As you may or may not know, Connie Sonne is claiming that her preliminary challenge test at TAM7 was rigged against her. Alison Smith has responded.
I have some thoughts.
1) I watched the live feed of this, and the challenge was BORING. That’s my first tip-off that this was legit. The whole thing felt just like the honest investigation it claimed to be. That is to say, it was painstakingly boring. Tedious, perhaps.
2) A lot has been made of the fact that Banachek is a Mentalist. Some people seem to think that he was there to rig the contest. I think it’s in fact the other way around. What we would have seen if Connie Sonne was employing some sort of trickery was Banachek saying something like, “Okay, I’m going to have to stop the test, because you just attempted to substitute your own card,” or what have you. I think the fact that Banachek didn’t say anything of this sort is a sure sign to me that she didn’t try to employ any trickery. I think she is simply someone who believes in her own abilities, rather than an accomplished magician trying to portray herself as something she’s not. However, there was no guarantee for Randi’s people this is the kind of person who will try to claim the prize, thus Banachek’s involvement is prudent. Banachek’s work on Project Alpha shows that he is well-versed in trickery that could potentially fool an investigator. Quite simply, he was front-and-center on the test because he could ensure it remained legit.
3) The fact that Banachek is a Mentalist *does* open the test up to suspicion by observers. When I observed him, he almost seemed to be setting up a trick. However, there’s an easy explanation for this. He was in front of an audience, so his instincts took over a little bit. He’s used to giving people instructions in front of an audience, and some of those skills he developed would have carried over, given the elaborate precautions of the test.
As an example:
Quite simply, that’s how them man talks when he’s on stage.
4) The actual mechanics of the test also feel like a trick. Not that there’s anything *wrong* with them, but the fact that they seem overly complicated with dice, envelopes, etc. There’s so much going on that it makes my head hurt. However, you have to remember that this test was thought up by stage performers who are trying to set up an impartial test on one hand and trying to stop a potential conjuring expert from cheating on the other. So the system they create is complicated. Overly so? Perhaps for laymen like myself. However, they’re the ones putting a million dollars on the line, and they’re operating with applicants who have the potential of being just as skilled at trickery as they are. These folks would think differently, so this extra level of complication may be necessary.
5) I’d like to address one other thing that I’ve been hearing a lot. “Well, psychic powers are spiritual and don’t perform well in scientific settings. That’s not how they work, and it cheapens them, etc.” James Randi and the rest of the people supporting the Million Dollar Challenge do not begrudge you your ability to know when your mother’s about to call, dowse the sex of an unborn child, or find a missing cat by getting psychic impressions of where it’s hiding if you state that these are ethereal powers that come and go with the winds. They are concerned with people who claim that their paranormal abilities can withstand rigorous testing. If you admit that your powers aren’t meant to be tested scientifically, only happen in special circumstances, etc., they won’t care one jot about what you claim you can or can’t do. Don’t ask them to *believe* you, but don’t get your panties in a bunch either. What you are doing is setting up an alternate reality that excludes their opinion. If you *insist* on entering their world by invoking science yourself, accepting their challenge, or setting up a thunderdome situation where you claim that science is bunk and you are more powerful, you can no longer use the argument that science kills magic as your defense. Rather, you *can* use it, but don’t expect any sympathy from the scientific community.
I should point out that what I described in #5 doesn’t fit Connie Sonne’s argument. She doesn’t claim that the test itself rendered her powers useless, but rather that the test was rigged. At first I was going to try to figure out “okay if she really DID guess correctly, and Banachek DID switch the cards, how would it have happened?”
I started thinking about how the switching would have had to have happened sometime between when she guessed and the reveal. Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t a case where she definitely picked a correct card and the card was switched out for the wrong one later. Neither of them knew which card was picked. In order for any switching to take place, Banachek would have first had to have believed that Connie picked correctly.
Then I thought about the idea that maybe they were gimmicked envelopes. Each envelope contained two cards. The “actual” card, and a “fake” card. The “fake” card is in every single envelope of each suit, preset by a confederate on the staff. Banachek draws the “fake” card instead of the actual card…and…then…er, somehow replaces…okay, you know what? When you’re at the circus and you see 100 clowns coming out of a clown car, you can guess how they did it. However, if someone then says, “But what if there actually WERE 100 clowns in that car? How would they do it then?” You don’t *have* to come up with a scenario with 100 clowns in the same car. An imaginary factor is not one that has to be proven.
I can’t help it, though. I have to keep going. IF the gimicked envelopes exist, then wouldn’t Connie Sonne pick up on BOTH cards in the envelope? Maybe if they’re all the same card, they get ignored as background noise. Of course, since we’re dealing with paranormal abilities, maybe somehow Banachek rigged the contest himself. Maybe all this talk of being a skeptic is a lie. Maybe he is psychic and was able to make the cards “believe” they were different cards, and thus give off the wrong impression to Connie.
Why would they try to rig it any way?
1) They actually KNOW psychic powers exist, and are trying to keep the public ignorant by discrediting actual psychics, thus dissuading people from believing in their powers and protecting the mentalist & magician’s domination of the “people who can do freaky things” market. That’s right, it’s a Scientology vs. Psychologists scenario where two groups who kind of want to do the same thing fight each other for the right to do it. I don’t begrudge stage magicians and mentalists their living, but doesn’t the fact that they’re willing to perform in night clubs, business conventions, and parties rather than walk the earth as Gods among men show that they have a *bit* of integrity in this department?
2) They don’t believe psychic powers exist, and are rigging the contest “just in case.” I saw a program where James Randi had coached some people ahead of time when a cold reader was trying to work them. They said, “No” to just about everything. It seemed rather harsh and artificial, but the fact is that cold reading works on your ability to want to believe something’s happening in order to work. By them saying “No” to vague questions, it shut down this facet of cold reading. However, it also may have given off the impression that the situation was “rigged” even though the people *were* being honest. Is this a possible situation where precautions were taken to eliminate chance in order to assure it wasn’t a factor as well? Is it possible that they set up the rules in such a way that *only* a true psychic could be correct? I bring this up because someone might think that getting all three wrong would be statistically improbable. If anyone better than me at explaining math would like to do this, I’d welcome it. Regardless, I hope this long rambling collection of thoughts and the coherent article above explains why this is not likely the case. You may doubt it, though. I can’t change your belief any more than I can know all of reality. Maybe you’re right. Maybe a vast conspiracy and tremendous display of talent conspired to rig a genuine psychic’s ability to dowse for three cards with a pendulum.
Or, maybe the test was set up impartially and they simply let her try and fail.