The Rootclaim $100,000 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.

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.

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.

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).

Active challenges

Syria Chemical Attacks

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.

2020 US Election Fraud

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.

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)

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.

Vitamin D

We are offering a $100,000 bet that vitamin D is an effective treatment against COVID-19.
This challenge is intended to show that the reluctance to implement a vitamin D protocol today is irrational. A decision-maker who is not promoting the treatment despite its low risk is implicitly claiming that the probability that this protocol is better than existing treatments is low. But that would also mean that taking the bet is very profitable. This conflict exposes the irrationality in current decision making.

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.

Additional topics

Want to debate any of our other findings? Perhaps you think flight MH17 was downed by Ukraine, or that vaccines cause Autism? Let us know at info@rootclaim.com, and we’ll consider it.

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. 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. 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 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.”

See his full blogpost here.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Potentially losing this bet would be awful publicity.
  3. Even if it is just a trick - why isn't anyone taking the easy money?

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

  1. It's easy to claim that you're right when there's no risk. By introducing a risk, people are incentivized to truly consider the reliability of their conclusions, and that is our true goal.
  2. An expert who is truly confident of their conclusion should expect a far better than 50% chance of winning a debate in front of competent judges and should be able to convince investors to fund the $100,000.
  3. We would love to be able to copy James Randi's challenge and just offer the prize to anyone who could prove 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 (otherwise, 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.
  4. 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.
  5. We are willing to reduce the stakes 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.
  6. On the flip side, it is safe to assume that if we claimed that vaccines cause autism (99.9% wrong according to Rootclaim) and offered the same $100,000 stakes, then we would get dozens of applications every day from experts who are truly and justifiably confident that vaccines do not cause autism.

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.