Thursday, 9 May 2013

Letter to a psychic

I’ve heard you say,
"No one is more acutely aware of the unreliability of psychic powers than we are. But when it does work, it leaves us so astounded that we simply can't accept any materialist theory as sufficient."
What I can interpret from your words is something along the lines of, you don't always succeed at predicting the future, but when you do, it seems more significant than chance.

I hope you recognize that, to my ears, it sounds like you are trying to lend greater credibility to those few times you accurately predict something, yet try to dismiss the times you fail. This is known as confirmation bias.

If I predict tomorrow will snow, and make that prediction every day for a year, I will on occasion be correct. Had I been making this prediction throughout March and April in Saskatchewan (which were unseasonably filled with snow), I might have been considered the second coming of Nostradamus.

I realize you would likely respond that predicting snow is not the same thing as whatever other predictions you feel you have made, but the principle is the same: you appear to dismiss the misses while remembering the hits. This is a common fallacy, and is one of the big ones that psychics fail to appreciate.

If your psychic abilities are not reliable all the time, or even the majority of the time, how do you determine you're not just being accidentally right on occasion? How do you differentiate from chance?

I'm reminded of a story by Michael Shermer. A long time ago, back in the good ol' days of corded phones, a woman had an intuition to call a friend she had not spoken to for more than a decade. They had long been estranged, and neither had any reason to speak to the other.

As she went to pick up the phone, it rang. Who was on the other line? None other than her long-estranged friend. It sent shivers down her spine, for it couldn't possibly have been coincidence.

Or could it?

With hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. (this happened in the States), some extremely small percentage of the population will have experiences *exactly* like this one. That one person has something exceedingly rare happen to them is not out of the ordinary, rather it’s almost required due to the sheer volume of experiences people have throughout their lives.

Not only do extremely rare events happen, but extremely rare events happen all the time. That's the nature of having 7 billion people living on Earth.

If you look for events that strain coincidence, you will find those events. If you look for mundane, everyday events, you will find substantially more of those. And the ratio of the two will fall exactly within what you would expect from probability.

This is a case where I would suggest you apply Occam’s Razor. It is a far simpler explanation to say your prophecies are nothing more than coincidence than it is to assert there is a non-material realm that exists outside of us which, on arbitrarily random occasions, can manifest itself in prophetic visions.

Not only that, but accepting materialistic explanations for these phenomenon have, ironically, far more predictive power. Psychic abilities, by their very nature, are chaotic, supernatural, and beyond understanding. Proponents often claim that they simply "exist," but cannot explain them and, indeed, actively rebuke attempts at explanation.

However, recognizing that humans are pattern-seekers by their nature tells us so much about our humanity. It tells us why it's so tempting to believe in supernatural phenomenon; it tells us why people invest so much time and money in gambling despite the odds being stacked against them; it even tells us a little of how easily people can be convinced of things that simply aren't true -- a point that even psychics must accept. If psychics are right, their opponents are wrong (yet convinced they are right).

Please, I implore you to give my words some thought. If your powers are not what you say they are, you stand to do serious harm by offering bad advice, digging up emotional wounds, and deceiving people.

Note: The quote above is taken from a real conversation, though I am writing more broadly to any individual who claims to have psychic abilities.

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