The Science of Prophecy

The Science of Prophecy

The list of how many times the world was supposed to have ended according to prophecy is so long, it would take a book-length tome to describe all of the incidences predicted by thousands of people. Some notable failed “end of the world” prophecies include the Mayan 2012 prediction, the “computer disaster” New Year’s Eve 1999 prediction and countless religious predictions, including the famous Harold Camping May 21, 2011 “rapture” prediction. He later “recalculated” the date to October 21, 2011. That didn’t happen either. It did, however, result in a lot of hilarious pictures on Facebook of people who draped empty clothes over chairs in the backyard as if the person who’d been wearing them had been suddenly sucked up into the heavens. It’s amusing to laugh at what some to perceive to be complete nonsense, but is there any science to be found in prophecy?

Besides the “end of days” prophecies, there are millions of other prophecies and prophets around the world: Nostradamus, psychics of all kinds, bible prophecies, Edgar Cacey, and the list goes on. Millions of people believe very strongly in many of these predictions, and even when the predictions fail to come true, people still believe in the phenomenon of prophecy, sometimes even pointing to “fulfilled prophecies,” the science of which actually lies within the human brain. Believers tend to overlook the statistical probability that if a “prophet” makes thousands of statements, they are almost guaranteed to get a “hit” on a name at some point. Such is the case with the famous Nostradamus “Hister” (Hitler) prediction. However, “Hister” was a term for the Danube River at the time, calling into question whether it’s a close hit on a name or simply a common reference to a place. Since the line in the quatrain says “From the Rhine and Hister they will be said to have come,” and since the Rhine is also a river, the word Hister most likely applies to the Danube and not to Hitler after all.

Why Do People Believe In Prophecy?

So if these prophecies can so easily be debunked, and the vast majority of them are clear failures, a fact that has been proven countless times throughout history, why do people continue to believe in prophecy? Luckily, science has an answer.

Science reveals that the human brain is hardwired to detect patterns. People find meaning in random sets of data, and have the tendency to “interpret/attribute meaningful patterns within the immediate environment around them.” Our brains are also programmed to make faces out of random shapes. For example, if someone draws a circle with two additional circles in it and a straight line across the bottom, humans will see a face, even if the person doing the drawing intends to only draw circles and a line. It’s the reason why people see Jesus in a piece of toast or a face on Mars. These related phenomena have several different scientific names, including apophenia, confirmation bias, patternicity and pareidolia.

Scientists use those terms to describe how and why people believe in things like prophecy, the supernatural, aliens, and conspiracies. Let’s look at each science term and its definition, then an example of how the definition applies to belief in prophecy and/or the supernatural.

Apophenia: The experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. An example of Apophenia can be applied to a prophecy of Nostradamus. Let’s examine one quatrain:

Near the gates and within the cities
there will be two scourges the like of which was never seen,
famine within plague, people put out by steel,
crying to the great immortal God for relief.

What does this mean?  “Near the gates and within the cities”- This means New York and New Jersey. “Two scourges” means the two planes that flew into the towers of the World Trade Center. “The like of which was never seen”- there had never been an attack like that on American soil before. Famine within plague is a symbolic reference to the suffering the victims experienced. “Put out by steel” obviously is a direct reference to the victims being killed by the falling buildings, and “crying out to the great immortal God for relief” refers to the suffering of the survivors. Obviously, Nostradamus was predicting 9/11!

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It all adds up. The connections are there. But let’s look at it again without thinking of 9/11. It’s actually rather vague, isn’t it? Couldn’t we apply the phrases to almost any calamity in any city or cities?

This particular quatrain is interpreted to relate to World War II by many people, but the 9/11 interpretation makes just as much sense. If the 9/11 example made any sense to you at all, your brain was using apophenia to find patterns and connections in meaningless data.

The Science of Seeing Faces and Confirmation Bias

Pareidolia: Finding shapes, such as faces, in things like clouds, geological features and slices of toast. This phenomenon has many examples: Jesus in toast, Jesus in a tortilla, Jesus in a tree trunk, The Virgin Mary on the side of a building, etc. Our brain is pre-programmed and hardwired to see faces in shapes and to make order out of chaos. Try an experiment: Look at any surface that has a wood pattern or just gaze up at the clouds. Do any faces or particular shapes emerge? If so, you’re experiencing Pareidolia. There is nothing supernatural or mysterious about it; it can be measured and quantified as a natural process of the human brain.

Confirmation Bias: According to Science Daily: In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. An example of confirmation bias would be searching for reasons to confirm predictions and excluding any information about apophenia. So, someone reading this article who strongly believes in predictions will dismiss the scientific information on apophenia as not applicable while also searching for ways in which the predictions make sense.

The Science of Patternicity

Patternicity: This is a more recent term coined by psychologist Michael Shermer. In his book The Believing Brain, he discusses why people believe in supernatural phenomenon, prophecy and conspiracies. They do so because of patternicity: The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. He describes the phenomenon this way:

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

This thoroughly natural brain phenomenon has been well-established by studies and supported by ongoing scientific research into the human brain. Furthermore, Shermer says, “whenever the cost of believing a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor patternicity.” In this way, then, we can see that finding patterns in meaningless data is a natural part of human biology. It explains why belief in prophecy is so strong even in the face of millions of failed prophecies.

Through the related natural phenomena of patternicity, confirmation bias, apophenia and pareidolia it is clear to see that belief in prophecy has real science behind it; the science of the human brain.

By: Rebecca Savastio

Source: The Evolution of Superstition and superstition-like behavior (study)

Source: Psychology Academia

Source: Law.edu

Source: Merriam Webster

Source: Science or Not

Source: Science Daily

Source: Michael Shermer.com

2 Responses to "The Science of Prophecy"

  1. CJ Savvy   August 1, 2013 at 8:57 am

    The Mayan prophecy will occur yet. Seems that most have forgotten that between the transition from 1 BC to 1 AD, there was no zero year. Time did not lapse as such and so 1 AD was actually Zero AD. 2 AD was actually 1 AD and so on. This means that AD 2013 is actually AD 2012. So, the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world as we know it will fall on December 21, 2013.

    Reply
    • Michael Bauerlein   August 10, 2013 at 2:46 am

      So how will you redo the math so it will work for 2014?

      Reply

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