Psychics and Statistics
After a rather lengthy discussion on philosophy and education, an acquaintance of mine said, "I have the ability to be extra lucky with dice. If I concentrate I can make them roll sixes more times than not.”
As a person who is generally very skeptical of such claims, I said, "Oh really?”
"Yeah,” he said with a confident expression that displayed his conviction.
"Do you want to prove that?” I asked.
"Sure,” he said, and I got the notion that he had complete faith in his ability. I pulled out some dice from a Risk box and made a chart on paper to record his rolls. We used three dice, and the chart was thirty-one rows in three columns. The experiment would finish with a total of 93 rolls of six-sided dice.
The first set of numbers was 4-3-4. My friend was not disturbed. He took up the dice and shook them again, this time closing his eyes and knotting his brow as he concentrated. After a moment he released the dice onto the table again. 2-5-1.
Shaking his head, he explained to me that he was having trouble concentrating since he had had a long day at work. But he took up the dice and put an anguished look of focus into the next roll. I guess he tried too hard, since the numbers were 1-2-3.
Maybe he saw the little smirk on my face, since by now I was getting amused. I knew that he was going to keep it up, and I knew he would also not bend his conviction to fit the facts. He said to me, "It doesn’t work as well around someone who doesn’t believe.”
I tried to keep my face as a mask of objectivity for the rest of the rolls. But he did seem to be getting a little desperate and annoyed when no sixes were turning up. Finally, on the eighth roll he got 1-4-6. Now he smiled as some confidence came back into him. A couple six-less rounds went by when he rolled 6-6-3.
"See,” he said, "It’s coming to me now.”
In the next four rolls he got one six each time, and now he was putting it to me. He said, "Are you starting to believe now?”
"Well,” I said, "let’s finish this out.”
So he finished out all the rolls. At the end he seemed rather pleased with himself. In four of the thirty-one rounds he had rolled two sixes, and he pointed to that fact to validate his power. Then he said, "Of course, your negative feelings made it not work as good as it should have.”
I looked over the numbers and did a little math. I tallied up how many of each number he had rolled. Of the 93 rolls, twenty-one were ones, fourteen were twos, fifteen were threes, sixteen were fours, twelve were fives, and fifteen were sixes. I said to my friend that the only numbers his sixes beat were the twos and fives. I also showed him that the average roll for any number would statistically be 15.5, since that is one sixth of 93. His fifteen sixes was almost a perfect match to the expected number of sixes.
Then I noted that he had rolled twenty-one ones. I said that maybe he had accidentally focussed his power past the sixes and onto the ones. He didn’t like my joke, and he said the chart didn’t mean anything.
"I have the power,” he said.
Our culture is very lazy-minded—this mentality is way too common. Walk into most bookstores and you will find a thriving New Age section full of psychic powers, telekinesis, telepathy, astral projection, witchcraft, astrology, alien abduction and every other kind of quackery. In most of those same stores, you will find a science section very dwarfish in comparison to the New Age section.
A few bookstores do have notably excellent selections of science books, but the truth is that many more people are out there soaking up intellectually sloppy material found in New Age sections and avoiding the science than the other way around. Maybe our schools, newspapers and television can do something about this, such as exposing fraudulent claims and educating people about science and logic. I surely hope so.
Originally published in the Westside Messenger. Also appeared in the C.O.R.I. Bulletin (Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry). James Randi also used it in a newsletter.
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