Shades of Nostradamus: the NYT touts precognition

May 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The tweet below from Steve PInker, which is spot on, brought this NYT book review to my attention. Once again, the paper dilates on the supernatural without any warning to the reader that there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Yet the book review implies that there might be something to it.

Here’s the tweet:

The NYT piece reviews this book (note the title). The account may be true, but the “death foretold”? Fuggedabout it.  (Click to go to Amazon link):

The author of this big of clickbait is W. M. Akers, whose bona fides, as given by the NYT, are “W.M. Akers is the author of “Westside,” “Deadball: Baseball With Dice” and the newsletter “Strange Times.” His most recent novel is “Westside Lights.”

The review (click to read):

Knight’s book tells the story of a British psychiatrist named John Baker, who was drawn to the supernatural and especially to precognition. He thought that if he could suss out credible instances of people foreseeing disasters, he might be able to prevent those disasters (think of a non-crime version of precogs in “Minority Report”). Here’s one instance of precognition that got Baker’s juices flowing:

n Oct. 21, 1966, Lorna Middleton woke up choking. The sensation passed, leaving behind melancholy and a sense of impending doom. After a lifetime of experiencing premonitions of misery and death, Middleton, a North London piano teacher, recognized the signs. Something hideous was on the way.

A few hours later, workers on a heap of coal waste in South Wales watched with horror as the 111-foot tower of “spoil” collapsed and cascaded down the mountain toward the village of Aberfan — thousands of tons of slurry and rock bearing down on the primary school. It was just past 10 in the morning and the classrooms were full of students doing spelling exercises, singing songs, learning math. When a 30-foot wave of refuse slammed into the building, they were buried alive. One hundred and forty-four people died that day. One hundred and sixteen were children, most between 7 and 10 years old. It was the sort of horror that makes people demand meaning — the sort for which meaning is rarely found.

Now that’s not a very precise example of precognition, is it? In fact, thousands of people probably had bad dreams that night, and where is the coal spoil in Middleton’s nonspecific dream? This seems like nothing more than pure coincidence. And how could precognition work, anyway? This doesn’t appear to be a subject of much interest to Knight—or Akers.

But in fact coincidence is what Baker was trawling for, looking for cases in which real “precogs” could be used in a practical way. If only the exact nature of the disaster could be predicted! Baker got to work, teaming up with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraine headaches were supposed to predict disasters (but of what sort?) and Lorna Middleton, who had the bad dream that was followed by the coal-spoil avalanche::

Barker used his connections at The Evening Standard to solicit premonitions of the disaster. He found 22 he believed credible, including Middleton’s — he believed any vision accompanied by physical symptoms to be particularly strong. On the back of this research, The Standard recruited Barker to create a standing “Premonitions Bureau” that could catalog predictions and check to see how many came true. The Standard brass saw it as an offbeat way to sell papers. Barker considered it his chance to save the world.

“He wanted an instrument that was sensitive enough to capture intimations that were otherwise impossible to detect,” writes Knight. “He envisaged the fully fledged Premonitions Bureau as a ‘central clearinghouse to which the public could always write or telephone should they experience any premonitions, particularly those which they felt were related to future catastrophes.’ Over time, the Premonitions Bureau would become a databank for the nation’s dreams and visions — ‘mass premonitions,’ Barker later called them — and issue alerts based on the visions it received.”

So were any disasters averted? Nope, of course not. What we got is what we expected: there were dozens of premonitions, and  some of them roughly matched something that happened, but most (more than 97%) did not. And even when they didn’t, they stretched the premonitions so they’d be sort-of true:

In the first week of 1967, Barker and the Standard staff began sorting predictions into categories like “Royalty,” “Racing,” Fire” and “Non-specified disasters.” (The science correspondent Peter Fairley often drew on the racing file for betting tips.) Once categorized, they would wait to see what happened, and attempt to connect the tragedies on the news page with the prophecies in their files.

Along with Alan Hencher, a postal employee whose migraines seemed to anticipate disaster, Middleton became Barker’s best source. He greeted her successful predictions with glee. When the death of the astronaut Vladimir Komarov bore out her warning of peril in space, Barker wrote to say, “You were spot on. Well done!” When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after months of her warning that his life was in danger, Barker called it her best work yet.

But what about Middleton’s unsuccessful predictions—her “worst work”? The review says nothing, except that they fudged the unsuccessful guesses to make them seem more accurate:

If they sometimes had to stretch to make the news fit what Middleton and her fellows dreamed up — letting tornadoes in the Midwest satisfy a prediction of catastrophic weather in California, for instance — Barker saw no problem. He was overjoyed with the success of his star psychics and hoped to scour the country to find more like them. He believed second sight was as common as left-handedness. It didn’t matter that the premonitions were rarely specific enough to be useful, warning simply of a train to derail somewhere, an airliner to crash at some point. Barker believed he was onto something cosmic.

Rarely specific enough to be useful? Why don’t they give us one instance in which a predication was useful, and evidence that the predictions that proved accurate were more common than could be accounted for by coincidence (e.g., was there one person whose precognitions were almost invariably accurate?) If this worked, that person would have won a million bucks from James Randi (nobody ever did). Even according to the author’s count, only 3% of the predictions “came true” (mostly from MIddleton and Hetcher). And that, I’m sure, is stretching it.

The text here gives one no assurance that anything other than coincidence was involved. To make a scientific and definitive statement about the efficacy of precognition, you’d need a rigorous and accurate set of tests, tests incorporating fraud-detectors like James Randi. There are no such tests that have proved successful. The NYT does not mention this.

But wait! There was one “successful” prediction: Middleton and Hencher predicted that Barker would soon die (they give no date) and a year and a half after the “predictions bureau” was founded, Barker had a cerebral hemorrhage and croaked. Is that uncanny, or just coincidence?

The review concludes that the precog experiment was indeed “worth a shot”:

Barker’s psychics’ predictions had proved accurate, but they did not help him avoid his fate. He had hoped to use the Bureau to change the future. It had not even come close. By Knight’s count, only 3 percent of the Bureau’s predictions came true — nearly all of the successes from Middleton and Hencher. It found no useful data and prevented no tragedies. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a shot.

“We confer meaning as a way to control our existence,” writes Knight. “It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening.”

Three percent is better than nothing. Even false meaning is preferable to fear.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but that conclusion is bullshit.  If “false meaning is preferable to fear”, then we should all become religious. And, anyway, what kind of fear does 3% of coincidental matches dispel? What is the frightening abyss into which we must gaze if none of the predictions were even remotely true? The last two paragraphs are pure New Yorker-style prose: they sound good, but they say nothing.

Some of the evidence for precognition that people found convincing came from Daryl Bem. This evidence has not held up (see also here).  Doesn’t the NYT or its authors owe us that information, or the fact that there is no conceivable way that the laws of physics could even allow precognition?  No, because the paper is are wedded to cosseting our “spiritual” side.


26 thoughts on “Shades of Nostradamus: the NYT touts precognition

  1. Not so much any more since I got my acid re-flux under control, but I used to wake up choking regularly; it would always portend a bad night’s sleep. There is a reason for the literary trope that no one believes a person who insists that they have precognition of a terrible event. And did you ever notice that no one (except gamblers) ever seems to have a premonition of impending happiness? There is one surefire indicator that clairvoyance is not real: psychics don’t win the lottery every week.

    1. Simply ask how many people had good and happy dreams the night before Aberfan? Why do their dreams not count and that of one GERD sufferer does? Stupid, stupid pattern-seeking apes.

  2. After the death of Alexander, Aristotle was put on trial, convicted, and sent into exile. His crime: he said “prayer does not work.”

    Every time I see someone thanking God for saving a life by “answering the prayers of his family,” I get furious. What about all the Believers who prayed like crazy at the side of a hospital bed, only to watch a loved one die? Maybe their sins were too egregious, and God declined? God is a jokester? “god has a reason”?


      1. Chetiya, I will pray that you learned enough about baseball from the Who’s on First discussion to want to watch a game some time. Some of the most fun for new fans are local amateur leagues. (One local league where I used to live was called the Inter-Church League. The teams were sponsored by taverns.) They call it fastball. The ball is a softer ball, pitched underhand and easier for amateurs to control and hit. They play in small parks with a few rows of bleachers where you can sit right behind home plate for free. You get your money’s worth. 🙂

  3. I don’t necessarily think it’s the paper’s job to police the book reviews for unscientific opinions. Like movie critics, it’s something of a slow self-correcting system: give good reviews to books that your readers find crappy, they stop reading your reviews, and the paper probably lets you go. So I don’t have any beef with the NYT over this. Even if I did, I would not want “the Times editors ought to have added a cautionary note saying remote viewing doesn’t work to the review” as a fix. The fix I would suggest if this bothered me greatly would be “Times, hire less credulous book reviewers.”

    Based on the quotes, I’d actually judge this review successful in that it provides me with a useful summary from which to make my decision: i draw from it that this is not a book I want to read, and that the reviewer is overly credulous. Good to know.

    Now if you want a good book about experimental attempts to harness the supernatural, read The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson. That is how nonfiction about crazy ESP/remote viewing etc. ideas should be done. (And ignore the movie, it stinks.) I also recommend Them by the same author, which deals with conspiracy theories. It probably comes across as quite dated now, but I found it a good read at the time.

    1. Ronson’s book on psychopathology is also excellent – it is listed reading in some psych classes.

  4. Besides being statistical crap, it also seems to be logical nonsense in its supposed application:

    So your premonition predicts a disaster. Then steps are taken to avoid the disaster. So the disaster doesn’t happen. So you premonition is false, NOT true.

    I had a friend John Baker, who had no pretensions (or premonitions AFAIK). I’d have listened to his guesses about the future about a trillion times more carefully than those of that psychologist John Baker. It must be painful to be a genuinely scientifically minded psychologist, with all the bullshit spewing from others at that end of the spectrum.

  5. It’s all bulls**t. At best, these are examples of biased reporting. At worst, they are examples of fraud.

    The case for biased reporting:

    In practice, claimants only report cases where the “feeling” is in fact followed by something they recognize as a disaster. (See my additional note below.) The vast majority of the time, when people have such a “feeling” nothing at all happens, and the cases are not reported. If one were able to include *both* cases where a “feeling” was followed by disaster and those where a “feeling” were followed by no disaster, the proportion of positives would almost certainly be minuscule and statistically non-significant. What would be interesting is if *with proper sampling* the number of positives is greater than expected by chance. Then the precognition claimants might have something. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

    Note: I’m leaving to one side the fact that many “feelings” can probably be correlated with some disaster or other simply because the news is full of disasters and one can easily make a false connection. A proper analysis would need to eliminate this confounding set of disasters from the set of positives. Good luck with that.

  6. I think, after daily reading for 25+ years, my hometown newspaper – the ONLY paper in town for literates and non-MAGAs, is getting more woo as it gets more woke. Not necessarily a connection there but both make me deeply sick. The woke is unremitting, terrible, the woo is episodic and wildly stupid. So, variety at least.

  7. Now we all have a “feeling” one of them is to never live downstream of a 111ft tower full of mined spoil.
    That is a horror story not a f**king after the fact precognition.

  8. “… there’s no evidence for the efficacy of “precognition”—being able to see into the future, a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP). ”

    That is, of course, clear as day, but I don’t think that matters in the psychology of this – what matters is that ESP is, perhaps, simply becoming ripe for exploration – somehow, the time is right – there is no evidence yes, but no evidence *yet*.

    Join me, brave explorers, and we will find what no one before has known – and all from the comfort of your couch, without lifting a finger.

    ^^^ second part is like a script for a movie. You’re welcome, Steven Speilberg.

  9. Well, the “block universe” days this is all wrong, but it’s scary in its own right. On the other hand, Carl Rogers went pretty der into ESP and paranormal stuff late in his life. All wishful thinking.

  10. It is a book review, not a news story claiming validation of ESP, or even an editorial advocating such. The book itself seems to be a biography of a person who did exist, and who does seem to have performed the actions reported in the book. I infer that Dr. Barker at least really wanted to find evidence of premonition, which might indicate personal belief.

    The New Scientist also reviewed the book, and concluded with the following: “because premonitions aren’t true. If you deal in them, you are deluded or a charlatan. Barker was mostly the former. Knight, I am sure, is neither – but he still allows the possibility to play, as a kind of mood music. And for all that this is a compelling, beautifully written book, it feels like bad faith.”

    Even though NYT has reviewed some non fiction books that make arguments that I disagree with, I am not comfortable criticizing the Times for choosing to review them.

    On the primary subject, I might suggest that what people ascribe to the supernatural might exist to some degree, but not for the reasons believers give. More educated people than I can better explain this (or refute it), but it seems like our big advantage in the environment we evolved to thrive in is our giant brains. Survival and hunting strategies are largely predictive in nature, and often subconscious. When I am up traveling in the mountains, and pick a place to camp for the night, I think about risks such as lightning or signs of bears, things that I was taught to look for. But I know that there are lots of things I look for or avoid in a camp site, without necessarily understanding why. If I am tired and hungry, and the sun is going down, I might choose a camp site that does not feel 100% “right”. When it is hard to relax and get to sleep because it keeps nagging at me for no well defined reason, that might feel like a premonition when the reason presents itself in the middle of the night.
    That is me trying to articulate a phenomenon that I am sure others here have studied and have a more concise explanation for.

  11. To my mind the first question to ask about ESP (or any other alleged supernatural event) is ‘what is the mechanism underpinning that?’.

    When people cannot identify a mechanism and fall back on anecdote and feelings, well, there are far more likely mechanisms in play such as delusion, statistical cherry picking, or outright fraud. All human behaviours, no supernatural required.

  12. There was an article on the Premonition Bureau book in the Guardian last a couple of weeks ago: It described a “major hit” of the programme – the prediction that a French Caravelle jet would crash on take-off with 123 or 124 passengers. Days later, a British, Britannia propeller-driven aircraft with 130 passengers crashed while attempting a landing. Practically the same thing! But the credulous book review in the Guardian the following week (, reads as if the premonition were entirely accurate. I suppose it depends on whether you give any credence to precognition, but it shows (again) how the facts aren’t allowed to get in the way of a good story.

  13. If I understand correctly that many of the precognitions reported were vague and unspecific it is surprising that the hit rate wasn’t higher. People die every day and the newspapers report a steady stream of bad news stories. If one is retrospectively assigning disasters that have occurred to the premonitions that were reported then it must be pretty much always possible to find something to justify the ‘deep sense of foreboding’ experienced by the psychic person!

  14. Once I entered a do-it-yourself store. There was a couch near the entrance. The price tag of € 389 caught my attention. As a student, I had lived in dormitory 389. Price tags often end with a nine, so there was nothing suspicious about it. Then I realised that it would be far more curious to find a price tag of € 401 as I also had lived in dormitory 401, and price tags rarely end with a 1.

    A few seconds later, I ran into a pile of bags of potting soil. These bags were conspicuously marked with 40l, indicating that they contained forty litres of potting soil. That was close enough to 401 to be intriguing. There were no other bags on the spot. Potting soil comes in 10, 20, 25, 40 and 50 litres. Sacks of 40 litres also come with markings such as 40L and 40 litres, so the 40l is indeed noteworthy

    Two years later, I came back to the same store. Bags of potting soil with the 40l marking were conspicuously situated near the entrance. That reminded me of the previous incident. There was no couch, and I did not see a price tag of € 389 there. These things I was contemplating while proceeding to fetch the one item I was planning to buy. The price of this item turned out to be € 3.89.

    I have countless similar stories to tell, so there may be something funny about this universe that meters, statistics and science cannot detect.

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