Swing and a Miss – A Psychic Failure

He got him on strikes!

Yeah, I listened to a baseball game on the radio at work last night, and Dan Dickerson’s catchphrase [wow, Googling Dan Dickerson got me off one hell of a rabbit trail — fifteen minutes later, I now turn back to this blog] is stuck in my head.

But that’s exactly what happened here.  Swing and a miss.

With some regularity, stories will pop up wherein a psychic has predicted a certain outcome and it comes true (in this case, it was a World Cup “psychic octopus” named Paul).  Believers point to these stories as proof that psychic phenomena are real.  After all, the prescient cephalopod was perfect in World Cup predictions.  But Paul the Octopus represents this story perfectly: the hits are remembered, the misses are forgotten.  Were there other WC-predicting devices?  Who knows?  Ryan Raburn of the Detroit Tigers went 1-4 the other night, and his one hit was a grand slam.  No one cared about his other three at-bats.  If Paul had gone 2-5, there probably wouldn’t be a lot of talk about him.

Occasionally, however, the misses make news.  When a batter strikes out with nobody on and nobody out in the second inning of a tied game, well, whatever: it goes into the box score, but nobody makes a big deal out of it.  If that same batter strikes out with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth in a World Series game seven, that makes headlines.  I don’t know if the comparison is precise, but here’s a story about a psychic to waved at a 93-mile-an-hour fastball and hit nothing but air.

Cold reading and an over-emphasis on high-percentage hits are common methodologies for so-called psychics.  One might hear a story about how a psychic predicted that the authorities would find a missing child “somewhere near a beach.”  When it turned out that the child had drowned in a river, believers say that the psychic must have had a supernatural connection to the child’s spirit in order to make this prediction, instead of assuming that it is more likely that the child wandered off and, not being too keen of wit, walked in to the river and couldn’t swim.

My contention (and it’s by no means an original one) is that these stories get legs when the psychic happens to be even close to correct.  Rarely do they get legs when the psychic is totally wrong, and so the misses fade into obscurity while the hits  are trumpeted by the believers.

So, let’s look at some of the facts from this case, from the local article, which you may choose to contest if you’d like:

The investigation began after the sheriff’s office received a
tip from a psychic who claimed that many bodies, including those of children, were in the house.

Why start an investigation based on a psychic’s tip?

Evans said authorities took the tip seriously in part because the caller had details about the interior of the house that only someone who had seen it could have known. [….] “We have to take tips like this very seriously,” [Liberty County Judge Craig] McNair said. [….] McNair said deputies found blood on a back door and detected a foul odor coming from the house, leading to the search warrant.

Okay, I have no problem with that.  The tip seemed credible, and you have to investigate that.  However,

No bodies were found Tuesday at a Texas farmhouse where a person claiming to be a psychic told officials multiple bodies were buried, a sheriff’s official says. [….] Asked if authorities thought the tip was a hoax, Evans said only that they found no bodies or anything to indicate a homicide had occurred there.

But, there was blood, and the person knew the house and—!!!

Property owner Joe Bankston said he was shocked by the reports of bodies on his property. “This is like something out of a novel,” Bankston said by phone from Dallas. Bankston said his daughter lives in the house and that there was blood on the porch and in the house because his daughter’s former boyfriend tried to commit suicide a couple of weeks ago. “He got drunk and cut his wrist,” Bankston said. “It took me all day to clean the inside of the house. I’m not sure I got it [the blood] all.”

So something bad went down at this house.  If someone’s getting drunk and slitting their wrists, there’s a real problem, and I have sympathy for this family.  But unless Bankston is part of some vast conspiracy, he has no reason to lie about this.  (But maybe he’s the killer!)  So, someone familiar with the house and familiar with the experience of its residents calls something in hoping to use the blood to spur an investigation (a plan that actually worked), hoping that they might get a hit: maybe a body was buried somewhere on the “rural property.”  That plan having failed, surely the so-called psychic would concede.

But the tipster called back Tuesday morning to say deputies had the wrong house, Evans said.

Well, just keep looking until you find a body, then the psychic will be proven correct.  It will be a one-hundred pitch at-bat and eventually the kid will hit a bloop single into shallow left and then it will be proven that he’s a major-league hitter.

And by the way, who is this psychic?

He said authorities have a name and number for the caller and were working to track the person down. [….] “We are going to continue our investigation and find out how this individual had this information in the first place,” Evans said.

Well, as the Zen master said, “We’ll see.”  You can’t prove a negative, of course, but until something truly amazing happens, it’s worth noting that psychics miss all the time, and this is one of their big, bottom-of-the-ninth strikeouts.

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