Dr. Larry Dossey’s “Premonitions,” Or An Exercise In Statistical Ignorance
I’d never heard of Dr. Larry Dossey before Steve Gibson of the Truth-Driven Thinking podcast Tweeted about him, wondering if there were any skeptical viewpoints on his work. But a quick perusing of Dr. Dossey’s site provided enough woo for a week and a half, at least. Here’s just a little taste of what I’m talking about…
An education steeped in traditional Western medicine did not prepare Dr. Dossey for patients who were blessed with “miracle cures,” remissions that clinical medicine could not explain. “Almost all physicians possess a lavish list of strange happenings unexplainable by normal science,” says Dr. Dossey. A tally of these events would demonstrate, I am convinced, that medical science not only has not had the last word, it has hardly had the first word on how the world works, especially when the mind is involved.”
I could dive right in and point out logical fallacies, such as assuming that a remission which “clinical medicine could not explain” has to be the result of something “supernatural.” This is a classic example of the argument from ignorance. We don’t know the cause of something, therefore it must be supernatural.
But that point aside, I’ve found that there really aren’t any skeptical points of view offered countering Dr. Dossey’s arguments. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to take this subject on.
Who Is Dr. Larry Dossey?
For a little more info on Dossey’s work with “premonitions,” here’s an interview with him about his book, “The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives.” (Expect a blog entry on this interview. It’s too good to pass up.)
Here is an excerpt from the aforementioned interview…
Why did you write this book?
I actually tried not to write it. I largely ignored this stuff for years, but this didn’t work very well. My own experiences of premonitions grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
During my first year in medical practice as an internist, I had a dream premonition that shook me up and made me realize the world worked differently than I had been taught.
This doesn’t exactly line up with his history. In a New York Times article about him, it says…
Dr. Dossey’s own relationship with religion is a complicated one. He had a fervent fundamentalist childhood in a farming community near Waco, Texas. As a teen-ager he played gospel piano in the one-room church, toured with a fiery revival preacher and planned to enter the ministry.
He was obviously very steeped in religion, and this way that “the world worked” is exactly what he was taught as a young man, and it seems that these religious views have had a tremendous impact on his scientific mode of thinking.
You could say it tainted his perception or implementation of the scientific method. Let’s explore further.
Before we get into specifics of Dr. Dossey’s claims, let’s take a look at his scientific credibility. Essentially, what one looks for in a credentialed scientist are publications in peer reviewed journals. Journals highly respected in the scientific community for their rigor and high standards of proof. It is also important that data being presented by the author of a study be replicable by anyone interested in furthering research in the field of study.
The first thing to note about these two journals is that they are entirely dedicated to Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). And what’s the harm in that? None of these so-called “alternative” therapies have been shown to work! These journals are not scientifically based. They have a low standard of proof. Essentially, if what you write agrees with their worldview, you get published.
Not only this, but take a look at some of the titles of Dr. Dossey’s articles published in these journals (no abstracts available for these):
- Listerine’s Long Shadow: Disease Mongering And The Selling Of Sickness
- Transplants, Cellular Memory, And Reincarnation
These seem to be either (a) conspiracy theories, or (b) religious or supernatural in nature. There doesn’t seem to be anything based on science, medicine or evidence here. And so it seems with all of his articles. But it would be hard to say for certain, as there are no abstracts available.
Let’s go on to a further, reinforcing point in this regard. If you visit Dr. Dossey’s “Biography” page and you scroll down a little bit, you find that he is the current Executive Editor of the very same Explore journal that he is published in. Not only that, but he was also the Executive Editor of the very same Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine journal from 1995-2003.
There seems to be a conflict of interest here. How convenient that he’s published many times over in journals that he is, or was, the Executive Editor of. Not only that, but these are the only journals he is published in. No publications in Nature, The New England Journal Of Medicine, no publications in The Journal Of The American Medical Association (JAMA)? You know, those reputable journals that actually employ peer review?
This is a major red flag. Only being published in journals that you’re responsible for editing. Not good.
Premonitions, Or Statistical Certainties?
Let us get to Dr. Dossey’s claims.
The first premonition he speaks about in his interview is a young woman having a dream in which a chandelier above her child’s crib falls and crushes the baby at 4:35am, during a thunderstorm.
He claims that the woman wakes up from this dream (premonition) and takes the child out of the room for fear of what she dreamt about. Soon after, she’s awakened again by the sound of the chandelier crashing into the crib, and the clock reads 4:35am.
With this story, Dr. Dossey reasons that this is absolute proof of what he refers to as a “premonition.” But, let’s be honest. There’s hardly enough evidence here to say anything for certain.
Essentially, what is at work here is the Law Of Large Numbers (LLN). Dr. Dossey is looking at this “premonition” from a short-sighted frame of mind. A vista, if you will, lined with superstitions, bad logic and faulty reasoning.
Yes, if we were to simply look at this one story of a woman awakened in the night by a dream, only to have the very same thing happen only a short time later, this would seem remarkable. But Dr. Dossey has, intentionally or not, ignored the number of people sleeping on that particular night, as night proceeded across the entire planet over that 24 hour period. Billions of people.
From this perspective, the probability that someone would dream about something that eventually happens, even if it were 1 in 1,000,000, would happen hundreds of times over the course of that one night, to people all over the globe!! It’s a statistical certainty! This is not even taking into account the 365 nights of the year that those possible billions of people could have something like this happen.
For all of the stress that Dr. Dossey puts on the importance of these “premonitions;” for all the emphasis on these seemingly remarkable, astounding occurrences, I think he fails to take into account an even more remarkable possibility – namely that something like this would never happen!
Consider the billions of people all over the world. For one of them to think of something, and have it happen at a later time. It really isn’t that remarkable. In fact, it is guaranteed to happen. It would be a miracle if it didn’t happen!
And, to Dr. Dossey’s dismay, it doesn’t require any supernatural force to make it happen. That’s just the way the ball bounces. It’s statistics. Take this example from the aforementioned About.com article…
…For example, if we flipped five coins at once, the probability of getting five heads is 1/32, or about .03. But if we repeated the flipping of five coins ten times, the probability of getting five heads somewhere in the ten tests is about .27. If we ran 100 tests, the probability of five heads rises to .96, which is highly probable indeed. [a probability of 1.0 is a certainty] But if we stopped anywhere in these 100 tests and asked what the probability would be of getting five heads on the very next trial, we are back to the starting probability of .03 because we have switched from a long-run question to a short-run question.
So yes, the odds of something like this happening to one particular person are astronomically small. BUT, we aren’t considering one person. We have to consider everyone on the planet. And that’s how we go from astronomically small odds to absolute certainty that these “premonitions” (coincidences) will happen.
And that’s why I entitled this post “An Exercise In Statistical Ignorance.” Dr. Dossey is simply ignorant of how statistics work. But, we all are. It’s part of being human. We don’t understand everything. We have weaknesses.
It is of utmost importance for us to try to understand those weaknesses, and to try to overcome them. It’s what being a Skeptic is all about. Now, what’s happened here is that in the face of these weaknesses, Dr. Dossey has ascribed supernatural causes to what are merely statistical certainties.
I hope this post was informative and helpful.