5X5 Episode 94

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5X5 Episode 94
12th September 2010

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5X5 93 5X5 95
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about Nostradamus. Michel de Nostredame, who named himself Nostradamus by Latinizing his name, was a 16th century physician, astrologer, and prophet. Of course, he is most famous for his many, many predictions (over a thousand) and he is the most famous prophet in the world.

E: I'm sure everyone's heard of Nostradamus in some form or another, but what a lot of people don't know, and it's not often mentioned in the programs that you see on TV about Nostradamus, but at the time of the plague, when he was around in his 20s and 30s, he was forced to leave his university where he was studying and he traveled the countryside researching herbal remedies. In those years that he spent as an apothecary, it ultimately led him back to the university, where he earned a doctorate in medicine and he became famous in his time for crafting a pill made from rose petals, that supposedly protected against the plague.

S: And freshened your breath.

E: (laughs) That wasn't—

S: He claimed that; he did claim that.

E: I'll bet you it freshened your breath more than it cured the plague.

S: (laughs) Right.

E: By 1550 he published an almanac that was rather successfully received at the time, and it became an annual publication that contains some of his first prophecies, horoscopes, and psychic advice. And he therefore went on to much greater fame.

B: While Nostradamus was alive he was most well-known for his almanacs, but in modern times he's of course known for his collection of long-term predictions found in his book called The Prophecies. To say they're popular is an understatement. It's rarely been out of print with over two hundred editions over the years plus more than two thousand commentaries. The book has been aptly described as mystical poetry. His poetry was written as quatrains. In general, quatrains are four line stanzas of any kind, whether they were rhymed or metered or otherwise. Nostradamus' quatrains were in iambic pentameter. His quatrains were further grouped into collections of a hundred called "centuries". Nostradamus claimed that his predictions were based on what's called judicial astrology. This simply means that astrology was used to determine the quality of these future developments. It's interesting that professional astronomers of his day criticized him for his predictions.

S: Now of course, there's a lot of controversy over whether or not Nostradamus actually predicted anything. Despite the fact that he made a lot of predictions, they are, as Bob said, poetry. They are vague; they often do not refer to anything specific; they are deliberately obscure and foggy so that you can read into them whatever you wish. He also followed a number of patterns. He took events from the day that were contemporary to him, and then simply re-cast them poetically in the future tense. Or he made predictions that could be favorably interpreted by the nobility of the day in order to ingratiate himself with them. Or he simply made far-future predictions. There are a few predictions in which he named specific dates and times; very few of the predictions that he made. Of course, all of those have not come true, the ones where he was actually constrained by a date or a location. Other predictions, he included a lot of obscure small towns in the area where he was living, but he had travel books and other references that would have provided those really obscure small town names that he then liberally sprinkled throughout his quatrains.

J: So there are a lot of philosophers out there today and a lot of hobbyists out there today that like to read Nostradamus and they retrodict his predictions into events—recent events or events of the last century. I have a handful of examples here of some very famous events that have taken place that people have popularly said Nostradamus predicted them. Starting with the French Revolution, the London fire, Princess Diana's death, [Hurricane] Katrina, JFK's assassination, Louis Pasteur (like, the fact that he existed), the atomic bomb, World War II, September 11th of course, and the end of the world. So people that read into Nostradamus' poetry take vague things and they just fit them into events that have taken place and they can craft them or pull out the facts where they fit and ignore the facts where they don't fit, and they say "oh, here they mention a king; well that must be a president. Here they say a fire; that must be a bomb." And that type of interpretation goes on and on and on. You can basically, if you read deeply enough, you can translate Nostradamus into any event.

S: They also liberally mis-translate the French into English or whatever their language is. That gives them another ability to tweak what Nostradamus actually wrote; to force-fit it retrospectively to an event.

R: Of course if anybody wants to hear more about Nostradamus, you can pick up one of the best books ever written about him, The Mask of Nostradamus, written by James Randi. It came out in 1990 and even though it's twenty years old, unfortunately it's still just as relevant today as it was back then. Randi gives a thorough understanding of who Nostradamus really was, what he really did, and what he really wrote, because oftentimes there are writings that are attributed to him that just weren't his. And Randi exposes each of his famous quote-unquote "predictions" for exactly what they are. So, yeah, I recommend picking that up for more information.

S: Yeah, Nostradamus was a very interesting character. There were many prophets of his type at the time; it was a popular trade to be in the prophecy business. Nostradamus was a little different in that he also had this other career as a physician during the plague. There remains a controversy over whether or not Nostradamus was a fraud or whether he really believed in his own prophecies. I don't think we'll ever really be able to resolve that controversy, nor do I think that it's necessarily black or white. He seemed to craft some of his prophecies for political advantage; for self promotion, and that suggests that there was some deliberate fraud going on. But it's also perfectly reasonable to think that he was an astrologer who believed in what he was doing as well. It seems as if he didn't spend his entire life as a dedicated fraud. He did have, again, this other career as a physician, so he remains a very iconic and very interesting figure. But I think the one thing that is not controversial among actual scientists or historians is that there is no reason to attribute any reality to his predictions whatsoever.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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