The Wreck of the Titanic -- Foretold?

(This column first appeared in the March 30, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    The approach of April 1st calls for my annual visit to the world of pseudoscience. And with the Titanic film -- the 18th about the sinking -- winning eleven Academy Awards last week, what better time to write of a novel that extrasensory perception believers claim forewarned of the disaster.

    My information source is Martin Gardner's recently reissued The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (Prometheus Books). Gardner, self-described as a "fringe watcher," is a long standing critic of the paranormal. This book provides skeptics with answers to those who offer the coincidence of an event with the premonition of an earlier dream or a psychic's prediction and demand, "How do you explain that?" Whether believers would listen to his reasonable answers is another matter.

    The Titanic sank in 1912. Fourteen years earlier in 1898, Morgan Robertson, an Oswego native, wrote a short novel called Futility. (For obvious reasons it was republished in 1912 as The Wreck of the Titan.)

    There are indeed many quite remarkable parallels between the wreck that occurs in this novel and the sinking of the Titanic.

    One believer in the paranormal estimated the probability of all these coincidences as one in four billion.

    Inspired by what she saw as a wonderful example of precognition, the spiritualist Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote to Robertson to ask about his power. She claimed that he replied, "I do not doubt that it is because all creative workers get into a hypnoid, telepathic and percipient condition, in which, while apparently awake, they are half asleep, and tap, not only the better informed minds of others but the subliminal realm of unknown facts. Some, as you know, believe that in this realm there is no such thing as Time, and [this] partly explains prophesy."

    Without a doubt this novel represents the best case for believers in precondition.

    Coincidences do happen but Gardner reduces those odds with reasonable explanations. (In fact even parapsychologist Jule Eisenbud reduced them to one in just over a thousand because many properties -- like length and weight -- are related.)

    Here are some of the things Gardner invites us to consider:

    Clearly the novel was prophetic -- but was ESP, precondition or telepathy involved? I join Gardner in his evaluation -- nonsense.