Quick, think of a colour and I’ll try and guess what you picked.
Red. No, yellow. Orange. Yellowy-orange. Wait, green. Definitely one of those greenish-blue, blueish-purple kind of colours. Like blue. Purple? Did I get it yet?
Okay, now think of a number between one and ten.
Seven. No, five. Okay, but it’s definitely odd. Definitely… I’m getting strong vibes that it’s even, like eight, or six… or maybe three. Two. Am I close?
Okay, it’s not that impressive, but if you ignore all the times I was wrong, I think you’ll find that I did really quite well.
And this is something that people are often very good at doing, if they’re not really putting together a thorough investigation – if they think they know what’s right, and are just looking for further evidence to prove their ideas correct. Although I doubt the example above provoked anybody to leap to their feet and shout “By all the gods and underpants gnomes, he’s right, I was thinking of blueish-purple!”, it can be surprisingly easy to overlook and forget about large amounts of data, even under less obvious circumstances.
You might have a story about a time when you got an unexpected phone call from somebody, out of the blue, right when you happened to be thinking about them. It’s the sort of thing that can seem like an impossible coincidence, especially if it’s someone you haven’t heard from in ages, who you had no reason to be thinking about, and who you never would have expected to actually call you. You thought about them, then suddenly there they were – seems like pretty strong evidence in favour of something.
But fleeting memories of quite a number of people, who may not play a major role in your life any longer, probably flit through your head each day – and you probably get spontaneous and unexpected phone calls or emails every so often, too. Once in a while, you’d expect these things to somewhat match up.
It shouldn’t be surprising when something spookily coincidental does occasionally happen, because the criteria for what’s “spooky” can be fairly wide. Does it only count if you get the call the very same minute you think of them? Or within ten minutes, or twenty, or an hour? If you dream about someone, does it still count if you hear from them any time in the following day, or week? This can be extended to any other allegedly prophetic dreams, as well. My subconscious comes up with some pretty freaky shit most nights, and every time the nightmare about being chased over a hill by the giant peanuts doesn’t turn out to have any bearing on reality, that’s a data point too. Those happen a lot more often than ones where I do seem to be able to predict the future.
Also, there are a lot of people for whom this sort of thing just doesn’t seem to happen, and that’s important data as well. I don’t recall ever having a dream which seemed to have any predictive power, even after the fact, or being surprised by any kind of communication from someone I was just thinking of. There are lots of people who do have impressive-sounding stories, but with more than six billion people on the planet, how rare do you think million-to-one chances really are?
Psychics and cold-reading are going to get a lot more coverage here in future articles, but remembering the hits and forgetting the misses is a big part of that whole routine. The second part of that video shows Michael Shermer laying out pretty clearly how much random guesswork is involved in a typical reading, and quite how readily some people will be willing to ignore the many wrong answers, as if they didn’t tell us anything, and only notice the hits that were eventually stumbled upon, as if they were a lot more impressive and inspired than they really were.
Astrology‘s full of this. All sorts of general stuff easily glossed over, and the occasional match with something we can relate to, which then stands out as if it were representative of the predictions as a whole.
Human beings are not natural statisticians. We’re often shown up as having a very poor innate grasp of probability, and very little intrinsic ability to reason things out. The birthday paradox is one of the clearest examples of this, and I still have trouble getting my head around the fact that it only takes twenty-three people together for it to be more likely than not that two of them have the same birthday. I know it’s an old one, and I totally get the maths which makes it clearly true, but it still messes with my head. There are probably over 23 people in the office where I’m working at the moment, but if any two of them happened to discover that they share a birthday, I’d still feel a strong instinct to go, “Ooh, neat,” as if this were much more unlikely than it is.
I’m good at maths, and I still suck at instinctively estimating this kind of thing. This is just another reason why analysing data closely is important if we’re going to draw any dramatic conclusions, and our natural initial reactions of how impressive something seems should not be held in any particular esteem. People can be easily impressed by all kinds of junk if they’re inclined only to count the hits; the misses are easily forgotten, but they matter too. Van Praagh is doing nothing astounding when you see all the data, and it’s only then that we can hope to make a fair assessment of whether anything remarkable is actually happening.