Home > All, Pseudoscience, Science, Skepticism > Dr. Larry Dossey & “Premonition Science” [A Skeptical Look]

Dr. Larry Dossey & “Premonition Science” [A Skeptical Look]

Introduction

Before you dig your heels in and attack this post, I’ll refer to this one. I think it’ll give you some necessary background; some perspective on Dr. Dossey so you can see where I’m coming from.

In the aforementioned post, there was an interview with Dr. Dossey in which he discussed his book, The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives. I’d only talked briefly about that interview because there were other things to discuss. But, this entry is dedicated entirely to that interview. (I’d recommend keeping another window with this interview opened so you can switch back and forth.)

Seeing how this is the introduction, I’ll introduce you to what you’re about to read. Now, Dr. Larry Dossey is an actual doctor. But, from his methods of reasoning, you’d be surprised. For anyone familiar with the Scientific Method, you’ll find yourself baffled, stunned, and quite flummoxed.

Dr. Dossey relies heavily on anecdotal evidence (stories) for proof of his claims. Anyone involved in science, especially in a professional sense, knows that anecdotes are not in any way reliable proof of anything. It’s hearsay.

Essentially, what you’re about to find out is that what Dr. Dossey refers to as “Premonition Science” is really just faulty reasoning and bad logic.

Dr. Dossey’s Premonitions

Basically, what Dr. Dossey refers to as “premonitions” are instinctual reactions, or anticipation of an unpleasant event sprinkled with a dash of Supernaturalism and New Age philosophy.

Consider the first 3 questions of that interview and it’ll give you a good idea of what Dossey means by a premonition. In a word, Dossey’s premonition is a hunch. An idea that something might happen. Let’s look at the following question for an example of this.

4. Why are premonitions about unpleasant things? Why don’t we have
premonitions about winning the lottery, the right stocks to pick, or when to bail out of the stock market?

He responds by saying that premonitions are “trying to do us a favor.” In this context Dossey’s premonitions are really just manifestations of the fight or flight response. We’ve evolved to anticipate the “unpleasant.” That’s how we’ve survived and made it to the top of the food chain. If we were slow to respond when a tiger was in the bushes, we’d be long gone by now.

Now that we live in a relatively “controlled” environment, these instincts are now free to be applied to other things. We worry. We anticipate pain, discomfort and other “unpleasant” things. These instincts are how we protect ourselves from harm. There’s no need to insert the supernatural when the natural perfectly explains everything.

Dossey says he wrote this book because the time was right, that…

…science has come onto the premonitions scene. There are now hundreds of experiments that confirm premonitions, which have been replicated by researchers all over the world.

Really? Wouldn’t it make sense that these “researchers all over the world” would manage to get published in at least ONE peer reviewed, scientific journal? A PubMed search reveals 0 (ZERO) studies involving the search term “premonitions” in the context which Dr. Dossey is talking about. Maybe saying “researchers all over the world” is slightly exaggerated. Maybe it was one study he did at his house?

6. If people can see the future, why don’t they get rich playing the stock market?

Dossey claims that they do, and that this success is proved with studies of CEO’s predicting random series of numbers.

Researchers have tested CEOs of successful corporations for their ability to see the future, such as predicting a string of numbers they will be shown later. The CEOs who are good at this are usually those who are also highly successful in running their corporations.

What was the range of numbers? 1 – 10? 1 – 1,000,000? How were these tests conducted? What is the correlation between guessing numbers and determining the most successful corporate balance sheets? In the corporate culture, being able to determine the “most successful balance sheets” is a requirement. So, they all had better score well on that test.

What this seems like is cherry-picking evidence.

Interestingly, these CEOs were shy about owning their premonition sense. They didn’t call their abilities premonitions, but good “business sense.”

Dr. Dossey, maybe you should listen to them… because they’re right! That’s all it is. Good business sense.

9. You talk about “evidence” for premonitions. But isn’t the evidence just
anecdotes and people’s stories?

I would ask the same thing.

This field used to be only about stories, but that’s changed. There’s now a
science of premonitions. For the first time in history, we can now use
“premonition” and “science” in the same sentence.

Strange. I’d refer you back to that PubMed search which reveals ZERO results for “premonitions” in the scientific literature.

I think a great deal of what Dr. Dossey calls “premonitions” can be placed in the confirmation bias category. People remember when their “premonition” is fulfilled. But, what about all of the other countless “premonitions” that never panned out? Those are quickly forgotten, and all of the emphasis is placed upon the predictions that came true.

I would venture to guess that people who worry a lot are also disproportionately more likely to believe they’ve had premonitions. They spend a great deal more time worrying and “predicting” bad things that might happen. This also means they have a greater chance of “predicting” when something bad will happen, simply because of the sheer number of predictions that they make during the course of the day. The odds are that they’ll get a hit more often than those who don’t worry as much.

There have been claims that people on the Titanic had premonitions about the ship going down. That might seem astonishing at first. But, I submit that there is not a single ship, car, train, or bicycle in existence in which someone hasn’t worried about it breaking, crashing or sinking. You wouldn’t find one. Because people worry, there will always be premonitions like this. There is nothing supernatural about it.

Think about it this way. How many times during the course of a single day do people get nervous and decide not to fly, take a train or a boat – all over the globe? The only reason it was paid attention to in the case of the Titanic was because of how famous the event was.

Premonitions As Science?

Tell me if you think this sounds like scientific thinking…

But the premise of my book is that these events are not rare at all, but very common.

Most skeptics are poorly informed. They simply ignore the experiments showing that people can sense the future, because these studies create huge holes in their arguments.

Many skeptics will not be persuaded that premonitions are real, no matter how compelling the evidence is.

Personal experience is probably the best argument against the skeptics of
premonitions.

And…

Cases like this suggest that the best evidence for premonitions is not argument or even experimental evidence, but personal experience.

This is a trained scientists talking? I’ve searched the web and was unable to find ONE reliable journal willing to publish anything about these experiments. Not only this, but when he says that “the best evidence for premonitions is not argument or even experimental evidence, but personal experience,” I cringe because this is exactly what science teaches us is not the kind of thing we can rely on. No controls, the fallibility of human memory, no reliable documentation by independent sources, etc.

Dossey then goes on to say that…

Scientists don’t really know what time is. We assume it flows in one direction, which prohibits premonitions. But no experiment in the history of science has ever shown that time flows in one direction, or that it flows at all. Alternative views of time are downright cordial to premonitions.

While there is a bit of truth to this statement, we do know that we can’t simply travel through time with our minds. Michio Kaku explains this here.

Dr. Dossey wants us to believe that we can somehow use this mysterious, New Age “energy” in our mind to travel through time and perceive the future. Not quite. The power of an exploding star is required. Not only this, but that incomprehensible amount of power has to be directed in such a specific way so as to bend the Universe into the shape of a pretzel.

And then this guy has the nerve to bring up “Remote Viewing.” Are you serious? And Radin’s “presentiment” experiments. These have long been debunked. There was no “precognition.” The effects have been conclusively shown to be the result of expectation, and not “premonition.”

In fact, Wikipedia says this to say…

Remote viewing was popularized in the 1990s, following the declassification of documents related to the Stargate Project, a 20 million dollar research program sponsored by the U.S. Federal Government to determine any potential military application of psychic phenomena. The program was terminated in 1995, citing a lack of documented evidence that the program had any value to the intelligence community.

Yes, that’s right. The program was terminated because of “a lack of documented evidence that the program had any value to the intelligence community.”

Richard Wiseman actually just recently conducted a study on Twitter testing “Remote Viewing” abilities. You can see a video about it here. The result: Fail. No Remote Viewing capabilities found.

Conclusion

The evidence just doesn’t stack up. Everything that Dossey claims can be explained by perfectly natural means, and these premonitions actually fit better in a natural setting. Inserting supernatural explanations only complicates matters.

Like a lot of proponents of pseudoscience, I think Dr. Dossey uses his status as a doctor to promote ideas which are not supported by scientific research. The argument from authority. He’s a doctor, so we must believe him by virtue of that fact alone. But, I suppose that’s all he’s got, since the science doesn’t agree with what he’s claiming.

Even from a very basic scientific standpoint, Dr. Dossey hasn’t even provided a mechanism for how these premonitions might work. How do premonitions function? What part of the brain do they stem from? What energy source do they draw upon for their predictions? Is it part of the electromagnetic spectrum? Is it potential or kinetic energy? Where is this source of information about the future from which our minds can draw from? There are so many unanswered questions, and yet Dr. Dossey claims that there is science to support his claims.

What I can say is that it does seem to make sense when we take a look at premonitions under a more practical, logical, skeptical light. They seem to be the result of instinct, anticipation, worry, and anxiety all wrapped up in chance and statistics.

One person worrying about something, only to have it happen just the way they predicted would be an astonishing thing. There’s no doubt about that. But, when we take into account all of the worriers across the globe, and we span all of their worries over the span of 365 days, the chances of ONE of those worries from ONE of those billions of people coming true, we get a statistical certainty that these premonitions will come to pass. And not just once, but hundreds, if not thousands of times over the course of a year.

It’s really not all that astonishing or baffling when you take a skeptical look at this phenomena.

And that’s all I’ve got.

Read a book. It’s good for you.

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  1. I.Jones
    Thursday July 29, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    Premonitions do happen. Your holding on to the european version of time, what I call Linear time. In American reality cyclicality of time allows near present to influence our abilities to perceive future events. Its not worrying.

  2. RD
    Friday June 26, 2015 at 2:24 AM

    Science is only science, & it’s limited. It is not the only valid form of epistemology! However, one should not attempt to give scientific airs to something non-scientific. There is also no need to apologize for personal religious /spiritual/supernatural belief.

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