A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: retrocognition

20 July 2009
Mr. Carroll,

I visit your site regularly, mainly in order to purge my psyche from the various assaults on proper reality testing offered by mass media, friends, and family who continue to adhere to, as your site puts it, 'woo'. I have really enjoyed your section on critical thinking and, being a physician myself, have applied many of the principles in my practice. So thank you!

My question is regarding retrocognition, in that a colleague related experiences she has had on a repeated basis. She states she has had a number of instances where she is able to tell a random person details of their own past with numerous specifics. She believes this is a vision from her god and occurs in order that that person may benefit by releasing some grief or guilt. For example, she told a gentleman at the bus stop that she suddenly saw a car driving away from a rural home, the color of the car, etc. Turned out that was his brother who left home at an early age to enter the army. She also 'saw' another incident that was 'confirmed' by the man that his aunt had died at an early age.

I recognize the false dilemma, post hoc fallacy, confirmation bias present in her reasoning. I can't confirm the truth of her recollections of these events either. I recognize she is observant and able to 'read' peoples' emotions, etc., and has no (apparent) secondary gain from having these 'visions'. Besides this, she states she has no other supernatural beliefs (aside from the interactive god). She sincerely asks me to try to explain this occurrence. I declined to comment on the influence of her deity, but stated that her 'hits' are improbable but definitely possible. She wasn't too impressed, and felt vindicated in her beliefs.

My question are: first, do you see any further logical fallacies when people present such events? (I read the section on clairvoyance and retrocognition) and second, How would you advise arguing these points with colleagues who have such ingrained beliefs? I find that feigning some beliefs are necessary at times, especially in my role as a physician, as patients have such expectations from their caregivers, which may be integral to their sense of well being. Saves me time on rounds too!

Thank you for your work again and your time. I would encourage you and your readers to watch the movie "The Man from Earth," about the experience of a 12-thousand-year-old caveman who has adapted to cultures throughout human history keeping his seeming immortality a secret, and [gives] his impression of our progress and mythical beliefs.

(please keep my name confidential)

reply: Your colleague's experiences are similar to those of others who have come to believe in their own psychic abilities. She has been doing cold reading and relying on subjective validation to provide her with sufficient communal reinforcement to make her think she is psychic. Another alternative, of course, is that she is really psychic and getting messages from some god for some mysterious purpose. Some people, for some reason, prefer the latter explanation to the former, and it is probably pointless to try to convince them otherwise.



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