Kathy Fountain Show  hosts
TBS's "$1,000 Challenge"
for 2nd time:
Again no winners

by Gary P. Posner

TBS chairman Terry Smiljanich, vice-chairman Miles Hardy and I, along with our three "mystery boxes" and a tattered, 5-year-old blank check, were once again the focus of WTVT-TV 13's Kathy Fountain Show  (formerly Eye on Tampa Bay ) on August 3, 1994. And, once again, none of the "psychic" viewers at home or in the studio audience proved able to determine the contents of any box. TBS was prepared to hand over $1,000 for each and every correct "psychic" prognostication.

Our last "$1,000 Challenge" appearance on the show had been in January 1993. Producer Jennifer Boyd later told me that that show had evoked much viewer feedback, and at the conclusion of the recent show, Kathy Fountain said on air, "Maybe we'll try it again next year."

As Smiljanich pointed out at the show's outset, we do not have a particular test that "psychics" must successfully perform, but rather TBS "is willing to work with them to structure a test . . . in their area of expertise . . . that is agreeable to both parties" (for this sort of entertaining TV appearance we have devised the 3-box test). And as Hardy explained, only Terry knew the contents of his box (#1), only Miles the contents of his (#2), and only I box #3.

Psychologist Hardy noted that as early man began to ask questions such as "Why does the Nile River rise every year?" he also bagan, with very little knowledge at his disposal, to "invent various kinds of reasons for things which made him feel more comfortable," such as "The alligator god makes it rise." Of concern to TBS, said Hardy, is that "this kind of thing is still very much with us. . . . We feel that there is perhaps too much acceptance of ideas . . . which cannot be demonstrated. . . . We just say, 'All right, demonstrate it, in a scientific way. And if you can do that . . . you will receive world recognition [and our $1,000].'"

Fountain escorted to the stage an audience member who claimed "psychic" powers, so that she could touch (but not lift or rattle) the boxes. Before touching the boxes she announced, "I know that there are car keys in one of them. But as to which one, I'm really not sure because they are so close together." (I immediately said that I could spread the boxes further apart, but was not taken up on the offer.) She soon proceeded with her right hand to touch the tops of boxes #1 and #2. She then held her hand an inch or two above box #3 for a few seconds and declared, "That one." Wrong.  "OK, I flunked. I can't win 100%, Kathy." Hardy then asked her if she is able to read thoughts as well as pick up vibrations from objects. When she indicated affirmatively, Hardy concentrated on the contents of his box. "I get 'miniature banana.'" She was correct, not with her guess, but about her ability to perform both types of "psychic" feats with equal success -- at least on this occasion.

Another "psychic" in the audience was identified as Donna Jean (DJ), pastor of a metaphysical church in Tampa who also teaches classes in "psychic development." In contrast to the first "psychic," who accepted her "flunk" with grace and good humor, DJ said dourly of TBS, "I feel a little sorry for them, because they're limiting themselves, not allowing the angels to work with them." When I offered to pay the angels $1,000 to work with us, DJ responded, "We really don't care what you have in your boxes (to which her students in the audience applauded). We don't even want to participate with this, because the angels don't care."

DJ had instead pre-arranged her own demonstration of "dowsing." Prior to airtime, she had asked Fountain to write down a list of five items (picture, clock, stapler, paperweight, spoon) and to select one item and place it in a box. On air, Fountain had an assistant bring out the unsealed (but closed) container. Curiously, DJ began her performance by saying, "This is the first time that I've done anything like this." She then asked Fountain to hold out her left hand, palm up, and proceeded to suspend a small pendulum above Fountain's hand. "My negative is back and forth, and my positive is a circle. I'm asking (presumably of the angels), 'Is there a picture in the box?' (pendulum swings back and forth), and it says 'No.' Is there a clock? (pendulum swings in a circle). Is there a stapler? (back and forth). No, not. Paperweight? (circle). So we're getting two. Or a spoon? (back and forth)."

DJ then observed, "People say to me, 'Well, you're moving the pendulum [yourself].' Well, why would I move it?" (Perhaps because if she didn't move it herself, it wouldn't move at all -- her wrist/hand actions, as I suggested later in the show, are clearly seen on the tape.) She then repeated the procedure, but this time dowsing over the box rather than over Fountain's hand. "Picture? (back and forth, then circle). Don't tell me it's a picture in here. Clock is saying 'No.' (back and forth). Stapler, paperweight, spoon? (still swinging back and forth)." She then asks Fountain, "Did you put a picture in here?"

To recap: DJ received positive indications for "clock" and "paperweight" when she dowsed over Fountain's hand, but only for "picture" when dowsing over the container. Her official selection was "picture." Fountain then lifted the lid off the container and revealed, "Actually, I put a clock in there."

Not missing a beat, DJ said, "OK, 'cause it was 'Yes' to clock, so . . . [also to] paperweight but then it said 'No,' so it went back to clock." I pointed out that it also said "Yes" to another item (remember her official selection?), giving her a greater than 50% chance of "success" with pure guesswork. DJ's reply: "Well, we can play the tape back (we can indeed!). . . . It doesn't really prove anything except that dowsing works." I agree. When performed in this manner (with three possible "correct" selections out of five choices), dowsing "works" -- precisely 60% of the time.

To add further controversy, after a commercial break Fountain announced that DJ and others felt that the clock looked very much like a paperweight (which it did). But Fountain, who had personally selected the clock and placed it in the box, had not appreciated this ambiguity until that moment, and it was the dowsing over Fountain, and not  over the object itself, that had yielded the "positive" indication for paperweight. Coincidence, guesswork, and a demonstration contrived to succeed 60% of the time seemed a far more likely explanation than did any "reality" to dowsing with the angels.

DJ's technique was incompatible with the TBS box challenge because she required a list of possible contents to ask the "angels" yes-or-no questions about. During the program I carelessly gave the impression that the only way TBS could scientifically test her technique would be to provide her with a list of "10-million items" to choose from. (Actually, with seven boxes and a list of only ten  choices for each box, if DJ could correctly divine the contents of all seven boxes,  the 10,000,000:1 odds against simply guessing correctly all seven times would satisfy TBS that an apparently true "psychic" feat had been performed.) Smiljanich did correctly state that TBS could indeed scientifically test DJ's technique, and that we would be more than willing to do so (but she and the "angels" are not interested).

There were numerous incorrect guesses of our boxes' contents called in from viewers at home, as well as several more from the studio audience. One woman in the studio guessed, "Three is an antique watch, two a tie clip, and one a men's pin." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  But after Fountain walked away, beyond the ability of the microphone to pick up the woman's voice, she made another guess (confirmed by Smiljanich): a crystal rock.

At the program's end, Smiljanich opened box #1, revealing a fossilized trilobite, an animal that lived over 500-million years ago; Hardy's box #2 contained a tiny umbrella; in box #3, I had packed a lunch -- a tuna sandwich (hold the mayo) and some grapes. The woman stood up again: "What's that? That one is a rock. I said a crystal rock. I said that." Smiljanich: "I'm sorry, but that's not a crystal." Woman: "But it's a type. I was the closest." Fountain: "It isn't a crystal, though." Woman: "OK, but it's a fossil rock. . . . And that's three?" No, it was box #1 (an earlier caller had in fact guessed "a rock" for box #3). We offered to test the woman again. Fountain said, "We'll get together afterwards and see if they're willing to bend any on this. But she said 'crystal, crystal rock'; he says it's a fossil and that it's a different thing." No bending -- a fossilized trilobite is simply not a crystal. And when Smiljanich showed the woman the fossil after the show, she agreed that it was nothing like a crystal. But she did not agree to be tested further by TBS.

Another woman in the studio audience had said earlier that "there's a possibility that [in one of the boxes] there is a round, brass or goldish-looking coin that seems to have writing on it that may not be from this country." Wrong.  Explaining that her "psychic gifts flow most freely . . . when I decide to help other people that have a need," she apparently agreed with Donna Jean that we panelists did have a need of sorts -- to be put down. But her flowing gifts got gummed up again: "What I guess that's in all three boxes [are] your egos." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  For as Smiljanich, speaking for the panel, observed, "I don't know that mine would fit in that little box."

This article appeared in the Fall 1994 Tampa Bay Skeptics Report.

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