On the face of it, this is all very reasonable. A soldier, a bundle of nerves before a battle, declares: "I've got a bad feeling. I don't think I'm going to make it through the day." If he is killed, all his comrades remember it. If he survives, it's forgotten. In the more mundane world, you take out an umbrella when you suspect it is going to rain, but you remember particularly the time you lugged the useless thing around when the sky cleared, and you joke about how an umbrella scares the rain away. Also, since the number of random events is virtually infinite, we are all, at some stage or another, going to be presented with what looks like a remarkable coincidence.
However, on closer examination, the theory doesn't always hold.
One of the speakers on the TV documentary was Anh Do, who won $200,000 on Deal or No Deal. He told how he had dreamed the number the day before and - hey presto! - it turned up. Now, I shall state up front that I cannot remember ever having a premonition, whether true or false. Nevertheless, I think I can guarantee that if I dreamed of a winning number, or a winning horse, and I acted on it - put my money or my future winnings on the line - and then lost, I would never forget it. However, in this case, the contestant had only 25 boxes (I think) to choose from, so perhaps it was just a fluke.
A second interviewee related how she had been about to cross the street, when she suddenly experienced an overwhelming sense of danger. She drew back, turned aside - and a car suddenly hurtled by. If she had on the street, she would have become road kill. From this we are expected to believe that she often gets premonitions of danger as she is about to cross, and often turns back, but all the other times have been forgotten. Now again, as stated before, I cannot remember anything like this happening to me. But, as the boy who cried wolf discovered, one can respond only so often to false alarms before they cease to alarm. If I had been in the habit of receiving such false premonitions, I am sure that, the day my number came up, I would have said to myself, "Oh, what the heck! You're always having these bad feelings, and they never amount to anything." I would have been road kill.
Late one night in 1983, I let our little silky terrier out to enjoy himself in the front yard. Unfortunately, the latch on the front gate was unstable, and had not closed properly. The little blighter bolted out on to what was normally a quiet suburban street - just in time for a car to appear out of nowhere and kill him instantly. To lose a pet so abruptly is bad enough; it is worse when you know you will have to explain it to your mother, who was on a camping tour on the other side of the country. Eight days later, she turned up grim-faced at the door, and her first words were: "Where's the dog?" It transpired that, a week before, she had woken up from a disturbed dream - not necessarily about dogs - and announced to her sister and tent-mate: "Something's happened to the dog!" The conviction remained for the rest of the holiday. My aunt confirmed the story. The only question was whether it happened on the evening of the accident, or the following one.
My mother was an inveterate and equanimous traveler. She would calmly catch a tour to the far side of the globe without the slightest worry about what would happen to her there, or what might happen at home. When I was traversing the wilds of Asia, South America, or Africa for months on end, she never worried about my safety. I never ever heard her say, at the end of a trip, "Thank goodness you're all right! I was convinced something had happened to you," or "Thank goodness the house is still there! I was certain it had burnt down." And the only time she ever had a premonition about any of her sequence of dogs was the one time it was warranted.
Many of us were shocked at the sudden death of Steve "the Crocodile Hunter" Irwin in 2006. The following year, his widow, Terri brought out her book, My Steve. For our purposes, the crucial entry is the story of the death of his mother, Lyn in an automobile accident close to her property one morning in early 2000:
Early in the morning, at the precise moment when the crash had happened, Steve was working on the backhoe at the zoo. He suddenly felt as if he had been hit by something and fell off the machine, hitting the ground hard. He told me later that he knew something terrible had happened.It's not going to be easy to rescue the selective memory/coincidence hypothesis in this instance. The best we can do is assume - and I don't say we should - that the story had grown a bit in the seven years before it was written down. Perhaps - just perhaps - the premonition did not occur at the precise moment of the accident, but within an hour or two. Perhaps he did not set out for the precise site of the accident, but merely in the direction of his parents' home. The fact would still remain that the level of coincidence in time and space is very high, and the premonition itself extremely strong and unexpected.
Steve got in his ute and started driving. He had no idea what had happened, but he knew where he had to go. With uncanny precision, he drove towards where the accident occurred. His mobile phone rang. Frank told him what had happened and where. Steve realised he was already heading there.
Not only that, it would require that Mr Irwin was constantly being beset by such strong and sudden mysterious feelings of dread as severe as a blow, which would cause him to charge off down the highway on a wild goose chase, and that all of them, except the one that turned out right, had been forgotten by both him and his wife. I don't think so.
There is an alternative hypothesis available: perhaps such a premonition is a one-off for any individual, but thousands of people have them, and Steve Irwin (a prominent man) was one of the few for which it actually "worked". Let us suppose a premonition severe enough to knock you off a backhoe happens only once in a 50-year adult life. If 18,250 people experience it, for one of those people it is likely to occur on the same day as something terrible. By now it should be pretty obvious we are talking fantasy.
And what is still overlooked is the question: why? It is understandable if the "premonition" is a manifestation of a person's anxiety - like the soldier's prior to battle. (And let's not forget that, in such circumstances, the chances of fulfilment are fairly high.) But why would a woman who traveled around the world worry free for over 20 years suddenly be hit by an overwhelming conviction that a pet had died? If everything is random, why would a zookeeper calmly operating a backhoe, suddenly be struck - literally - by a conviction that something was wrong? Remarkable coincidences are bound to happen, but the two things which coincide must still each have a cause. Why should random false premonitions occur in the first place? In fact, is there even such a thing as a random false premonition? If there is, we seldom hear about them.