Whether it’s the precogs of Minority Report, the main character in any Final Destination film, Paul Atreides of Dune, Marvel’s Scarlet Witch, or the titular character of the 2022 Netflix series Wednesday, fiction is replete with people having precognitive abilities, the purported psychic ability to “see” future events.
Of course, claims of these extraordinary powers are not limited to fictional characters in fictional universes. The real world is replete with people claiming the ability to foresee the future. They go by a variety of descriptions: seers, fortune tellers, palm readers, psychics, mystics, astrologers, tarot card readers. They all claim to get insights into future events from different methods, but they all result in the same thing: a prediction about what will happen. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to anyone who claims such an ability as a “psychic,” and their predictions as “psychic predictions,” going forward.)
A lot of people believe in psychics (over 40% of Americans, per one survey), so there must be something to it, right? There’s a skepticalism (yes, it’s a word!) called Hyman’s Maxim which states, “Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.” So, before we try to determine how these powers would manage to work, we should first investigate if they actually do work.
So, let’s try to determine if psychics make accurate predictions about the future at a rate better than what would be expected from merely guessing. As with anything being evaluated from a scientific perspective, the larger the data set available, the more confident we can be in the results of the analysis.
If only there was a project created to evaluate thousands of psychic predictions made by hundreds of people on an entire continent over multiple decades. If such a project existed, and it found positive results, that would go a long way toward doing what parapsychologists have been trying to do (without success) for many generations: to prove that psychic abilities such as precognition are real.
And so, the Great Australian Psychic Prediction Project (GAPPP) was created and managed by Richard Saunders, a former president of the Australian Skeptics, who produces The Skeptic Zone podcast. The GAPPP ran for over a decade, and was completed in 2021. It had the goal of gathering and reviewing enough data to be able to draw a valid conclusion as to whether people really do possess the ability to reliably foresee future events.
The project evaluated multiple decades worth of published predictions of highly regarded psychics claiming this ability. In total, 3,811 predictions made over 21 years by 207 psychics in Australia were collected from Australian print-publications, radio and TV, as well as their predictions published on YouTube. The effort to score this mountain of predictions started in earnest in mid-2020, when an international team of volunteers, including yours truly, was enlisted. We met weekly for a year, on Zoom sessions run by Saunders, researching, analyzing, and collectively assigning a score to every prediction in the database.
We gave each prediction one of five possible scores: Correct, Wrong, Unknown (predictions impractical or impossible to verify), Too Vague (predictions too ambiguous to determine if they occurred), and Expected (predictions of events that were very likely or absolutely going to happen, and thus, not really paranormal in nature).
The results: A large number of predictions were scored as either Too Vague (18%), Expected (15%), or Unknown (2%). Only 11% of all predictions were Correct, and fully 53% were just plain wrong. This means that approximately 90% of the predictions were either expected, vague or outright false. It seems clear these people cannot do what they claim to be able to do.
To take it one step further, we listed 210 historic events that happened in the 21 years for which we had scored predictions. Surely if these psychics could foresee what will happen in the love lives of celebrities, they should have seen significant events like these. But not a single psychic managed to. Here are just a few examples of what “they didn’t see coming”:
- 2003: The Space Shuttle Columbia burns up on reentry, the first such accident in the U.S. space program, halting U.S. manned space flight for years.
- 2004: An Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on December 26 kills an estimated 227,898 people in 14 countries, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
- 2009: Pop singer Michael Jackson dies at the age of 50.
- 2010: An 8.8-magnitude earthquake, one of the largest in recorded history, occurs in Chile, triggering a tsunami in the Pacific Ocean, killing at least 525.
- 2011: A tsunami triggers the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
- 2014: A storm, described as a once-in-a-century event, hits Sydney.
- 2017: Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object, is detected passing through the Solar System.
Remember, this is the cream of the psychic crop in Australia. The psychics with huge numbers of fans, books, and sold-out shows; those who get published by Australian media as “the real deal.” If such poor performance was made public for any other group in any other profession, the jig would be up. Who’d trust that they know what they’re doing? So now, applying Hyman’s Maxim, it seems there’s no need to look for an explanation of psychic powers after all. There’s simply no “there” there.
If you’re interested in learning more about this unique project, you can find the original GAPPP report by Richard Saunders in The Skeptic, and my own detailed analysis in Skeptical Inquirer. You can also watch my video presentation about GAPPP containing much more information, including many examples of the most egregiously wrong predictions, like President Donald Trump resigning “out of the blue” in 2019 or early 2020.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Rather than repeating the same old arguments, we put them to the test. AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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