## What Are the Chances You're Psychic?We analyze some of your stories of precognitive experiences. Skeptoid Podcast
#577 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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