January 6, 2009 | 19 Comments
The test was filmed by several cameras, most from the KIBS people (I have been unable to find any videos on line). The KIBS staff itself was large, about a dozen or two. The public was not barred from filming or photographing any part of the proceedings, and many did. I did not meet many people, but I was told prominent physics and medicine professors from Harvard and MIT were invited, as were other “thought leaders”. There were about forty people not from KIBS in attendance.
There were snacks and drinks provided. I set up in a corner and tried to be be non obtrusive. From what I could gather from the chatter, the audience was anxious but expected good things. Everybody, staff included, was all smiles. Each kid was more adorable than the last, and we were all pulling for them.
Ilchi Lee gave a standard opening speech in Korean, which was simultaneously translated by Sung Lee. Sung also gave a speech explaining the history and goals of brain respiration and what was expected that night. I was introduced, as were the proctors, but none of us spoke.
Sung explained that, in practice, the kids had hit rates of 80-90% with the test envelopes during the previous two weeks. As I said before, I have no clear idea how they did these unsupervised trials. We were thus expecting each kid to guess about 10 more envelopes correctly.
Sung outlined the experimental protocol, assured the audience we would see some special that night, and the test began.
The three kids sat together at a table, but only one at a time was blindfolded. Not surprisingly, the kids got all the blindfold guesses correct. I’m pretty sure they didn’t peek down their nose, though they could have above it because they held the cards up high in the air to indicate that they were ready to announce their guess.
But they didn’t have to peek to cheat. I and two other proctors, who also had experience in magic, felt that the kids were cluing each other (the third proctor admitted the possibility but did not care to guess); which is to say they were either telling the blindfolded kid openly what color card he held, or using other signaling methods. There were certainly countless ways the kids could have communicated to each other. All in the room could see the card except the blindfolded kid. The kids were fairly close to one another and they were allowed to move about and talk when the other of them was blindfolded. I’m fairly sure on the kids and the KIBS staff spoke Korean, so there was no way for the proctors to definitively know what was said. I suggested to one Sung about the potential ways the kids might have cheated, and that there were ways that we can check this. But he was not interested in finding out!
Interestingly, a good portion of the audience cheered and applauded when the correct guesses were revealed. One woman, not affiliated with KIBS, was moved to tears.
This phase of the experiment went exactly as I had expected it to. The kids in the KIBS tape never missed when wearing blindfolds, and neither did they now in front of an audience.
After a five-minute pause, the main trial began. As mentioned, each kid had a separate proctor, and I watched from the sidelines. The kids took up to 20 minutes for each guess, announced his guess in English, the proctor repeated the guess, the kid confirmed it loud enough for all to hear, the proctor wrote down the guess then checked the envelope for holes or tears which would have allowed the kid to cheat, then the proctor opened the envelope and wrote down the actual color.
We never found any holes, though one kid’s envelopes were consistently wet as if he tried to lick them and perhaps allow a tear—but the paper was too thick to allow him to see anything. The dampness could also have been sweat as this kid occasionally held the cards to his face tightly. He might have also been trying to see through the envelope as he consistently pressed the envelope to his face and pointed his face towards the ceiling lights. But my prior tests of directly holding the envelopes on the surface of an incandescent light bulb assured that it would not be possible to see through the envelope using a ceiling-mounted fluorescent bulb.
The first set of cards took about eight minutes. The kids grunted and sweat, ate come chocolates, did some exercises, and announced their guesses—not all at once, but when each was ready individually.
There was tension in the room when the first kid spoke his guess. The proctor confirmed it and then began to open the envelope. Remember, nobody, not me, not anybody, knew what the card’s color was going to be. People held their breath. I held my breath.
It was a miss. The color did not match the kid’s guess.
No problem, 35 more cards to go.
After a few more misses—and open groans and even hand wringing—there was finally a hit, followed by applause and cheers. Had things finally turned around?
Most of the guesses were wrong, and the pressure started to mount on the kids. Each kid was to get 12 envelopes, and by chance we’d expect they’d get 2 or so correct. But the hits—the correct guesses—were slow in coming.
The kids knew they were failing, the audience had become mostly silent, or sat quietly talking to one another. The kids began to get up more, ate even more candy, exercised more. But no change. Most guesses were misses.
Eventually, after it became clear that nothing more was going to happen, Sung told me he was going to stop the experiment out of concern for the kids’ anxiety. The remaining trials would be marked down as misses.
Sung stepped up and announced the trial’s ending. The audience understood, and clearly felt for the kids.
One kid did 7 trials, the other two did 6 before the experiment was stopped . They were scheduled to do 12 trials each. They got 4 hits during these 19 trials, right what chance would predict: kid one got 1, kid two got 1, kid three got 2.
Recall that before the trial started, KIBS staff members were confident each kid would get at least 10 out 12 hits.
Because the test was a failure, the oldest kid wanted to do another blindfold demonstration. I should not have allowed it as it was not part of the official protocol agreed to before the test. But I weakened and said Okay.
This demonstration went the same as before: he got both new cards right. It was then suggested be a proctor that all three kids be blindfolded at once, and that, respectfully, no noise be made. This was because the Sung and the KIBS people finally took seriously our suggestion that the kids were cuing each other when one was blindfolded and the others were not.
I still didn’t love this idea because there were many other people in the room who could have cheated if they wanted to (the KIBS staff, audience members, and so on), but the audience insisted on it. Again, I should not have allowed this, but I was weak.
Only kids two and three attempted a reading, but all were blindfolded anyway. In the previous blindfold demonstration, each kid made their guesses in under a minute. This time—when none of the kids could see each other—it took about five to seven minutes until kid number three started to complain of a stomachache. And so, even the last blindfold demonstration was called off with no guesses made.
The evening ended with both Sung Lee and Dr. Ilchi Lee giving rambling, long, impromptu speeches saying things like, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, they hoped that more trials would be done, none of us really understood what is going on, and something about “mysterious Z-rays that are absorbed or emitted by the human brain.”
None of it made any sense, and the audience began shifting their traps by the end, clearly ready to leave.
Nobody from KIBS spoke to me after the test. I walked out with Mark Glickman and said goodbye.
Except for Sung Lee, that was the last time I talked to any KIBS member.
Next: the aftermath
Part I, II, III, IV, V