Project Viola Ten: The Million Dollar Challenge

In August of 2015, as part of my PhD research on the performativity and psychology of telepathy, I began a residency at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Seattle.  The purpose of the residency was to develop genuine psycho-physical techniques which could replicate “telepathic” communication.  In other words, could I learn to communicate without the use of sight, sound, or touch?My intention was also to assert telepathy as an act of contemporary circus; an entertaining (and sometimes dangerous) display of psycho-physical skill.  The techniques which I developed during this residency used nothing other than the human bodies involved and replicated telepathy so closely (even when working at a distance) that the difference between these techniques and “genuine” telepathy – if such a thing can be said to exist – became somewhat blurred.

I was encouraged to apply for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge for proof of psychic or paranormal phenomena.  According to the JREF, ‘if you can prove your psychic ability in a fair controlled test, we’ve got a million dollar check with your name on it.’  While I was not claiming to be psychic or telepathic, per se, my claimed ability to communicate without the use of the known senses did constitute a paranormal claim.

I was informed that in order to pass the preliminary test I would need to overcome odds of 1 in 100,000 against chance.  To pass the Million Dollar Challenge, I would then need to overcome odds of 1 in 1,000,000.  I was further informed that the testing process would most likely include a strip search, distance, blindfolds, sound proofing, and electromagnetic shielding.  Of those conditions, only the distance was slightly intimidating, but I had succeeded at a distance before, so I was willing to proceed.  Regarding the odds, I consulted my friend, mathematician and well known ghost hunter, Philemon Vanderbeck.  In light of my results with Zener cards, (in which I was achieving, on average, double the mean chance expectation), Mr. Vanderbeck replied in part:

‘Use a combinatorics formula. P(X=10) =  (25 C 10) * (1/5)^10 *(4/5)^(25-10).  25 is the number of cards in the deck. 10 is the number that you get right.  1/5 is the odds of getting a card right. The (25 C 10) is “25 choose 10” which involves factorials. 25!/(10!15!).  You can also write that as the Combination function C(25,10).  The odds of getting 10 out of 25 correct is about 1.18% per trial.  So, it’s just a little more than 1 out of a 100. If you got these results in two trials it would get you to 1 in 100,000.  And in three trials, it would get you your 1 in a 1,000,000 odds.’

Three trials of 25 Zener cards could be completed in less than two hours!  I wrote another email, accompanied with extensive video documentation, detailing the conditions under which I was prepared to demonstrate this non-sensory communication, as well as the anticipated results of the tests, and stated that I was ‘quite certain that I will be out of your hair before lunchtime.’  I was informed that I was very unlikely to succeed under the conditions imposed by the JREF, and that the attempt would most likely not be a wise investment or career move.

In another email, I stated that while I appreciated the concern, ‘concern doth butter no bread.  Consequently, I would still very much like an opportunity to “prove it and win.”!  I am quite happy to proceed at my own expense.’  Weeks passed.  On the 1st of September, I was informed that the JREF was no longer accepting applications from private parties.

According to the JREF:

We plan on continuing the Million Dollar Challenge as a means for educating the public about paranormal claims, but the process for consideration of claims has been changed effective September 1, 2015 and no application submitted under the previous procedures or relying in whole or in part on the previously published terms of the Challenge will be considered.

‘Effective immediately, JREF will no longer accept applications directly from people claiming to have a psychic or paranormal power. Previously available Application Forms shall not be used and will be rejected without any review of the contents. We anticipate providing minimum required protocols for the preliminary test early next year. No one should make any effort to pursue the Challenge until those minimum required protocols are issued.’

And with that my dreams of winning a million dollars evaporated, and Project Viola Ten was born.  Two years later, I am still waiting for the issuance of the minimum required protocols…