Playing the prophecy game

Some time ago, I wrote about an encounter with a couple of Bible boys in Bombay. Their major reason for believing the Bible to be the word of god was that the Bible contained “prophecies” — predictions about the future (which is now either the present or the past) that came true and could not possibly have been made by any human being. Human beings, it is understood widely, cannot know what is going to happen in the future with any great accuracy. Therefore, to the religious mind, it is only god — an all-powerful entity beyond time — that could have made these prophecies possible through inspiration.

There are many ways to address the prophecy argument. I want to start by pointing out that we actually need a real definition for what a prophecy is.

Let’s say I make a prophecy and predict that you will have breakfast tomorrow morning. Does that count as a prophecy? You were probably going to eat something in the first half of tomorrow in any case. You would not have thought of your breakfast as anything out of the ordinary if I had not framed my prediction as a prophecy. And now that I have framed it as such, you have the power to disprove me. All you have to do is refrain from having breakfast tomorrow.

Whether or not something is a prophecy depends entirely on whether or not we see it as a prophecy. And once we know that something is a prophecy, we have the power to either let it happen or prevent it from happening by acting against the intent of the prophet. Because of this relationship with knowledge, a prophecy can only be one of two things — self-fulfilling or self-preventing. The prophecy is a prophecy because you call it a prophecy.

Don’t say “Wow!” Ask “How?”

The appropriate response to a prophecy claim should never ever be “Wow!”. It should be “How?”.

Methods matter. How we reach a conclusion is at least as important as the conclusion, if not more. This belief forms the foundation of modern science. It is only by understanding methods that we can determine whether a process and its outcome are trustworthy. Magicians fool entire stadiums full of people by doing nothing more than hiding their methods.

Speaking of stadiums full of people, here is a way you can make convincing prophecies. You will need a lot of people to do this of course, because that is how this game is played — using volume.

Choose an upcoming sporting tournament and then make a list of email addresses — a few thousand people. Tell them you have discovered / invented / been given / come across a fool-proof method for making predictions and you are going to demonstrate its power to them. In olden days, god or divine inspiration was a good enough reason. These days you can gather credibility by using words like algorithm, blockchain, quantum computing, and/or equations. Alternatively, you may also choose to claim you have psychic abilities. That one never fails to attract the gullible.

Now, before the first match begins, send two emails to your list. To one half, say that Team A will win. To the other half, say Team B will win. At the end of the match, you have lost the confidence of one half of your list, but what you told the other half has come true. Now do the same thing to these remaining people before the next match. You will once again lose the confidence of half of them but be proven right to half of them.

If you continue to do this till the end of the tournament, you will be left with a list of people to whom you have made accurate predictions every single time you sent them an email. You have established yourself as a maker of accurate predictions. But this is only because the people you have been emailing don’t know anything about the method you employed. It also helped that you started off with a really large base.

Some of the world’s most well-known prophecies (such as those in “holy” scriptures or those made by Nostradamus) have currency because they deal with things that happen to large populations over very large periods of time. You can say a good number of things that have a likelihood of happening over the next one thousand years. War, check. Famine, check. Invasions and conquests, check. At least a few new nations emerging after (and because) old ones have collapsed, check. The possibilities may not be endless, but they are fairly predictable with enough historical hindsight.

Religions have volume, if nothing else. They are uniquely positioned to make prophecy claims because even if they are lacking in science, they are never ever lacking in large numbers of followers. And because the willingness to believe already exists in these followers, religious prophecies don’t even have to be 100% accurate. They can be vague and ambiguous and unclear and they will still find takers.

If you peppered your emails to the aforementioned victim-base with fictitious personal testimonies by reasonably real-sounding people, you end up with an even more dedicated following once the experiment has ended. Add to that good branding, efficient marketing, plenty of jargon, and charismatic spokespersons, and you are pretty much set for the foreseeable future. People will literally pay you to predict their personal, financial, and romantic futures.

Asking “how” is a healthy habit. Be smart and pick it up.