Are We Psychic?

Last week the Daily Mail carried an article by Rupert Sheldrake suggesting that psychic powers such as telepathy and premonitions are more common than we think. What’s the evidence?

His evidence amounts to a series of anecdotes such as this one:

Like many mothers who feared for their family’s safety during World War II, Mona Miller was evacuated from London to the peaceful seaside town of Babbacombe in Devon.

It seemed like a wise precaution but, shortly after her arrival there with her young children, Mrs Miller became increasingly uneasy.

‘I had a feeling that I must leave Devon and return home,’ she told me.

‘At first I dismissed the idea; why leave when I was so happy and contented despite the war going on around me?

‘But the feeling increased. The walls of my room seemed to speak to me: “Go home to London.” I resisted the call for about four months then, one day, like a flash of light, I knew we must leave.

‘On a Saturday in late 1942, we travelled back to London and a few days later I received a letter from a friend in Devon.

‘“Thank God you took the children on Saturday,” she wrote. “Early Sunday morning, Jerry dropped three bombs and one fell on the house where you were living, demolishing it, and killing all the neighbours on either side.”’

I am fond of saying that anecdote is not evidence but it’s a bit more complicated than that – an anecdote is evidence but it is a single data point – and a single measurement rarely proves a hypothesis true. However, Sheldrake provides more than one anecdote/data point so do these prove anything?

I’m not convinced that they do. An important principle in science is that one should not cherry-pick ones data – one should include all reliable data, not just that which supports ones hypothesis. Sheldrake is not deliberately cherry-picking here but a selection process is going on none-the-less. For example, we do not have any anecdotes from people who were killed because acting on their premonitions actually took them into harm’s way, for the obvious reason that they’re too dead to do so. Similarly, I doubt many people contacted Sheldrake to tell him about premonitions and feelings of foreboding that came to nothing.

So I remain unconvinced that psychic abilities exist. But I suspect you knew that.

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4 Responses to “Are We Psychic?”

  1. Dave Says:

    Well, at least psychic abilities are testable, and there are researchers who seriously test them. But you find that research in the journals of the Society for Psychic Research, the American Parapsychological Association and general psychology journals, not the Daily Mail.

  2. Swordfish Says:

    One aspect you haven’t mentioned is the dynamic of story telling. On the whole, each time one re-tells an anecdote, so one is tempted to shape it along particular lines. Stories involving precognition, I think, may be particularly prone to this temptation. So it is not just the odds of all equally likely events that should be considered, but also the probability that the story has changed over time. One should start calculating probabilities only on the basis of those anecdotes which have verifiable evidence obtained contemporaneously: and I suspect this will be a small number.

  3. Neuroskeptic Says:

    If you look closely at this story, what’s interesting is that the original experience wasn’t even a prediction, it was just a feeling that she ought to return home.

    In the event, she returned home and a bomb struck the house which fits rather nicely with the feeling. But she didn’t predict that bomb would fall on the house.

    So it’s not even that she made a prediction which, by chance, came true. It’s that, in retrospect, she interprets her experiences as a prediction.

    But if the bomb hadn’t fallen on the house she’d just have forgotten all about the feeling and ascribed it to homesickness or something.

    There must be loads of people out there who have experiences that could be seen as “psychic”, but only the “successful” ones do, the failed ones are not even seen as failed psychics, they’re not seen as psychics at all.

  4. A Fifth Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    [...] January also suppled another pseudoscientific favourite, psychic powers. [...]

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