Jim: Wipe off your face. You've got spit on your face.
Regen: I'm a drunk.
Saturday, February 20, 2010: I'm halfway through my first "demonstration" of paranormal ability, hosted by the Los Angeles Independent Investigations Group. IIG will give $50,000 to anyone who can demonstrate, under controlled conditions, any supernatural power. A woman with x-ray vision, water dowsers (folks who can find water using rods that "gravitate" toward it), gold dowsers, a vortex generator (use your imagination), and a dog who can answer questions have all been previous applicants (well, except the dog, whose guardian applied. His canine powers didn't extend to filling out the form). If they get through the application stage, pass the testing and win the $50,000, they can go on to apply for a million dollar prize from the supernatural-challenging James Randi Foundation. But most applicants drop out before the actual IIG demonstration. Regen, however, has come all the way from Seattle, Washington. A couple days on a Greyhound bus have not fazed him. He's here at the Center for Inquiry, to demonstrate his telepathic powers. He can read minds. Or rather, he can make others read his mind, I suppose, as he's chosen to be the "sender" and brought along a friend, Fernando, to be the "receiver."
As Jim Underdown, CFI's Executive Director, shows Regen each card from a standard deck of 52, we, the audience, follow along by making our own guesses. The audience is mostly filled with skeptics, and many of us fill out our forms entirely beforehand. One clever member enters the same card 52 times, increasing his odds of getting 1 right from 1 in 1.7 to 100%. But Regen concentrates on each card, writes it down, and transmits the card via mind-waves to his recipient, who is in another room, on closed circuit TV. Oh yes, and Regen's shirt has come off, to aid with transmission. And oh yes, he's drunk.
And I mean drunk. Stumbling to his seat, bumping into walls drunk. And to top it off, so is his receiver, who waves giddily at the camera from the other room, eyes glazed, a goofy grin on his face. But the IIG have decided to go through with the test anyway. After all, this is the state in which the applicant has chosen to perform his skill. Perhaps alcohol gives him the power he needs to send the 6 of clubs through a wall.
As time passes, it becomes clear that Regen is not entirely invested in the demonstration. After each card is dealt, he writes it down, taps his pen and sighs. He twice asks why his partner isn't moving. When Jim explains that he appears to be lost in thought, Regen bangs the table. "BULLSHIT!" he screams. Jim uses a walky talky to ask Fernando to wave at the camera. Regen is placated. He offers, "Fernando is Spanish," as explanation.
When all the cards are dealt and relayed an hour later, the "sender's" cards are written on a blackboard up front. Regen, whose shirt is back on, doesn't quite get what's going on and begins to celebrate. The cards on the board match those on his sheet exactly! About ten cards in, he realizes his receiver's list hasn't even been brought over yet. Finally, at long last, the receiver's cards are announced and compared. In order to qualify, Regen has to accurately send only 7 of the 52 cards. For someone with telepathy, this shouldn't be too difficult a task. And the odds against such a feat happening by chance are about 13,000 to 1.
The first few cards are misses, but Regen celebrates every time a suit matches (a chance of 1 in 4 every time). He drunkenly garbles, "Yep, that's right, that's what I wrote," as the receiver's cards are written next to his own. Jim has to remind him three separate times that he has to get the entire card for it to be considered a hit. He doesn't shout bullshit.
Remarkably, the receiver, Fernando, has passed on three cards. Apparently, the messages were clear 49 of the 52 times, but those other 3 were just too difficult to manage a guess. But when all the cards are written and compared, exactly zero are matches. About half the audience has done better than Regen. Why didn't his telepathy work, Jim asks? "We didn't practice," he says, drooling a bit. When all are cleared out, Regen and his receiver stumble through the crowd, thanking all for their hospitality. The trip to LA has been great, they say, even if it turns out they aren't mind-readers.
I asked IIG Steering Committee member Ross Blocher how many applicants actually make it to the demonstration phase. "The vast majority drop out. In fact, this is the first demonstration I've actually seen," Ross says, who's been on the committee for three and a half years. Most of the applicants hear about the testing protocol, practice a bit, and realize that they're not so keen on being debunked. The chance at $50,000 just isn't worth the risk. So, I ask Blocher, why didn't Regen win?
"They agreed that we executed the protocol faithfully, and they failed the demonstration," he says. "In my opinion, Regen failed the test because he and/or his friend Fernando do not possess telepathic powers." Does anyone, I ask? He chooses his words carefully. "No one has ever passed even a preliminary demonstration, for our challenge or for James Randi's million dollar challenge." "Yes, but do you think anyone is telepathic?" I push him. "I want anyone who does have a real paranormal ability to step forward and help us design a protocol that will demonstrate it. Until then, I will remain unconvinced."
Regen and Fernando may reapply for the prize in one year.
To see the entire demonstration, click here.
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