If you can read palms, locate water with a forked stick, or predict the future, the Australian Skeptics want to hear from you. They’ve wanted to hear from you since 1980, when they first posted the $100,000 Challenge for people with “supernatural powers.” All you need to do to claim this prize is pass a series of tests, previously agreed to by both parties and specifically tailored to your set of alleged skills. But in 39 years, no one has come even close to passing.
According to executive officer Tim Mendham, no one has even passed the first stage of the multi-part challenge. He says it means the Skeptics—who describe themselves as “a loose confederation of groups and individuals who are interested in and regularly investigate pseudo-scientific and paranormal claims”—are doing their job. That is, they’re protecting the public from costly hoaxes, and calling out scammers who prey on naivety.
We spoke to Tim from the Sceptics’ headquarters in Sydney, to ask him about the prize: what kinds of people he’s tested, how the tests have worked, and what kind of cases he’s seen.
VICE: Hi Tim. So the reward was offered back in 1980, how many people have tried to claim it?
Tim Mendham: I get emails every week from people who claim to have some sort of paranormal or psychic ability. However, 90 percent of them drop out when they realise they have to undergo a test. We’ve probably investigated 200 claims more seriously, but none of those have got past the first stage which is designed to see the claimant's skills in action.
Can you tell me more about the testing process? What’s the first stage?
Every test is different depending on the claim. Sometimes it’s really easy. For a palmist we’ll just show them prints and have them determine what kind of person they are. Male or female. Clinical work or manual labour. How old they are, what their past was like—things like that. To pass, they need to be specific. Nothing like oh they’ve had problems. Haven't we all?
Sometimes though, testing can be more difficult. I once had a guy claim he could move the surface of the sun. How do you test that? We’d say okay, then create a sun spot there and now. But he’d reply saying it takes a long time to do, and couldn’t be rushed—so the test eventually fell through.
So as I say, no one has actually passed this “pre-trial” stage. However if they do we’ve partnered with a team of mathematicians, physicists, and scientists, who will act as consultants to create a more rigorous scientific testing process that follows strict protocol. That’s the next stage.
Who do you most commonly get approached by?
We get a lot of water diviners. The last test we did was on a basketball court, and we had about 40 of them show up. It was a really simple test. We simply put bottles out, filled with water or sand, covered by a cloth. They had a 50/50 chance, but the odds we were looking for was one in a million. So if they got it right over 20 times in a row, they were the odds we were happy with, but no one did.
The people who usually fail the fastest are those who claim they have psychic powers, clairvoyant powers, or telekinesis powers—that is, people who claim they can move things with their minds. We had a guy claim he had telepathic powers, and could transmit information to his friends in New York. He approached us in 2010 with a lawyer, and we created a test where we would create a list of Australian artists, countries, flowers, poets and, at his insistence, native American people. Then we’d roll a dice to determine one item from each list, and he’d “transmit” this information to his “receiver” in New York who would record the answers on a sheet. He told us he expected to get a perfect score, which would only happen once in a million if chance was operating alone.
And how did he go?
He actually failed to even make contact with his people in New York, so we never got to do the test. We had our own people in New York at an agreed meeting place on a corner, in the snow for his people to turn up. Which they did not because they were stuck in a lift without phones. How he knows that, I do not know.
While you're here and thinking about crackpot ideas, you should watch ep 3 of our series on conspiracy theories:
Okay, so what’s the single most impressive case you’ve seen?
I get asked that a lot. And honestly? None. Because most of these people drop out, and all of the people have failed the pre-test, performing no better than chance.
What are some of the worst cases you’ve seen?
Oh I’ve seen some particularly bad ones. One guy seriously believed he could make paper move. He showed me a video of himself moving paper, and I could see he was clearly moving his hand. He kept coming back to me with new tricks and it just got to the point where I was like, “Maybe you need to find something else to do. Or see a doctor.”
As a sceptic, what are you most sceptical of? Is there anything you do believe in?
The people I take most seriously are the water diviners. I believe that they’re genuine people, who really believe in their skills. Im most sceptical of psychics and mediums . If you see recordings of them, the information they give is pathetic. I once heard about a case where someone spent $50,000 on a phone psychic service that was charged by the minute. And we’ve had sceptics go and apply for those psychic phone jobs to experiment, and they all got it easily. You need no skill, you just need to know how to keep people on the phone for as long as possible. They’re just trained at cold reading techniques. And when it gets to that stage, it’s evil.
Astrology is particularly ridiculous too. Constellations aren’t really there—they’re just perceptions from our angle on earth. Also, how can the moon determine your personality? Why is it based on when you’re born and not when you’re conceived? That doesn’t make any sense. What if you were born prematurely, does that mean you’re a completely different person? There are many things about astrology that are just ridiculous.
Who funds the $100K reward?
It’s actually money that we’ve kept from a bequest. We have that money, in a bank account, ready to go. We’ve also set up a foundation where we fund proper scientific research into these things. We have scientists, we have engineers, we have mathematicians, and we have physicists, all on board and happy to help us with our testing processes. We take it very seriously.
My last question, and I hope you don’t mind me asking, but wouldn’t you like to believe in the unbelievable?
Yes, I’d really love for such things to be true. How great would that be? I’d love for there to be aliens and and Loch Ness monsters. They’re fun, and they won’t do any harm. But until I have proof, I’m not going to just believe. I’m going to keep investigating.
Interview by Laura Woods. You can follow her on Instagram