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.

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