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.
This can be as straightforward as the police investigating the wrong suspect, or as complex as war threats based on wrongful accusations of war crimes.
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.
Since there is no lab test or a clear-cut way to determine whether a Rootclaim analysis is correct, we have to rely on outside expert judges. That means there is a real risk of loss to either side due to human error, even if their hypothesis is more likely. Therefore, to deter repeated submissions with the intention of winning by luck, we require the challenger to risk the same amount. Applicants who can’t afford to risk $100,000 are encouraged to pool funds together or even crowdfund it. We are willing to reduce the stakes as low as $10,000 for applicants already involved in public debate on the issue.
The motivation here is not to make money, but to elevate the level of public discourse. 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. Someone who is confident of their stance will be excited at the prospect of a high reward, and in the process of preparing for the challenge will have to be much more objective and self-critical, and may eventually realize the weaknesses in their original claim - something that never happens in a heated online exchange.
More importantly, 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).
Rootclaim’s first public challenge was related to our finding that Syrian sarin attacks were perpetrated by the opposition, not the government. This contradicts the position confidently claimed by virtually every Western intelligence agency, human rights organization, and research institute that has studied the issue.
Our analysis was first published in December 2016, and the challenge was offered in April 2018. In June 2021 the issue was effectively resolved, when new evidence showed that a video of opposition fighters launching chemical rockets strongly matches the location from which the attack was launched in opposition-controlled territory, thus demonstrating Rootclaim’s conclusion was correct.
We now consider this issue closed, but of course, anyone still wishing to take this challenge is very welcome to do so.
The results of the 2020 US elections have been disputed by many, including former President Trump, claiming the Biden victory was obtained through various means of election fraud. Our analysis isolates the various claims and possible methods of fraud, and finds that there were legitimate opportunities for fraud, as in many elections, but that overall the likelihood of rampant fraud is low, just like other US elections.
We are offering $100,000 to anyone claiming widespread fraud, who can win a debate judged by unbiased professionals. The debate format is identical to the Syria challenge.
Most of the world accepts China’s claim that COVID-19 developed zoonotically. Our analysis shows this is likely wrong: while most pandemics have a zoonotic origin, in the case of COVID-19 there is ample evidence indicating it is the result of a lab leak in Wuhan. This is more than an academic debate, or about pointing fingers--it can have serious implications on how to best fight this pandemic, as well as prevent future ones.
We are offering $100,000 to anyone claiming a zoonotic origin, with no involvement of WIV, who can win a debate judged by unbiased professionals. The debate format is identical to the Syria challenge.
We hope this challenge accelerates understanding of the findings and helps save the millions of lives that will likely be lost while waiting for further studies.
If this were real you would've lost the money by now. What's the catch?
Is the money real? Whose money is it?
How come no one has won yet? It's easy money for any expert in the relevant field.
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 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 accomodate 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 remesdevir (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.”
As demonstrated here, we’re serious about the challenges we have posed and stand firm behind our analyses. Of course, we are 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.
I know I’m right but I can’t risk $100,000.
In short, while the challenge structure is not perfect, the main reason no one is applying is different: it’s the lack of confidence by those who disagree with our conclusions.
Rootclaim Launches Open Analysis Platform That Surpasses Human ReasoningA substantial body of research has shown that the human brain is unreliable when it comes to accurately assessing complex problems. This means the only way to navigate a sea of half-truths is to complement humanity's fallible intuition with objective probabilistic analysis.
Anti-Fraud Experts Launch News-Accuracy Site, Find U.S. Probably Blamed Wrong Side for Syria Chemical AttackIn applying the fraud-detection approach, Rootclaim seeks to break news events into similar bite-sized pieces and assign values to the individual pieces of evidence, factoring for uncertainty and source reliability. The individual pieces are then loaded into an algorithm that draws big-picture conclusions.