Investigating Mini-Mysteries: The Case of the Wikipedia Prophecy
Hello there! Welcome to Part 7 of my ten-part introduction to the basics of scientific paranormal investigation, adapted from my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the workshop I give of the same title. It’s intended to give the layperson a taste of how a science-based paranormal investigator goes about solving mysteries.
Last time we looked at a case study of a mysteriously disappearing—and reappearing—boat I saw in East Africa. This time we’re going to take a look at two mini-mysteries, again taken from cases I was a part of, or researched. One involves the death of a professional wrestler; the other involves a co-worker who believed her cat was psychic.
The Case of the Wikipedia Prophecy
The murder-suicide of Canadian pro wrestler Chris Benoit of his wife and son was bizarre and shocking enough: Benoit strangled his wife and seven-year-old son the night of June 22, 2007, at his home in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. But the story got even stranger when someone noticed that Benoit’s entry in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia had been amended to note the death of Benoit’s wife. This would not be unusual, except for the fact that the addition was made anonymously at 12:01 A.M., over twelve hours before police found the Benoit family dead. How was that possible? A posting by an anonymous psychic? Was the contributor somehow involved in the deaths?
Before speculating about conspiracy theories or prophecy, there are a few things to note. First of all, contrary to rumor, the Wikipedia entry did not predict Benoit’s killing of his wife or his child. It said: “Chris Benoit was replaced by Johnny Nitro for the [wrestling] match at Vengeance, as Benoit was not there due to personal issues, stemming from the death of his wife Nancy.” There is no mention of Benoit’s involvement in his wife’s death at all; in fact the entry suggests that the wrestler had the option to participate in the event but chose not to. The “personal issues” explanation for Benoit’s absence would seem to be something of an understatement given that he was dead.
Second, death rumors are among the most common types of rumors about celebrities and their families. Many popular performers (including Will Ferrell, Johnny Knoxville, Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, and Brad Pitt) have at one time or another been the subject of erroneously reported deaths. According to the rumor mill, Mikey (from the Life cereal commercials) was killed when he mixed Pop Rocks with soda, and of course Bobby McFerrin (composer of the 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) killed himself to end a suicidal depression. Actor David Carradine—well, never mind.
Third, this incident shows how people will often overinterpret mere coincidences as much more meaningful than they are. In Benoit’s case, the still-anonymous writer simply made a wild guess (and tasteless joke) based on rumors. The writer admitted, “Last weekend, I had heard about Chris Benoit no-showing [at] Vengeance because of a family emergency, and I had heard rumors about why that was. I was reading rumors and speculation about this matter online, and one of them included that his wife may have passed away, and I did the wrong thing by posting it on Wikipedia [in spite of] there being no evidence. I posted my speculation on the situation at the time and I am deeply sorry about this….it is one of those things that just turned into a huge coincidence.” There are probably thousands of other errors and literary pranks on Wikipedia, a few of which may turn out to be strangely prophetic purely by chance.
The Case of the Psychic Cat
In college I worked at a restaurant in my small hometown in New Mexico (actually it had a reputation for being haunted—but that’s a story for another book). Among my coworkers was a woman name Jeuta, a beautiful, artistic, and effervescent waitress who lived in the next town over. I visited her one day for tea, and our conversation turned to cats. She had a fluffy one and knew I loved them myself. She said that she believed that cats had special powers, that they could sense things beyond the normal senses. Of course many animal senses are far better than humans’; bloodhounds can track people and cats can see in near-darkness. But she went beyond that to claim that cats —or at least her cat—actually had paranormal abilities. She smiled as I looked intrigued. “Example!” I requested, cocking an eyebrow and crossing my arms.
She stirred honey into her herbal tea. “Example: Cats can sense the tops of tables and counters while they’re still on the floor.” I asked how she knew that, and she explained that when her cat jumps up onto surfaces that are cluttered with items, he rarely if ever knocks anything over. She had delicate art items on many shelves and tables, and of course the cat had the run of the house.
Jeuta correctly noted that the cat could not see what was on top of surfaces before he jumped up there. Yet he almost invariably managed to alight with what seemed to be paranormal foreknowledge of what he would encounter, thus avoiding accidents. I gave this a few seconds thought, and suggested that perhaps she wasn’t giving enough credit to the cat’s natural reflexes—which are, after all, legendary. As the cat is arriving at the end of his leap, he has split-seconds to adjust his movement and balance to avoid collisions with whatever is up there. Split seconds isn’t much time for you or me, but plenty of time for all but the most slothful of domestic felines. I didn’t discount my friend’s explanation—it is indeed possible that cats (or at least her cat) had supernatural powers.
But it seemed much more likely that the answer lay in known abilities and processes. When it comes to paranormal or supernatural explanations, to borrow a famous line from Pierre LaPlace, I have no need of that hypothesis—science can often explain it quite well. Which explanation is more likely: That her cat has psychic powers, or that it has excellent reflexes? The answer, of course, is that we have proof that the cat has excellent reflexes, and no proof it has psychic powers. This is also a fallacy from personal incredulity: Jeuta believed that since she couldn’t think of an explanation for the cat’s abilities, it had to be paranormal.
Hopefully these examples have given you something to think about, at least in terms of the ways in which we can fool ourselves. In the next part I’ll discuss the basics of scientific methodology. Just what exactly do we mean by “scientific,” and how can we apply that process to the paranormal or unexplained?
Next: Part 8