Tag Archive: predictions

Kitty Mervine

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Kitty Mervine, of Yankee Skeptic.)

really hate to share this with my skeptic friends. It sounds too far fetched. It should be noted, I never believed this was anything paranormal.  I had a dear friend Mary.  She was godmother to my 2 children. When our husbands were in the Navy, we ended up best friends. We were so close that when my daughter Evelyn was born, Mary was my Lamaze partner.  (My husband was out at sea for the birth.)  Through the years we kept in close touch.  Our families would visit.  It was with great happiness that we discovered we were both pregnant at the same time. Her daughter was born on Mother’s Day, and she joked my child would be born on Father’s Day. Sure enough (2 weeks overdue) my child was born on Father’s Day! Now, that would be weird coincidence enough. The odds of that are pretty far fetched. But we both just thought it was fun, and yet another bond between us.

Mary and infant Evelyn

Sadly, Mary was diagnosed with cancer a few years later. I didn’t worry too much as she had a form of cancer that was 90% curable. We all just assumed the 10% that died were elderly or weak in some way. For a young woman in her 30s that never smoked, was thin, and rarely drank, we assumed a cure of 100%. I made of point of staying in touch more than ever, because the treatment was really tough.

One Friday night I woke up at 2am and woke up my husband.  I told him, “l can’t sleep, I’m really worried about Mary.”  I’d never done this before.  He said he could see I was trembling. When he turned on a light, I was pale and simply crying out of control.  He calmed me down and reminded me she was still working full time and doing very well.  The next day I received a call that Mary was in the hospital.

She had contracted a cold and as a precaution went into the hospital; however, something had gone wrong.  Very wrong.  She was in a coma, and was most likely brain dead. Her husband was expecting to pull life support. It was totally out of the blue, more of a bad reaction to her treatment than the cancer. My own doctor later pointed out that odds mean nothing, at least not when you are in the 10%.  One of of ten that have this type of cancer will die. Mary died. I never could explain why I woke up in the middle of the night so scared.  But I also never attributed it to anything other than perhaps simply the stress of worrying over a friend and coincidence.  I was worried about her, but did not say or feel she was going to die.

My husband and I flew out to attend her funeral. It was probably the toughest thing I’d ever been through up to that point. Her three-year-old daughter didn’t get that mommy wasn’t going to respond to her cry for her to “Wake up!” at the viewing. The unfairness of life really washed over me. I couldn’t believe I had not only lost a dear friend; I had also lost the only person that shared memories with me about the birth of my first child.

In response to that desperation to keep her in my life, I dreamed about her almost every night. Finally, months later, when I felt myself recovering, I had a dream where she knocked on my front door. I answered it, and told her “Mary, you are going to have to leave me alone now.  I’m so sad when you come visit every night and I wake up and you are still dead.” In my dream she turned and walked away.  Sure enough, she has rarely since appeared in a dream. I know, rationally, that this was probably a way for me to slowly let go of my friend. Her death was so unexpected, I think I needed those months of dreams to adjust.  I never thought I was really communicating with her in my dreams. She was just in my thoughts so much during the months following her death, that it was perfectly natural she should inhabit my dreams for a bit.

About a year later,  I scared my husband when much the same thing happened again. His father was ill with lung cancer. He had been doing as well as one can with that illness. The cancer had not become any larger, and he had only recently stopped working. He was expected to do well for many months more. Once again  I woke up in the middle of the night quite upset. I was worried about his father.  Mark was “not again!” and got me back to sleep. That day, sure enough, we got a call his father has had a heart attack. His mother had a “do not resuscitate” order.  At this point my husband was looking at me really oddly.  I kept assuring him I was not paranormal. Certainly in his dad’s case there was much more reason for worry.

When my husband’s cousin, and my good friend, also became ill with cancer I was a bit nervous. Waking up in the middle of the night crying was not fun. I kept in close touch with her. I sent gifts, letters and books. One day I sent off a package with a dressy purse for her to take on a cruise through the Panama Canal. I got home from the post office to a phone call that my friend had died. While sad, there was also a sense of relief. I, of course, knew I had no special power to know when someone was going to die; but, three events would have been most uncomfortable.

Since then, others close to me have died. I have never again been even close to knowing when the end would come.  One thing that I found did keep me grounded during the two events was the thought that there was no purpose or good in my “knowing” when someone was about to die. When psychics make vague predictions, I’ve always said to the believers “But aren’t words from beyond that are so vague and general even worse than no word at all?” Why tell the police that a body is “in or near water”?  There are so many bodies of water, including bathtubs and pools, that it is as good as no help. Since my premonition or feeling about two deaths had no rhyme or reason, I choose to accept it as simply “one of those things”. Though I have to admit my husband still looks at me a little oddly at times, and not just when I serve “Sauerkraut Cake” (it’s good!) http://allrecipes.com/recipe/german-chocolate-sauerkraut-cake/

[EDITOR:  Kitty was remembered by James Randi in the keynote address of TAM 2013 for extraordinary service to the skepticism community. – Wendy]



Odds on Current Events

(Based on a link submitted by reader Sean Duncan)

The Independent Investigations Group, which as you loyal, dedicated, and detail-oriented readers know is a Los Angeles, California-based organization that investigates claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience, is affiliated with The Odds Must Be Crazy and provides a lot of our support and backing.

The IIG regularly receives all sorts of communication regarding a wide variety of topics, including requests for advice on how to handle unusual situations related to the IIG’s fields of expertise. In this case, listener Sean Duncan decided to write in and get the IIG’s assistance with a subject he’d been discussing with a friend. Here is that email:


My name is Sean and I live in Shelton, WA. I’m emailing because a skeptic of skepticism asked me about how, sometimes in disasters, thousands of people will die in a particular building yet one will survive for days or weeks because they are in the right place at the right time. I told this person that I would contact the Independent Investigations group because they like to calculate the odds of things. With so many people calling this phenemona a miracle, it might make for a good segment on The Odds Must Be Crazy. If you have the desire to calculate the odds of this Bangladesh woman surviving 17 days, we’d both appreciate it.




Through this communication a long discussion thread was started to address the question and build a complete picture of what would be required to answer it. We found the results really interesting, and have decided to share some excerpts with you below:

Comment by Barbara Drescher:

There is absolutely no way to calculate the odds of such a thing; it would require knowing everything about the building at the time of the collapse as well as defining the context (e.g., the odds of surviving, given that one is in the building when it collapsed, or the odds of it collapsing right when one is standing in that spot?).

How I would respond to such a question would be to ask more questions. If it is a miracle that she survived, then what is it that the other 1100+ people died? How many people do you think survived for several days, but died before they were rescued? Would it be less of a miracle if it was 15 days or more of a miracle if it was 18 days?

This kind of thinking is flawed because it is “post hoc”, or after-the-fact. Given what we know happening, the odds of that happening are 100% (because it already happened). Even if we predicted that a survivor or two would be found this long after, it’s still not remarkable because it happens. People will always be “in the right place at the right time” and “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. When we think about all of the circumstances that must be “lined up” for such a thing to happen, it looks remarkable, but something has to happen. Some set of circumstances is going to be the set that occurs. Someone will eventually win the lottery.

I’m reminded of the research that Hugh Ross did in which he calculated an outrageous probability that the universe would produce human beings. It was so outrageous that he concluded that it must have been an act of God. However that kind of thinking is exactly like asking someone to pick a number between 1 and 600,000,000,000, then being shocked by the number they picked, given that the chances of them choosing that number were 1 in 600,000,000,000.

Comment by IIG Chairman Jim Underdown:

It reminds me of two related issues. The question is like asking what are the odds of surviving a car crash. It depends on the car, the speed, the driver, what it hit – and countless other factors.

The post hoc example I like is the paint bucket that fell off a ladder. What are the odds it would produce exactly that spatter pattern? … 100%!

Comment by Jerry Schwarz:

It may be important to emphasize the difference between the probability that a specific person will survive for that long and the probability that one out of the thousands of people in the building will survive.  I suspect that many people don’t understand that difference.

Comment by IIG Steering Member Dave Richards:

The kind of statistics I have a real problem with are ones where there’s a bimodal or multimodal aspect. For example if you plot the ages of death for 10,000 individuals on a histogram, it won’t be a nice bell curve – there’s going to be a big spike in infancy due to childhood diseases, another spike in middle age from heart attack and stroke because that’s when those usually happen, more spikes from various cancers for people that outlive the other stuff, and then finally a spike when the body just finally gives out from old age. To boil such a spiky graph down to a single average age for longevity is pretty much a useless statistic. But this kind of thing is done all the time in news articles.

Jim Underdown responds:

I guess I’m arguing that because each car crash (plane crash, building collapse) is unique, and survivability depends on lots of factors dependent on that particular crash, making general predictions (or assigning odds) about someone surviving any such incident would be beyond the amount of useful information you’d ever have access to in a random event like this. The odds you’d come up with in your car crash statistics might easily be useless unless you added in lots of other controls like speed, car make, alcohol, etc. A sober person who never drives a Mack truck more than 20 miles an hour will be well beyond the insurance company’s risk tables. (Sort of along the lines of shark attack risk for those who never go near water.)

The correspondent is interested in whether we can assign odds to her having survived. There’s quite a difference between calculating the odds that someone would survive, and that this particular woman would survive.

Barbara Drescher rounds up the strategy of developing probability: 

Starting with a very specific question is essential and without one, it’s not even possible to guestimate.

And I think that’s the disconnect that people have when they think of these kinds of occurrences as miraculous (I don’t think it’s relevant whether they consider it an act of God or just a really amazing coincidence). Post hoc thinking has the luxury of being vague, but it’s not the vagueness that makes it bad.” And following up: “I just don’t see how that’s relevant. The question isn’t about how statistics are used. It’s about whether an event is extraordinary, probabilistically speaking.

IIG Steering member Spencer Marks adds:

… the way I read the question about the odds didn’t seem (to me) strictly a question about the odds of surviving the collapse of the building, but of the survivor living for 17 days. That question of course is ALSO not a matter of “odds,” but of many different environmental factors such as the ambient temperature, perhaps humidity, his availability to water, his general condition before the collapse … Like Barbara said, this is not a matter of odds but purely biological and physiological science at work, and that should be mentioned!

Bay Area IIG member Leonard Tramiel summarizes: 

There is a very good reason that the odds here are different. It’s related to the reason that it is considered a “miracle”.

It happens rarely. We can state the odds of being in a car crash because this happens many times every day. Surviving a building collapse for more than two weeks … not so common.

Given the poor statistics, we are forced to consider computing the statistics and that is hopeless for either building collapse or car crash.

Overall we found this was a rather interesting (you can feel free to disagree with us without hurting our feelings) look into the thought processes that sometimes go into analyzing stories like this.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled stories. There will be further interruptions.