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A million roubles to pass the Houdini test

A group of Russian researchers have decided to call out TV shows about clairvoyants for promoting fake science.

The group, led by scientist Alexander Panchin and sceptic Mikhail Lidin, say they will use the latter’s YouTube channel to “show viewers why they shouldn’t believe everything they see on their TV screens,” Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reports.

They are the people behind Russia’s Harry Houdini Prize, which regularly invites the stars of psychic shows to replicate their feats under controlled conditions for a prize of one million roubles ($17,000; £13,000).

Mikhail Lidin told the paper “these programmes lead to people using faith-healers and fortune-tellers, signing up for worthless or even potentially harmful psychic training courses, and handing over money to swindlers”.

In response to suggestions that viewers should have enough sense to know they are watching an entertainment programme, Mr Lidin points to the consistently high levels of belief in the paranormal in Russia, especially since the fall of he Soviet Union. The shows should at least carry an on-screen warning that “everything you see here is fiction”, he adds.

‘Anti-prize’

Apart from explaining how various feats of clairvoyance can be faked, the campaigners highlight more serious matters such as times when psychic TV shows have tried to intervene in the conduct of legal cases. The impressive fees and free airtime the stars receive do not go unexplored either, they say.

Russia’s education ministry has also shown concern over paranormal programmes, and gave an “anti-prize” to the TNT entertainment channel’s Battle of the Clairvoyants as part of its True Science awards earlier this year. Some officials have suggested recognising “achievements in unmasking pseudo-science” as part of these awards.

Some TV soothsayers have been game enough to take part in the Harry Houdini Prize tests, most prominently Bakhyt Zhumatova, a finalist on Battle of the Clairvoyants, but with no success. As to why she and others would expose themselves to ridicule, Komsomolskaya Pravda concludes that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

Not all TV mediums get away with it. Komsomolskaya Pravda reports the case of Yuri Oleinin, a contestant on Battle of the Clairvoyants, now serving three years in prison for defrauding 20 people via a radio call-in programme.

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Bakhyt Zhumatova took failure in her stride

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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