Jan 08 2013

Saved by Psychic Powers

In just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.

This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.

Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.

A similar story has emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. A mother of a kindergartener there, Karen Dryer claims that her 5 year old son was saved by his psychic powers. She reports that her son, after a few months at the school, started to cry and be unhappy at school. He was home schooled for a short time, during which the shooting occurred. Now, at the new elementary school that recently opened, he seems to be happy.

In retrospect it may seem like a compelling story – if one does not think about it too deeply. As Ben Radford points out in the article linked to above, the story as told is likely the product of confirmation bias. The mother is now remembering details that enhance the theme of the story (her son’s alleged psychic powers) and forgetting details that might be inconsistent.

Even if taken at face value, however, the story is a fairly common one. Just like with passengers missing a plane, a new kindergarten student becoming unhappy at school and experiencing separation anxiety or home sickness is an extremely common event. So is eventually getting over that separation anxiety.

There are also no details in the story that would imply something more than just a coincidence, or that her son exhibited any precognition. There is no mention of fearing violence at school, or a shooting, or even a bad man.

Although I would not be surprised if those details emerged after the fact to embellish the theme of the story. Ten years from now who knows what form that story will take for the mother and her family. They might even believe those details, as their memory of the story slowly morphs over time to enhance the theme.

This is all why such stories are not compelling evidence of anything, let alone abilities that would break the known laws of physics.

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Saved by Psychic Powers”

  1. SteveAon 08 Jan 2013 at 8:42 am

    This reminds me of my own ‘physic’ moment a few years ago.

    My daughters were playing on the lawn, and I became concerned that they might tread on something sharp. At that exact moment, one of them did just that and had to receive minor first aid.

    I guess that for most believers the above would be considered sufficient proof of ESP in itself, and I was pretty impressed myself at the time; but then I began to wonder how often I worried that the children might step on something sharp when they were running bare feet in the grass, and I realised that it was something I worried about every time I saw them do it – so many opportunities for co-incidence.

    My Spidey-sense also failed to ascertain the nature of the threat; namely, that I’d worried about them stepping on a twig or sharp stone, but the culprit turned out to be, of all things, a thumb-tack. How that got in the lawn in anyone’s guess.

  2. nybgruson 08 Jan 2013 at 11:04 am

    I was watching Neil Tyson’s Great Lectures series just the other day for the first time with my fiancé. At one point he is discussing the perturbation of Venus’ orbit and the fact that it was thought to be caused by a planet, Vulcan, based on Newton’s laws of gravitation which had worked so well to discover Saturn just a few years previously. Turns out it was the gravity well effects of special relativity.

    At one point he said that the perturbation was 42 arcseconds per century. I immediately and said, “Wow! That’s small!” and then Neil Tyson said “Wow! That’s small!” in exactly the same tone.

    Clearly I had a psychic premonition he would say that.

  3. Ori Vandewalleon 08 Jan 2013 at 11:58 am

    nybgrus: I think you’re talking about the precession of Mercury’s orbit, which is explained by general relativity, not special.

  4. Ori Vandewalleon 08 Jan 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Also, Saturn is one of the classical, naked-eye planets known to observers for centuries. (Its rings were not observed until Galileo.) Neptune was discovered via discrepancies in Uranus’ orbit.

    I’m really sorry. Really.

  5. daedalus2uon 08 Jan 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Ori and nybgrus, that demonstrates Dr Novella’s comment about memory morphing over time.

    When I read nybgrus’ comment, I substituted Mercury, Neptune and general relativity automatically because I knew the story. It was only going back that I noticed he said Venus, Saturn.and special relativity.

  6. BillyJoe7on 08 Jan 2013 at 6:31 pm

    Sorry, nybgrus, I spotted your three errors also.
    Oh well, at least you have smashed your previous record which stood at one error in a 400 plus long commentary section. 😀

  7. BillyJoe7on 08 Jan 2013 at 6:38 pm

    To add….the precession in the perihelion of Murcury, could only be explained in terms of Newtonian physics by assuming the existence of an unknown planet, which was named Vulcan. No evidence was ever found for the existence of this planet. However the “gravity wells” in Einstein’s theory of General Relativity came to the rescue and explained it perfectly.

  8. Thadiuson 09 Jan 2013 at 12:33 am

    To fallow this thread and tie it to an earlier post of mine;
    I have heard Massimo Piglliuce talk about this Mercury/Vulcan discovery before and use it as an example of astronomers deviating from the normal scientific method. I never understood his point. It seems to me that the astronomers observed an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit, and using what they had learned from the discovery of Uranus, formed a hypothesis that another planet must be causing the anomaly. They then experimented by looking for Vulcan where their math told them to look, not finding it they disproved their hypothesis. Then another hypothesis was put forward, general relativity. This time they tested it by calculating what the GR orbit should be and comparing that to mercury’s orbit. Seems like text book scientific method to me. What do you think?

    As for the topic, i think children are very susceptible to their parents claims of the supernatural. I remember listening to my parents talk about ghost and psychics and telling them about some “Ghost Friends” i had. The thing was that I remember very well that i wasn’t even talking about some imaginary friends I had. I was making up imaginary imaginary friends! My mother took me to her psychic friend and she asked me about them, it started to snowball from there and when i told my mother that i was making the whole thing up, she wouldn’t believe me, and still doesn’t to this day!

  9. BillyJoe7on 09 Jan 2013 at 6:48 am


    You must be a fan of Massimo Pigliucci because you’ve misspelled his name.
    (I have lost count of the times I’ve seen his name misspelt by someone supporting his view.)

    …of course, that could be just coincidence!

  10. Thadiuson 09 Jan 2013 at 8:25 am

    I would say that I misspelled Massimo’s name to fit the trend, but I would be lying.

  11. Murmuron 09 Jan 2013 at 9:35 am

    I have always thought there is an unwritten law of big news stories which goes something like: For every tragic and heartfelt story to come out of a disaster, there is an equal idiotic, crackpot one.

  12. BillyJoe7on 09 Jan 2013 at 2:13 pm

    (on 09 Jan 2013 at 8:49 am in “Morality, Religion, Philosophy, and Science”)

    “I am in the middle of the Battlestar Galactica series now because Massimo Pigluicci mentioned it”

    This is from another thread, but here is yet another Massimo Pigliucci fan who cannot spell his name correctly.

  13. locutusbrgon 09 Jan 2013 at 2:36 pm

    If there was a shooting every time my kid wanted to stay home no one would go to school.

  14. tmac57on 09 Jan 2013 at 4:43 pm


    For every tragic and heartfelt story to come out of a disaster, there is an equal idiotic, crackpot one.

    For example,look in to the crackpot claims that Sandy Hook was a ‘false flag’ operation as part of the plot to” take away our guns”. F#%king idiots!

  15. hannahon 04 Apr 2013 at 3:17 am

    Very good article. Working in close contact with people with dementia and other various mental illnesses I have often wondered the same thing. Many times I have thought that the person I was watching was not really crazy as the hospital would have labeled them but just an overwhelmed empathy without guidance or a closet psychic that had no support from family, friends, or society just from what they said and how they acted. Now I have also seen patients who do think they are psychic and it is obvious that they are not in any way a psychic, again by the things they say and them way they act. Having been exposed to sides, the psychic and psychotic, on a regular basis I would totally agree that there is a thin line, but that line is in fact a very clear one if you know what to look for. Also I am not a doctor stating medical facts, just a health care worker looking to improve her own psychic emphatic abilities. Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed it.

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