Aug. 27, 2011 -- A non-profit organization called The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has announced that it is publicly offering $1 million to celebrity "psychic mediums" including James Van Praagh, Allison DuBois, Sylvia Browne, Carla Baron, John Edward, and others if they can prove their abilities in controlled experiments.
"James Van Praagh and Allison DuBois have turned the huckster art of 'cold reading' into a multi-million-dollar industry, preying on families' deepest fears and regrets," said James Randi, founder of the JREF and a renowned magician and skeptic.
The JREF's Million Dollar Challenge Director, a mentalist performer named Banachek, said, "We're issuing a challenge: If one of you can demonstrate your 'psychic' abilities on randomly chosen strangers -- not celebrities -- under mutually-agreed conditions, without relying on known cold-reading techniques such as fishing around with vague questions, and without just using Google -- we will donate our million dollars to you or to the charity of your choice."
The skeptics explained how psychics can give the appearance of getting accurate information about a person they've never met.
"Cold reading" is a set of techniques in which personal information is elicited from a person, often through vague or leading questions, and then repeated back to the person in order to persuade them that the performer has supernatural access to that information.
Another mentalism technique, called "hot reading," involves obtaining information on a person in advance, for example by researching the Internet (or, in some cases, even hiring an investigator).
James Randi has exposed such "psychic" techniques for years, including his 1986 investigation into TV faith healer Peter Popoff, who knew details of his audience members' lives, including their illnesses and home addresses.
Randi showed that Popoff was actually getting his apparently psychic (or God-given) information from his wife (who had researched certain people in the audience) via a short-wave radio and hidden earpiece.
Psychics have reason to be cautious about putting their abilities to the test. The track record of psychics is abysmal, for example when it comes to helping police find missing persons. Despite claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information.
The fact that psychics have failed to find high-profile missing persons cannot be denied, and is there for all to see: Countless missing people, including Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Madeleine McCann, Chandra Levy, Sandra Cantu, Caylee Anthony, Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, and so on, either remain missing to this day or were found accidentally by strangers or in the course of normal police searches.
In each case hundreds of psychics gave information about the person's location while they were missing -- and every single psychic turned out to be wrong.
Tennessee nursing student Holly Bobo, for example, has been missing for over four months despite information from hundreds of psychics across the country; one of them even predicted that she would be found alive within a few days of her disappearance. Sadly, the psychics were wrong again.
Earlier this year a psychic told Texas police that several children had been killed at a rural farmhouse, sending dozens of police to the scene; she, too, was wrong.
Of course, just because psychics have not been able to find missing persons doesn't mean that they might not have other psychic abilities. It's important to keep an open mind, and try to demonstrate psychic powers in an objective, scientific manner, under conditions that rule out deception.
The Million Dollar Challenge has been around for many years. Some psychics have claimed that the money does not really exist (as part of a Nightline primetime special that aired Friday, ABC News verified that the money is real and available, held in trust by a third party).
Others have suggested that psychics would not use their powers for personal gain (they should check out the ticket prices for appearances and workshops by some of these celebrity psychics), though of course the winning psychic could donate the $1 million to charity.
Will these celebrity psychics take Randi's challenge? If they have the powers they claim, and can demonstrate them under scientific conditions, they have nothing to lose.
In fact, the publicity of having their abilities validated would likely raise their profiles even higher (to say nothing of the satisfaction they would get from publicly proving the skeptics wrong).
Either the psychic information they give is accurate, or it isn''t; there's no real way that skeptics could disprove genuine psychic powers. If the psychics have the powers they claim, they have nothing to lose and $1 million to gain.