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Women Who Stare at Kidneys

by Mark Edward, Dec 05 2009
Well, chalk one up for science once again! The big CFI/IIG test is over. It was a magnificent afternoon that held some surprises for everyone. The bottom line is that the claiment to supernormal powers; Anita Ikonen, failed. That’s really all anyone needs to know.
As I I mentioned in my last blog, the protocol was intense. Nothing could possibly slip by this team. It was like a Secret Service operation. In fact, it was probably better than that given their latest Obama bungling. The stillness in the room during the testing was almost as other-worldly as Anita’s fantastic claim: her “ability” as she calls it, to see into the bodies of 18 specially chosen people – three without kidneys. I was tasked with the job of keeping a very close eye on Anita and as you can clearly see from the picture below, I didn’t take my eyes off her for one second in the nearly three-hour test. That’s me lurking in the darkness just outside the frame of the screen/stage with Jim Uncderdown and Anita during the opening remarks:

Anita, Jim Underdown and myself (in darkest shadows, of course)

Jim’s reporting of the facts is probably the best take on this whole deal so far, so I will attach his review (from what happened, followed by a few of my own observations:

Human MRI Crashes and Burns

Anita Ikonen and James UnderdownAnita Ikonen and James Underdown 

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.

Such is the case of Anita Ikonen, a Swedish student in North Carolina who claimed to be able to see or feel her way into a person’s body and tell if that person is missing an organ or not. The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles has been in contact with Anita for over two years trying to get a handle on what she claims to be able to do, and how she might be tested.

After much communication, Anita and the IIG agreed on a demonstration protocol where she would be presented with 3 different groups of 6 people. In each group of six, one person would be missing a kidney and Anita would have to determine which person that was, and choose which kidney was missing. Anita agreed that she’d have to get all three choices correct in order to succeed and move on to try for the IIG’s $50,000 Paranormal Prize.

(It should be noted that setting up this demonstration is probably one of the most elaborate efforts ever to give a claimant an opportunity to show her stuff. We had to find, house, feed, and entertain 18-20 volunteers (4 of whom were missing kidneys – preferably right kidneys), secure a very expensive ultrasound machine (and a technician to run it), videotape and live stream the entire proceedings – all while monitoring a claimant who may or may not be trying to burn us out of $50,000. If Anita hadn’t flown herself to L.A. and sent a $750 deposit to cover our out-of-pocket expenses, all this would not have happened. IIG members Jim Newman and Steve Muscarella shouldered the bulk of this effort, with big kudos to Spencer Marks and several other IIG investigators.)

Anita flew to Los Angeles, and attempted to demonstrate her ability on Saturday, November 21st, 2009. That afternoon, she reconfirmed that our demonstration protocol was perfect, and told us that her ability to perform was intact. Just to make sure, we brought out a man before we began the demonstration whom we identified as missing a left kidney. Anita quickly (remember that) verified that she could see that his kidney was absent.

It was time for her to show her ability.

All things being equal, the odds to accurately pick all three missing kidneys were 1728 to 1. The probability equation for the 3 groups of six people (12 possible kidneys per group to choose from) looks like this:

(1/12) x (1/12) x (1/12) = 1/1728

These odds were a lot easier than what she’d have to beat if she were testing for the $50,000. But this was only a demonstration, so we gave her a fighting chance – something like hitting two numbers in a row on a roulette wheel – not impossible by luck alone, but not easily won either.

Anita studies the backs of Group #1 Anita looks for missing kidneys 

So how did she do? She failed. Unequivocally she failed the demonstration.

(See the whole test here: )

But even though she clearly failed the test, I have a problem. She got one right.

That’s a problem because instead of admitting that her alleged ability is disproved, she still thinks there is something special about herself and wants to set up another test. I’m sure she’ll convince others that she was at least somewhat successful too. That’s simply not true.

But wait. Is getting one right special? How extraordinary is such a feat?

Not a bit extraordinary! Let’s look at the odds.

The probability of her getting one of her 3 choices right is surprisingly high. Without getting into the statistical minutia about the odds, she had about a 1 in 4 chance (about 23%) of getting at least one choice right. Put in perspective, would you be amazed if someone asked you to guess a number from 1 to 4 and you got it right? Would that suggest paranormal ability? Hell no. It means nothing.

She had another advantage that helped her with the original odds. For certain medical reasons, most of the people by far who donate kidneys donate a left kidney. So a clear majority of the one-kidneyed people out there are missing their left kidney. Anita knew that before the demonstration.

So which kidney do you suppose she chose every time? The left! Every time.

Hmmm… sounds like someone was trying to shrink that 1728 to 1 down a bit. A smart gambler would bet left each time under the assumption that we could only find “lefties” for our test subjects. Had we been unaware of such a statistic, we might have accidentally shrunk her odds down to 216 to 1 – a far sight easier. (1/6) x (1/6) x (1/6) = 1/216

Score Sheet for Group #1 Score Sheet for Group #1 

Her consistent choosing “left” at least suggests that she’s playing the numbers and not really looking into the bodies. It looks like someone using math skills over paranormal skills.

Here’s another bit of food for thought. After seeing the missing kidney immediately that we told her about, she took almost a half hour studying each of the six-person groups. These volunteers were asked to sit still and quietly in front of a small crowd under stage lights while Anita shuffled back and forth behind them making notes. One of our IIG members who was monitoring the volunteers as they sat noticed a bit of fidgeting. It turned out that two of the most active fidgeters were missing kidneys. Were the one-kidneyed subjects anxious about being discovered? Was Anita looking for outward signs that might distinguish bi-kidneyed from uni-kidneyed volunteers? Makes you wonder…

Yet another complication that convinced her that she did better than she actually did was that one of the choices she made was the right person, but the wrong kidney. Should we give her credit for getting close? Let’s put it this way:

  • Would you give your dentist credit for pulling a tooth close to the bad tooth?
  • Would you want Anita deciding which lung should be removed if one were diseased?
  • Would you want your airline pilot to be close to landing the plane safely?

Close is the distance between impressive and meaningless.

Anita Ikonen’s degree of accuracy is completely consistent with that of a guesser. If she really had this ability, you’d think her results would stand apart from what probability would predict. They do not.

Anita failed the test clear and simple. She was and is no closer to winning the IIG $50,000 Paranormal Challenge or James Randi’s $1 Million Challenge than anyone else. The skeptical community should spend no more time on her.

One last thought. We asked 9 audience members who observed the demonstration to guess which kidney they thought was missing in each group. Someone who signed a worksheet KB scored as highly as Anita did and got one right.

Let’s hope KB goes on with her life as if nothing happened – which is the truth.

 See more about this test at:

Yes folks, we had one small problem. But we have taken a lot of time to explain the odds and the math is real. So no matter how Anita may try to spin the situation (and she has), she lost the test. Period. I have to admit that it was a bit eerie when she turned to me after the second test and after stopping early and not using up all 27 minutes allloted, told me point blank that she “felt very positive ” about that test and was sure that she had a hit. When Jim then took me aside and said to watch her even more closely because she had gotten a hit a during the break between tests, I was a tad bemused. Luck? Chance? ….or Woo? We were all surprised. My magical mind thought for a moment that the casual aside she had made to me (almost as if to herself) was a little …weird. Just a tad. She never said anything about the first test, so I was piqued. She was tired out and resigned about the third test before the results were in- and made a comment to me expressing the sentiment that she probably had missed that one. As it turned out – she got that one right!  Right person, wrong kidney. It would seem to me that if you could see into a person’s body, getting the correct kidney on the correct side should have been a cinch. This comment that she felt she hadn’t done very well on that test effectively cancelled my previous surge of magical transcendence that had briefly passed through me. I really like doing this type of work! I only wish there was a way to make a living from it.  Hold on, I seem to remember hearing something about a possible job working on a television seriess about skepticism. It was called “skeptic” something or other…
Watching Anita was very entertaining. In the process of observing her I even found a few things to cop for my own act! She is definitely part of the new crop of aspiring psychic super-stars to look out for. She was confident, but not over-confident, didn’t show any of the usual telltale signs of a woo priestess one might expect and carried on her conversations with a shyness that was disarming. She was well-dressed, attractive, educated and often self effacing. A far cry from a Sylvia Browne copy cat. As investigators, this should tell us all that we all need to watch this new breed of claiments even closer than the outwardly eccentric folks we are used to dismissing.
One thing I really liked was her intense “psychic” concentration. This was eventually followed by a sort of slight nod to herself, as if some other part of her was agreeing with a voice in her head that was guiding her. We can see a wide spectrum of this kind of “duel personality” syndrome from those of us who may occasionally mumble or talk to ourselves while doing mundane activities to the street person who carries on long conversations with an imaginary person. I’m not sure where exactly Anita fits into this spectrum, but it was an interseting affectation. This was usually an affirmative nod and I never saw a “no” response from her. If she’s deluded, it’s a deep form of self-hypnosis or psychosis.  As I watched her it was hard to see any signs of outright charlatanism.
Other things I made note of intrigued me. It was very telling when at one point during the pre-show discussions of the protocol, at she wanted us to make sure to explain to the audience that if she felt she couldn’t get any results on one or any of the three tests, she would choose to bow out rather that just guess. Okay, that was fair enough and added some credibility to her claim, but then she went on to say that this was part of what she was “portraying” to us. I think perhaps “portraying” might have been a bad choice of words for her to use. If one has “an ability,” one doesn’t portray it – they just have it, they use it and that’s it. A sly little vixen this one.
With Jim’s concise explanation,  all should be clear. She was blind guessing. My own sometimes irrational proclivity to fall into the “confirmation bias” trap so common in the minds of jaded mentalists or magicians (who should know better) plus that fact that nobody expected any hits at all and a “Connie Sonne style” wash-out, might have left me momentarily unnerved, but that’s about it.
I’m not a math person by any stretch of the imagination.  Odds, statistics and probability have always been a challenge for me. This is why tricks and mentalism that rely on numbers and math systems (such as magic squares) have always left me cold. I can’t grasp the simplest equation or binary system. I am not alone in this area and I,m pretty sure the average person (or believer in x-ray vision) will most likely fall into this same category. Math is a science and an undeniable reality. If you choose to ignore science, you ignore reality and go on believing in Atlantis and unicorns.
When all is said and done, anyone with the devotion and personal belief to go through the protocol, pay her own airline fares, sonogram rental and operator and then calmly sit through the whole affair without losing her cool or becoming defensive at least deserves an A for effort. Anita was a cute kid and a good sport. But I’m afraid until she can come up with a better score, she’s more in need of a psychiatrist than a psychic investigator.
The Machine That Couldn't Lie

The Machine That Couldn't Lie

And lastly, a final picture that for me sums it all up and looks just soooooo, eh, …..dramatic:

The IIG Gets Serious: The Final Questiong


So, Ladies and gentlemen,  here we have the hard work of dozens of people literally put to the test. In a world that seems to have gone berserk over any type of “reality television” and how to get famous, one would think that the sort of “dramatic premise” that this real-world-non-scripted spectacle we all witnessed would be just the right thing for the networks to snap up. And yet, no. Not even a casual local television truck on the street was there to be seen.

That’s the really unbelievable part of it for me.

50 Responses to “Women Who Stare at Kidneys”

  1. Sc00ter says:

    Why did you have to pay for all these people and housing? Seems like a waste of funds. The JREF makes the claimant pay for all supplies and resources in order to conduct the test. If they think they have the ability, it shouldn’t be a problem for them to pay this.

    • Susan Gerbic says:

      Scooter, I don’t think the IIG actually “housed” them, but just put them in a part of the center for a few hours and supplied them with food ect.

      Also remember that the IIG is not the JREF, I’m sure they deal with things differently.

      I think the big problem was finding 3 people with missing kidneys that no one knew and then they had to get them there early without any outside contact for several hours.

      • Sc00ter says:

        I realize they’re not the JREF but.. “We had to find, house, feed, and entertain 18-20 volunteers (4 of whom were missing kidneys – preferably right kidneys), secure a very expensive ultrasound machine (and a technician to run it), videotape and live stream the entire proceedings – all while monitoring a claimant who may or may not be trying to burn us out of $50,000.”

        That sounds to me like they’re flipping the cost, or at least most of it.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        yeah it does.

        She paid for the machine and the person to run it. I don’t know for sure but I think she sent the money before they shelled out the money

        Everything else the IIG paid for (I think).

        They are a large group with lots of talent, maybe some stuff was compted. I think also that this was a great gig to show what the IIG can do.

      • Anita Ikonen says:

        I paid for the expenses of the test. I sent the IIG money in advance, to cover for the ultrasound, test material, and refreshments, but undoubtedly there were other minor costs associated with the test that I was not burdened with, such as the travel expenses of those who attended, and more. For your information, the total cost for me was $500 for test expenses, excluding my travel and other costs, exceeding a grand total of over $1,000. But I was glad to do this, it was very meaningful for me, I am very happy with the results, and hopefully this can be a contribution to Skepticism.

  2. Max says:

    If she only had to pick the kidneyless person and not the side, then the chance of making more than one correct guess would be about 7%.

  3. Max says:

    Why not put the subjects behind a screen?
    She can see through clothes, but not through a screen?

  4. steelsheen11b says:

    Why would you claim to have this alleged super power? How would you scam knuckleheads with this “power”?

    • MadScientist says:

      People with strange notions don’t necessarily have a desire to scam anyone. When you study known scamsters like Sylvia Browne or John Edward, it seems far more likely that they don’t actually believe a word they say; they know they are frauds and assiduously avoid being tested by people who know the same tricks.

      • steelsheen11b says:

        I think that scam artist like Browne and Edwards start out trying to make a money off of the rubes but somewhere along the line they start believing in their own BS. Paradoxically THAT belief is what catapults them to the top tier.

        I guess I’m not understanding what the angle is here or am I not understanding that she can “diagnose” more then just missing organs.

      • aaron says:

        The method is a sort of parlay of this ability to charging for magic cancer screenings etc…

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        I guess you would have to go to the JREF threads and her site and the anti-site for her. Sorry I don’t have all the links handy but I think they are in the article above. I think she made some statement that she was able to relieve some headaches for someone. But she said that she was only quoting the man whose headaches went away, she isn’t making this claim. (well I guess she is since she mentioned it?)

        I seem to remember that she does make other claims. I’m sure someone else will clarify.

      • M- says:

        UMMMMM so she gives a good massage or gave someone an aspirin??

  5. Jonquill says:

    Brent Atwater is doing well scamming knuckleheads with the same sort of super power.

  6. Jim Carr says:

    Jim the host, stated flat out that nobody in the room knew the target, including him. Also, in trial #2, Anita received the two minute warning but not the one minute warning. Please explain your statement about her finishing early and Jim telling you she got a hit.

  7. MadScientist says:

    Short story: If your trusted your nephrological examinations to Anita, you would demonstrate that looks could kill.

  8. MadScientist says:

    I would guess that Anita may genuinely be convinced of her claim and that she’s latching onto that one hit to support her belief much like problem gamblers believe they’ve got that special touch but just have a bad run of luck. Jim indicates that the probabilities were explained to her, so I don’t know what more can be done. If she wants another test it doesn’t seem fair to let her waste her money (not to mention what the CFI must be spending on the test), but on the other hand if she really wants a second test and it’s refused, she may tell herself that it was refused because the CFI knows she’s got a gift. What a dilemna.

  9. taanstafl says:

    I expect you would want to keep your testing as double-blind as possible. That means not disclosing intermediate results.

    It’s depressing that these people continue to claim paranormal abilities even after being shown to have scored no more than random chance in a controlled test. The ability of humans to self-deceive is endless!

  10. Ralph says:

    “Were the one-kidneyed subjects anxious about being discovered?”

    This was a serious failure in protocol, for me. If I was a charlatan in Anita’s place, I would ask about the details of the protocol. Once I knew the subjects were aware of what it is that singled them out, I wold just look for signs that made them stand out in some way. Many sincere people who truly believe they have paranormal abilities are intuitively good at reading people in regards to their imagined abilities. A skilled, trained charlatan/magician would be delighted with this.

    None of the subjects should know why exactly they were needed there for.

    • Max says:

      For all I know, one-kidneyed people drink more water and have to urinate more often, hence the fidgeting. It’s hard to foresee all possible tells.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        The subjects were told that they were missing an organ. So the missing kidney people thought that others were missing a kidney or maybe a lung. They didn’t know if they were the subject until they got on stage and heard what she was looking for. At least I think they were on stage when it was mentioned that kidneys were what she was searching for?

        I mean how many organs can be missing from a body and still be healthy looking on the outside? A lung is the only thing that comes to mind.

        I was surprised that Anita did not make an excuse for the 3rd person. When they did the ultrasound they said that there was a bit of the kidney still there, then they clarified that it was probably scar tissue. I would think she would reach for anything to show that she got the side incorrect on the third person.

      • MadScientist says:

        Appendix, a few lobes of the liver, spleen, tonsils, breasts, larynx, any number of lymph nodes. There are quite a few organs that can be hacked at or removed.

      • oldebabe says:


      • Max says:

        Various reproductive organs, most of the colon.

      • Brain. Sylvia Browne for example.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        gosh you people are smart!

  11. Max says:

    Did Anita agree on a protocol for the final $50,000 test, or just for the demonstration? I’d want to know the final protocol before spending time and money to do a demo.

    If she did agree on the final protocol, did it have additional controls?

  12. Lance M. says:

    As a hard core skeptic I applaud the test. I also applaud the applicant for being EXTREMELY professional and reasonable. I noticed some rather snarky questions from the audience which Anita certainly did NOT deserve.

    I will also mention that finding a test subject who behaves in such am decent manner is probably a once in a lifetime occurrence.


  13. tmac57 says:

    Is it just me, or does Anita resemble the Alison DuBois character on Medium played by Patricia Arquette? Coincidence?

    • Anita Ikonen says:

      No, it is not just you. I’ve been told that before. Once a waitress became all excited because she really believed I was her, and it took a great deal to convince her that I wasn’t. I think my Swedish accent finally did it.

  14. Max says:

    Are most of the paranormal challenge applicants women?

  15. pzdum says:

    mark edward,

    you little fool of a man….

  16. pzdum says:


    these stupid games are the reason why you are all going to be annihilated..

  17. pzdum says:

    btw, you insignificant fool…

    how we won the James Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge…

    • Conspiracy Cafe…..meh, enough said. Not worth the effort of clicking my mouse button.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        thank you Jose, I was curious but didn’t click. You never know what might be lurking on the other end of a link.

      • I’m just following Doctor’s orders. She advised I must limit mouse clicking due to RSI unless absolutely necessary.

        Ooooooh! Vitual bubblewrap game!

      • Anita Ikonen says:

        Would you stop that? I read plenty about paranormal claimants and paranormal tests and challenges before finally having my own, and I do admit, that made me quite worried that I would encounter the same conspiracies that other woos experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the IIG Skeptics I dealt with were exceedingly friendly and honest with me, and that we had none of the quarrels or disputes that you often see between claimants and their Skeptical organizations, and that unlike most, we were able to arrive at a testing protocol and to carry out the test in full.

        I have been approached by several woos who try to coerce me into accusations against the IIG of cheating, meanwhile I assure them that the test was carried out correctly and that I failed all on my own.

        Mark Edward is one of the most wonderful people I have ever met, he was always at hand at the test for me to share my thoughts with, and knowing Skeptics such as him assures me that Skeptics aren’t resentful of woos simply for what we are or what we might experience, but that it is the immoral, harmful and careless actions of woos that we need to stop.

        So, stop it.

  18. MadScientist says:

    Oh great, Mabus is off his medications again.

  19. Max says:

    I heard there’s a job for real psychics. Work at your leisure, earn over $100 an hour. Serious applicants should already know the employer’s contact info.

  20. Bill says:


    Please – never put the words “great” and “Mabus” next to each other again. Not even in separate clauses separated by a punctuation mark.


  21. Daylightstar says:

    Please take note of the following jref page:
    VisionFromFeeling Formerly Alenara

  22. Anita Ikonen says:

    Mark Edward wrote:

    “One thing I really liked was her intense “psychic” concentration. This was eventually followed by a sort of slight nod to herself, as if some other part of her was agreeing with a voice in her head that was guiding her. We can see a wide spectrum of this kind of “duel personality” syndrome from those of us who may occasionally mumble or talk to ourselves while doing mundane activities to the street person who carries on long conversations with an imaginary person. I’m not sure where exactly Anita fits into this spectrum, but it was an interseting affectation. This was usually an affirmative nod and I never saw a “no” response from her. If she’s deluded, it’s a deep form of self-hypnosis or psychosis. As I watched her it was hard to see any signs of outright charlatanism.”

    While I was feeling into the subjects, when ever a perception formed that was very clear and conclusive, I would nod to myself in affirmation as I received a perception that had formed to completion. The perceptions form based on something that I feel, and they gradually build up. I found great variety among the subjects, in that the perceptions from some built quickly and to completion, whereas from other subjects they grew slowly and not always to completion. Some subjects were harder to read and formed only incomplete perceptions, others were repeatedly very easy.

    I would nod once I managed to form a perception to completion, whether it be of the kidney being present or it being missing, but clearly so. You did not see a nod for “no”, as I was simply observing what was taking shape within my mind.

    It did require intense concentration, but there was no internal dialogue nor a separate voice in my head to guide me. I was simply observing the felt shapes as they appear, none different than when we lean closer to listen carefully and then nod when we think we hear. Everybody does this when we sharpen our senses, and such focus and nodding do not indicate mental anomaly.

    It is none more self-hypnosis or psychosis than what is synesthesia, the experience of synthetic sensory perceptions that are based on something that was perceived from outside and is then further processed, and converted, into something entirely different.

    Thank you Mark for an excellent article, and thank you so much for being there at our test.


  23. James T. Lee, MD says:

    You tested Anita, a woo person who asserted that she could determine by psychic means whether a patient has one missing kidney. I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. And I’m just a surgeon, not a radiologist or even a psychic.

    It is puzzling to contemplate your calculation of the odds involving “accurately picking all three missing kidneys” [your words]. Actually, the numbers you showed represent a calculation of the composite probability of picking, PURELY BY CHANCE ALONE, the three correct patients along with the true location of the intact kidney in each (1/12 x 1/12 x 1/12) or P = 0.00058. Stated another way, the odds AGAINST a psychic (or anybody else) simply guessing the identities of all three patients and their kidney sites would be enormous (1728 to 1) in the absence of properly functioning woo. Thus, her confidently predicted complete success (3 correct patients, 3 correct sides) would have been hugely impressive, absent any trickeration or cheating on her part, since chance alone would have been an extremely improbable rationale for such an outcome. As I understand “woo-busting” this is the standard modus operandi that you folks use. It is perfectly fair.

    What then could you have meant by writing that the “….odds of accurately picking the three kidneys” would be 1/1728…? Language is powerful when talking about probabilities and odds derived therefrom. Obviously, the use of “accurately” could not conceivably have referenced the woo per se. There was no way to calculate, or even estimate, the diagnostic accuracy of the woo up front–although we know it now from your carefully structured experiment. And it’s really lousy accuracy.

    In sum, the verbiage “accurately picking” was misleading, because of the adverb “accurately”. What am I missing here? I think you meant to say “the odds of accurately picking all three patient/side pairs, by simple guesswork alone, would have been 1 to 1728″. Equivalently, absent any woo the probability of failing to just guess correctly all three patient/side pairs would be 0.99942.

    Thanks. Amusing study. Good science. Bottom Line: Woo detection of missing kidneys = BS. See a competent professional if you think you might be missing an organ. I do think that the comment about her needing to see a psychiatrist was a cheap, ad hominem shot that detracts from the otherwise air-tight refutation of her woo.

  24. Edwardson says:

    “The probability of her getting one of her 3 choices right is surprisingly high. Without getting into the statistical minutia about the odds, she had about a 1 in 4 chance (about 23%) of getting at least one choice right.”

    Tried to compute and this is what I got for the probability of getting *exactly one* correctly:

    P(getting it right in one group) * P(getting it wrong in the other group) * P(getting it wrong it the last group) * 3 ways

    = [1/12 * (1 - 1/12) * 1 - 1/12) ] * 3 = 21%

    It’s a binomial probability with n=3, k=1, p=1/12

    The chances of getting *at least one* correctly is indeed 23%.