5X5 Episode 85

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5X5 Episode 85
9th February 2001

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5X5 84 5X5 86
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 are talking about predictions and prophesy. Predicting the future: is it even theoretically possible that someone can tell with any kind of certitude what is going to happen in the future? So-called prophets and psychics and other persons who present themselves as having some kind of magical powers often use the ability of prophecy in order to promote their own abilities.

E: Yeah, the world of the paranormal is filled with people who make predictions and are prophets. You have your classic fortune tellers, and they divine using things like: crystals, crystal balls, tarot cards, tea leaves, animal bones, the moon, the planets, the stars, and human beings' butts, literally

R: (laughs)

E: Just about anything. And according to these practitioners, these are the devices that they use, and the tools, for which their information is obtained. Well, obtained from where? you might ask. Well, from God, or the gods, or nature or the Milky Way galaxy or any number of New Age or religious sources of supposedly infinite information.

R: Or they just make them up.

J: (laughs) what are you saying, Rebecca?

R: Well I'm saying that oftentimes, predictions are merely good guesses based upon what is currently known to the psychic or seer. They are often just sort of general things like "tornadoes will hit the Midwest", when you know, that happens every year, so obviously it'll be considered a hit. And then maybe they'll sprinkle in a few unique-sounding things that might have a longer shot of happening, but if they do, that'll be seen as a huge hit, and if it doesn't happen, it'll be quickly forgotten.

J: Predictions are made by many different pseudo-sciences like numerology, astrology, or even water divining. But if you compare the quality of predictions made by those means versus a scientific prediction—a prediction based on science actually could be correct and often cases science does predict many things.

B: I'm sure we've all heard a lot of predictions—technology predictions people have made in the past century. For example, that it's absurd that a locomotive will be able to travel twice as fast as a stage coach; things like that. Seems outrageous to us how wrong they could be, especially from our vantage point in the future, but this isn't just scientific naïveté though; it's really part of human psychology. You may have heard this idea expressed in the following aphorism: "People generally over-estimate the near future and wildly under-estimate the far future". This is generally very true in my experience. People often extrapolate technology without considering all the little road-blocks and delays that inevitably crop up in the short term. They also don't consider how broad areas of progressing knowledge in technologies feed off each other creating long term advantages far beyond what they thought was possible.

S: So essentially, it is possible but very difficult to quote/unquote "predict the future" when you are talking about things like technology or even a scientific prediction, you are essentially talking about extrapolating from existing knowledge. But when we talk about prediction and prophesy from a paranormal point of view, these are people who are claiming that information from the future is coming to them through some means. But of course, from everything we understand about the laws of physics, that's probably impossible. You can't reverse the arrow of time or the arrow of cause and effect. The future cannot affect the past, and information about the future coming to the past is one type of way that the future could be said to be affecting the past and therefore it's essentially ruled out by the laws of physics. So what prediction—the prophesy type prediction really is, as Rebecca was saying, is a deception. It's a mind trick; it's mentalism. It can be a form of cold reading, or you could use vague predictions that are likely to seem specific and you could make them seem specific in retrospect, or you use a lot of predictions and then count on people remembering hits and forgetting the misses. Or you can retro-dict; you can, you know, either alter the prediction after the fact to make it fit something that's already happened. That's essentially what people do with Nostradamus; they will take his vague quatrains and then fit them to historical events that have already happened. But that's retro-dicting; that's not actually committing to a specific prediction in the future that could actually be proven false, and that's what the prophets never give us: specific detailed predictions that can be definitively proven to be true or false in the future, because doing so, of course, can result in them being shown to be incorrect. And of course, that's what science does, as Jay was saying. Science makes predictions and then bases our beliefs about the world and nature on which predictions come true and which ones are falsified, rather than just constantly fitting the results into what we want to believe. So the bottom line is you may be able to quote/unquote "predict the future", in that you can extrapolate from current trends, but nobody actually can have visions of the future. And certainly, despite the claims of Nostradamus and others, there is no power of prophecy.

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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