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Dead or Alive?

By Lou Hillman and Stan West

The Center for Inquiry Investigations Group (CFIIG) offers $250,000 to anyone who believes he or she has a paranormal power that can be demonstrated under controlled conditions. Mirko Janchevski, from Macedonia, applied for our challenge in October of 2018, claiming to be able to tell if someone is alive or dead by looking at a photograph of the person. 

Stan West, one of our investigators, and Mr. Janchevski spent months working out a protocol for the demonstration. This is not an unusually long time for negotiations, especially for one which will happen via the Internet. A test was scheduled.

On Saturday, May 18, 2019, Mr. Janchevski joined the CFIIG meeting via Skype with his daughter to translate for him if necessary. We told the daughter that once the test started, she would need to remain visible on camera. When she asked the reason, Stan explained that this was to prevent the use of any “super duper Google search ability” to find photos of the subjects and determine if they were alive. She understood and agreed to stay on camera, which she did.

The entire session was recorded using the built-in capability of Skype; audio was recorded separately on a sound recorder; and the session was videoed on a camera that pointed at the laptop.

CFIIG chair and founder Jim Underdown presented the photos to Mirko, one at a time.  Jim did not know the status of the people in the photos, and thus could not inadvertently bias the demonstration; this made the test double-blinded.  The numbered photos were stacked face down on his right. Each photo was marked on its face “Mirko” plus a number. The numbers did not run consecutively because after they had been printed and numbered, it turned out that some photos were not usable. However, a chart was constructed on which the presentation order and the photo numbers were written, for instance: 

1, #23

2, #4,

etc.

The photos were printed in black and white on a (US) standard 8-½ x 11 inch piece of paper, with a border around them, one photo to a page. Jim displayed each photo for 90 seconds or until Mr. Janchevski declared the status of the person, whichever was shorter. When Jim displayed the photo via the camera in the laptop, he held a piece of cardboard behind the paper so that he (Jim) could not see the photo.

As soon as Mr. Janchevski announced his decision, Jim repeated it, and then turned to his left, where another member used a permanent marker to write “dead” or “alive” across the photo. Jim then turned toward the separate camera to show the writing, and then back to the laptop and showed Mr. Janchevski the photo, announcing the status again. He then put the photo onto a stack on his left. This procedure was used for all 20 photos, and ensured that what we were writing corresponded to Mr. Janchevski’s guesses.

After Mr. Janchevski was shown a photo, he looked down and concentrated. At first, we did not understand the reason for this, but at one point his right hand was high enough that we could see something moving. After the demonstration was completed, discussion among the audience indicated that most of them thought he was using a pendulum to make his decisions. (Later, this deduction was verified, as mentioned below.)

Mr. Janchevski’s first eight or nine determinations were all “dead.” Several of the audience wondered if he was going to continue this in hope of winning by chance. 

After the last photo was identified, a sealed envelope was opened. This contained a duplicate set of photos, identified by the same numbers as the first set, and showing the actual living or dead status of the person in the photo. 

Jim showed Mr. Janchevski both the photo he originally identified and the previously-marked photo, while asking our scorekeeper whether Mr. Janchevski had identified the person’s status correctly. This allowed Mr. Janchevski to verify that we weren’t switching photos, and that both photos depicted the same person.

To pass the initial demonstration, Mr. Janchevski had to correctly determine the status of 18 of the 20 people whose photos he saw. He determined 11 correctly. The probability of getting 11 out of 20 or better in a “coin-flip” situation like this by chance alone .41. Or, to put it another way, one can expect this level of success 41% of the time — hardly an exceptional feat. Correctly naming his target of 18 correct (out of 20) by chance alone happens on average about once in every 5000 tries.

After the demonstration finished, Mr. Janchevski asked to see one of the photos again. After looking at it and consulting his pendulum (now visible via Skype), he declared that the person was dead, not alive.  Stan moved to where Mr. Janchevski could see him, and told Mr. Janchevski that the person is Stan’s father, with whom he had had a conversation the previous night. 

When Jim asked Mr. Janchevski if he had any explanation for the result, Mr. Janchevski said that perhaps the interval between photos was too short, and perhaps the weather had an effect. We did not ask about the weather conditions at the time, nor about the reason weather might affect his abilities.

Jim asked Mr. Janchevski if there was anything else he wanted to share. Mr. Janchevski offered to diagnose Jim’s health; Jim agreed. Mr. Janchevski diagnosed problems with Jim’s back and with veins in his neck. Unfortunately for Mr. Janchevski but fortunately for Jim, Jim has no health problems in either area.

Jim thanked Mr. Janchevski for his time, and told him that he would be welcome to apply after a year has elapsed.

Lou Hillman is the Challenge Coordinator for CFIIG.  Stan West is one of our “first responders” and helps with outreach.

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