Remember the ’90s? It was the decade when:

  • scientists discovered an anti-aging drug that stretched the normal lifespan to 150 years
  • Madonna gave birth to quintuplets
  • earthquakes transformed both San Diego and Los Angeles into islands
  • a Super Bowl had to be canceled because so many players were suspended for drug use, that both coaches couldn’t field a team

At least that’s what should have occurred if the world’s top psychics had been correct. People may be celebrating the new millennium, but the world’s top psychics shouldn’t be raising a glass of champagne to celebrate their successes for the 1990s, according to Gene Emery, a contributor to the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer, who has been tracking the hits and misses of the tabloid psychics for two decades.

And, Emery says, the folks who claim to be able to see the future also didn’t do very well in their forecasts for 1999. The psychics said 1999 would be the year that:

  • a pollution cloud forced New York City to be quarantined
  • Wynonna Judd quit country music to become a women’s wrestler
  • marijuana replaced petroleum as the nation’s chief source of energy
  • the cast of 60 Minutes II was replaced by Candice Bergen, Mary Tyler Moore and Margot Kidder
  • the Statue of Liberty lost both arms in a terrorist blast
  • Monica Lewinski became a millionaire after opening a New York boutique for the full-figured women called Monica’s Closet
  • O.J. Simpson confessed to Howard Stern on the air that he killed his ex-wife
  • Roseanne shed her clothes to do a week’s worth of talk shows from a nudist colony

“It’s always hard to find evidence that a psychic predicted an unexpected event before the fact,” said Emery, a science writer based in Providence, R.I. For example, the forecasts published with great fanfare in the supermarket tabloids failed to mention such surprising events as the massive earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, the nuclear accident in Japan, or the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law.

Instead, said Emery, Anthony Carr, billed as “the world’s most documented psychic” by the National Examiner, is documented as predicting that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy would give birth to healthy twins. And Sanjiv Mishra of India, described by the tabloid Sun as one of the ten “greatest psychics on Earth”, made the not-so-great forecast that JFK Jr. would fly “on a space shuttle mission in August” with John Glenn as his co-pilot.

Tracking the psychics is fun, but it has a serious side, said Emery.

“Every time the media hypes psychics, it encourages consumers to waste large amounts of money calling psychic hotlines. Most can ill afford it. It also encourages some police departments to listen to psychics who claim to be able to solve crimes. Not only do ‘psychic detectives’ waste valuable police resources, the psychics sometimes implicate people who later turn out to be innocent.”

Emery said psychics give the illusion of being accurate when people forget the bad predictions or don’t realize how equivocal the forecasts are. Psychic Sylvia Browne, for example, predicted that in 1999 “the Pope will become ill and could die.” Said Emery: “That means she can claim success if the Pope suffers anything from a head cold to a fatal heart attack.” (Browne’s notable predictions for 1999 included forecasts of cures for breast cancer and sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS]. She also said that “The world will not end anytime soon.”) Some of the unambiguous forecasts the psychics were making for the 1990s:

  • Soviet cosmonauts will be shocked to discover an abandoned alien space station with the bodies of several extraterrestrials aboard
  • Fidel Castro will be jailed after his government is overthrown “in a massive revolt”
  • cancer will be cured
  • Oprah Winfrey will marry the next mayor of Washington, D.C.
  • the first successful human brain transplant will be performed
  • public water supplies will be treated with chemicals that will prevent AIDS
  • American voters will be able to cast their ballots using touch tone telephones
  • deep sea vacation dives to the Titanic will become commonplace

On a local note, NZCSICOP continues to have a good batting average with predictions. In 1998, we got 80% of our predictions. In 1998, we got 80% of our predictions correct versus 0% for the psychics. At the beginning of 1999, Denis Dutton and Vicki Hyde fronted up against the psychics again for a Holmes piece; however, the year-end review did not take place this year but we are pleased to note that we got three out of five right (possibly four — we can’t remember the final prediction!).

The statistically likely airplane crash we predicted came true (pick a crash in the busy months and bad weather of August or April with airline livery of blue or red and you’ve got a good chance of being right.)

There was death as a result of a volcanic eruption in Central America (we’d been betting privately on Popocatapetl in Mexico, which was bubbling away the week before we made the prediction, but a volcano in Ecuador proved more “obliging” later in the year; fortunately only one death).

Most significantly, for some, the much-scoffed-at prediction that “despite being odds-on favourites the All Blacks would not make the finals of the World Cup” did come true. We’d been looking forward to saying that we were delighted to be wrong and acclaim their victory; fate provided otherwise.

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