Monday, November 30, 2009

Paranormal investigation and kidneys

I don't know if any of the regular readers noticed or remembered, but over a month ago I wrote something about the Independent Investigations Group (IIG), and the reasons why we need to investigate paranormal claims. And then I removed the post. But now it's up again. There's a funny story behind this.

Back in October, I sat in on an IIG meeting. One of the things they talked a lot about was this woman, Anita Ikonen, who was flying in from North Carolina next month to have her ability tested. Her claim? She can tell whether someone is missing internal organs by just looking at them. So IIG proposed the following test: Given six people with eleven kidneys, determine which person is missing a kidney, and also determine whether it is the left or right kidney. Perform this test three times. If she gets all three correct, she would move on to formal testing for the $50,000 prize. If she gets one or more incorrect, she fails the test.

It may seem like a simple enough test, but there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. For example, if people lost their kidney through disease, this might change their smell or skin color slightly. Therefore IIG only used kidney donors. What if the kidney donors have scars? Let's give all the subjects identical clothing which would hide those scars. At the IIG meeting, they were talking about bunny suits, but it seems in the end they just used t-shirts, jeans, and straw hats. with sheets covering their hair. Also, they all have their back facing Anita, to reduce the possibility for cold reading.

Furthermore, the audience should not know beforehand who is missing their kidney. We didn't want Anita cold reading the audience. Nor should the experimenter know. And ideally, nor should the test subjects themselves. The test subjects would be told: "Each of the other five people are missing a different internal organ. Anita will be looking for one particular missing organ. You are the control group, without any missing organs." Or that was the plan, anyways. I'm not sure whether they were able to pull it off, or if information leaked to the test subjects.

At the IIG meeting, I pointed out that the test subjects could determine that she was looking for kidneys if they just looked at the IIG website. It was in the public meeting summary from the previous month. They agreed that they should probably remove that information. Actually, I don't think they ever did remove the information. Oh well.

Anyways, I remembered that I had mentioned the kidneys on my own blog. So I decided to take it down. My blog is probably too obscure to really leak the information, but I figured that there was no harm in taking it down to be safe.

The post has been put up again because Anita Ikonen has already been tested on November 21.* The results? You can see a video of the entire test on UStream. She got one trial correct out of three. Therefore she failed. End of story.

Or not. As Jim Underdown said, "If there’s one thing more frustrating than trying to get paranormal claimants to prove their abilities, it’s getting them to admit they failed after flunking a legitimate test." Though Anita Ikonen admitted that she failed the test, she felt still felt as if she probably had something special. After all, she did get that one trial correct, and supposedly that was the one trial she felt sure about. She also got the correct person and wrong kidney in another trial. So as she put it, it's like she got half right.

I think it's very human to cling onto closely held beliefs as Anita is doing. I don't blame her for it. But she's still wrong.

Getting "half correct" does not mean there is a 50% chance that she still has some ability. By pure guessing, getting half correct is exponentially more likely than getting all correct. By pure guessing, there's a 23% chance of getting at least one trial correct. There's a 1/1728 chance of getting all three correct, which sounds small, but IMO is not nearly small enough. It's an acceptable false alarm rate only because this is the preliminary test.

And furthermore, she did not get half correct. She got one third correct. If her claims really were true, we would expect her to get the right person and right kidney. If anything, the fact that she got the right person but wrong kidney suggests cold reading. Cold reading is much more effective at determining the correct person than it is at determining the correct kidney. For example, you might be able to guess the right person by their fidgeting (one audience member claimed to have guessed two correctly based on fidgeting), but fidgeting probably tells you very little about which kidney is missing.

And there is another caveat. Most kidney donors donate their left kidney. Anita guessed the left kidney every time.

Note that cold reading is possible even if the reader is unaware of it. For example, when she guessed the left kidney every time, was this because she was intentionally playing the numbers, or because experience had taught her intuition to expect missing left kidneys?

So looking at the results, I think it's quite likely that she got one just by chance. It's also possible that she was doing cold reading. Either way, she failed to pass the test. End of story.

*See the IIG website for more information on the Anita Ikonen test. Regrettably, I was not available to see the test myself, though I did skim the UStream video. I was otherwise occupied.