Back in the days when Uri Geller and Jean Dixon (look them up) were making the talk show rounds, I once told my science classes that I was able to predict the future.
Of course, none of them believed me.
“You had to have special powers of some kind in order to do that” they told me. Some of them then gave me a long dissertation about Nostradamus, who was back in the news for one of his 400 year old wishy washy “predictions” that had appeared to have come true.
I created a lesson about critical thinking, and it took almost the entire year to complete. Early on we talked about people that said they could predict the future: Mediums, Psychics, Prophets, and the like. We discussed what percentage of predictions needed to come true in order for the students to be convinced that someone had true “psychic” skills.
They all agreed that 75%or greater was a pretty good indicator that someone had the ability to predict the future.
I then set up a demonstration: I told them that I would be able to predict the future with at least 75% accuracy. I made a set of predictions, sealed them in an envelope, even dramatically sealed the envelope with red wax, and put it on a shelf, not to be disturbed until the last week of school.
They believed that is, until I explained how I did it:
I remembered my father telling me that if you make enough predictions, just by chance, some of them will come true. Psychics, because of the full time scam that they practice, all they do is make predictions. Sheer volume would indicate that they have a chance of making a prediction come true.
Jean Dixon was famous for predicting that JFK would be assassinated. She also predicted that JFK would complete his term. Either way, the psychic will be right because you only hear about the prediction that came true.
The more dramatic the “prediction” the more famous the psychic becomes.
I set about making my classroom “predictions.” Some would be pretty obvious based on statistics and patterns that I had observed over the years. For instance I knew that UTEP had not had a winning season in decades, and that trend was not going to change that year:
Prediction 1: UTEP football will have a losing season. Easy.
The basketball team, on the other hand, was usually pretty good, stacked early games of the season with patsies, and almost always had a winning season.
Prediction 2: UTEP Basketball would have a winning season.
Large snow storms come to the desert rarely, but light snow is very common in the winter, even if it only hangs around for a few hours.
Prediction 3: It will snow in El Paso this year. (Notice the ambiguity of that phrase. Any amount of snow and I was correct.)
And on it went until I had 25 predictions: A famous movie actor will die. A politician will be involved in a scandal. A plane will crash in a foreign country. A famous musician will be arrested. The price of gasoline will go up.
With those types of predictions, I got close to what I thought would be 75% , but I knew I had to hedge some bets, so I made some predictions that I would be be pretty sure I got correct:
The stock market will go up 10 %
The stock market will NOT go up 10%.
A famous politician will be assassinated (I did that one because of all the psychics that say they predicted the JFK killing.)
A famous politician will not be assassinated.
My 25 initial predictions became 100 by the time I finished, sealed the envelope and in front of the students, placed it on top of a large glassware shelf.
When the last week of school came, most of the kids had forgotten about the envelope, but quickly remembered when I took it down. I had a student examine the seal to make sure it had not been tampered with. Another student opened the envelope up, to make sure I was not able to slip in a new set of predictions.
When I read them to the class, they were amazed at my abilities. Surely, I had some kind of mystical powers. I explained to them, I had the “power” of noticing trends, understanding statistics, hedging bets, and using language to make ambiguous statements that could be interpreted many different ways.
Math, English and Science – All in one, very extended lesson.
By the end, the students saw how predictions were made and how “psychics” were nothing more than flam flam artists out to make money off of unsuspecting rubes.
There is a famous saying that you never read the headline “Psychic wins lottery.” And there is a very good reason for that: Psychics cannot really predict anything outside of the statistic of “chance.”
Your wife might be cheating on you.
Your daughter seems sad.
You will someday find love.
James Randi, the famous magician, had a $1,000,000 challenge from 1964 to 2015 where he would have paid anyone that said they had “psychic powers” that amount if their claims could withstand scientific scrutiny.
Not a single person was able to claim the prize.
Critical thinking is important. Our students need to know how to think that way. Our teachers need to think that way as well. Otherwise, they will become victims of the film flam. Or they won’t.
Either way, I am correct.
Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.
Feel free to leave a comment. Read his previous columns here.