43. From the Desk of James Randi

Chronicles the email exchange between Skeptiko host, Alex Tsakiris and noted Skeptic, James Randi regardingDogsThatKnow experiment.

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[audio: http://content.blubrry.com/skeptiko/skeptiko-2008-05-09-55191.mp3]

Announcer: On this episode of skeptiko, James Randi’s email trail:


“You appear to think that your needs are uppermost on my schedule.” How I implied that, I don’t know. “What would give you that impression? Looking into a silly dog claim is among my lowest priority projects. When I’m prepared to give you some time, I’ll let you know.There are some forty plus persons ahead of you.”



Announcer: Stay with us for skeptiko.




Alex: Welcome to skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on today’s show, I wanted to take some time and talk about an email exchange I’ve been having with none other than Mr. James Randi, noted skeptic and sometimes debunker of all things paranormal or non-fitting in the current scientific paradigm.


This exchange that I had started back on April 17, after I released the first Dogs That Know video – that, I think, most of you are familiar with by now – showing the work that we’re doing in replicating the experiment done by Rupert Sheldrake to show that some dogs may have an unexplained ability to tell when their owners are coming home.


So, I get an email from Randi. <laughter> It’s very short: “Apply for the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.” Period. That’s all it says.


I’ve posted the first part of the next email, but I’m going to post the full thing if you don’t want to hear me read this and hear my commentary of it. You can just go to the skeptikoblog and read it yourself. There are some new parts that haven’t been posted, that I’m going to post, that are really pretty good.


So, my response to that was immediate, on the same day. I said, “Let’s do it.” Then I said, “Per our conversation on skeptiko, I think we’re in agreement that the testing of the telepathic dog should be done by qualified researchers.” Then I go on to explain that I’ve contacted Dr. Clive Wynne at the University of Florida. I go over a little bit of his credentials, and I point out in particular that he’s very skeptical of Sheldrake’s work and he considers himself a hardcore skeptic. He’s been published in Michael Shermer’s eSkeptic Magazine and Skeptic Magazine, so he’s not like a guy who’s predisposed to believe these claims.


Finally, I end up by asking, “Will the results of this research with Dr. Wynne be acceptable to you and JREF?” I didn’t get an immediate reply, and then on April 23, I sent a following email just saying, “Hey, by the way, a second video has been released,” and I gave him a link to the second video that I think some of you have seen and some of you haven’t. I’m going to include it as part of this post so you’ll have a link to that, as well.


The next day, I received a reply from Mr. Randi. I should point out one minor point that I mentioned in my first email was that I advised him that I planned to make all my correspondence with him open and public. I wanted him to be aware of that and not say anything that he didn’t feel comfortable being in the public. So, the first line of his reply here is, “My correspondence on behalf of JREF is ALWAYS been public and open. This need not be restated.” That’s just classic Randi. Then he says, “Yet another video? This is not evidence. It is selected data.” I don’t know how he would know that it’s selected data, but that’s okay. “I await a formal, designed test.”



He goes on to say, “One statement on Dr. Wynne’s page does not make sense.” Then he includes this quote in it that has a typo. This actually appeared on my page. I just left out one word of a long quote I had done of Dr. Wynne, which if you ever see any correspondence with Randi, this is a recurring theme – any kind of grammatical error or any slight little nitpick he can get. He likes to point these things out.


Then he goes on to say, “I will have to reach Dr. Wynne for an exchange before I can comment further, and I’m currently occupied with very serious discussions on other matters, having just returned from the UK where I have been negotiating a contract to present a TV series there in which Dr. Sheldrake will assuredly be asked to participate.” Now, I don’t know what that has to do with anything other than the first part that he has yet to reach Dr. Wynne, but this disjointed kind of exchange goes on, and you’ll hear a lot more of it in the future.


I replied the next day, and I said, “Let me know when your vetting of Dr. Wynne is complete.” “Please complete this in two weeks,” I ask. “We are also in contact with other researchers and plan to form a panel of animal behavior experts. I will advise you as other researchers join the project.”


Now, that same day I got a reply, and he says, “Do we have an application on this claim?”This kind of ticked me off a little bit, because I had made it pretty clear in my earlier email that I was proposing that we rely on the independent research of Dr. Clive Wynne. I had forwarded all that information and he was going to vet it and all that stuff, and now he’s switching gears on me and switching over to the old “application” thing.


So, I fired him back an email right away: “No, you’re going to rely on real scientists, trained in observing animal behavior. As you stated during our interview, this is superior to the test that you might hobble together. We would not want to wind up with another Richard Wiseman style botched debunking.” Oh, it’s a little bit of a heated email, and I wish I would have phrased that slightly differently, but I was kind of aggravated that we were going down this one path and then he immediately switches over to this “application” thing.


Here is his reply, “No application, no interest. Goodbye.” That was on April 25…concise. <laughter> Here is a longer email that I sent him back a few days later:


Dear Mr. Randi,


I certainly understand your desire to control the terms under which you offer the Million Dollar Challenge, but the real issue is ‘are Sheldrake’s claims truthful.’ I’m offering a way to answer that question without risking your million dollars. You’ve sought to enhance your reputation by disparaging Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.


You’ve ridiculed him with your Pigasus Award, questioned his ethics/competence, and advanced dubious counter claims against his research. All of this has been done in order to draw attention to you and your position.


Now I’m offering a way to put your claims to test at my expense. I propose you abide by your earlier offer to appear naked in Piccadilly Circus if research indicates Rupert Sheldrake’s original research was correct. Given the personal attacks you’ve suffered upon Sheldrake, this public humiliation would seem to be an appropriate penance, and if you’re worried about cost, I’ll even pay for your airfare to London.


As far as the research that will establish whether the Dogs That Know phenomena is real or just wishful thinking on the part of dog owners and psi proponents, we’ll leave that question to independent researchers qualified to answer such questions. Again, this is in line with your own statements on this matter.


Then I go on to quote for him a segment from the interview that we had on skeptiko on September 17, 2007. You can go back in the archives if you want to listen to this interview again. I just posted a full transcript of it on the skeptiko blog, and you can read the whole thing, including where he says he’ll give Sheldrake the money in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, naked, which I’ve kind of made as the focal part of this bet since we’re no longer interested in the controls that Randi needs to – somewhat understandably – apply, if his million dollars were on the line. But, I’m saying the million dollars is off the line. We’ll just do a bet of you appearing in Piccadilly Circus naked and let’s keep with what you said.


Here is what he said: “So, it wouldn’t be me doing the test. It would be someone like Chris French or Wiseman or some other scientist with the proper credentials. Plenty of places could do this sort of thing, and we always, always have it out of house. We don’t do the tests ourselves. We always turn it over to a lab or to a association, an organization, a college, whatever, who will do the experimentation, do the whole run on the thing, and announce the results at the end of it.”


Now, back to this email, I end it by saying, “Please, in the interest of science and truth, accept my offer.” As you can imagine, i wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get from Randi on this one, but I got a response right away: “I’ll be in the UK soon enough to test Sheldrake’s claims. In fact, he’s on the top of my list. You’ll find out when and where, I’m sure, so hustle off and share this hot news with everyone.”


Again, that seems…I don’t know. I won’t comment any further than just reading that one, but I replied the same day, and I said, “How are you going to ‘test Sheldrake’s claims’ in the UK? We’re replicating the experiment with Dogs That Know in the US. I’m offering you a chance to get behind real research. Isn’t that what you want?”


So, on that same day, I got a reply, “I’m going to the UK, where I’ll attempt to confront Sheldrake. Your US based notion is a separate matter. What led you to think that I had no interest?” <laughter>


I replied – again, the same day – Friday, May 2. “Okay, so you’re accepting my offer. Is Dr. Clive Wynne at the University of Florida acceptable to you?” Again, right back on Friday, May 2, from Randi, “You appear to think that your needs are uppermost on my schedule.” How I implied that, I don’t know. “What would give you that impression? Looking into a silly dog claim is among my lowest priority projects. When I’m prepared to give you some time, I’ll let you know. There are some forty plus persons ahead of you.”


Now, this, after we have this extensive email exchange and I’ve laid things out, and I’ve pointed out that here he’s talking about this “silly dog claim” that he’s spent so much time talking about, and he still gives conferences and he brings this up as an example of this horrible science. But now that there’s someone who’s really going to look into it and it’s going to be real research, it’s a “silly dog claim.” Interesting.


I replied on the same day: “This entire exchange seems a little disjointed. To summarize: 1) Let me know when/if you accept my offer. 2) Let me know if Dr. Clive Wynne is an acceptable independent researcher. Good luck with your busy schedule, your possible new TV show, your trip to the UK, and all else.”


To which, James Randi replies, “Question: Have you made formal application to JREF? I have no way of knowing such matters because it’s assigned to other persons. DO NOT WRITE ME ABOUT THE CHALLENGE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU’VE NOT MADE APPLICATION. I have nothing to do with the challenge. It’s handled by other persons, and neither of them recognize your name.”


Again, I don’t know if this is a put-on or some game or what it is, but it seems just almost bizarre that we could be having this kind of exchange and then he keeps bouncing back and forth between the challenge and his busy schedule and this silly claim and all these other things. So, the last email from me, again on May 2: “Perhaps you should reread this email.Let me know when you’ve had a chance to digest this.”


Since then, I haven’t heard from Randi. I’ve invited him on the skeptiko show to come back and talk about this more thoroughly, so I can better understand what’s going on inside his head when he says some of these things. Hopefully, at that time, we can discuss the real issue, which is why won’t he live up to the statement that he made earlier and that he’s so public about, which is the implication that he really wants to find the truth. I think he’s right. That’s what we should be doing is trying to find the truth, not trying to put on a show or run around as a clown as he’s described himself.


Here we are – we have a disagreement on whether this phenomena is real. I’ve approached it in the most straightforward way, by doing research, real research, with someone who’s very qualified to do it. I’ve gone out of my way to select someone who’s skeptical of the claims beforehand, so there isn’t this bias going in. I’m funding the research. I’m not even asking him to put his million dollars on the line. All I’m asking him to do is back up the claims that he’s made for years, which are that telepathy doesn’t work and experimenters like Rupert Sheldrake are committing fraud when they do this. He’s made those claims publicly. I think the least he can do is back them up publicly when someone comes up with a legitimate way to test them, but I think the chances of that – as you know – are probably very slim.


So, we’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you posted if I get any new information on this, and of course, I’ll let you know how our experiment proceeds. We have a lot going on. We’re actively looking for more dog owners. We have several of them now in trial. I think one of the important things about this experiment is to show that it’s not just a phenomena that occurs occasionally or rarely, but that it’s relatively common. We hope to do that by finding and testing multiple dogs. Much more of that to come in the future – maybe even more than you’ll ever want to hear about, but I think that’s what’s required to really get to the bottom of something like this and to do the right kind of research.


I know many of you have been emailing me about the status of the medium experiment that we’re doing with the folks over at Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. I wanted to update you and tell you that I have scheduled a conference call with Dr. Steven Novella and his gang over there, where we’re going to talk about protocol and the procedure for getting that going. I plan to podcast that or otherwise make that available if Steve wants to make that available. You’ll get to hear that, and I think that will get the ball rolling on that.


Also, I have some interesting interviews coming up. I’ve spoken with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake.Many of you have been wanting to hear more from him, and I have an interview with him, coming up in several episodes, and several other interesting interviews that have already been completed and will be coming up in the near future.


I just wanted to have this little aside and chat with you about this exchange with James Randi, because I thought it was interesting and, obviously, I thought it was a little bit humorous.


That’s going to do it for today. Take care, and bye for now!