probably harmless, but the kidney woman is actually making medical diagnoses. That's not harmless at all. And though the big time psychics and woos simply ignore the challenge, it obviously puts some pressure on them. That's why they ignore it, after all.

The challenge also functions as a sort of preventive measure. Your typical scientist simply doesn't care about fringe claims. Perhaps they're justified, but it makes them appear dismissive. So unless someone takes action, the woo remains unchecked, leaving it to grow and propagate. Wouldn't it be great if we could nip the next big woo in the bud? And since we can't know which pieces of woo will go big in the future, we're going to have to debunk a lot of things which appear mostly harmless.

As for the possibility that we might actually discover something revolutionary, I do not think that is the primary reason for the challenge. As claims become more extraordinary, the likelihood that they are true decreases exponentially. Therefore, if our only goal were to discover something new, we would do what professional scientists do, and turn our attention to more reasonable things. Of course, there's still a tiny chance that the IIG will actually discover something amazing, and that's one more tiny perk to the job. But the primary purpose is to fight paranormalism, and keep woo in check.

You may still wonder about the effectiveness of the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges, and you wouldn't be entirely alone. In fact, until recently, the James Randi Educational Foundation was planning to discontinue the Million Dollar Challenge in 2010. They eventually changed their mind, and the challenge will continue. Obviously, this is something they have thought about a lot.

And happily, it's not the only strategy employed by skeptical organizations. For instance, the IIG is currently investigating Healing Touch quackery in the UCLA hospital. They're not going to wait around for the nurses to apply for the $50,000 dollar challenge, they're actively investigating the issue and working to inform the public about it.