JREF changes focus, slips into the background

As was briefly announced at The Amazing Meeting #13 in July, the James Randi Educational Foundation is changing focus. The new plan is announced on their website.

The JREF will be awarding grants to worthy applicants.

Starting in 2016, we will be making grants to non-profit groups that we believe are promoting activities that encourage critical thinking and a fact-based world view. We expect to make a small number of grants each year totaling approximately $100,000 per year. We will NOT accept suggestions, applications or proposals for these grants. We hope they will come as a pleasant surprise to the recipients, just as Randi’s MacArthur foundation grant was a pleasant surprise to him.

The Million Dollar Challenge to paranormal claims will continue but in a slightly different way.

Effective immediately, JREF will no longer accept applications directly from people claiming to have a paranormal power. We will however offer our Challenge to anyone who has passed a preliminary test that meets with our approval. We will provide example protocols early next year. Of course, any established psychic may always contact JREF to be tested directly (preferably with an independent, third party TV crew.)

After decades of a clear monetary offer to produce sound evidence of the paranormal (even back to the days of Houdini), the world has NEVER been given even such evidence. This is telling. Psychics and those who claim to possess special powers are deluding themselves or would rather gain financially from those that believe without testing. It’s quite clear. But, the door remains open to anyone who disputes that and can show that such activity is more than skill or luck but is truly beyond normal. We encourage those claimants to attempt the test for the good of humanity and for you to substantiate your extraordinary story.

The JREF will cease taking memberships and donations. It will become a much more quiet, behind the scenes means of support for science-based thinking.

With the retirement of Mr. Randi, it is the end of an era. It’s inevitable. On a personal note, I have worked with (and for) the JREF in the past year. (My involvement ended early this month.) It is difficult and sad to face change in the skeptical community as our founding fathers have aged and some have passed. The remaining deserve to enjoy the rest of their lives. They have given us a great deal and have been astoundingly successful in educating the public about charlatans and misleading claims.

The community has greatly expanded from this original foundation and now exists in small groups and efforts all over the world. And, it exists in the mission and actions of many individuals. I count myself in that and will continue that mission to support reason, sound evidence, skeptical thinking and scientific progress.

To that end, Doubtful News will remain a premier online source for a skeptical view of questionable claims.We do this because it’s the right thing and we are passionate about it. If you wish to help in that mission and help us grow, please email editor@doubtfulnews.com. There is a lot to do – a LOT – to continue that critical and necessary voice in society.

May new leaders emerge, new organizations form and existing ones strengthen, and new projects be launched.

Randi at the end of TAM#13. Photo: Mick West

Randi at the end of TAM#13. Photo: Mick West

  23 comments for “JREF changes focus, slips into the background

  1. September 3, 2015 at 9:58 AM

    How are they going to be able to give out grants if they no longer have memberships or donations? Will they hold periodic fund raisers? And how are they going to find these worthy recipients?

    Also, I don’t understand the bit about not accepting applications directly from “psychics”, then later on it’s stated that they can still contact the JREF directly. Is it that only “established psychics” can contact them directly to be tested, whereas your garden-variety local palm reader or what-have-you cannot?

    I guess change is inevitable, as you stated. But…damn, it just seems lately as if there are too many “end of era” events (particularly the deaths of certain notable people).

    Glad to know you will continue to publish this website.

  2. September 3, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    To answer Victoria’s question, it was stated elsewhere that the JREF has about two million, which will generate interest. They will be able to fund a lot of grants with that seed.

    I owe a lot to the JREF and some of the earlier employees. I discovered it by accident after reading a book on skepticism; my first week I signed to the forum and to the first cruise the JREF organized, in 2006. I went to ten TAMs (including the two in London) and all but one of the cruises. I made monthly contributions as a paid member, and helped fund quite a few people to attend TAM, and contributed to the forum scholarships and occasional fundraisers.

    What I got back from the JREF was not only a reference source and access to great speakers, I got back a community of friends unlike I’d known before. As one of my friends says, it’s like I found my long-lost tribe. Tribe, not in the insular “us versus them” but in the sense of having a group that I belonged with. I’m not exaggerating to state that the vast majority of my friends I met through this community. Not only do I interact with them on social media, but we participate in each other’s lives. I’ve gone to weddings, celebrated births, mourned deaths. I’ve stayed in their homes and met them for beer in cities around the world, and gone on a great number of vacations with those people, not one of whom I would have met without the JREF community.

  3. Tony Shallin
    September 3, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    Every year at TAM I felt like I was with my group. Will TAM continue? If not, what will take it’s place?

  4. One Eyed Jack
    September 3, 2015 at 1:57 PM

    So, what happens with TAM?

  5. September 3, 2015 at 2:01 PM

    TAM? Don’t know. It’s not been decided.

  6. Mikko Muilu
    September 3, 2015 at 2:45 PM

    Sad to hear. I know this was to be expected, but it’s really sad anyway. There’s nothing about the JREFs educational program though. They announced in TAM 2014 that they’d concentrate on education, but I haven’t heard anything about it since then.

    Ps. Thank you Sharon and Torkel for this site, you’re doing wonderful job. And that is a wonderful photo!

  7. Susan Gerbic
    September 3, 2015 at 5:34 PM

    I am under the impression that TAM will continue. The only “evidence” I have for this is that the same people who were hired to run TAM13 (an outside conference company) was also retained to run the next one. I have no evidence of this, it is just what I heard. It seems that with the help of a company like this, and direction by the people who directed TAM13 it can continue, in the same way that skeptic conferences have done in the past. I would sadly miss TAM. I think it is needed and extremely important to our community.

    But the JREF is not the only skeptical organization out there, we have others, and there is the possibility of more. Why can’t we re-invent ourselves? Why can’t others step forward and put on other amazing events and projects? In my small way I have managed to pull together 100+ people from all over the world that are involved in a single minded project, GSoW. We might just grow into a powerhouse of trained skeptical activists that put on conferences and are the new generation. Then again maybe not. The JREF does not own scientific skepticism education and activism. We own that. We need to take what we learned from the years we had with TAM and the JREF and improve and invent. Randi IS Amazing! I love the guy, he has done incredible things and is super talented. But he isn’t the only person out there who can do this kind of thing, maybe the person who can isn’t on the radar yet, maybe not even been born, or maybe is right here now in our community? Maybe it is many people working together?

    Instead of saying boohoo the JREF is gone (as we knew it) I guess that is it. We need to say, okay what’s next?

    I want to follow up and mention that the JREF has been extremely supportive of me. What GG said above is 100% true for me as well. I have met some amazing people that I call dear friends because of the JREF (and the other organizations) I love these people and am closer to them than I am to my siblings … by far.

    As I write this I’m looking at my TAM 2013 award from the JREF. I was the last to receive the James Randi Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest. I am very honored that the JREF with the leadership of DJ Grothe chose me for this award.

    I’ve been on 3 JREF cruises and attended along with my son Stirling, 10 TAM’s If TAM does not continue, then it does not continue. I will be very sad, but it is not the end of my involvement, it is really only the beginning. I will continue to see my friends, and make new ones all the time.

    Sharon is right, “There is a lot to do – a LOT – to continue that critical and necessary voice in society. May new leaders emerge, new organizations form and existing ones strengthen, and new projects be launched.” I encourage you to write to Sharon if you can help. Please become involved in something (I’m always looking for new editors BTW, we train and mentor) If you can’t find the time to become involved in something organized, then please support those who do. Review books on Amazon, write reviews for skeptic podcasts on iTunes, buy your meetup organizer dinner and thank them for all that they do. Many podcasts and projects accept donations, please help if you can.

  8. Christine Rose
    September 3, 2015 at 7:14 PM

    It’s kind of depressing, but I think the challenge was a victim of its own success. There’s no question that it had a profound impact on ME to realize that there really was NO ONE EVER who could do this stuff when they weren’t allowed to cheat. The cheats though quickly evolved reasons why they couldn’t be expected to do their stuff when anti-cheating measures were in place.

  9. Jim Carr
    September 3, 2015 at 8:08 PM

    One donor, who is also a board member, has donated $50K to $350K per year for many years now. I would not be surprised if he kept doing so. They had about $2M in net assets at the end of 2013. $1M is tied up for the challenge, but I’m reasonably sure they can make some investment income from it. Their gross income from investments, royalties and the like was $77K in 2013.

  10. September 4, 2015 at 12:41 AM

    I would not be surprised if TAM goes the way of the dodo. Or at least gets downsized considerably.

  11. Damion Reinhardt
    September 4, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    Skepticism is dead.

    Long live skepticism!

    (But seriously where are we going to meet up now?)

  12. September 4, 2015 at 8:42 AM

    I would prefer more and smaller events across the country to rebuild grass roots and keep costs down. More Skepticamp-type meetups.

  13. September 4, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    I wonder if the forum will continue? I got a lot of help there creating a test procedure for a friend of mine who was certain he could dowse . Since he could dowse a pint water bottle under an opaque plastic bucket, it was a easily financed test. I was quite proud of doing a good job and prying some statistics from my rusty brain.

    BTW – his number of hits was explainable by chance. I don’t think he’s given up on dowsing, but he was certainly surprised and is still – I think – scratching his head. And we’re still friends.

  14. Christine Rose
    September 4, 2015 at 12:10 PM

    The usual response to this one is that water in a bottle is somehow different from water in an underground resevoir. There’s also a common belief water flows in underground rivers when in fact it’s more like large patches of underground mud. In any case, bottled water is obviously dead…

  15. Howard Lewis
    September 4, 2015 at 1:34 PM

    DoubtCon. Am I right, or what? : )

  16. September 4, 2015 at 5:52 PM

    The forum was taken over by International Skeptics many months ago. http://www.internationalskeptics.com/forums/index.php

  17. September 4, 2015 at 7:17 PM

    There are plenty of options out there. Skepticamp, the CFI Summit, Skeptic Society started a new conference this year, NECSS, Dragon*Con, etc.

  18. September 4, 2015 at 7:20 PM

    The Million Dollar Challenge is still going strong. That isn’t going away. They’re just going to tweak how they go about it.

  19. September 5, 2015 at 7:30 PM

    Thank you, Mikko.

    In hindsight it’s obvious the plans they announced at TAM2014 fell through, for whatever reasons. I do know that shortly after TAM 2014 their education director abruptly quit the organization. I would guess that screwed up their plans to some extent at least. Why they never hired a new one, I don’t know. But they also never hired a new full time executive director/president to take over after DJ. They never hired ANYONE full time after TAM 2014, which I think was a huge indicator that something was off.

  20. September 6, 2015 at 1:54 AM

    A foundation run by three people (legally they’ll need a third if they want to remain a 501c3), and asking for no contact with or comments from the greater skeptic community are not going to be a particularly effective at identifying and selecting grant recipients. The terms of operation for the MDC pretty much ensure that they won’t ever have to do anything with that either. Sounds like they are doing more than “stepping into the background,” rather they’re going into full-on “turtle mode.” I doubt that can continue for long.

    My guess is that arrangement is a placeholder that will exist while Randi is still alive. Beyond that, an endowment with Randi’s name could continue to exist somewhere, but will not warrant a standalone organization to administer it. I say this with no real insights regarding the people involved, just a decent amount of experience with small foundations. In general such organizations rarely survive long without their founder. In that sense, what we’re seeing is neither unusual nor surprising.

  21. Blargh
    September 6, 2015 at 2:01 PM

    I’m sad to see it go. Stumbling onto SWIFT (the old newsletter, not the fluffy op-eds that replaced it) was what opened my eyes to just how much crazy woo there is out there, as well as the damage it does.

  22. Travis
    September 8, 2015 at 1:42 PM

    Been a long time since I’ve commented.

    I’ve never made it to a TAM (well, I’ve only known about it for 2 years) but really hope that they upload the most recent TAM’s lectures. They’re really great stuff (especially Carol Tavris’s talks) but they’ve yet to do so…

  23. September 8, 2015 at 2:46 PM

    There is a HUGE amount of video to go through, edit and post. The JREF is working on that but it does take a while.

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