Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Premonitions, the lottery, and statistics

An interesting post appeared yesterday over at Occult View.  Entitled, "If Psychic Ability Exists, Why Can't Anyone Predict Winning Lottery Numbers?", the post makes the claim that (1) psychic ability does exist, and (2) there have been people who have won the lottery based upon a premonition.  So, q.e.d., more or less.

As evidence, the author gives us three examples of people who allegedly won the lottery (or could have, in one case) because of precognition: Steve (dreamed of the numbers "2895," didn't play them, and six months later, those were the winning numbers); Frank (a friend of a friend who won a seven million dollar payout "around two decades ago" and "said he dreamed the winning numbers"); and Lillian (bought five Pick-Three tickets with the same three numbers, because she'd heard the numbers told to her by "a voice;" the tickets won, despite the fact that the odds were "one in a thousand").

So.  Where to start?

First, as a scientist, I must with some reluctance point out the quality of the evidence.  All of them are after-the-fact reporting -- the person had already won (well, other than Steve, who didn't even win), and reported afterwards that the numbers had come to them in a precognitive fashion.  So first, we run headlong into the problem with anecdotal reporting, which is the plasticity of the human memory and the unfortunate capacity of humans to make stuff up.

But let's assume, just for fun, that all three of these stories are true as written -- all three people did have some sort of hunch about the numbers ahead of time.  Does this constitute evidence for precognition?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.  I say "unfortunately" because it sure would be cool if it worked, wouldn't it?

Let's just look at the statistics first.

According to Matthew Sweeney, author of The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, about $60 billion is spent annually on lottery tickets.  The number of tickets sold per year proved to be a hard number to find -- I'm not sure why -- but from a paper I looked at called How to Analyze the Lottery, by John Corbett and Charles Geyer, the number looked to be about 400 million annually.

Now, what about premonitions?  According to a 1987 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, 67% of adults report having "regular episodes of precognition."  The current population of the US stands at a little more than 311 million people, so if we assume that the rates of precognition haven't changed in the last thirty years, it means that something on the order of 100 million people experience regular, accurate precognitive events.

Now, I'm no statistician, but we're talking about very big numbers here, both of ticket sales and of precognition. And with all of those precognitives walking around, you're telling me that the best evidence you could find were (1) a guy who dreamed of four numbers, didn't buy a ticket, and they came up six months later, (2) a guy who "heard from a friend" that the friend had dreamed his winning numbers "a couple of decades ago," and (3) a woman who won a one-in-a-thousand Pick-Three lottery because she heard the numbers from "a voice?"  Given that 67% of Americans claim that they have been able to predict the future, you would think that guessing the correct numbers would happen so often that the lottery commission would go bankrupt from the number of winning tickets sold.

One possible objection to all of this might be that precognitives can't control what their episodes of precognition are about; i.e., they can't choose what their mysterious skill will predict next.  But doesn't this just make all of this a giant case of dart-thrower's bias -- people only remember the times when their hunches proved correct, and forget about all of the hundreds of times that they didn't?  In order to be fair, we'd have to have some sort of accurate way of estimating the number of people who dreamed numbers, were told them by "a voice," or just had a hunch, and didn't win.  And because no one tends to advertise it when that happens, it's impossible even to venture a guess.  But if I can indulge in a hunch of my own, here, I suspect that it occurs a lot -- far more often than such "precognitive events" actually predict the future.

So, that's our look at psychic abilities for today.  If any Skeptophile in the studio audience is good at statistics, let me know what you thought of my analysis, and whether you think my point stands; and if you know of a quantitative way of approaching these data, do post it in the comments section.  Because, after all, the last thing I want to do is to do the same thing that our friends at Occult View did, which is to throw around a few numbers, tell a few stories, wave their arms around, and state a conclusion as if it were self-evident.


6 comments:

  1. Even if only .0001% of people in the U.S. have accurate precognition, that would allow for 37,000 individuals in the U.S. to be a able to win the lottery at-will. The notion that these potential individuals would purposefully not play the lottery out of integrity is farcical.

    So I believe if we look at our two themes, you're more likely to win the lottery than you are to be precognitive.

    To gravitize these figures even more, statistically, a person is more likely to be killed by a shark, even if they never go to the ocean, than they are to win the lottery... and both of those odds are still better than the odds that someone will have precognitive ability.

    The more I think about it, the lottery is a great way to completely debunk, with statistics, psychic precognitive ability. I live in California. The CA state lottery's odds are 1 in 41 million and there are more winner-less draws than winning ones. If psychics could, they would.

    Science & Math: +1
    Woo-woo babble: 0

    ReplyDelete
  2. How do you get killed by a shark without going to the ocean? In an aquarium? By meteorological sharkfall events? By getting food poisoning from shark fin soup?

    Maybe all those precognitives subconsciously know that winning a huge amount of money would ruin their lives. Many lottery winners are unhappy. Just a stretch.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Allergic reactions to shark meat and choking on shark meat.

    Precognitives should also be able to prevent said ruin using their talent and be able to use that money, predictively, to ensure they live better lives, but that is also a stretch.

    If they wanted to stay under the radar, they could just repeatedly win, say, 4 out of the 6 numbers, which would net them a few thousand per play (twice a week).

    Would be interesting to find someone who had gotten 4 of 6 numbers... more than 50 times.

    "Pardon me, sir. Is your name Bif McGinley? You've won minor jackpots in the lottery every play for the past 5 years... Is there something you'd like to tell us about how... HEY! Get back here!"

    30 seconds later he's totally evaded you and you just can't understand how someone could be that ninja-like.

    "It's as if he knew what was going to happen next!"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Many people believe that when they play the lottery they must cross their fingers and wish for the best because it's all about luck. Even the National Lottery in the United Kingdom has two crossed fingers as its symbol. However, some people admit that the lottery is not about luck but is about probabilities.

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  5. www.twitter.com/psychicseloma if you would like proof that numbers can be predicted but your timing must coincide with when its best for you and your spiritual growth. Everything has to be aligned, even for a person with intuition. Kind of like baking, you need a stove/food and pans/preperation.

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