Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A genetic cut-and-paste

If I had to pick one technology that I think will make the most different to human quality of life thirty years from now, I would pick CRISPR/Cas9.

CRISPR stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats," a sequence of repetitive DNA in prokaryotes (bacteria) that interacts with a gene called Cas9 to chop up and inactivate foreign DNA.  At first, it seemed like it would interest only someone with a fascination for bacterial genetics.

Then it was discovered that you could guide CRISPR/Cas9 to specific sequences in DNA using a piece of RNA as a guide.  Think of it as a pair of scissors with a laser sight.  Molecular biologists saw the implications immediately; with that tool, you could cut out any piece of DNA you wanted, insert new genes, inactivate old ones -- you veritably have a cut-and-paste function for the genetic code.

The potential applications to treat human disease are nearly endless.  Disorders where the affected individuals have an inoperative gene, and therefore lack the specific protein it produces, might have the error repaired by splicing in a corrected copy.  (Possible candidates for this are cystic fibrosis and hemophilia.)  On the other hand, disorders where the defective gene makes a damaged end product -- such as sickle-cell anemia and Huntington's disease -- might have the faulty gene cut out and discarded.

All of this is still in the future, however.  At the moment, scientists are playing with CRISPR, seeing what it can do.  And just last week, a team at Cornell University used CRISPR/Cas9 on butterflies to inactivate specific genes...

... and completely changed the color patterns on their wings.

One of the species they worked on was the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), a beautiful black, orange, and gold butterfly native to the southeastern United States.

[image courtesy of photographer Jonathan Zander and the Wikimedia Commons]

When a gene called optix was selectively inactivated by CRISPR/Cas9, the result was stunning.  All of the orange and gold regions turned velvety jet black.  White spots became a metallic silver.  Silencing a different gene, WntA, had a different result -- stripes blurred, eyespots disappeared, edges became indistinct.

Anyi Mazo-Vargas, one of the authors of the paper, calls genes like optix and WntA "paintbrush genes."  "Wherever you put them," Mazo-Vargas said, "you'll have a pattern."

They tested optix deletion on other species, and found similar results, even in species that have been evolutionarily separated for 80 million years.  Colorful butterflies come out looking monochrome. "They just turn grayscale,” said Robert Reed, who led the study.  "It makes these butterflies look like moths, which is pathetically embarrassing for them."

The fact that these genes can be inactivated, almost like flipping a switch, and have such body-wide results is nothing short of spectacular.  Of his earlier work in studying color genes in butterflies, Reed said, "It was convincing but we didn’t know exactly what these genes were doing. Without the ability to delete the genes, and see if their absence changed the butterfly wings, we didn’t have the final proof.  There’s been this frustrating wall that I’ve banged my head against...  CRISPR is a miracle.  The first time we tried it, it worked, and when I saw that butterfly come out ... the biggest challenge of my career had just turned into an undergraduate project."

Of their first success -- the jet-black-and-silver Gulf Fritillary -- Reed said, "It was amazing to see that thing crawl out of the pupa... it was the most heavy metal butterfly I've ever seen."

All of this is one more indication of why we should all be in support of pure research.  On one level, this might sound kind of silly to the layperson -- some scientists tinkering around and changing the color of butterfly wings.  But when you see where such research could lead, and the potential application to human health, it's absolutely stunning.

In my opinion, it won't be long before we're using the same genetic cut-and-paste not to fiddle with "paintbrush genes" in butterflies, but to repair genetic defects in humans.  And that would be the biggest leap in medical science since the invention of vaccines.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Living waters

Okay, this "raw foods" fad has gone too far.

Understand that I'm not talking about eating things like raw vegetables.  In general, most of us would benefit from eating more vegetables, raw or cooked, not only because it's healthy, but because growing plants for food has a lower negative impact on the environment than raising animals for food.

But there's a point where people decide that a certain word has positive connotations in all contexts, and that's what's happened with the word "raw" amongst health-food types.  This is why we have people eating meat that's not only raw, but thoroughly decomposed (they call it "high meat" and say it's "probiotic"), and a couple in Australia whose child died of an E. coli infection after drinking raw milk.

So you can see that "raw" doesn't translate to "good for you."  Nor, apparently, even to "something in an uncooked state that is usually eaten cooked." This is why there is now a company that is selling, I kid you not...

... "raw water."

The California-based company "Live Water" is now selling, for $15 per 2.5-gallon jug ($11 each if you go for the quantity discount and buy twenty or more), "Fountain of Truth fresh raw spring water."  Which is supposedly better for you than other kinds of water.  Here's the sales pitch from their website:
At the spring head fire agates and 108,000 gallons of water per minute levitate out of a lava tube.  It's been in constant offering at that exact same flow rate, since it was first measured in 1925 until now.  The water is from a time when earth was pristine, and is estimated to have matured below the surface for up to 10,000 years before surfacing.

Imagine its journey as it's flowing through vast networks of crystal lined lava tubes to the surface.  Major science has concluded that their [sic] is a body of water with a larger volume than all our oceans combined in the core of the earth.  This is the earth's way of cleansing water, and offering it back to us with a fresh new start... 
The extensive water analysis shows super high levels of natural silica.  Silica is essentially pure liquid crystals.  Silicone [sic] holds information and energy in a unique way, thats [sic] why all our devices run off of them, hence the name silicone valley [sic].  Imagine how it would feel to upgrade your brain's entire operating system to the best computer chips available.  Silica is also known as the beauty mineral, very rarely found in any food or supplements... 
In it's [sic] natural cycle water is infinitely chemically and energetically complex.  Water goes down into the soil and becomes the perfect probiotic as it passes through microbes and micro-organisms in the humus.  It picks up bio-available mono atomic elements and minerals that just can't be replicated.  We have done our best to keep it pristine. 
Okay, let's see.  Where do I start?

First: silica, silicon, and silicone are not the same thing.  Silica is, essentially, glass, so saying it's "pure liquid crystals" is nonsense, as is the idea that consuming silica would "upgrade your brain's entire operating system."  Silicon is an element, atomic number 14, which is a very common atom in most rocks.  Silicone, on the other hand, is a polymer of silicon, oxygen, and organic functional groups, and is used for (among other things) making aquarium cement and breast implants.  (You have to wonder which application gave rise to "Silicone Valley.")

But what's really wildly wrong about this is claiming that there's something unique about water that has been underground for a long time (and underground water deposits don't get anywhere near the core of the Earth, I feel obliged to point out).  Deep aquifer water is often quite pure, but it's no healthier for you than any other pure water source.  And if the water, on its way to the surface, passes through soil and humus and picks up "microbes and micro-organisms," this is, in general, a bad thing.  Not only do unpurified water sources contain such special offers as E. coli, they can also contain Giardia lamblia (giardiasis is basically a month-long bout of severe stomach flu), and in some parts of the world, cholera, cryptosporidiosis, amoebic dystentery, and shigellosis.

All of which can kill you.

So the bottom line is that gulping down unfiltered, untreated water from your nearby stream is a good way to die, or at least to be awfully unhappy for several weeks.  And I certainly wouldn't trust a company whose webpage is that full of complete, grade-A bullshit, not to mention spelling errors, to adhere to safety standards well enough to be aware of whether their fifteen-buck jugs of water contain pathogens or not.

So I'll just stick with my good old cooked water, thanks very much.  There's a reason why we don't die of horrible diseases at nearly the rates we did a hundred years ago.  And I, for one, am not going to throw caution to the wind just so I can say I drink "raw water."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A ghost in the machine

Because we skeptics don't already have enough to make us twitch, now we have:

A company in Kentucky that will provide "untraceable hoaxing of paranormal activity."

The company, Kentucky Special FX, bills itself as follows:
We offer various themed special effect props, Halloween props, Halloween Decorations, Haunted House Props, Haunted Attraction Props, Christmas props, pneumatic props, animatronic props, electronic props, cryogenic CO2 and LN2 special effects, large scale magician stage illusions and optical illusions for professional custom built Halloween props and Halloween theme props for haunted houses and haunted attractions on any scale with complete in-house, ground up creations.  Our staff has in depth knowledge of the latest blacklight / UV light, electronics animation and laser special FX technology. 
Our staff has over forty years of combined experience in various fields of the special FX industry.  If you do not see an item listed that you need, please by all means, call us, as we spend a lot of our time tending to custom built orders.
Owner Mike Bisch is up front about the fact that his special effects expertise is sometimes used not to design scary scenes for Halloween, but to fool people into believing that ghosts are real.  Bisch said that he and his team are capable of "creating everything from equipment malfunctions, sudden temperature fluctuations, and appearing and disappearing apparitions for unwitting ghost hunters in haunted buildings."  He has, he says, designed paranormal hoaxes at the sites of legendary hauntings "over twenty times" without being caught out.

Bisch says he doesn't believe in the paranormal himself; unsurprising, given that he knows first hand how easy it is to fake.  Magicians are notorious for being skeptics (the best-known example being James "The Amazing" Randi).  But then he adds, "I'm a man of science."

And there I take exception.  No, Mr. Bisch, you are not.  You are a hoaxer, taking money to set up scenarios deliberately to hoodwink the gullible.  This is not science.  This is encouraging credulity, the exact opposite of what science is supposed to do.

Okay, they were scared, but at least these guys knew that the ghost is always the carnival owner with a sheet over his head.

To their credit, a lot of ghost hunters are outraged by what Bisch and his team are doing.  Sue Nielson, who has traveled to a lot of allegedly haunted places in search of evidence, said, "If we wanted a fake haunting we would stay close to home and wait for the haunted houses to start up in October."

Well-known purveyor of the supernatural Chip Coffey, who has appeared more than once on Paranormal State, was furious.  "If there is reliable, substantive, irrefutable PROOF that such activity is occurring, then it should be made public," Coffey wrote.  "No blind accusations, suppositions or conspiracy theories. PROOF ONLY!"

Which leaves me in the awkward position of disagreeing with the guy who knows hauntings aren't real, and agreeing with a "psychic medium."

Seattle ghost hunter Todd Manoli-Smith concurs.  "Not only is this degrading to the field it’s so disrespectful to the deceased who may actually be trying to reach out."

Well, I don't think my grandma, who died in 1986, honestly cares much about what Bisch is doing.  But I sure as hell do.

There's already so much in the way of background noise in this field, due to human gullibility, misinterpretation of natural occurrences, and autosuggestion that the last thing we need is someone muddying the waters further.  This will make it even harder to determine if there is reliable evidence out there -- not that I think that's very likely.  Most scientists have already given up on researching the paranormal because tomfoolery is so common; all this will do is make the rest of them throw in the towel.

Bisch, for his part, is completely unapologetic. "I can’t apologize... or I guess I could, but I won’t," he says. "I’m an asshole, I know.  But a lovable asshole, though."

Well, Mr. Bisch, you're half right.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Yesterday I found something so amazingly ridiculous that at first I thought it was a joke.

Sadly, it is not.

I told some friends about it, and said, "This is so idiotic that I considered writing about it on Skeptophilia, but I honestly can't think of anything to say about it except 'What the fuck?'"

My friends did not concur.  If this didn't make the cut for the topic of a post, they said, there was something wrong with my selection criteria.

So I bowed to the pressure  And to my pals I say: I hope you're all satisfied with what you've done.

*heavy sigh*

And that is why I am here today to tell you about:

Psychic Vampire Repellent.

Yes, I'm serious.  Worse still, this stuff is sold by Gwyneth Paltrow's undeservedly famous company "Goop," which peddles alt-med nonsense of all sorts, such as "Aromatic Irritability Treatment."  But even so... vampire repellent?

Let's hear what the website has to say about it:
A spray-able elixir we can all get behind, this protective mist uses a combination of gem healing and deeply aromatic therapeutic oils, reported to banish bad vibes (and shield you from the people who may be causing them). Fans spray generously around their heads to safeguard their auras.
Yes!  Spray it on your head to safeguard your aura!  Then you can squirt CheezWhiz up your nose to keep yourself from inhaling evil spirits!

The bottle tells you even more:
A unique and complex blend of sonically tuned gem elixirs, including black tourmaline, ruby, lapis lazuli, onyx, and garnet; oils of rosemary, juniper, and lavender; and reiki-charged crystals.
One of the many questions I have about this is: how the hell do you "sonically tune" a gem?  Do you carve little bits off it until it plays an A above middle C when you hit it with a hammer?  Then there's the issue of "gem elixirs," which you apparently make by soaking rocks in water in the hopes that their essential quantum frequency vibrations will be transferred to the water or something.

Of course, as one of my friends pointed out, there's no doubt that if you use it, you won't be troubled by vampires.  "I bet if I buy some and use it faithfully, no psychic vampires will come near me.  I BET," she said.  "I've been using my anti-alien candles and there've been no extraterrestrials keepin' me up at night, no sir."

And I can't argue with that.

Me, I think there's a whole untapped market out there.  If Gwyneth can become rich selling people spray to keep away beings that don't exist, there's no reason why I can't jump on the bandwagon.  I bet anti-Bengal-tiger spray would be a big seller here in upstate New York.  I can guarantee that it'd be 100% effective.  Unfortunately, we've already been beaten to the punch on the Bigfoot angle; just a couple of weeks ago a woman in North Carolina announced she was selling a spray called "Bigfoot Juice," although apparently the point here was not to keep Bigfoots away, it was to lure them in.  "Will attract any Sasquatch within a mile and a half radius!", the sales pitch states.

Why you would want to attract Sasquatches, I have no idea.

But even so, that still leaves a lot of possibilities.  My friend already has her anti-alien candles, so that one's out.  How about NoGhost Strips, for people who are sick of living in haunted houses?  Or CurseAway, if you think you're the victim of evil voodoo?  The possibilities are endless.

I don't see that Gwyneth has trademarked any of these, so I think we're good.  On the other hand, she already has "Moon Juice Sex Dust," which is "designed to ignite and excite sexual energy in and out of the bedroom," "Turn Back Time" age-reversal tonic, and "Chill Child Kid Calming Mist," which contains "cleansing sea salt."

Actually, I wouldn't mind having a bottle of the last one.  There are three girls in my study hall this year who talk and giggle constantly, and I would love to run up to them and spray all three of them directly in the face with Magic Salt Water, yelling, "Chill, Child!  Chill!" and laughing maniacally.

Nah, better not.  Not only would it most likely not work, I'm guessing their parents would object, as would my principal.  He'd probably make me double my dose of "Aromatic Irritability Treatment" for the rest of the school year.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The return of Nibiru

The world is going to end again.

This is what, two dozen times that the world has ended?  I've lost count, honestly.  But a success rate of 0.00% isn't the least bit discouraging to the Apocalyptoids.  If anything, it encourages them.  Their history of failed predictions means that the next one has to be correct.  This time, they think, this time Lucy won't pull the football away when we try to kick it.

The latest prediction from the End-of-the-World cadre was described over at the site Mysterious Universe, which has that name because Bullshit Universe doesn't have quite the same gravitas.  I'm pleased that from his tone, the author of the page at least seemed to realize that he was telling us nonsense, although it bears mention that other recent Mysterious Universe articles have been "My Very Own Hyperdimensional Resonator" and "Green UFOs Appear in South Africa and Spain."

So right off the bat, we're talking about a source that may not be all that reliable.  But being that this is what we do, here at Skeptophilia, I forged ahead.

The end of the world this time is going to be because the Yellowstone Supervolcano is going to erupt.  But what you probably don't know is that (1) it's going to erupt because of the infamous planet Nibiru, and (2) all of this serious shit is coming down on September 23, 2017.  Yes, as in this coming Saturday.  So we don't have long to prepare, not that there's much we could do about it anyhow.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The main proponent of this idea is one David Meade, who has said that Nibiru is not in orbit around the Sun.  No, that would be ridiculous.  Nibiru is actually in orbit around the Sun's invisible binary twin, and therefore is zooming toward us at incredible speed -- a speed, Meade says, that will "'take it from not visible in any telescope' to 'holy crap, there it is' in only a few days."

Which, of course, brings up the question of how Meade knows about it, if it's not yet visible in any telescope.

Oh, that's because of the masking effects of the Earth's atmosphere, Meade says.  If we only had a telescope that was above the Earth's atmosphere, we'd see Nibiru approaching.

Which, of course, we do. The Hubble.  But we haven't let little things like factual accuracy bug us before, so why start now?

Anyhow, when Nibiru gets close enough, the Yellowstone Supervolcano will go "boom."  Which will, according to Meade, "split the United States in half."  There will be tsunamis (yes, I know, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is nowhere near the ocean.  Stop asking questions), earthquakes, and high winds, and worst of all, the entire electrical grid will go down.

"This will allow our enemies to take advantage of us," Meade says.  Which honestly seems like it would be the least of our concerns at that point.

Of course, there's no theory crazy enough that someone can't add to it in such a way as to make it way crazier.  In this case, the someone is William Tapley, who has been something of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia, most recently because of claiming that Donald and Melania Trump are members of the Illuminati, and that a Budweiser commercial aired during the Superbowl that featured a cute puppy was a coded Satanic message that the world was going to end.

Which of course, it didn't.  As usual.

Anyhow, Tapley, who calls himself the "Third Eagle of the Apocalypse" (what happened to Eagles #1 and #2, I have no idea), is really excited about this whole September 23 thing, although he's not really too keen on Nibiru.  Tapley says that the End Is Nigh because on the 23rd, both the Moon and the Sun will be in the constellation Virgo, which clearly is a reference to Revelation chapter 12, in which we hear about "a woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon under her feet and a crown of seven stars on her head."

So the only possible answer is that the Tribulation, Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ, and so on are about to happen.

But even Tapley isn't all.  There's Antonio Mattatelli, "one of the most famous exorcists in Italy," who says that recent floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes are a sign of the start of the End Times, because apparently that stuff has never happened before.

Anyhow, there you have it.  A consensus of three experts that once again, the world is ending.  I don't know about you, but I am sick unto death of having these predictions of apocalypse, and then nothing happens.  If this time we get to September 24, and there have been no Apocalyptic Horsepersons, no Scarlet Whore of Babylon, no Antichrist, no Beast With Seven Heads, and (most of all) no Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers, I'm gonna be pissed.

So go ahead.  Come at me, bro.  Let's see what you got.

I dare you.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ground state

Are you bothered by your psychic abilities?  Do you find yourself unable to tune out others' thoughts?   Is the color of your aura clashing with your favorite shirt?

Maybe you need to do some psychic grounding.

Honestly, I can imagine that it might be inconvenient to be psychic, if such things actually existed. Especially if you were telepathic.  Consider what it would be like if you really could read the minds of the people around you.  I don't know about you, but my mind is a continuous jumble of random thoughts, most of them inane, weird, and/or irrelevant.  There is frequently musical accompaniment, usually consisting of whatever song I heard on the radio on the way to work.  And like most people, I also often have thoughts that I hope fervently never leave my skull, because of the sheer embarrassment potential.  If my thoughts really could be recorded, sequentially, they'd probably sound something like the following:

"I'm hungry...  What did I do with my pencil?...  Do I have a faculty meeting tomorrow?...  Slip slidin' away, slip slidin' away...  Wow, she's really hot!...  Is 'occurred' spelled with one 'r' or two?...  I'm cold...  Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go...  Did I remember to remind Carol to pick up dog food today?...  Geez, that guy is wearing a dorky-looking hat..."

And so on.  I would think that being telepathic would be at best highly distracting, and at worst the mental equivalent of being trapped 24/7 in a noisy bar.  (A feature I worked into one of my characters -- the telepathic detective Callista Lee, in Poison the Well, due for release next month.)  I know that there are people I have to interact with on a daily basis that I already want to scream "dear god, will you please just shut up!" at, and that's just from hearing what they say out loud.  If I could hear their thoughts, too... well, let me just say that this could well be at the heart of some seemingly unpremeditated homicides.

Be that as it may, if this is you... help is on the way, in the form of the aforementioned article, which was written by someone who signs his name only as "Nathaniel." 

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The gist of shutting down your psychic abilities lies, apparently, in "grounding" yourself.  Nathaniel says that you can do this in the following ways:
  1. Stop noticing weird stuff. Nathaniel refers to this as the "11:11 effect" -- how you notice when a digital clock reads some time that is peculiar, and once you've noticed it, it jumps out at you every time it happens.  He seems to seriously consider this a psychic ability, and in fact says that training yourself to notice such things more is a way to amplify your abilities if you want them to increase. 
  2. Tell yourself you're not going to be psychic any more, until you say otherwise.  It's important to include the last part, because if you don't you could risk losing your abilities permanently.
  3. Don't give psychic readings for yourself or others, and don't mess with "power objects" like crystals or Tarot cards.
  4. Create a "psychic shield" for yourself to stop negative people from throwing destructive stuff at you.  There's a site that tells you all about how to do this, but I must admit that I still don't see how this could work, as it seems like all it amounts to is visualizing yourself as surrounded by a shield.  Whether this could help with negative aura energies, or whatever, I don't know, but I suspect it might be less than successful if what the negative person had thrown was, for example, a brick.
So anyway, all of this seems to me like a lot of hooey -- if it really was this easy to gain and lose psychic abilities, all of us would be doing it all the time, constantly picking up each other's thoughts, and I would really have to watch myself when I see Really Hot Girl or Dorky Hat Guy.  Just as with last week's post on weird coincidences, most of what Nathaniel is describing is just wishful thinking, combined with dart-thrower's bias -- the tendency all of us have to notice seemingly odd stuff (such as when the clock reads 11:11) and ignore irrelevant background noise (such as when it says 5:48).  Our attention to such things doesn't make us psychic -- all it reflects is that evolutionarily, it's better to give attention to something that turns out to be unimportant than to ignore something that turns out to be critical to our survival.

So, honestly, I found Nathaniel's advice to be a bit of a disappointment.  I'd hoped for more concrete advice -- something along the lines of, "To avoid picking up the thoughts of those around you, fashion yourself a tinfoil hat.  Make sure that you use at least three layers for best effect, especially if you are using the cheap generic shit and not genuine Reynolds Wrap."  But maybe it's better that way. If I had to go around all day with a tinfoil hat, I'd be the one people were thinking "dorky" about -- even if, at the time, my "psychic shield" was keeping me from hearing about it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Funny you should say that...

Do coincidences mean anything?

This was the subject of a fantastic, and sadly little-known, movie -- I 'Heart' Huckabee's.  The main character (played by Jason Schwartzman) has the bizarre coincidence of seeing, in a big city, the same very tall African man several times in different places.  Freaked out by this, he hires two "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to figure out if it really was a coincidence, or if it has some kind of significance beyond that.

In other words, if there is a coincidence, maybe even what seems to be a wildly improbable, weird, eye-opening one, does it have any meaning in the Cosmic Sense?  Or is it, to quote one of my favorite songs -- Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw" -- "a twist of fate, a shot in the dark, a roll of the die, the big wheel, the big ride?"

One of my students has been paying more attention to the little coincidences lately, and his claim is that they happen way more than is attributable to chance.  The whole thing came up yesterday because in my AP Biology class we were talking about the low caloric content of celery -- giving rise to the claim that you use more calories chewing celery than you get from eating it.  He then told me that only two periods earlier, the same topic came up in a different class... and then went on to tell me, excitedly, how "that sort of thing is always happening to me!"

Of course, if he thought that I was going to be willing to attribute coincidences to some sort of Larger Purpose At Work, perhaps due to the influence of a deity who liked celery, he was barking up the wrong tree.   My opinion is such things are simply the dart-thrower's bias -- we tend to notice the hits (in this case, the times when the same topic comes up twice) and ignore misses (all of the millions of things that don't get mentioned twice).  As a result, we tend to overestimate wildly how common such coincidences are.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That's not to say that there aren't some peculiar ones.  I have had the experience myself of thinking about a song, turning on the radio, and the song is playing.  Take that minor mystery, and turn up the gain, and you get people whose dreams have come true, who have had premonitions of disaster and not taken the plane (or train or boat or whatever), and whose lives have been saved.  Is this true ESP, or the hand of god, or something more prosaic?

I'd opt for the latter, and I suspect that you knew I'd say that. In my opinion, for there really to be something "going on" here, there'd have to be some cause for it, some discernible mechanism at work.  I'm willing to entertain the idea -- momentarily, anyway -- that some supreme being who honestly cares about us might wish to intervene on our part, and save us from calamity via a vision, premonition, or dream.  But that opens up the troubling question about why said deity didn't bother to let the 235 other people who died in the plane crash know, so that they, too, could escape death.  That a deity exists who selectively warns some folks about impending doom while allowing others to perish is a pretty scary idea, and such a deity would have to be capricious to the point of evil.

How about the more benign explanation, that some of us are simply more "in touch" with the sixth sense than others, and therefore all those folks who died simply weren't wired to be aware of the coming catastrophe?  Again, there's that pesky lack of a mechanism.  Not one experiment designed to detect ESP of various sorts has succeeded, which is (to say the least) a bit troublesome to those who believe in such things.  Some of those true believers respond that lab conditions, run by skeptical scientists, are not conducive to the psychic energy field, and it's the lack of belief by the researchers that is interfering with the outcome.  I respond; that's mighty convenient.  Sounds like special pleading to me.

To quote Carl Sagan, from his masterful book The Demon-Haunted World (which should be required reading in every public school science program in America):
Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best.  If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish. They’re shy, we’re told, and some of us believe it.  In twentieth-century parapsychology laboratories, there is the ‘observer effect’: those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi.  What they need is darkness and gullibility.
So, we're left with the conclusion that coincidences happen just because -- they happen.  Given that we dream every night, and daydream every day, and listen to radios and read newspapers and such pretty much constantly, coincidences are bound to happen, just by the statistics of large numbers.  It doesn't make them feel any less weird when they do occur; but sooner or later, you're going to dream something, and a few days or weeks later, it will more or less "come true."  There are only so many things we dream about, and only so many kinds of things that happen in our lives, and given a large enough time axis, eventually those two will coincide.

I hope -- honestly, I do -- that I haven't just taken the magic out of your perception of the world's weirdness.  My own view is that I'd much rather know the truth than to believe a pretty falsehood.  And really, the idea of a god who selectively dabbles in the affairs of humans isn't even that pretty, when you think about it.  So if I've made the world seem a little more prosaic and dull, I sincerely apologize.  And if I get into my car in a half-hour or so, and turn on the radio, and hear Laurie Anderson's "The Monkey's Paw," it will serve me right.