While going though files on psychics in my Buffalo, N.Y., office a few years ago, I came across a newspaper article listing annual psychic predictions–in and of itself, an unremarkable find. The article appeared in this very newspaper, and featured predictions from local psychics for the following year. What made this particular article interesting was the year being predicted: 2001, in an issue dated Jan. 11-17. Dozens of predictions were made; some were right, some were wrong, most of them were obvious, vague or impossible to verify. But all the psychics somehow missed what in retrospect was the most important event of 2001, a watershed moment in American (and indeed global) history: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. There were five psychics featured in the Alibi piece; one of them is anonymous (he goes by "N."), and another has since died and therefore can’t answer questions. As the third anniversary of the attacks approached, I contacted the remaining three by e-mail on Aug. 18, 2004, to ask about their curious failures: "I read through all of them and couldn’t help but notice that you (and all the other psychics) somehow missed what is probably the most important event in the last 100 years of American history: The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I was wondering if you had any explanation or comment on this, as it seems very strange that so many prominent psychics would all miss such an event of global importance." All three gamely replied: Alan Oken wrote, "Simply stated–I am not a psychic and did not make any psychic predictions." (This must have been my error, though the Alibi article clearly refers to him as a psychic and lists "Alan Oken’s Predictions.")Martha Woodworth wrote only, "No. I don’t [have an explanation]."Stan Alexander, voted "Best Psychic" in a 1999 poll of the newspaper’s readers, suggested he did in fact have an inkling of the events but did not want to publicize the results of his prophetic gift: "While many, including myself, may have intuited something along those lines taking place, it is not something one puts out as it can cause too much potential alarm and panic. Anybody demonstrating responsibility will know that predictions are not an exact science and as such, caution in what is to be put in print must be demonstrated." (He had information that might have saved thousands of people’s lives and changed the course of history but didn’t want to create alarm and panic?)The closest prediction, as sharp-eyed Alibi staffers pointed out, was the following forecast from Alan Oken: "Saturn opposing Pluto in Gemini/Sagittarius happens August through November. This time period—and especially the beginning of August and the beginning of November—may be marked by major conflicts in world power struggle."To give credit where it is due, Oken was certainly correct that there would be (actually, he said there might be ) major conflicts between August and November 2001.The period of August through November covers four months, or one-third of the year. I challenge anyone to identify any four-month period in recent history during which there were no "major conflicts in world power struggle" somewhere in the world. (Note that Oken did not specify that the conflict would occur in the United States, and in fact his prediction for America made no mention of it.) A quick check of the "Year in Review" sections of world almanacs for the years 2002 through 2005 reveals that "major conflicts in world power" occur every year between August and November (and throughout the year)—terrorist attacks, coups, bombings, assassinations and so on. It would actually be more remarkable if Oken had predicted that August through November would not be marked by such conflicts. I’m certainly not blaming any of the Alibi ‘s esteemed psychics for not predicting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Alexander is correct that predictions are far from precise, but saying psychic prediction "is not an exact science" suggests that while no one is always right, psychics provide valid information much of the time. This is demonstrably false; in fact it’s much more accurate to say that psychic predictions are correct about as often as non-psychic ones. That brings up an interesting question: Why is psychic information so unreliable? Psychic predictions should be the most accurate type of prediction. We’d know at the beginning of the year what day a celebrity would die in a car crash and when the stock market will plunge. Unlike predictions based upon "normal" criteria (such as predicting the number of disease cases by extrapolating current ones, or using past performance of a stock fund), information gleaned from supernatural powers would presumably be much more accurate. Uncertainty in prediction is usually the result of human error or inability to predict unforeseen circumstances. By removing human limitations from the method of prediction and placing it in the hands of a supernatural force or entity, psychic information should be amazingly accurate. Psychics should have near-universal agreement in predictions. Instead of pockets of occasional, correct predictions, we’d get thousands of psychics saying the same thing, coming to each prediction independently. That never happens. Granted, a person might consult three different doctors with the same malady and get slightly different diagnoses, but they would be pretty similar: One won’t claim the problem is a broken leg, for example, while another insists it’s dandruff. Psychics, on the other hand, are all over the map and often give contradictory information. Psychics respond by saying that no one is always right and not all psychics can "tap into" powers of equal quality or strength. But to claim that, well, some "higher powers" are better than others just begs the question. Either a prediction comes true or it doesn’t, and if a hundred different psychics are consulting a hundred different "powers," and only one gets it right, doesn’t that call the entire idea into question? If these psychic powers are so fallible, why use them at all? There’s nothing wrong with psychics providing entertainment value, but if psychic powers can’t give reliable information on important, real-world issues, what real value are they? Why can’t they provide valid, practical information that prevents or warns of terrorism, school massacres or natural disasters? If they can’t help rescue or locate missing persons such as Steve Fossett, Natalee Holloway or Osama bin Laden, what is the value in such powers? Just for the sake of argument, let’s say a psychic makes 20 predictions, all of them specific enough to verify (this rarely happens). Let’s say the average, non-psychic person could have predicted about one-third of the items (say, that a famous performer will die in the winter, or that there will be terrorism in the Middle East), and the psychic, using his or her powers, can correctly predict even more, say half. How impressive is that, really? That a person can do what they claim only half the time? Would you choose a doctor who is only right in her diagnoses and treatments half the time? Would you go to a car mechanic who can only fix your car half the time? And, of course, there’s no way to know which of the psychic’s statements and predictions are true. That means that half the time, when you act on the psychic’s information (say, buying stocks, choosing one potential lover or career over another, or another important life decision), you would be wrong and make a decision based on bad information.It will be interesting to see how 2008 predictions turn out, and I hope one or more of the psychics will turn out to be amazingly specific and accurate. However, using not psychic powers but past experience, I predict that won’t happen.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: www.RadfordBooks.com.