A Mug of a Different Color
February 9, 2011
A Javanese sorcerer's claims of clairvoyance face three simple double-blind experiments.
A “sorcerer” claims he is a healer that can diagnose illness just by looking at the patient and/or by touching their hands and feet. After the illness is ‘diagnosed’, the patient is asked to drink some “jamu” (Javanese herbal medicine) according to the sorcerer’s prescription. He claims he can heal any illness, including cancer, diabetes, paralysis, black magic, etc. His clients supposedly come from all over Indonesia and include some well-known Indonesian political figures. He claims that all of his clients are cured by him and his methods, as long as they follow his “medical” advice and prescription. The sorcerer also claims he is clairvoyant; he claims to know the location of lost objects (e.g., lost wallet, watch, glasses, etc.) after a few seconds of meditation. His clients always find their missing item after he describes its whereabouts.
I have decided to test the sorcerer’s claim for clairvoyance by performed three simple double-blind experiments by using coffee mugs to cover a “lost” object. The sorcerer has to find the object hidden beneath one of the mugs. The first experiment was conducted on Thursday, December 23, 2010, in my building’s library at approximately 9:30 pm. For the first experiment I used a metal token I had gotten from my assistant. For reference, in the accompanying photo you can see the token lying between my Blackberry Storm2 and an Indonesian Rp 500 coin, which is about the same size as the token. I used two cameras for these experiments: a Canon PowerShot 640 in video setting, which was placed stationary on the table facing the mugs, and my Blackberry Storm2 video camera, which I used to record video of the sorcerer. The protocol of the experiment called for my assistant to randomly arrange eight mugs, under one of which he was to put the token. He then was to rearrange the mugs, again randomly. While my assistant rearranged the mugs, the sorcerer and I were to be outside the library. My assistant was to then knock on the library door before disappearing into another room. A few seconds after hearing the knock, both the sorcerer and I were to go inside the library, where he was to then pick which mug he believed had the token beneath it. If he chose the mug with the token, he was to place the token on the corner of the table. If not, he was to search for it under the other mugs before placing it on the corner of the table. I was to then knock on a cupboard to signal my assistant to hide the token again. A few seconds after the knock, my assistant was to start from the beginning again. When I asked the sorcerer about his chances of finding the object, he said “Insya Allah [God willing], 100%.”
After the first experiment, I am pleased to say that he flunked! He guessed correctly in only one of the eight trials. His excuse was that of the eight mugs, three were of colors that are difficult to “see” through. I put away the three mugs he contested and put the token under one of the five remaining mugs, asking if he could see through them. He said that he could, but then he complained that it was disconcerting to go outside, put on his shoes, wait, take off his shoes again, and go inside before performing the test. The sorcerer asked if it would be okay if he simply stepped outside facing outwards until I gave the signal. I agreed, so we adjusted the protocol for the second experiment. Before starting, I asked him what he thought his chances of finding the object this time were. Once again, he said “Insya Allah, 100%.” With only five mugs to choose from, he still guessed correctly only twice out of five trials—no more than would be expected by chance—so I flunked him again.
His excuse this time was that the “aura” of the token was not strong enough. For the third experiment, scheduled to be held on Sunday, December 25, at 10:00 pm, I asked the sorcerer to bring an object of his own with a very strong aura. He said he would bring a piece of bull skin, which is used for protection against black magic. On Sunday morning around 9:30 am, the sorcerer contacted me and asked that the third experiment be rescheduled for Monday night. He said that it is customary for him to fast every Monday, and his powers are at their peak every Monday night. I answered that my flight was scheduled to leave for Jakarta on Monday at 9:00 am, so it would be impossible for me to reschedule for Monday night. He sounded reluctant, but he agreed to participate in the third experiment as originally scheduled.
The sorcerer arrived at my house around 10:30 pm. He showed me his magical bull skin, which was held inside a pouch. Inside the pouch there were some rusty nails and dried flowers along with the bull skin. The flowers and nails are ‘enchanted’ to preserve the power of the bull skin so that its magic doesn’t fade away. For this experiment, I had sixteen mugs on the table. I asked the sorcerer if he had any objections to the color of the mugs. He put the pouch inside one of the darkest-colored mugs and then put it on the table and said that he could see the aura of the object through the mug. However, he said that he was not in his peak condition because he didn’t sleep at all the previous night. He had to heal somebody that had been cursed by black magic, which took him the entire previous night and into the day.
I had to eliminate two of the sixteen mugs from the experiment because they were too small for the pouch to fit inside. Another difference between the third experiment and the others was that I used a different room in the library to hide the sorcerer. The library had also gone through some furniture rearrangement between Thursday and Sunday. But the procedure for the third experiment was the same as for the first two.
After three tries without any hits, we decided to call it quits. His only explanation for his failure was that he was too tired to successfully complete the experiment. Even though he was unable to complete the task, I still praised him for showing up. He promised to contact me whenever he happened to be in Jakarta so that we could repeat the experiment once more.
I sent him an SMS on Friday January 21, 2011 and asked if he has plans to go to Jakarta. He wrote that he will be in Jakarta next February. I asked him to contact me once he arrived so we can do the experiment again. The only thing he wrote was “Injih”, which in the Javanese language can be construed as a non-committal yes. Let’s all see if he really does contact me next February...
NOTE: We are pleased to be able to share the results of this as a good example of a preliminary test to see if it was worthwhile to continue with more elaborate testing of the psychic’s claims. In this case, the psychic could not pass these simple tests. If he had done better, it would be worthwhile to conduct more elaborate and better controlled tests. In addition, we are thrilled to be able to work with skeptics from around the world and share with you some of their efforts.