The Rootclaim Challenge

    Talk is cheap

    Public discourse is polluted with overconfident claims that carry zero repercussions if wrong. The list of topics is endless: this country lied, that candidate cheated, this food treats a sickness, that convict is innocent.

    While spurious claims are often harmless, the phenomenon becomes more concerning when wrong information causes people, organizations, and governments to support or adopt harmful policies.

    The challenge

    We’re following the model set by James Randi’s One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. James Randi (1928-2020) did the world a great service when he offered to pay anyone who could demonstrate paranormal powers in a lab setting. In doing so, he dramatically simplified public discourse on the subject. Previously, people were forced to debate each paranormal claim separately, and once one was shown fraudulent, another one would quickly replace it. Thanks to his challenge, people could quickly determine that all such claims are false, since for each paranormal claim, it is near certain there is at least one claimant who would like a million dollars, and thus the lack of applicants indicates they know the claim is false.

     

    In the wake of James Randi’s passing in 2020, Rootclaim is launching its own challenge, betting $100,000 on the accuracy of our analyses. When interested onlookers see that one side is willing to take a risk while the other is not, they have a very strong tool to determine which side is more confident that the evidence backs their claims, and is, therefore, more likely to be correct. Furthermore, a public betting challenge implies much stronger confidence in a claim than a standard bet between two people. In a personal bet, each side only claims to understand the issue better than the other. In contrast, in a public offer, the challenger is claiming that there is not one person in the world who has a better understanding of the issue and holds the opposing opinion.

     

    When you see a reliable public betting challenge with real stakes, you can be very confident the claim is true at a probability that is significantly above 50% (assuming 1:1 odds are being offered).

     

    Active challenges

    The following Rootclaim conclusions are currently available for the challenge. Want to debate some of our other findings? Let us know at [email protected], and we’ll consider it.  

    Analysis 

    Conclusion

    Probability

    Who killed Al Jazeera Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh?

    An IDF shooter shot Shireen, not due to crossfire.

    87%

    Who carried out the chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria on August 21, 2013?

    Opposition forces in Syria (Liwa al-Islam) carried out the chemical attack

    96%

    Was there widespread fraud in the 2020 US election?

    The election was no different than previous elections, with minor fraud incidents that did not change the outcome.

    91%

    What is the source of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)?

    The virus was developed during 

    gain-of-function

     research and was released by accident.

    89%

    Does Vitamin D reduce the severity of COVID-19 outcomes?*

    Vitamin D reduces the odds for severe COVID-19 by a factor of around 5.*

    49%

    * This analysis was released prior to new variants and Covid vaccines and is therefore not up to date. If you wish to challenge the original conclusion, please contact us to set the exact criteria.

    Format

    The following are the default parameters and conditions of the Rootclaim challenge, but we are flexible, so feel free to contact us with offers and modifications.

    Qualifying for the challenge

    The challenge, which takes the form of a debate between a Rootclaim representative and the challenger, will be based on all currently available evidence. The goal here is not to trip up or trap the opponent, but to determine which hypothesis is better supported by the evidence. If you have new evidence, or evidence we overlooked (including those dealing with the priors or “Starting Point” section of the analysis), it should first be shared so that we can update the analysis. If it doesn’t significantly change the conclusion, the challenge can be accepted.

    We are not claiming to have better evidence, but rather aim to demonstrate the superiority of probabilistic reasoning over human reasoning when evaluating the same evidence. 

    Nonetheless and in order to encourage and show our appreciation for those who provide new evidence that changes our analysis enough to withdraw the challenge, Rootclaim will reward such contributors with a $1,000 reward (Note: if the new evidence is publicly available on the web or in a book, article, etc., Rootclaim would only pay the reward if 30 days have passed since the initial publication and if we have not already addressed it or wrote that we are aware of it and will be addressing it in the future). 

    Financial and legal aspects

    Both sides will deposit the amount wagered ($100,000 by each side, unless another sum is agreed upon) in an escrow account, as a precondition to starting the challenge.

    The expenses for the debate (e.g., transaction fees, lawyers, Judges fees, etc.) will be taken out of the total cash pool, reducing the prize accordingly. 

    All disputes shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of Tel-Aviv, Israel.

    Judges selection

    Both sides will first agree on two judges with strong analytical skills, no previous endorsement of either side, no relevant biases, who declare they will examine both hypotheses equally, and with experience pertinent to the challenge (For example, a judge in a challenge to our analysis of the chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria in 2013 should be able to understand organic chemistry, ballistics, geolocation, video forensics, etc).

    Choosing judges will be done publicly on Twitter, so evasion attempts by either side, such as offering biased judges, are exposed.

    Alternatively, Rootclaim is willing to accept other fair judges selection procedures, such as that proposed by Steve Kirsch (as it was published on his site on September 1st, 2022). To summarize his method: Both sides Agree on a consulting company and on the general characteristics of the judges (e.g., experience in a certain field). The consulting company selects the judges based on the characteristics and without interference from the sides. Each side can then eliminate one of the selected judges and the remainder of the judges are used for the challenge. 

    Debate structure

    • Each side will provide his case in text format (PDF) to the judges and the other side, at least 10 days before the debate. This will include all evidence and statistics not already included in the original analysis and their sources. 

    • Unless otherwise agreed upon, the debate will be held in online video format, over a maximum of two days. 

    • The winner of a coin flip toss decides who will present their case first.

    • Each side will present its case for up to four hours.

    • The other side then responds for up to two hours, followed by an optional final rebuttal of up to one hour. 

    • The Judges can then ask each side specific questions, with a response time of up to 30 minutes. This step repeats itself until the judges are satisfied and have no more questions. 

     

    Winning

    • Each judge will decide which of the two hypotheses is more likely

    • Each judge will write down his decision, without consulting or sharing his decision with the other judge or any other party. 

    • If both Judges agree, the prize pool, minus the debate expenses, is paid to the winner. Otherwise, it is split equally.

    Q&A

    If this were real you would've lost the money by now. What's the catch?

    There is no catch. We truly strongly believe Rootclaim is superior to human reasoning, so we are confident we will win. This is also evident by our track record - many Rootclaim analyses that were considered very controversial later became widely accepted when new evidence emerged.

    Most people who hold a strong opposing belief prefer to assume there is some fine print that makes the challenge unwinnable, rather than considering they may simply be wrong.

    Still suspicious? There's an easy test: simply apply to the challenge and make all communications public so any weaseling could be exposed.

    Is the money real? Whose money is it?

    Yes. The funds from our side are pledged by our founder, Saar Wilf, and both sides will put the money in escrow before the debate begins. Saar has already funded a similar challenge for The Brain Preservation Foundation. The $100,000 reward went to the first team to perfectly preserve the brain of a large mammal. The prize money was paid in full to 21st Century Medicine in 2018.

    How come no one has won yet? It's easy money for any expert in the relevant field.

    Not only has no one won the challenge yet, but no one has even taken it on. Some people claim they will apply, but no one does.

    The reason is very simple: for each subject, there are two types of people who strongly disagree with a Rootclaim conclusion:

    1. A few experts in the field who have studied the evidence thoroughly.

    2. The many people who trust those experts.

    The second group won't apply because they know they don't have enough knowledge to debate the issue And the experts don't apply because they know the evidence doesn't support their conclusion with as much certainty as they publicly claim. While they still believe what they claim (they are human), they also understand that they may fail to protect it under serious scrutiny.

    The only person who expressed serious interest in applying for the Rootclaim challenge is Scott Alexander, a US psychiatrist and the author of the rationality blog Astral Codex Ten. After discussing the challenge with him, it became clear that he largely expected to win on a technicality, as the challenge initially required health organizations to recognise vitamin D as an effective treatment for COVID-19. Scott didn’t expect this to happen on such a short time scale, which is an assessment that we now share. Shortly after publishing our vitamin D analysis, and after discussing it with leaders in the field, we realized that there is currently little incentive for health institutions to research and adopt unprofitable treatments. It is one of the multiple systemic failures we stumbled upon in our work (others being the international scientific community’s initial reluctance to consider alternatives to the zoonotic hypothesis of the origin of COVID-19 and Western governments’ rush to blame the Syrian government for the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013).

    After a short discussion with Scott, we were willing to accommodate his request for a $10,000 challenge, as opposed to the $100,000 challenge we had advertised. However, we required it to be judged by an arbitrator, as we were not testing health institutions' ability to react to changing science, but rather vitamin D’s effectiveness as a treatment. Following the discussion, Scott felt his confidence that vitamin D is ineffective was somewhat reduced, and the probability of winning under the new terms was too low for his risk profile.

    He describes his experience with us in his blog:

    “I talked to Saar Wilf of Rootclaim, who was very helpful and responsive, and we had a good discussion about the evidence in favor and against. The result: Saar convinced me to shift from a 75% probability that Vitamin D doesn’t work to more like a 66-70% probability; I convinced Saar to back off from his previous betting terms that scientists would soon acknowledge Vitamin D worked better than steroids or Remdesivir (not because he thought Vitamin D didn’t work, just because science isn’t self-correcting enough to change its mind that quickly or conclusively, which I agree with). We tried to come up with some other agreeable set of terms but weren’t able to make something work given my relatively high level of loss aversion. Overall I came out of the discussion with a high level of respect for Saar, and I’d like to investigate Rootclaim further at some point.”

    See his full blog post here.

    As demonstrated here, we’re serious about the challenges we have posed and stand firm behind our analyses. We are additionally willing to make an honest effort to accommodate the candidate’s terms should they require reasonable adjustments.

    This is just a marketing gimmick. It's worth losing $100,000 for the publicity.

    One of the objectives of the challenge is certainly to promote the use of probabilistic methods and elevate public discourse, which is very valuable but would not result in a return of $100,000 value to us. We make no money from the platform, and we don't even plan to make any revenues off Rootclaim in the foreseeable future. We're currently solely focused on helping humanity become more rational.

    Anyway, even if it is just a marketing gimmick - why isn't anyone taking the easy money?

    I know I’m right but I can’t risk $100,000.

    People routinely make overconfident claims that fit their political and personal biases without any repercussions. When a cost is introduced (“skin in the game”) people are forced to honestly consider their positions, their biases, the reliability of the sources they use, etc., and that is our true goal.

    A challenger who is truly confident in their conclusion should expect a far better than 50% chance of winning a debate in front of competent judges. Applicants who can’t afford to risk $100,000 are encouraged to pool funds together or even crowdfund it. We are also willing to reduce the stakes as low as $10,000 for applicants already involved in public debate on the issue. Winning such a debate would achieve our goals of promoting rationality regardless of the money won.

    If you are so sure in your conclusion, why not allow a risk-free challenge?

    We would love to be able to copy James Randi's challenge and just offer the prize to anyone who could show a Rootclaim conclusion is wrong. But unlike paranormal claims that can be tested in a lab, there is no way to prove who is right (if there was, we would just use this method instead of probabilistic inference). The best we could come up with is a debate in front of unbiased professional judges, which leaves us open to human error, and a risk of loss even if we’re right.

    Rootclaim conclusions are expressed as probabilities. If a hypothesis is calculated as being 90% likely, there's still a 10% chance it's wrong, which translates to a risk of losing the debate.

    If only one side takes a risk, the other side is incentivized to participate without thoroughly studying the issue, just for this low chance of winning the prize due to a mistake.