What Are the Chances You're Psychic?
We analyze some of your stories of precognitive experiences.
by Brian Dunning
June 27, 2017
Do you have precognition? If you've ever thought you might, you're not alone. We all have experiences, at least every once in a long while, where it seems we've anticipated something a little too precisely for it to be random chance. Sometimes we anticipate things that are so specific, and so far outside the normal events we expect, that it seems there can be no explanation other than precognitive psychic powers. Might there be some undiscovered energy or force that makes such a thing possible? Today we're going to look at your precognitive experiences, and see if there might be some other explanation.
First, it's important to lay the groundwork for the conventional science-based explanation for apparent episodes of precognition. It comes from the law of large numbers. If we assume that something (anything) happens about once a second in your waking life, then statistically, you're going to have a one-in-million experience about every month. Let's take a look at the classic case as one example:
Hi Brian. At first, thank you for giving me the reasons and rationalities behind urban myths and superstition. I live in New Zealand and in 2015, my husband was on a business trip to Tokyo. On a Friday night, I dreamed about his funeral, no idea why, because he was a very healthy and happy man. The Saturday evening, my son called me that the police had come to tell him that they had found his father slumped next to his desk in his Tokyo hotel room. He had died the Friday night of a sudden heart attack. Due to the time difference between New Zealand and Japan, I must have had this dream at the same moment he died. I am not superstitious, but I hope you can give a reasonable explanation for my experience. Thank you, and keep up the good work.
Obviously this is an incomprehensible personal tragedy. Of course this listener has all our sympathies, but today we're looking only at the statistical probability of what happened. I call this the classic case because it's one of the most commonly reported cases that come to be described as psychic precognition: You dream of someone and then find out they died at that same time. But can it happen without psychic powers? Let's calculate the probability of that.
Let's start by defining our variables. Dreaming of a loved one dying is one of the most common recurring dreams that everyone has. Let's estimate that you have this dream about once every six months. That means that on any given night, you have a 1/180 probability of having this dream.
Now, how many loved ones do you have? Let's start with just immediate family. The average American is born with 1.7 parents, has 2.1 siblings, has .55 spouses, and 2.0 children. That adds up to 6.4 immediate family members. So any given death dream has a 1/6.4 probability of applying to any specific family member.
Therefore, on the day that any given family member dies, there is a 1/180 x 1/6.4 chance you dreamed about it on that same night. That comes to a 1/1,200 chance. Half of your immediate family (that's 3.2 people) will die before you do, so that's a 1/360 chance that this experience will happen to you. Invert it, and we find that it happens, on average, to one in every 360 people. Don't like my estimated numbers? Change the variables as much as you like. Even if I'm off by a factor of 1,000, and it only happens to one in every 360,000 people, there are 7 billion of us. That means 20,000 people in the world have this happen, according to hard mathematics. And I'm probably not off by a factor of 1,000. And if we extend beyond immediate family to include grandparents, first cousins, and grandchildren, the chances increase exponentially.
Here's the important part. It is a mathematical fact that this occasionally happens by random chance, just like it's a mathematical fact that lotteries are won. The alternate explanation, that of psychic powers, is a hypothesis that has been tested many times. Evidence of its existence has failed every single time that proper controls have been applied, without exception. So we have mathematical proof supporting one candidate explanation, and experimental failure supporting the other. Conclude as you will.
Here is a mathematically identical example of a related case, that of thinking about someone just before they happen to call you:
My name is Richard Burgmeyer and I want to share this experience with you and your podcast to see if anyone else has this experience besides me. It appears that I have this ability -- I shouldn't really say ability because I can't control it -- but in short, what happens is I will start thinking about someone, their name will arise in my consciousness, over and over again, a few days before they call me, usually someone from my recent past, either a customer, or a friend, or an associate. I will start thinking about them, and thinking about their name, days before they call me. Sometimes it will happen seconds before they call me. Now, while I do have an open mind, and believe that there are things that we just can't explain going on in our universe, I'm still very skeptical and I usually need proof before I swallow anything. So, that's my story, and I hope you get a chance to share it. Thanks.
An experience like this one should end up being far, far more common; not only because we have a lot more "friends and associates" than immediate family members, but because we also take phone calls far more often than someone we know dies, and also that these criteria for what constitutes a match are much looser. Any time span from a few days to a few seconds counts as a hit. I think of a lot of people over the course of a few days, and since most calls I get are from people I know, the chances are actually pretty good that this will happen quite a lot.
Let's look at another kind of example:
Hi, my name is Cheryl Brown. About 20 years ago my husband and I were up early for a job in south Florida. It was about 5 or 6am. And we came upon a red light, and it was really foggy in the morning, so we stopped and we just happened to stop on some railroad tracks, and the light was red so we sat there for a while. And then all of a sudden for some reason, my husband pulled forward and got off the track and not 3 seconds later, a train zoomed by behind us, and we just sat there and looked at each other, and didn't say a word. Neither one of us heard the train. There was no train warning, lights, or anything. It was just a really odd, strange, experience.
Hey Brian, this is Storm Vos-Browning. I'm a regular listener and kind of a fan. I think what you do is pretty awesome. So years ago, I'm in an industrial area in downtown Vancouver, and I'm on a thoroughfare with the right of way, and a lot of big buildings around, so it's hard to see around corners, that sort of thing. I don't know, I just had this flash of a truck in my mind, and I took my foot off the gas, causing me to slow down a little bit, and sure enough, a semi blew through that intersection against a stoplight, I had the right of way, he just comes barreling through. Had I not slowed down, he would have hit me. Well, I don't know what that was, I'm not especially a believer in woo, so you know, I don't think it was telepathy, but if you can figure this thing out, all power to you, man, because this has puzzled me for years. Cheers.
By now the mathematics should be pretty easy to figure out. How often are you stopped at a traffic light in a place where you might get hit by a truck or train? This differs widely for different people, obviously. For some people's commute it might happen almost every day; for others, hardly ever. I'd guess it's happened to me ten or fifteen times, so pretty rarely. How often does a train hit a vehicle stopped at a light? How often does a vehicle skitter out of the way of a train just in time? Engineers probably have wild tales of both. There are numbers for all of these variables, so we can calculate the chances of this happening.
The crucial element, though, is that you have some sudden urge to move or stop your vehicle, which happens to align with the moment that train or truck barges through. Think about it; this is a lot more common. The percentage of times I have had increased anxiety when I have to stop my car in a dangerous place is 100%. The percentage of times I've crept forward for a bit more space when I'm on train tracks is probably also 100%. All of this math adds up to a familiar equation. It is a mathematical certainty that sometimes people happen to move their car just in the nick of time to avoid an unseen train or truck. It's an absolute mathematical fact that this happens. There is no reason to seek supernatural or paranormal explanations.
Now let's take one with even higher chances:
In the mid 1950s, I was a teenager living in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles. As a teenager, I was a pretty sound sleeper and never really woke up before it got light outside. One morning I woke up about 5am, it was still quite dark. I had the urge to look out my bedroom window which faced east. I stood there for several minutes looking for -- I wasn't sure what. All of a sudden the sky lit up. It was a nuclear test in Nevada. I read the next day in the paper that it was a secret nuclear test, so there's no way I could have known about it ahead of time. Unfortunately, in the last sixty years I've been unable to reproduce my psychic powers.
There were 120 atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada in the decade of the 1950s that were visible from Los Angeles, or an average, one every 30 days. How often do most of us wake up early and look outside, a few times a month? Each time, we'd have had a 1/30 chance of seeing the sky light up as he describes. But then we'd have to multiply that fraction again by the amount of time we spend looking out the window -- not very much -- divided by the amount of pre-dawn darkness. It reduces the chances, but it's still a certainty that this happened to a lot of people. Multiply that fraction, whatever it is, by the five million people who could have seen it from Los Angeles.
So, what are the chances that you have psychic powers? Probably pretty low. Maybe there is some possibility that these are cases of people predicting future events, but it's a 100% fact that mathematics predict all these cases will occur. Does this mean you should go out an buy a lottery ticket? Well, not necessarily. Somebody probably will win any given drawing, but the chances that somebody is you are a million times less than the chances you'll dream about a loved one the same night he passes. So unless you truly have some proven ability to beat the law of large numbers, you're best off saving your two dollars.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "What Are the Chances You're Psychic?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
27 Jun 2017. Web.
17 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4577>
References & Further Reading
ASTOP. "Psychic Detectives." Pseudoscience Fact Sheets. International Cultic Studies Association, 5 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Jun. 2017. <http://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/studyguides/education/astoppsychicdetectives
Carroll, R. "Law of Truly Large Numbers." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 28 Jan. 1999. Web. 24 Jun. 2017. <http://www.skepdic.com/lawofnumbers.html>
Diaconis, P., Mosteller, F. Coincidences / Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990.
Hand, D. The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
mrsuszynski. "The Amount of Siblings in an Average Household." StatCrunch: Data Analysis on the Web. Pearson Education, 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 Jun. 2017. <https://www.statcrunch.com/5.0/viewreport.php?reportid=59203>
Novella, B. "The Power of Coincidence: Some Notes on Psychic Predictions." Quackwatch. Dr. Stephen Barrett, 30 Aug. 2000. Web. 24 Jun. 2017. <http://www.quackwatch.com/04ConsumerEducation/coincidence.html>
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