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Premonition! Foreseeing What Cannot Be Seen

Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow and author of some forty books.

An article in the March 4, 2019, New Yorker gave the regrettable impression that some people could do what science—and common sense—say cannot be done: see something (usually a tragedy) before it has occurred. magazine followed other outlets that have recently hawked paranormal claims—The New York Times regarding UFOs in 2017 and 2018 [Nickell 2018a; Nickell and McGaha 2018] and CBS’s Sunday Morning touting ESP in 2018 [Frazier 2018].)

At issue here is the aforementioned New Yorker article, Sam Knight’s “The Premonitions Bureau.” While one might expect therefrom a lesson in critical thinking regarding pseudoscientific views, Knight has adopted a “who-knows?” attitude, for which I intend this article as a corrective. (Thanks to psychologist Stuart Vyse— author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry—for suggesting this topic to me.)

Aberfan Disaster

Knight focuses on the work of an eccentric psychiatrist, John Barker, who was a member of the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Founded in 1882, the SPR studies spiritualism, hauntings, thought transference, and the like. Its members tend to be credulous, despite some exposés of fraudulent mediums.

Barker became impressed by premonitions that were reported in the wake of the Aberfan disaster of 1966 in South Wales. Sliding coal slurry engulfed a school, killing 140, including 116 children. Barker came to believe the premonitions were evidence of the paranormal. He subsequently dedicated himself to collecting such reports in his British Premonitions Bureau, hoping to prevent future disasters. But after two of his most promising informants predicted his own untimely demise, he died—though not by a nonexistent “gas supply” or “a dark car” as one psychic had suggested but, later, from a brain hemorrhage at home. (Other premonition registries have since followed.)

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