The James Randi Educational Foundation's million-dollar challenge started out as an offer I made during a New York City radio interview, sometime in the 60's. I recall that parapsychologist Stanley Krippner was part of that panel, though I've forgotten - perhaps mercifully - the others who sat around the table arguing the merits of so-called paranormal claims. In the heat of the discussion, I pledged to award $1,000 to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal power of any sort under appropriate controls. Now, at that period in my career, it was questionable whether I'd have that large a bank balance at any given time but, in any case, I hardly had any expectation of losing that money. The prize stood at that size for many years, but I ask you to recall that $1,000 was worth much more then than it is today.
It was shortly after this that I made an offhand comment during a conversation with Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer who was then a very good friend of mine. Dennis had a serious falling out with CSICOP - the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal - now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. At that time, I was a board member of CSICOP, and I felt that they had treated Dennis unfairly, yet he chose to write off the entire CSICOP personnel, and actively set out to discredit the entire group. Dennis published my comment as part of an article he prepared for the notorious FATE Magazine, the most prominent woo-woo publication of the day. He reported that I claimed I always had an "out" when offering the then-thousand-dollar prize. As you might imagine, this caused me a lot of trouble!
The "I always have an 'out'" comment, as it's usually quoted, is purposely incomplete. The complete statement was: "I always have an 'out' - I'm right!" Those who have published this canard have chosen to truncate the statement, for obvious reasons. But, that reflects their major problem: they can't handle the challenge and the threat that it represents to their cherished delusions. Even today, I have that misquoted comment thrown up by the Grubbies as proof of my perfidy. It was ever thus.
Over the years, I eventually increased the prize to $10,000, since my bank account had improved considerably. Then in June of 1989, when I did my show titled, "Exploring Psychic Powers - Live!" for Lexington Broadcasting Corporation, the prize was temporarily increased to $100,000; I put in my ten thousand, and the producers anted up the remaining amount. It took quite awhile to convince them that their investment was safe and I'm sure they went on the air all a-tremble. Of course, they needn't have worried - none of the contestants came anywhere near winning.
That last statement needs amplification. I'm frequently asked if anyone has "nearly won" the prize. From the way the protocol is designed, "nearly winning" is never possible. I often say that it's not possible to be "nearly pregnant," you either are, or you're not. No one comes "close"; they either win or they don't. That's because no decision has to be made, no votes are solicited. The tests are set up so that the results are self-evident. In advance, everyone has to agree what results are going to constitute the successful accomplishment of the challenge, and opinions simply don't count. No judges are appointed, because none are necessary. It's the final data count that determines whether or not the challenge has been successfully met.
How did the prize reach its present dimensions? Soon after I got on the internet, I became involved in email discussions with a chap who I'd never met, but who sounded quite rational and friendly to my point of view. Imagine my surprise when he volunteered to make a substantial donation towards the establishment of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Before I accepted his welcome offer, I suggested that we should meet - the purpose being to establish that we were really on the "same wavelength" all the way. Our meeting certainly established that fact, and the JREF came into existence. This man has remained our chief benefactor over the years, especially since he presented us with a check for one million dollars, which we promptly deposited with Goldman Sachs in a special account dedicated and designated as the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account". The amount on deposit has always remained one million dollars and currently - as of 1 June 2008 - stands at $1,106,144.62. A notarised copy of that statement is available by mail, fax, or email to any person who inquires, though we have never had such an inquiry.
Recently, we decided that the million dollars could be better used. Frankly, the wear-and-tear on the JREF staff in just handling the applicants - who don't seem capable of making a simple statement of what they can do, under what conditions, and with what accuracy - has been considerable. Our scholarship funds can make better use of the million, and for that reason we will be terminating the prize offer on 6 March 2010. Surprisingly, after this announcement was made, we did not receive the expected rush of applicants, though we're very sure that on 7 March, two years from now, all sorts of complaints will be published.