Skeptic’s Million Dollar Challenge To Be More Open and Transparent Says JREF President, D.J. Grothe
Join Skepitko host Alex Tsakiris for a 90-minute interview with journalist, skeptic, and president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, D.J. Grothe. During the interview Grothe discusses the science of skepticism, evidence for survival of consciousness, what constitutes “extraordinary proof”, and changes to the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.
“If some people conceive of the Million Dollar Challenge as the way science works, in other words, ‘to advance our scientific understanding in this field, be challenged for a million dollars’… well, science is not a cage match, despite the fact that you put some big personality scientists in a room and they fight, science doesn’t work that way.
The Million Dollar Challenge is done in the spirit of science. It’s done looking at the evidence, but it is a vehicle of a non-profit educational foundation to raise public consciousness and awareness about these important questions”, Grothe said.
Grothe also discussed ways to make the challenge of paranormal and supernatural claims more open and transparent, “I’m proud of the transparency so far and we want there to be even more transparency in the following ways. The claimants, when they apply, in short order – although I’m kind of letting the cat out of the bag – in the months ahead we want to have a running public display of all the claimants and the progress of their challenges and their applications.”
Alex Tsakiris: We’re joined today by someone whose skills as a broadcaster, journalist, and activist I greatly admire. Formerly the host of Point of Inquiry, D.J. Grothe stood toe-to-toe with Nobel Prize winners, leading public intellectuals, and scores and scores of best-selling authors. He not only held his own, but he brought a depth and a command of the topics that was, well, was pretty darned impressive.
Now you notice that I use the word, “formerly” because D.J. has taken a new job. He’s now the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation which many of you know as JREF. It’s in that role that we welcome today D.J. Grothe. Welcome back to Skeptiko.
D.J. Grothe: Well, thank you, Alex. It’s a pleasure to be back on the show. I always enjoy our conversations.
Alex Tsakiris: Good. As I just mentioned, D.J., you’re the newly minted President of JREF. Actually, it’s been a couple of months now, but for folks who don’t know too much about JREF, let me read to you the description I got from the JREF Web site. I found it refreshingly straightforward and concise. Here it is”: A non-profit foundation headed by a professional magician. Exposes psychics, faith healers and such.” Perhaps you want to flesh that out a little bit and tell folks what JREF is.
D.J. Grothe: The big answer is it’s an educational non-profit founded by James Randi, who is this public intellectual and magician, as you mentioned. Really, the leading figure in the history of organized skepticism or grass roots skepticism. You know, the people who get their righteous indignation up when there are hucksters or possibly frauds or charlatans out there making claims that aren’t substantiated and that can do harm to believers. Randi started all of this and the James Randi Educational Foundation is his educational non-profit.
Our goal is not just to expose frauds, though. It should be said we’re an educational non-profit committed to advancing critical thinking in general and also specifically about the supernatural, about the paranormal, about pseudo-science claims. It should be said that not all of those claims will involve frauds or charlatans. Sometimes it’s just pseudo-science or self-deceived folks, so I want to offer that clarification.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me jump right into this because you’re taking over as the President of it and when I heard that, I was – I guess I was really first quite surprised. I guess I also thought, ‘Are you up for it?’ Let me ask you that question. Are you up for it? But let me frame that up a little bit and let you know what I mean because certainly you have the intellectual skills; you have the communication skills for the job.
But I think you’re heading into different waters, you know? In Point of Inquiry, you came at that with an intellectual force and a command of the issues, and also I think an acceptance by your audience that the secular Humanist position was morally and intellectually correct. You used to cover separation of church and state, evolution versus creationism, human rights, and all that kind of stuff.
Now you’re being asked to be the voice of authority on issues of science and issues where the skeptical community in general and in the James Randi Educational Foundation in particular, their position is a little bit murkier in terms of where the public stands and where intellectuals and scientists stand. So in that sense, are you up for being the President of JREF?
D.J. Grothe: That’s a good question, a hard question if I wasn’t up for it. But the good news is I am up for it. More than that, it is form-fitting. If there were a master of the universe to try and create a job that fit D.J. Grothe perfectly, it would be this. Why? Because not only am I a former magician, but I have the same values and the same commitment that James Randi and the Foundation seeks to advance. It’s not so different.
There are some clarifications and I will offer those, but it’s not so different from the agenda of one of the component organizations of the Center for Inquiry and that CSICOP. I guess now it’s called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the skeptical non-profit that is housed at CSI was co-founded by James Randi back in the 70s with folks like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz, and others. So I’ve always been motivated by this kind of mission to advance critical thinking about untested claims in an open-minded way.
There seems to be an implication in your question that JREF – well, you used the term, “murky” or something like that, but that JREF may be less than open-minded. I’m here to tell you that it’s my job to make sure that as regards any of these paranormal, pseudo-scientific, supernatural claims, that we approach them in an open-minded and a fair-minded way. That doesn’t mean just because we’re tender-hearted that we’re kind of soft-headed. In other words, we could be rigorous, critical, but do that in a fair-minded way.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s the positive part I saw in terms of you becoming President of JREF. I think you bring that kind of credibility, at least in my mind, in terms of being a consumer of your broadcasts on Point of Inquiry. I found you to be very open-minded and very fair-minded on the issues even though you clearly had a position. You had a point of view.
D.J. Grothe: I appreciate hearing that. Not only do I pride myself, Alex, on my humility – that’s a joke – I also pride myself on the qualities that you just mentioned. I consider myself to be an open-minded, fair-minded guy. I should also say that in the history of the James Randi Educational Foundation, we have approached all sorts of un-tested claims, I think, in fair-minded ways.
Of course, because the JREF is doing something no other international non-profit is doing, which is engaging head-on claimants; it’s always going to be a little more controversial than if we were just sitting in our armchairs and spouting off from the Ivory Tower. Instead, we’re rolling up our sleeves. James Randi is really the model here of rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands in the nitty-gritty of these kinds of claims; really testing to see if various claims of supernatural, paranormal, pseudo-scientific claims are real. That’s what I think sets the JREF apart.
So we’re similar to other national non-profit skeptical organizations in that we care about the same issues. We’re different in that we are engaging some of these things head-on and not just writing our opinions out there. Instead we’re really trying to challenge claimants in the hope of ferreting out the truth, which is something both sides of any of these controversial issues should care about.
The truth is what should matter. So when we say we will give you one million dollars if you can prove X,Y, or Z, under mutually agreed-upon scientific conditions, I think the claimant should jump at that and know that it’s all done in the spirit of finding out the truth. The truth matters at the JREF. It’s not just a matter of each person having his or her own beliefs and everybody playing nice and going home and not really engaging. We want to engage.
Alex Tsakiris: Again, a laudable position, but we have to put it to the test a little bit. We’ll talk about the Million Dollar Challenge in just a minute. Let’s back up because I think before we can get to the Million Dollar Challenge, we have to deal with the science behind these controversial claims that we’re talking about. It sounds like you are willing and ready to engage in a substantive dialogue about the science. I hope that’s what you’ll do and I suspect that’s what you’ll do on your show as well. But are you personally ready to engage in that?
Because if you are, that’s what Skeptiko deals with every episode. We have the top researchers come on and talk about these things, so are you going to be able to talk about survival of consciousness? Are you going to be able to talk about the best researchers out there, vis-a-vis the skeptical position? Because before we can talk about the prize, which I do want to talk about, we have to talk about the science, don’t we?
D.J. Grothe: Definitely. And the science, or more broadly construed, the evidence is what matters. As you know, from Point of Inquiry which I’m glad to echo your own comment, it was a popular show, garnered a really large audience of people who enjoyed engaging – call it the cultural competition. It wasn’t just people who believed with a point of view of Point of Inquiry if you were on the show. We had all sorts of folks on and we enjoyed having important dialogues on these issues.
I plan fully for that to continue with JREF’s new show, For Good Reason, which I’ll be hosting. For Good Reason will, I anticipate, have on it all comers – people who want to discuss the best evidence for the survival of consciousness after death. Well, let’s have that conversation. It is one of the most important conversations we can have.
Ghosts. Do they exist? I think that’s not a trivial question; it’s an important conversation. It really touches to the core of so many of the central issues that should get us up in the morning.
Alex Tsakiris: I couldn’t agree more, and I think that is really the place where JREF and the skeptical community and the loyal opposition which I consider myself part of, really join forces because we’re all very intensely interested in the questions. Most people go through their day without really giving a lot of thought to these very important, fundamental questions.
D.J. Grothe: We may not agree on the answers. In fact, from conversations I’ve had with you I know that we don’t agree on all the answers. But we agree that the questions are important.
Most believers, if you’ll allow me to paint with a broad brush stoke here – most believers don’t take the claims even all that seriously. They watch Ghost Hunters or they get their paranormal fix on TV and they just walk around believing.
That’s not the same thing as a sincere investigator who believes these claims but really earnestly looks at the evidence. That’s the position I think skeptics and believers alike should take. So you’re right, Alex, in that sense – can I call it the non-skeptical community? That almost sounds like an insult. But the believer community, right?
The paranormal world and the skeptical world can join in common cause, saying these questions are important. We may disagree on the answers but the questions are important and if we engage the questions sincerely, I think we can all only benefit.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Let’s dive in a little bit and you can pull back at any point you want. Let’s talk about survival of consciousness, because as you mentioned, from a scientific standpoint it is at the core of so many of the paranormal and what you would call supernatural experiences that you care about. If you’re talking about psychics; you’re talking about ghosts; if you’re talking about a number of those things, what it really hinges on is, is it possible that our consciousness in whatever way that we might not fully understand; is it possible that consciousness survives death?
D.J. Grothe: Right. When you die are you still alive? That’s the big survival of death question or issue and call it the foundation question of so much else that’s going on in the paranormal.
You look at the history of parapsychological research, Alex; you look at say J.B. Rhine who at University of Chicago – your listeners may know J.B. Rhine as really the founder of the whole academic field of parapsychology at Duke University. When he was in Chicago at school, he was a naturalist, not a supernaturalist. He was a Darwinian. He was steeped in the views that said there is no survival of consciousness after death.
And let me tell you, that didn’t sit well with him. That mucked with his psychology. You read the documentary evidence and his journals and his writing; you see that this was a formative period where he said, “I want none of that. I really want to apply my scientific life to see if I can’t prove that consciousness can be outside of the body, which then would prove survival of the soul after death.”
He had an agenda and I don’t fault him for that because I think he actually gets kind of a bad rep from a lot of skeptics as being woo-woo or goofy or not a real scientist. He was a real scientist. It just so happens he was a real scientist with an agenda. You see, though, that that agenda is what fueled his research. He wanted to prove that the soul survives death and from that we got this whole field.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t want to get into the whole history of it, but also he really earned his stripes as a debunker by debunking a very famous psychic of the times. He really was a true researcher.
D.J. Grothe: You’re absolutely right about that. He wasn’t a charlatan himself. He may have had his biases, but Alex, don’t we all have our biases? He did real research that holds up if you look at it. Note that he never said, “My research proves ESP. My research proves in scientifically verifiable and replicable ways the survival of the soul after death, etc.” I’m just saying his research methods weren’t complete disasters. They had something to commend for them.
Alex Tsakiris: And what fascinates me and drives me more is more of the current research. I guess when you talk about survival of consciousness, the first area that I’d go is near-death experience research because it’s the place where we have the most intellectually forceful, scientifically-based, medically-based evidence of survival of consciousness.
Now I assume from where you’re sitting today that you don’t ascribe to that so what skeptical explanation do you give for the near-death experience phenomena? Because we’ve had a bunch of these folks on the show over the last month and we’ve explored just about every skeptical angle I think we can get our hands on. So where are you coming from on the near-death experience phenomena?
D.J. Grothe: Well, I wasn’t on the show to talk about NDEs. I think it’s an important topic so we can touch on it briefly now. If you look at the field of near-death experience research, you see that there are a lot of researchers who believe in the survival of consciousness after death, who disagree both on mechanism, on the process, right? So there are different – I call it quasi- or pseudo-scientific – explanations for the survival of consciousness after death.
There’s debate within the non-skeptical community, in other words, the paranormal community, about how it happens and what exactly is happening. Is it something like astral projection? Is it the little homunculus, the little self that is me that survives death? Is it a more cosmic consciousness that I’m tapping into? There’s debate. I could be more New Age or less New Age; it could sound more scientific or less scientific. But the point is there’s debate.
As a skeptic, I am not closed-minded. I would love – in fact, by definition, skeptic at least according to my definition, and I think the working definition of skeptic – is the opposite of closed-minded. It’s open-minded inquiry. In fact, if you look at the origin of word, skeptical comes from skeptics as you know. It means “just to inquire” or “to look into.”
So as a skeptic, I think we should look into these claims, even over and over again, but at some point, say after decades of research into this, if there’s no compelling evidence we can safely conclude it’s time to move on. I’m not sure that we’re at that point yet, but maybe. And I have to concede this point, Alex. Maybe that’s just because I’m kind of young at this. I haven’t spent decades looking at this research. I know other researchers have who have a skeptical view of the claims.
Alex Tsakiris: Who would you point to, D.J., and again, I don’t want to monopolize the conversation on this. It’s just something we’ve delved into quite a bit.
Do you like Michael Persinger’s explanation, God Helmet? We’ve had him on the show. Then we had an EEG expert come on who is also a skeptic but kind of totally refuted Persinger’s claim that the only explanation for a near-death experience during a time when someone has a flat EEG is that the brain activity being measured by the EEG isn’t measuring everything that’s going on. Anyway, that’s Persinger’s explanation. It doesn’t stand up.
Do you like Kevin Nelson’s explanation? REM intrusion? We had him on.
Do you like Susan Blackmore’s explanation of the tunnel? We had her on.
Michael Shermer? We haven’t had him on for a long time, but we had him on.
None of these hold up to any kind of reasonable analysis. We’ve also had the near-death experience proponents on. To me, it’s a clear-cut case of where the skeptical community just isn’t engaging with the data. So all the nice talk we’ve had before about open-minded and seeking the truth is all great. But it only matters when we put it into practice.
D.J. Grothe: I couldn’t agree more. You said a lot there so I’m going to try to grab onto a few of the points. 1) Yes, you have to engage with the claims. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m open-minded,” and then in practice be closed-minded. It’s a no-brainer. You don’t want to act like that. I agree with you there. 2) You mentioned a few kinds of skeptical dismissive approaches or ways of looking at these claims that dismiss them…
Alex Tsakiris: And it’s not dismissive. It’s explanations. These are folks that legitimately – Michael Persinger at Laurentian University, I think is quite an intelligent guy and I enjoyed the dialogue with him. He’s not at all flaky. He’s a hard worker. He publishes like crazy. He just has an explanation for what’s happening during the near-death experience because he realizes it’s a game-changer just like you said there. If there is survival of consciousness we have to look at everything differently.
I’m just offering up that when I talk to skeptics, these are the four people they pull out. Either they say Persinger or they say Kevin Nelson or they say Susan Blackmore, they say Michael Shermer. So I’m just saying that’s the skeptical explanation for near-death experience.
D.J. Grothe: Well, Alex, I’m glad that I misunderstood you and that you weren’t implying these folks were dismissing. Instead, they were offering explanations. That’s really the best thing about science. A number of people can offer explanations that hold water or don’t. You appear to think they don’t hold water. If they don’t hold water, and you and I aren’t on the same page as regards that position – if they don’t hold water it doesn’t follow that they are not engaging the subject. In fact, by definition, they are engaging the topic, maybe not to your satisfaction.
The thinking along those lines that let’s say I like most and at this point it’s just a matter of what I like and what I don’t like. I’m not a neuroscientist and I haven’t invested decades of scientific research in this. I’m a – can I use the phrase, “ardent and sincere hobbyist” in a sense like you? You’re a person who’s interested in these topics. You’re up on them. You read them. But you’re not a neuroscientist actively engaged in the field.
The person I like a lot and her explanations in this regard is Susan Blackmore. That said, I don’t think all of the research has been done on this and I think more research needs to be done. The research I would call for would probably have a different shape and form than the research you would call for.
So if you’re going to look into the NDE claims, are you going to go to a skeptical or believing neurologist? Or are you going to go to a New Age practitioner who offers past life regression seminars? One problem I see with the paranormal community is that there’s not really a standard by which you judge someone’s authority in a field, or kind of street cred, or bona fides, whatever word you want to use.
Alex Tsakiris: Of course there is. Maybe if you paint it in those kind of broad terms you can say anything you want, but when you get down to the particulars it’s the same standard that we all use. It’s are you associated with a major research institution or university? Do you publish in peer-reviewed journals? These are the standards by which everyone is judged, so I don’t know who in particular…
D.J. Grothe: I love hearing you say something along those lines but you know that you’re jutting up against a whole lot else going on in the paranormal world where you may say, “I’ll only listen to people who are at degree-granting research institutions who are actually doing research.” But a lot of folks who may believe what you’re selling, the NDE idea, will also be listening to folks who from your own vantage, by your own admission just now, have no business speaking out about it or offering explanations or teaching people about it.
So you might not ever be caught dead at a psychic fair. You might not be caught dead at – you know, it’s funny. We’re talking about near-death experiences and I’m using the phrase “caught dead at.” You might not show up at a seminar or astral projection because you, even as a believer in the survival of the soul after death, may rightly think those guys are hucksters. Those folks are charlatans or self-deceived. You surely have to admit that you’re unique in this regard or let’s at least say in the minority among people who believe in this sort of stuff.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t agree with what you’re saying because you painted such a mosaic there of different ideas. I think it really gets to the problem that so many people have, so many of the people that I know who are serious about the research have with JREF or have with the skeptical community. And that’s kind of a misunderstanding of what the moral center is.
Here we started off with a discussion on the science of near-death experience and we believe that now because maybe we’ve covered it as we can. But I’d really like to see some skeptical explanation that merits serious consideration for any of these other claims. They don’t stand up.
So you can paint it and say, “Well, I like Susan Blackmore.” Susan Blackmore’s explanation makes no sense. We could go talk to all the neurologists without asking about near-death experience, but we could ask them about Susan Blackmore’s explanation and they’d tell you it doesn’t make any sense. And I did. And I also did with Kevin Nelson. And I did with Michael Persinger. None of them make any sense. There is no “there” there in terms of the science for a skeptical explanation of things.
D.J. Grothe: So let me just jump in and talk about this in regard to evidence. You’re suggesting that Susan Blackmore or Persinger or others, and I am partial to Susan Blackmore’s take on this given just where I’m at on the topic. You’ve suggested that they need to proffer a sufficient explanation for near-death experiences or else you’re forced to believe that the near-death experiences are evidence of something supernatural or paranormal or survival of the soul after death, etc. That’s not my take on how science works…
Alex Tsakiris: Of course it is. D.J., hold on. When you have someone like Pim von Lommel who does a 10 year retrospective study, publishes it in one of the most highly regarded medical journals in the world, The Lancet, and that’s accepted as research that’s highly suggestive that consciousness survives death, that becomes one brick in the wall that someone is building for this theory. Now as more and more people add more bricks, it becomes the theory that needs to be knocked down by someone else. So we can’t play this game of:
“The burden of proof is on you.”
“No, the burden of proof is on you.”
“No, the burden of proof is on you.”
Anyone who makes a claim, a skeptical claim for example, Kevin Nelson was on the show a while back, from the University of Kentucky, a very skeptical guy. When he goes out and says that REM intrusion, that process of almost being awake, is an explanation for the near-death experience that is a claim. It’s not a counter-claim that therefore doesn’t require the same level of proof. No, it’s a scientific claim. So if that claim gets shot down, then that advances the claim that it was trying to shoot down. That’s how science works.
D.J. Grothe: I was with you right until the last clause of that sentence. Just because one person advances a view of the solar system that’s not heliocentrism and another person advances another one that’s not heliocentrism, you can shoot one down and it doesn’t mean that both of the remaining views are therefore supported. It only means that the view that’s shot down is not supported. So I was with you right until that last clause.
You’re right, if a skeptic makes a claim explaining a phenomenon, then it has to be substantiated. If it’s not, it should be dismissed. That’s the glory of science. The best ideas rise to the top.
But if a skeptical idea can’t stand on its own, it does not follow therefore that the non-skeptical or the paranormal view therefore is substantiated. There’s no connection between those two epistologically. It only means that one set of claims was not substantiated and the other either wasn’t substantiated or hasn’t yet been proven, right?
Alex Tsakiris: Right, right, I’m with you, except in this case that we’re talking about in particular – and then we’ll leave near-death experience alone – in this case, there’s a substantial amount of evidence of the theory that consciousness survives death. You do have to overcome that. At some point it does pile up.
D.J. Grothe: So one last question on this and I know you didn’t have me on the show to talk about it, but I love this topic and I look forward to getting into it much more in my career and in conversations with you and others. I think it’s really, as I mentioned earlier, the foundation question, right? It’s the thing that so many other paranormal claims are wrapped around, and therefore, I want to take it head-on and if there’s evidence that the soul survives death, I want to be the first person to buy into it if it’s real evidence and merits my attention. I would love the hell out of the idea that the soul survives death.
I’m just not going to look to the Bible as evidence or anecdotal experience as evidence as the same kind as the evidence that suggests otherwise coming from the cognitive neurosciences.
So I want to ask you a pointed question about NDEs. Do you believe – are you saying, it sounded like you were – that the scientific evidence – and you use that word a lot and I like the word – that the scientific evidence is growing for NDEs or is it overwhelming? Is the case closed? Is it a new science?
I guess what I’m asking is, the evidence we have for survival of the soul after death or even survival of the soul, is it as complete as say, the evidence that we have for evolution? Or the evidence that we have for Newtonian physics, etc.? Or quantum physics if you want to have a conversation with someone else about it? In other words, is the body of knowledge that comprehensive?
Alex Tsakiris: I think the body of knowledge is quite comprehensive with literally over 100 published research articles that support the idea, are highly suggestive – the term that scientists like to use – highly suggestive that consciousness in some way that we don’t completely understand, survives our bodily death.
And the best evidence of that is that we have people that are being monitored because they have some kind of medical emergency and we have an EEG hooked up to their head and we have an EKG hooked up to their heart. Maybe they’re even under heavy anesthesia. And then they have these remembrances, these experiences that when they come back, and we have them over and over and over again. We have the medical knowledge to know that they didn’t have any brain function.
And we know that those two things – we don’t know, but the best evidence strongly suggests that those two things are happening together. A flat EEG and some kind of conscious experience that we’re calling near-death experience. Those things are happening at the same time. That’s really the crux of it.
D.J. Grothe: I haven’t followed that evidence. I’m not persuaded by the anecdotes there, but I’m open-minded. You said there’s 100 let’s say, papers. That sounds like a big number. That’s actually a very small number in science. A very small number. But it’s something that should…
Alex Tsakiris: No, it depends on the field, right? And it depends on the quality of the…
D.J. Grothe: If it’s a new field and that’s what I was asking at earlier. If it’s a new field, 100 is a good number to suggest further research. But you have to concede then that it’s a new field and that there’s not a body of evidence that is completely nail-in-the-coffin persuasive. It’s a new field and there are questions that merit our attention. At least you seem to be admitting it’s a new field and it’s not conclusive, it’s suggestive for you.
I think scientists should get involved in this if it’s their research field. They should look into the questions more. I think the questions deserve research, but a paranormalist can’t say, “Oh, science has proven it,” because I don’t either you or I can say, “Finally. Science has proven the survival of the soul after death.” If that’s your claim, then we have to start our conversation over and go back to basics. I don’t think that’s your claim.
Alex Tsakiris: See, that almost goes into a philosophical discussion. I think we can keep it in real simple terms the way you did earlier in the conversation. It’s about seeking the truth. And if we’re going to be on the edge of seeking the truth, then we have to be comfortable with dealing in these murky waters where things aren’t perfectly clear. I think that’s…
D.J. Grothe: So true. So true. I could not agree more and this is the distinction between fringe science, some of which I believe in — I’ll say that as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation – and pseudo-science which is a different thing entirely. We stand critical of pseudo-science which is kind of fake science, quasi-science that makes claims that aren’t substantiated by science or by the best methods of science or the body of knowledge we call science. It’s not consistent with what we know about the universe. That’s pseudo-science.
Fringe science is just new science on the fringes, on the cutting edges. If there are legitimate consciousness studies, scientific research projects by scientists, I think some of those would fall into the fringe category. Some of those may well fall into the pseudo-science category. This is equally true about some of the new science coming out that might be broadly construed as trans-Humanism or some of the radical life extension work of folks like Aubrey DeGrey and others. I would consider him a fringe scientist or kind of on the cutting edge, not a pseudo-scientist, but my gosh, there are skeptics who say, “How dare you even read one of his books and be excited about the prospect because he is not consensus science.”
So I’m generally persuaded by consensus in the sciences, understanding that consensus should be overturned by new evidence. That’s the whole way science progresses. You touched on that earlier. But I’m not automatically opposed to science on the cutting edge or science on the fringes.
If all you’re suggesting, Alex, is this uncontroversial claim that some research in consciousness studies or the survival of the soul after death is on the fringes of science, then I can’t disagree with you on that point.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, let’s back up then because you mentioned a word that really stirs me in a way, and that’s this claim of pseudo-science, because so many times I’ve encountered skeptics who haul that out as some label, some magic wand that they can automatically wave across some idea that they don’t like and it will therefore go away. Let’s take people…
D.J. Grothe: Uh-huh (yes). I don’t like that, either. That’s kind of an epithet, an insult some skeptics give to ideas that don’t work for them. It just sounds very post-modern and certainly not post-modernist in regards to claims of knowledge. But you don’t deny that there is such a thing as pseudo-science.
Alex Tsakiris: By definition there is, but I want to direct the conversation over to one of the folks who I think we would probably agree is one of the more prominent skeptical researchers. He’s a guy who makes the circuit on your conferences and on very popular – especially in the UK – and that’s Dr. Richard Wiseman, who of course you’re familiar with.
D.J. Grothe: I love Richard and I want to remind myself that I wasn’t on the show to give reports on my views on various researchers or thinkers. I’m fine to have those conversations, but I also…
Alex Tsakiris: I’m not trying to put you on the spot on any particular position he’s taken, but on the broader position because I think it gets to the intellectual core or lack thereof of the skeptical position. Here’s the quote from Richard Wiseman, and if you don’t want to respond to this, you don’t have to. I think you’ll have an opinion on this. I think you will. This was in the UK’s Daily Mail. He said: “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven. But that begs the question, do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”
Now, in a later interview clarifying that on September 28, 2009, here was his clarification: “It was a slight misquote because I was using the term in a more general sense of ESP. That is, I wasn’t just talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”
So the question for you is what business are you in? Are you in the business of extraordinary claim business? Or are you in the business of “where is the science really going?” And in that sense, where is the intellectual force behind JREF? Behind the skeptical community? Because if it is the Better Business Bureau for psychics and fraudulent claims, then that’s great. If you want to just go find the psychics who are really ripping people off or the past life regression people who are ripping people off and that’s where you’re at, then that’s great.
But if you’re going to continue to make basically what are scientific position statements in saying that we don’t believe there is any “there” there when it comes to these claims, well then, I think you’re undermined by some of the very people that you point to as being the luminaries, like Richard Wiseman who says, hey, this stuff is basically already been proven.
D.J. Grothe: Well, to be clear on Wiseman’s quote, first of all, in its entirety and with his clarification, I agree. That said, let me tell you how I agree. There is in the history of parapsychological research some lines of evidence to suggest there’s something going on there.
You mentioned Ganzfeld. There might be a couple others. The expert here is Ray Hyman, a statistician, a friend, maybe this is a mischaracterization, but from my vantage he’s a friend of the parapsychology set even as he’s a skeptic because he’s so damned fair-minded and he’s corrected the skeptical community a number of times when they’ve I think wrongly…
Alex Tsakiris: That’s not been my experience, but go ahead. We’re familiar with Ray Hyman and we’ve delved into his work a little bit. He’s never agreed to come on and face Dean Radin or face any of the folks who don’t feel the way that you do. Go ahead. Let’s take him on.
D.J. Grothe: I think some of that has to do with that he’s pretty media-savvy and doesn’t want to – well, we don’t have to guess at people’s motivations but I will. How do you like that? I think Hyman just doesn’t want to engage certain kinds of claimants and he’s much more interested in a sub-set of parapsychologists who without wanting publicity and without trying to sell their books or any of that stuff, they’re just quietly doing their research. He’s done some of the big studies in a big way of a number of these parapsychology research projects.
The reason I brought him up was that he suggests to me the right approach of the skeptical community, which is to not in a knee-jerk way dismiss every project of research in parapsychology. There are skeptics – you may know of some – who would. Who would say, “Oh my God, we know there’s no such thing as ghosts so there’s no reason to go investigating it. We know there’s no such thing as psychics. So there’s no reason to have that research project.”
I think that’s the wrong approach. In fact, I don’t think that’s skeptical at all. I think that’s kind of cynical, kind of knee-jerk, you know? I call these folks knee-jerks, right? Because it’s kind of a jerky way that they automatically assume there’s not going to be any reason to do that research.
What Wiseman was getting at, or what I guess he was getting at, I haven’t spoken with him about this quote that you pulled out of a paper and asked me about, is that psychic claims, ESP claims, are not run-of-the-mill claims. They’re not the kinds of claims that you have low standards of evidence like you would in any research paper where you just want something to suggest this or that. As you were talking about earlier, no NDE researcher had said, “Aha! I published a paper that conclusively proves the survival of the soul after death.” They couch their terms as scientists do in more tentative language and they say this suggests this possibility. Here’s a reason for further research, etc.
When you’re dealing with extraordinary claims I think you want to be extra-special, rigorous, in your research. You want to have even higher standards of evidence because of the implications of wide-spread credibility in that claim. So an example here is the Wakefield Study on Vaccines, published a number of years ago in The Lancet. You mentioned The Lancet earlier.
It took The Lancet all these years – they just retracted that paper a couple days ago — the autism paper that really set off this frenzied movement of activists who mean well but don’t do well, who believe that vaccines have some relationship to autism. You have the Jenny McArthur set – or Jenny McCarthy, I guess. I don’t know, she’s a little McArthur in some ways, as well.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting statement.
D.J. Grothe: So she and her ilk are fueled by this seemingly legitimate research paper published in The Lancet that The Lancet finally retracted because they said, “Oh, shoddy evidence. We were wrong to publish it. Didn’t belong in our journal.” It should have high standards of evidence for kinds of claims that, if widely believed in, would or could negatively impact folks.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, now D.J., hold on. You’ve done a better job of defending Wiseman’s quote than anyone I’ve heard, so I have to give you kudos for that. First, let me back up and fill in a little bit on the Ray Hyman thing. First of all, Ray Hyman…
D.J. Grothe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ray Hyman. I love him, but I didn’t come on this show to debate about him. Go on.
Alex Tsakiris: You’re not, but you just said some things about Ray Hyman and I just need to say these and then we’ll just move on real quickly. I’ll give you the background. Ray Hyman was on a skeptical show – you know it – Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, specifically talking about some research. We really dug into that research. We had the researcher, Dean Radin, come on and show how Hyman was directly contradicted by the published research. Really there isn’t any question about that. Steve Novella invited Ray Hyman on. I invited Ray Hyman on. Won’t come on to…
D.J. Grothe: Just to interject and we can move on, one reason that scientists might not go on is because podcasts aren’t generally the medium to correct a scientist…
Alex Tsakiris: But he was on a podcast. He made his claim on a podcast. He made his claim on a skeptical podcast. They all sat around and chuckled, and he made some really disparaging comments about Dean Radin…
D.J. Grothe: Sure. But Skeptic’s Guide as…
Alex Tsakiris: You just said before so let me tell you from my perspective in talking to a lot of parapsychology researchers, Hyman is not held in the kind of high esteem that you alluded to at all. So that’s my position on it. He needs to answer up to the claims that he made that don’t seem to hold water and that’s where we’re at.
But there’s no need to monopolize the conversation on a guy who isn’t here. But I’d be happy to have him on here.
On the Wiseman thing, I have to say, you did a very good job of defending it. But I think the counter to that is that the whole purpose of science is to remove us from our subjectivity, to remove us from our biases. We don’t want to introduce biases back in. We don’t want to say subjectively what is an extraordinary claim, subjectively what is extraordinary proof.
That’s why we set up peer review; that’s why we set up journals, so they can decide that. The proper mechanism is just exactly what you describe. The Lancet publishes; The Lancet retracts. It’s not appropriate for Wiseman to suggest that there is this other standard that’s beyond science that is extraordinary. Now, I understand where he’s coming from…
D.J. Grothe: You’re actually bringing up a big debate in the philosophy of science. Not the kind of debate that scientists who publish research papers have, but the debate that philosophers of science have when they say, “Is science, cross-science enough? Is it enough to just do our research without thinking of the implications of it?” That’s a big ethical debate.
I think when you’re dealing with doing research that deals with these big questions, I think there’s a responsibility there to make damn well sure you’re on the right track and not let your own biases – you’re talking about removing the biases – but not let your own biases like fear of death or desire to connect with deceased loved ones or any of that, let you play a little fast and loose with the evidence.
Especially when the implications of such wide spread belief, in my view – I know you don’t share this – are harmful to the mass of people –we’re removed from the science right now, you understand — to the extent that you believe that hook, line and sinker, I think your life is diminished. That’s a hard claim. And that’s worth another debate.
So if you’re going to publish in a scientific paper because the ancient religious text, they’ve kind of lost their luster and there’s nothing groovier for someone than to say, “Aha! Science says the soul survives death.” Because when religion says it, it no longer matters because no one really buys religion or at least a certain segment of our population would rather get it from science than from religion.
Well, if you’re going to use the authority of “science” to support the claim that we have a soul and that it survives death, you’ve got to be damn well sure that you’re doing the best research. So I’m all for higher standards of evidence because when you jump through those hoops, mister, you change my mind. Then I’m a person who’s going around preaching survival of the soul after death.
Alex Tsakiris: See, I was right with you there, cheering you on, until the end and then I think you proved my point. When you venture into that realm of embracing the subjective measure of what’s culturally appropriate for extraordinary, then I think you’ve lost your way. That’s where I think we have to hold onto science and value science so dearly because it strips that away and says, no, we just want the data in the best form that we can get it, in its clearest path towards nudging a little bit closer to this truth.
If as we’re getting closer it just gets further away, well, then, we have to embrace that, too, right? Because all this research might just reveal greater and greater mystery, not less mystery. And we have to embrace that as part of the process, too.
So that’s why I’m against this idea that we need to layer on top of the scientific method and the scientific institution that we have for finding the truth. We have to layer on top of that something subjective called “extraordinary claim and extraordinary proof.” It just gets into this silly debate.
“No, what you’re saying is extraordinary.”
“No, what you’re saying is extraordinary.”
And we lose everything.
D.J. Grothe: I’m all for evidence changing minds. That’s the good part of science. That’s something I celebrate in science. You don’t get that a whole lot in other ways of looking at the world. But are you suggesting that the very best evidence is really pointing to the existence of the soul and the survival of the soul after death? And if you’re suggesting that – and I think that’s an audacious claim, Alex – but prove it to me, if not now, off the air or something.
If you’re suggesting that, then why the heck hasn’t there just been a whole world-view shift among all scientists in this field? Or would you just chalk that up to how they’ve biased themselves and they’re closed-minded to this plain-as-day research that’s so conclusive? What I’m asking is, is it conclusive or is it merely suggestive? There’s a lot of stuff that’s suggestive that is not borne out by further research.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it’s highly, highly suggestive and for me personally, it’s convincing. It’s to the point where it is convincing that that is a reality.
D.J. Grothe: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: Now, to your second point…
D.J. Grothe: Explain to me the phrase, “to me personally it’s convincing.” Why is it convincing to you and not to other people? Does that have to do with your background, your own motivations, your own desires? Or does it have to do with that you’re just better at looking at the evidence than the other scientists?
Alex Tsakiris: No, I was really speaking of it in terms of the only way the we can. I mean, you were talking about how scientists like to couch things in careful terms and say “highly suggestive,” and “probabilistic,” and all that.
But then at the end of the day, when each of us put our head on the pillow, we have our beliefs and hopefully for many of us who are skeptical by nature, those beliefs are in flux. So they change. We can look at points in our lives when we believed or were convinced of one thing and then we were changed and we’re convinced of something else. I’m talking about that more as an internal, weighing of the evidence. I am convinced of survival of consciousness by the evidence because that’s what drives me. That’s what convinces me.
D.J. Grothe: But wait. Weren’t you convinced before you looked at the evidence? Or were you like a skeptic of the survival of soul after death until you read these research papers?
Alex Tsakiris: I was unconvinced. I was very unconvinced, yes.
D.J. Grothe: Well, if that’s true, and I have no reason to doubt that it’s true, that’s at least a point in your favor. I’ll give you that.
Alex Tsakiris: To your other point and then I do want to talk about the Million Dollar Challenge before our time runs out. I appreciate you engaging this dialogue. It’s everything that I could have hoped and it’s really kudos to you because I have to tell you, as I try and engage folks who claim to be in the skeptical community, very few of them are really willing to engage in these questions. I don’t think these are tough questions. I think these are core questions. I like the way that we are able to engage in it. I wish there was more of this kind of dialogue out there, not only between you and I but between so many proponents, believers and skeptics.
Having said that little stump speech, let me get back to your other point in terms of why am I convinced and others are not convinced? Now, of course I can’t answer that completely but I did get some interesting insights into that just by doing this Skeptiko show and interviewing so many of these really smart people.
Michael Persinger, who is just lauded by so many skeptics because they really haven’t delved into his research very much and just know this God Helmet thing, say, “Oh, the God Helmet, yeah, there it is. God Helmet, God Helmet.” Talk to Michael Persinger and you’ll see that in his lab he believes that he’s demonstrated telepathy. So he hooks two people up to the God Helmet and he sends a light flash at one and it appears in the EEG pattern of the person in the other room. He’s repeated it. So there he is saying, “Yeah, telepathy. Anomalous communication. Yeah, I’ve proven it.”
Anyway, you talk to someone like that and then you get to their explanation for near-death experience, and as brilliant as this guy is, and as so much smarter he is than I, his explanation doesn’t hold water. It only takes me a couple of phone calls to EEG experts.
One I found is a very skeptical guy, as well. It’s such a paradox. So the guy I find to respond to Persinger’s comment that the EEG is only measuring the surface of the brain and that’s why near-death experiencers with a flat EEG, that’s what’s going on. It’s really deep in the brain. It took me, like I say, a couple of phone calls. I found a guy who’s one of the leading EEG experts in the country and like I say, is skeptical of near-death experience and he says, “Well, no, that’s not true. That’s not how EEG works, and there’s numerous studies both in animals and people that would refute that.” But the EEG expert, he doesn’t know the rest of the research.
So to answer your question, I’ll try to be more concise here. Folks just haven’t engaged in the data. If you engage in the near-death experience data and you’re really open-minded about it, you can really only come to one conclusion.
D.J. Grothe: So we’re in a sense back to square one where you’re chasing around certain claims and certain explanations and you’re telling me why you refute some, accept others. You remind me of the founder of -can I call it “the cult”-that I was in as a young teenager. Because you said, “Look, all these skeptics, they’ve not looked at the evidence.” And some of these even believers, when they disagree, they haven’t looked at all the evidence. But Alex, you alone have looked at all the evidence or maybe not uniquely…
Alex Tsakiris: But D.J., that’s not at all what I said. I don’t know how else you could do it, D.J. What I’ve done and what I’ve tried to present on Skeptiko is just looking at the best evidence on both sides of the issue. That’s all I’ve done. I’ve had a lot of proponents of near-death experience who are solid researchers on the show. I just had Dr. Jeffrey Long, who’s published the most comprehensive near-death experience research ever. Ten years to compile.
I had Dr. Peter Fenwick from the UK on. I had Dr. Penny Sartori on. But here’s my point to respond to what you’re saying. These people don’t disagree with me. They say, “Yeah.” They’re agreeing. They’re saying, “Yeah, when anyone looks at all the evidence, this is the conclusion we’re coming to.” So this isn’t my unique position.
D.J. Grothe: Well, they disagree with one another about mechanism and process and…
Alex Tsakiris: Who disagrees on those things? Who disagrees?
D.J. Grothe: And moreover — I’ll just finish the thought – you also disagree with all of the skeptics you say you, unlike all the skeptics, you’ve looked at all the evidence and the skeptics just have not. So they find Persinger’s explanation just too convenient.
They pull it out of their hat and they say, “Ah, magnets and part of the brain, whatever. There. That’s the explanation and I’m sticking to it.”
And you say, “No, no.” Alex, unique among all those folks, you’ve taken the…
Alex Tsakiris: Not unique. Not unique, D.J. I never claimed to be unique. My…
D.J. Grothe: Well, you were contrasting yourself to all those skeptics. That’s my point. If someone wants to know the answer to the question I asked you, which was, “Why do you believe it but science doesn’t?” Or science in general except for whom I think you would admit would be a fringe group, not a – if you don’t want to use the word pseudo-scientific group – but they’re on the cutting edge of science, you might say, of believers in NDEs and the survival of the soul after death, well, they’re in the minority.
So the majority of scientists who look into those questions don’t believe as you, and your explanation is that they haven’t looked at the evidence but you have. In my cheeky way, that was the comparison I was making with the founder of my beloved cult.
Alex Tsakiris: We would have to unpack that and take another 15 minutes to do it, which I don’t think is worthwhile, but I don’t think you’re characterizing it correctly. We’ll see. You can follow-up with me and tell me how you think. And I’m happy to cooperate with you either on this show or on your new show, For Good Reason, and…
D.J. Grothe: For Good Reason, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: …and explain to me how you would go about seeking the truth, which you’ve stated was your goal. I don’t see any other way to do it. You look at folks who have published peer-reviewed articles on this topic and you sort through them as best you can, finding the best experts to comment on those. That’s the way that it’s done. So I don’t think my methodology is different than how you would do it. It’s the only way to do it. How else would you do it?
D.J. Grothe: But you’re saying that it’s different than how all the skeptics that you mentioned do it. You’re suggesting that none of them have looked at the evidence like you have, and I thought that took a little chutzpah and I was just responding to it.
Alex Tsakiris: If you, D.J., or anyone who listens to Skeptiko, what you’ll hear is not my pronouncements on these but directly reaching the researchers. That’s what I’ve tried to do, is this thread of dialogues. So when Kevin Nelson claims REM intrusion explains near-death experience, I don’t refute his claims. I call on another expert in the field like Dr. Jeffrey Long, to say, “Yeah, I know the guy well. I recruited the subjects for his experiment, actually. And if you look at the data, you’ll find that 40 percent of the people going in didn’t even have REM intrusion.” So you have a point-by-point reputation of his claim.
Then I said separately from that, D.J., if I listen…
D.J. Grothe: Yeah, I know nothing about REM intrusion. I’m not familiar with that.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m saying I, as an individual, listen to those two arguments and make my judgment and say, “Gee, this guy’s explanation makes more sense to me and that’s the way I’m going.” I think that’s how everyone does it. I don’t find anything particularly cultish about that. To me, that’s reasoned, critical thinking on these issues.
D.J. Grothe: Boy oh boy, I have to clarify something because otherwise it would be a sandstorm. 1) Easy to clarify, you are saying that’s not how everyone does it. You’re saying that’s not how the skeptics do it. You’re saying you look at all the evidence and the skeptics don’t…
Alex Tsakiris: No, I’m saying that’s how anyone who really engages in critical thinking does it.
D.J. Grothe: …and by implication you’re saying all those skeptics you mentioned aren’t engaging in critical thinking. I was kind of challenging that with you because it’s a cheeky – it takes some balls to say, “I, unlike all these other researchers, I’m looking at the evidence and they’re not.” Okay, that’s point one.
2) About the cult comment, in no sense was I saying you are cultic or like you’re in a cult. So don’t walk away from our conversation saying, “My God, D.J. said I was like a cult leader.”
Alex Tsakiris: No, I heard what you said and I just don’t think it really stands up. Let’s move on because we’ve really gone for a long time here and I do want to talk about the Million Dollar Challenge. I want to hear where you’re going with it and where you plan on taking it. I heard on another show, and I think it was on Steve Novella’s show that you mentioned it is more of a rhetorical prize than a real prize. I want to make sure that you understand the criticisms of the Million Dollar Challenge.
D.J. Grothe: Before you get to those, I just want to address what you just said. I don’t want to let that stand. There is a rhetorical aspect of that, but rhetorical in the sense that it is for public speech. Not rhetorical in the sense that oftentimes in common usage you say, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that. That was rhetorical.” I don’t mean rhetorical in that sense.
Rhetoric, which is public persuasion? That’s in the sense that the Million Dollar Challenge is a PR vehicle to raise consciousness or awareness of the public about their responsibility to take these claims seriously enough to look at the evidence and not buy them hook, line, and sinker without looking at the evidence.
Also, it’s a chief means for us to challenge irresponsible claimants. That hopefully fleshes out what you heard on Novella’s show. The Million Dollar Challenge is real. There’s a million dollars for the asking if anyone can show evidence of their claims, supernatural, paranormal, parapsychological, the kinds of claims that we would challenge as skeptics.
If you can prove us wrong, the million is yours. It’s a real million. It’s not just a PR vehicle. Of course, I fully acknowledge that as an educational non-profit, we are using the Million Dollar Challenge as a way to get public attention on these matters or to do public relations about these matters. As such, it’s really the chief means that we do that.
Alex Tsakiris: This isn’t like the X Prize or anything. This isn’t going to send rockets into space or build more fuel efficient cars. The problem is, it isn’t intended to advance anything. It’s just intended to draw attention to your scientific position, which in and of itself, I think is problematic. Why do we need a position? We’ve just had this very interesting, engaging dialogue for an hour on real science. I can’t imagine in the way that the JREF Million Dollar Challenge has been used, that that Million Dollar Challenge would ever come into play on any of the topics we’ve talked about.
We just mentioned Michael Persinger, him thinking that in his laboratory he has proven telepathy. I can’t ever imagine him approaching JREF on a scientific basis and saying, “Hey, I’ve established this. Go ahead. Let’s set up the terms for my challenge.”
D.J. Grothe: If he doesn’t, I wonder why he doesn’t. Persinger has some interesting things to say. And if he thinks…
Alex Tsakiris: Because there isn’t scientific legitimacy to the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. I’ve talked to all these guys. None of them think it’s legitimate. Maybe you can change that. Maybe as the new President and with your openness and your integrity, maybe you can usher in a new era where it does become something like the X Prize. But right now…
D.J. Grothe: I think you have a good understanding of where we’ve gone with it and where we want to go with it. I want to flesh that out a bit. 1) You’re right. It is not how science gets done. The Million Dollar Challenge is a million dollar prize or offer that the JREF makes available to claimants, most of whom aren’t scientists or approaching this in the spirit of science.
They’re paranormal or psychic or some other kind of claimant — a housewife, who thinks she has the ability to dowse and she got some media attention or something and she’s making a buck on it. We say, “Prove it. If you do, you get our million.” If she says, “Oh, no, I don’t want the million,” then we have to question motives or be suspicious there. If everything’s on the table we say, “No, it will be by mutually agreed upon scientific conditions that we can test these sorts of claims.”
You’re right that a scientist in a lab looking at some of these questions may, for over-determined reasons, not approach the JREF for that million dollars; one of which is that’s not generally how science is done. You don’t try to prove a scientific claim in order to get a million dollars. You publish something in a peer-reviewed journal. That’s how science is done.
2) Another reason is that the standards of evidence are actually lower in some of the sciences, like Richard Wiseman mentioned in that quote, than they would be for the million dollars. If we’re going to give away a million dollars, man, although some skeptics may disagree with me on this, I would love to award the million dollars to someone.
I think it would be a great day for science if someone proved conclusively some paranormal or psychic claim. Not only would the million dollars be well-spent, but it would change the world as we know it. It would change physics. There would be a Nobel Prize awarded for it.
If a person passed the preliminary tests, many of which you have tens of thousands of dollars as awards or prizes – and then passed the Million Dollar Challenge, man, it would change everything. I’d love for the JREF to be a part of that.
It just so happens after decades of looking into this sort of stuff as individual researchers and then the last 13 years of the James Randi Educational Foundation, we have not found any evidence to support the claims. In fact, the vast majority – I hope this changes, and this is one of the things we want to change – but heretofore, the vast majority of people who have tried out for the Million Dollar Challenge just have not even really gotten past phase one, so to speak. They haven’t shown really any reason to advance and often by their own admission. They say, “Oh well, I just had a bad day. I know I got that completely wrong.” They move on with their lives.
Alex Tsakiris: D.J., I think if you can raise the Million Dollar Challenge to the level that you’re talking about and bring transparency and openness in the way that you’re talking about it, I think you will have done a great service to the skeptical community in general. You might even turn this thing into a valuable tool. I think when you get to that point, it’ll be really interesting to see what happens, because that’s the other criticism.
My criticism of it is that it isn’t really scientific and it’s sometimes used by skeptics in an inappropriate way to claim that scientists who are making claims that seem to refute some of the skeptical positions, that they’re not to be believed because they haven’t stepped forward for the Million Dollar Challenge. I think the way you framed it up, I think it is very true and very accurate and it’s a useful tool and you’re the guy to do it.
D.J. Grothe: Let me just rejoin to this. The criticism you just offered of the Million Dollar Challenge is legit. If some people conceive of the Million Dollar Challenge as the way science works, in other words, to advance our scientific understanding in this field, be challenged for a million dollars. Science is not a cage match, despite the fact that you put some big personality scientists in a room and they fight, science doesn’t work that way.
The Million Dollar Challenge is done in the spirit of science. It’s done looking at the evidence but it is a vehicle of a non-profit educational foundation to raise public consciousness and awareness about these important questions. Leading scientists who are skeptics, kind of on our side of the fence, Ray Hyman is one of them, shares those exact criticisms of the Million Dollar Challenge.
I think they’re legit but I’m unapologetic about that. We’re not a scientific body. We don’t have teams of scientists in the employ of the JREF. We’re a non-profit educational foundation that cares about advancing critical thinking in society. We just so happen to put a million of our dollars on the table to anyone who can prove under mutually agreed-upon scientific conditions, his or her supernatural or paranormal claim.
Alex Tsakiris: What about openness and transparency? Tell us. That’s another criticism that been levied that you can address. Is that something you will address?
D.J. Grothe: I’m proud of the transparency so far and we want there to be even more transparency in the following ways. The claimants, when they apply, in short order – although I’m kind of letting the cat out of the bag – in the months ahead we want to have a running public display of all the claimants and the progress of their challenges and their applications. We want to automate the application process because we just aren’t following the very basic guidelines of the application process. So we’re going to have, hopefully, more automation in the application process.
If you think you have a talent, ability, a supernatural power; if you think your little gizmo magnetically ages wine to make it indistinguishable from a 40 year old merlot or you think that you have an electronic gadget that increases your ESP; whatever the claim, the supernatural or paranormal claim, you fill out the application and begin the process to go after this million dollars. We think it’s going to be an even better tool than it’s been in the past to get the best claimants out there and going for the million dollars.
If you also notice that we look around and challenge certain claimants in our society with the million dollars, I think that will be an important new direction as well. One example here, Alex, just off the top of my head, is there are a number of nursing colleges in the United States that I think most skeptics would be appalled at finding out and many fair-minded people who might not self-identify as skeptics would be appalled to find out they teach as part of their medical curricula what’s called “healing touch.”
Alex Tsakiris: Therapeutic touch.
D.J. Grothe: Therapeutic touch. Nurses to go into the patient’s bedside and gingerly…
Alex Tsakiris: That’s been investigated with science, not with the Million Dollar Challenge. Again, I’m with you 100 percent; I think moving things in the direction of openness does…
D.J. Grothe: It needs to be investigated with science, you’re right. I think there hasn’t been enough investigation to merit being so widely applied. I think it’s just a popular thing…
Alex Tsakiris: Well, believing in science…
D.J. Grothe: …but I’ll just finish this one point. If a claimant says, “What I’m doing has more than palliative effect, what supernatural medical intervention I’m doing can help heal you.” I love the idea of calling some of these people who are making a big buck on these sorts of claims, calling them out. Or a nationally prominent psychic who…
Alex Tsakiris: D.J., call out the nationally – hold on. You’ve got to be able to separate this out. Again, I’m with you. I love everything you’re saying up until you get to a point. I mean, the nationally prominent psychic, yeah, draw them out. The televangelist, draw them out. You’ll never get them to agree to it, but that’s fine.
But when you start talking about therapeutic touch, hey… is its real? The only way you’re ever going to know is through some study done over years, hundreds of patients, multiple kinds of controls… to diminish the scientific question down to this gag gift of scientific prizes. I think it’s a detriment to a science. I think you have to be really careful how you use that tool. Why not just do what you said…
D.J. Grothe: You’re absolutely right that the way to really ferret out the truth about therapeutic touch is years if not decades of research. I don’t think that research has been done, yet it’s being proffered at all of these nursing colleges.
So a way for us as an educational non-profit in the public’s interest to raise awareness about this, is maybe to challenge practitioners who are making money on something that science says is as of yet untested. Now, you’re right. They will likely say, “Oh, leave me alone. My life was fine until you started bothering me. I’m a nice nurse. Or a nice dean of a nursing college.”
Alex Tsakiris: But that’s not the point. The point is that as you just admitted, the vehicle that you have isn’t the right vehicle to establish whether Jane Doe, therapeutic touch practitioner, is efficacious in what she does. So you’re not…
D.J. Grothe: It’s a great vehicle to raise the public’s awareness about these questions and so…
Alex Tsakiris: But not if it’s not fair in seeking the truth, which goes back to an hour ago, what we said you’re all about. If you’re really all about seeking the truth then you have to hold to that and not be tempted to be using some kind of trick or stunt that might draw attention but doesn’t really nudge us closer to the truth.
Look, do what you just said for the Million Dollar Challenge and it’ll be a huge step forward. You’ll have hundreds of applicants. They’ll be online for everyone to review. People will be able to see how they go through the process, whether they’re treated fairly. That’s all you need to do. You don’t need to go call anybody out. That’s the problem with the Pigasus Award and how it’s been so misused. Why would we call out scientists?
D.J. Grothe: The Pigasus is a kind of funny way that the JREF has historically highlighted some nonsense.
But you’re right. The Million Dollar Challenge is not going to be the only way that new research is advanced in some of these fields. In fact, the Million Dollar Challenge does not fuel new research. What it does is challenge existing claims. So if someone is making an unsubstantiated claim, I think they’re fair game. In the end, that engagement actually advances the truth-seeking we’re all talking about because we’re able to engage on those claims rather than just ignoring it or saying, “Well, hopefully science will get around to it at some point and look into these claims.”
So with therapeutic touch as the example, I think the Million Dollar Challenge could in fact hasten science as the big institution it is, into substantiating or otherwise evaluating therapeutic touch claims. And if they can’t be substantiated, there’s no reason in the world that such services should be offered and even paid for by some insurance companies in nursing colleges across the United States.
Alex Tsakiris: Complicated issue. It’s where we really differ in terms of what really, truly advances science and science education.
And as a final thought because it was brought up, you know the problem with the Pigasus Award is, we don’t need to be calling out and ridiculing scientists because we don’t agree with their ideas. If you find methods that are in error or something like that – the one that we’ve dug into the furthest was the Pigasus Award was given to Rupert Sheldrake. He’s kind of a friend of the show. He’s been on many times on Skeptiko.
You know, just independently, I had a student at the University of London who did a dissertation. I didn’t know where this kid was coming from, but he calls me up, he’s doing a dissertation on Rupert Sheldrake and finds what we all who have looked into it know is that he was treated very unfairly. Not just by the skeptical community but by the scientific community in general.
So is there ever a retraction? Is the Pigasus Award ever proven wrong? They were certainly wrong about Charles Tart. They were certainly wrong about Rupert Sheldrake. Is there ever any room for correcting mistakes? And that’s the problem. That’s where it doesn’t advance science. It doesn’t advance science education. It just gets people polarized and entrenched and feeds the beast of uncritical thinking disguised as skepticism.
D.J. Grothe: I don’t know enough about Sheldrake’s kind of personal narrative, his intellectual history and his engagement with other folks in his field to be able to agree with you or not. But you were conflating in my view his reception in science with his getting an award from a non-profit that poked fun at him a little. The Pigasus does that. The Pigasus Awards poke fun at what the JREF thinks are irresponsible researchers or others who aren’t going in the direction we think good science goes, but that’s another show. That’s another debate.
It is not certainly the chief means by which we raise awareness about these sorts of issues. There are different approaches for different audiences. You might engage in high-minded research sometimes and you might have laugh-a-minute kind of poking fun of some other folks at other times. Both approaches are valid for different audiences. Here’s an example. James Randi refers to paranormalists as “peddlers of woo-woo,” right? That’s a term that’s taken off. A lot of people use that term. It is somewhat disparaging, I think. But there’s room and reason to sometimes disparage irresponsible claimants.
If you’re going to engage in the world of science, you don’t call someone you disagree with a peddler of woo-woo. But the JREF doesn’t only engage in the world of science. We try to educate the public about claims and when talking with ordinary, everyday folks, you use a different approach that might have more of a promise to meet new publics, to have more impact. So just as Richard Dawkins, to take in example, may sometimes refer to the religious as “faith heads,” which is kind of disparaging, he’ll other times engage in a high-minded debate with a believer. It just goes to show you there are different approaches for different times.
Alex Tsakiris: Boy, D.J., you’ve circled us back now to the beginning of this interview and my question, “Are you ready for this?” I don’t know, I just greatly admire the openness that you’re bringing to this and the intellectual force you’re bringing to it.
But having said that, I have to say that the last part of your argument I think completely falls apart. In the area of the competition for the cultural mindset, Dawkins is fair game to square off with believers when they’re talking about ideas and philosophies. In the area of science, James Randi is completely inappropriate to use those kind of disparaging comments when what we’re really trying to do is get away from that and get down to the data.
What we really want to do is engage in substantive dialogue, like we’ve just begun to do here, about the data. About the best way to approach the data. The best way to critically think about the data. There doesn’t have to be a lot of personality involved in it.
D.J. Grothe: Alex, the debate you’re talking about there being between the skeptical and the community and the paranormal community or the believer community or whatever — I haven’t really come up with a term to describe your side of the fence. The debate between those two communities is also the same debate that is now happening and should happen within the skeptical community. So to what extent do we feel comfortable telling someone we think is full of it that they are full of it or do we complain in a scientific way and say, “Oh, the evidence doesn’t bear out your conclusion, etc.”?
Alex Tsakiris: It’s not a matter of semantics and it’s not a matter of political correctness. It’s about engaging with the data. D.J., we engaged a little bit on the near-death experience data. The only way to engage it is the way that we talked about. You take the best research you can find and you compare and contrast. You weigh the evidence. You critically think about it and you arrive at some level of certainty about your conclusion. That’s it. It’s real simple. And that’s what we’re all really trying to do, those of us who are skeptical but open-minded.
D.J. Grothe: And that’s the direction the JREF is going. I think that’s a heritage of the JREF thus far and we’re only going to build on that and move further in this direction. The evidence is ultimately what matters to an educational foundation. That’s what matters first and foremost, but other things also matter to an educational non-profit, and that is its mission to educate the public about critical thinking methods and what the best science says about these sorts of claims. The evidence is so important but also the way that you engage the public.
Hence our discussion on strategy as opposed to just talking about the evidence. When you’re a researcher in your lab, you don’t have to ever think about strategy. You just think about the research, the evidence. But when you’re trying to bring that evidence to a wide audience and you’re trying to educate the public about what the science says, or what the best evidence says about these sorts of claims, then you have to not only think about the evidence, but also about the strategy. I’m here to express to you that that JREF is thinking about those strategies even as we hold our commitment to the evidence as utmost.
Alex Tsakiris: D.J., you might just be the best hope for the skeptical community going forward. I certainly have to commend JREF for hiring you. It was a great, great find. We certainly wish you the best of luck.
Tell us real quickly what’s coming up for you and for JREF in the near future that folks should know about.
D.J. Grothe: Okay, I’ll tell you that. And I’ll also say that kind of ringing endorsement is just what it will take to get all the skeptics to say, “Oh my God, did we hire a plant from the paranormal community?”
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, cheer you to death, right?
D.J. Grothe: Exactly. I guess I will share this anecdote. When I first got started with the Center for Inquiry a decade ago, I kid you not, Alex, a rumor went around a small circle of folks that I was actually a plant from the religious right. So I can’t wait to brace myself for the possibility of people thinking, “My God, Alex likes D.J. so much, D.J. must be a paranormalist.”
Alex Tsakiris: You’ll get it, I’m sure.
D.J. Grothe: Okay, what’s coming up next? In March the JREF is having its Skeptics of the Caribbean Cruise, if you’re thinking Pirates of the Caribbean. Randi and myself and others along with a group of 80 or 90 skeptics, grassroots skeptic folks, are going to take a 10-day cruise in the Caribbean. That sounds like a vacation because it is, but it’s also a great way for skeptics to get together, build community, talk about these issues.
And I’ll tell you, just on the previous point you were talking about when we were getting into strategy versus just looking at the evidence? The thing that excites me the most about the skeptical world right now is this burgeoning grassroots movement that skeptics in the pub everywhere, where evidence is what’s debated and talked about.
You would be welcome at any one of these across the country, Alex. Even as a believer, you show up, you say, “I want to talk about NDEs and here’s my evidence for it.” These are open-minded inquirers who really want to engage. You’re not going to be thrown out of the joint because you care about the questions. You belong. Now, it just so happens that the people who come to these sorts of events are skeptics, so there’s a community-building aspect as well.
What else is on the horizon? Of course, there’s the Amazing Meeting this July. We think it will be our largest yet. Many of us think it’s the best lineup we’ve had in years, if ever, for the Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. We’ve recently expanded conferences internationally into the UK and later this year into Australia. At the Amazing Meeting in Vegas this July, it looks like we’re going to have a big to-do as regards the Million Dollar Challenge.
Hell, maybe at one of these sorts of meetings or one of our regional things we get you involved to some extent. It would be fun to engage and not only fun but I think it would advance what we both care about, which are the questions.
Alex Tsakiris: I’d be happy to be part of the loyal opposition.
D.J. Grothe: You said that just like we planned on. [laughs] Just joking.
Alex Tsakiris: D.J., certainly best of luck with that going forward. Again, thank you so much for not only joining me today, but for representing the kind of dialogue that can be difficult but can still advance critical thinking. I hope that’s what we did today.
D.J. Grothe: Yes. Thank you very much, Alex. Fun conversation as usual.
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