Friday, May 16, 2008

Alex Tsakiris and the Doggy Psychics

Last Tuesday, Alex Tsakiris, the host of the Skeptiko podcast, issued a press release saying that James Randi, a friend of The Amateur Scientist Podcast, had abruptly broken off negotiations with a team of researchers investigating whether dogs have psychic powers. First, a bit of background. Despite the name of Tsakiris' podcast and website, he has proven himself anything but a skeptic when it comes to psychic phenomena. He's expressed a fascination with the flawed experiments of people such as Dean Radin and especially Rupert Sheldrake, after whom Tsakiris takes when it comes to the dog experiments. Tsakiris (seen here staring deeply into a puppy's eyes) has even set up a research initiative called DogsThatKnow (why it's one word is anyone's guess), which seeks to prove that dogs have psychic abilities demonstrated, at least in part, by their seeming ability to know beforehand when their owners are coming home. Despite Tsakiris' claims, the early experiments into this matter conducted by Sheldrake have been shoddily conceived, poorly executed, and presented in a fashion that isn't at all compelling. Tsakiris got into a heated debate over this matter with Dr. Steven Novella of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, with both of them making appearances on each other's shows. Obviously, Tsakiris approaches any such research as a believer, or he wouldn't be such a staunch defender of its faults. However, he contacted James Randi about setting up a psychic dog experiment through the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Challenge, where anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities is eligible to win a cash prize.

I was suspicious of Tsakiris' press release the moment I saw it--not only because of Tsakiris' past behavior, but also because it was issued by his website yet referenced him in the third person. I contacted Randi personally, and he told me that there never were any negotiations with Tsakiris over this research. Tsakiris wouldn't even fill out the necessary paperwork to be admitted into the challenge. Tsakiris says he's not interested in the prize money and is willing to forgo it, but, as Randi pointed out to me, this makes no sense if he's convinced the experiments will prove the reality of psychic powers in dogs. On his website, Tsakiris has posted what he claims to be an email exchange between himself and Randi over this matter. There are a few curiosities to be found within. For one thing, the conversation seems to be missing a few pieces. There are references made to discussions that aren't apparent in the exchange. Tsakiris seems to imply that this is due to some kind of craziness on Randi's part, but it's more likely that there were some careless edits. And on top of that, there's nothing in it to back up Tsakiris' claims in the press release. It's clear that Tsakiris both refused to properly apply for the challenge and insisted on employing his own team of researchers for the experiment. In the interest of fairness, all JREF challenge experiments are set up by Randi's organization through independent parties, which is something Tsakiris seems to want to avoid. These emails only bolster Randi's statement to me that Tsakiris wanted "special treatment". In short, Randi hasn't backed out of anything. There were no negotiations. Tsakiris' press release is false. I've tried contacting Tsakiris via both email and psychic dog for a rebuttal, but he has yet to respond.

Also, come on, man. Psychic dogs? Pick your battles here.

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