Religious Prophecies and Confirmation Bias

Posted by on July 14, 2010 in Thoughts | 8 comments

The definition of “prophecy” is this (according to “The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language“):

a. An inspired utterance of a prophet, viewed as a revelation of divine will.
b. A prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration.
c. Such an inspired message or prediction transmitted orally or in writing.
2. The vocation or condition of a prophet.
3. A prediction.

Though it is pretty clear what this means in abstract terms, I feel that this description is actually written in reverse order for it to make logical sense.

Firstly, a prophecy is a prediction of the future. Predictions of the future happen all the time. I do it every day, as do you. We look at the world around us and make a call as to what will happen next based on past experience and from our own learning. For example, if a car were to swerve in front of me onto an oily surface, I could predict that car will lose control and crash. If it happens, my prediction was correct. If the driver manages to regain control of his vehicle and avoid collision, I was incorrect. This is a prediction based on what I know of the physical world.

Some people make their living from making predictions, like stock brokers, meteorologists, climate scientists, doctors, trend-hunters, sports commentators etc., and these people look at patterns that have emerged in the field, the society or in the world and look where things appear to be headed. This is prediction based on data and how that affects the potential future for the person/market/environment. Long term, short-term, medium term predictions, these are all based on the information we gather and the projected outcomes. They are not always right either, even from so-called experts in these fields

But it seems clear from the description above that a prophecy must be an “inspired” or “divine” prediction. What does “inspired” mean? What does “divine” mean? These are both psychologically loaded terms, and once something is labeled inspired or divine that somehow psychologically places it above or beyond the stance of normal human experience. Thus we tend to see the words of prophecy as special, or sacred or outside understanding.

Thus we have the idea of predictions coming from a “prophet”, a person who can, apparently, see into the future and has definite knowledge of the future based on “divinely inspired” information given to them by an unseen presence. These people are revered all over the world, prophets and soothsayers abound in all religions, even in your local newspaper where the astrologer tells you how your day will be.

There is a reason we like to trust information given to us by prophecy.

Humans like to believe that our lives are somehow mapped out for us, that no matter what we do, everything will turn out in just the way it was intended. If we just believe, our predetermined destinies will be fulfilled. We like to feel that when all seems bad or in turmoil that if we can just see a little into our futures we will see a light at the end of the tunnel. And there are a multitude of ways that we can apparently tell our futures; from tarot to shamanistic visions, to numerology and the casting of bones. But any person with a semblance of logic and rationality should be able to see past these as simple hocus pocus, that explain our own gullibilities and similarities as people better than they predict our personal futures.

James Randi famously held an experiment at a college campus, which effectively shows how astrology works, or more to the point, how it makes us want to believe in what it tells us.

Astrology deals in vague and uncertain terminologies, using words and phrases that can be interpreted in a myriad ways. The experiment above can be repeated with the same outcomes almost anywhere where astrology appears in the newspapers. But people still want to believe.

I’m using astrology as an easy target for debunking because it is easily disproven, to illustrate the kinds of vagaries that prophecies use. Fortune tellers use the same vague language, and feed from body clues of their victims (or subjects) to steer their “prediction” or contact with the “other side” in a direction that the subject will react to in a personal way. And these people are very good at manipulating people into believing that what they are saying is truth.

People who believe in the “predictions” of Nostradamus may say that the passage below refers to the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

Volcanic fire from the center of the earth
will cause trembling around the new city:
Two great rocks will make war for a long time.
Then Arethusa will redden a new river.

In this (there are many ways to translate it) translation of the words of Nostradamus, he makes reference to several tangibles. If read literally,”Volcanic fire from the center of the earth will cause trembling around the new city” could be a volcano with trembling and all, “Two great rocks will make war for a long time” sounds like two boulders banging against each other, and “Then Arethusa will redden a new river” could mean a water-nymph will kill herself by slashing her wrists(?) maybe.

People who believe in the prophecies of Nostradamus will read the above quatrain and THEN look at historical events, and retro-fit their ideas, even misrepresenting words and stretching definitions, to suit a situation that has even vague similarities. If it had said something like “Two steel birds will smash into the giant towers, and many will blame the people of the middle-east, and there will be a second war because of it, and this war will last longer than the previous one,” then maybe we could give it some credence. But unfortunately, the vagueness of the language means that people can freely interpret whatever they please into this “prophecy”. And people will read these interpretations and connect the dots to create something that is not there by itself.

The worst and most insidious form of prophecy is that coming from religious texts, because they have been re-translated more than the words of Nostradamus, have been altered and changed to suit the wants of different religious leaders over time, and have been interpreted to mean many, many things over time, as parables to illustrate what people should do according to their religion in any given situation. (Note: The Qur’an is apparently to be excluded from the alteration claim because it has apparently been copied over and over  in its exact form many times without any changes. It is however only ever allowed to be interpreted by an Islamic male.)

When people read a religious text, they connect what is happening to the world around themselves. Because of confirmation bias, the information makes more sense than that coming from experts, and they believe it despite any cognitive dissonance they may encounter if and when they analyse what they have read.

An example of believing prophecy, apart from the many times disproven end of the world scenarios we have encountered, is the tendency of religious people to be “looking for signs” that what they believe to be true is actually happening. Anything can be a sign. If the religious text says something about “bloodied skies” then a believer may take a particularly red sunset to be a sign. If it mentions “plagues of insects” then the next time there is a natural over-abundance of a single species, it is a sign.

Anything can be a sign. It just depends on what you’re looking for.

And there are those who not only see the “signs”, but welcome the end of the world, as it means they will be released to heaven for eternal peace with their god. They will openly welcoming the hastening of the coming of the end of days. And there are those who will actively participate in this demise, believing that’s what the prophecy foretold them to do.

That is really scary.

We are definitely in a time when our decisions for how we deal with the world and how we treat one-another can make be a big decider in what the future holds. And we are more connected than ever at this time. If you take all the information we have about event happening right now, of course it looks like things are bad. And they are bad, but not everywhere at once. Filmmakers have used this information overload as a device to show the future dystopia on many occasions, and yes if you put one bad thing against the next, the world is pretty screwed up right now.

But believing in the hocus pocus of prophecy is the last thing we need right now. When coupled with religious zealotry and war, these prophecies become very, very dangerous. For those of us who see these prophecies as they really are, open-ended and vague stories, mistranslated, misrepresented, sometimes fanciful and allegorical, sometimes intentionally misinterpreted tales passed via word of mouth, they hold no credence. And nor should they.

Stumble This!

Further Reading:
If it smells like Funk, it must be astrology
The Concepts of Modern Astrology
…as above, so below…
Astronomical Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic’s Resource List

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  1. Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

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    • Yo, patmos… pray to me, as I am god (you know, miguel means “He who is like god”, so I must be just like him…).

      I require $20,000.00 monthly from my followers in order for me to live the lifestyle I want, and I’m being modest here. In return, I’ll make sure you live happy until you pass to another world which will be exactly how you imagine it to be. :o)

      I’ll be waiting for my donations.

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  2. And the Flying Spaghetti Monster did gaze upon the god, and he did pour himself tea from Russell’s Teapot, for the hour of judgment hath come; and he that was god of pasta, ravioli, and spaghetti was worshiped for he was asked to decide who hath made the better pasta

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  3. It seems pretty well every single pseudoscience is based on wishful thinking and buttressed by selection bias. Thankfully people like you are out there pointing these effects out.

    I for one don’t want my life to be mapped out for me, though I believe in a deterministic universe, and therefore believe that my free will is illusory and based on chemical reactions. I also believe that with a big enough supercomputer, all the exact laws the universe follows, and enough data, you could pre-calculate everything about the universe. But I don’t think such a device is possible in the scope of our universe, so I’m content to pretend like I’m a free agent.

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    • Very cool reply Jason – I like it :)

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    • Interesting, so what you are essentially saying in theory is that there is nothing in thee universe that is truly random? All the mechanics are calculable?

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  4. When I was a teenager I originally followed Astrology to rebel against my Catholic upbringing. But later I realised that even though my logical mind told me that it isn’t possible for Astrology to be correct, my mood was starting to be affected by what I read in the star sign predictions. I stopped reading them even for fun. Classic case of self fulfilling prophecies. Just one of the many things that lead me to skepticism.

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  5. Tulio: that’s my belief, yes, though the whole of quantum mechanics really throws a monkey wrench in the mechanistics of sub-atomic particles. On the atomic scale, everything appears to work in a specific physical way and react deterministically in certain situations, though when you go below the atomic level, there are way more variables to account for — quantum mechanics gets very damn well nearly random in some ways. And in a lot of others, very counterintuitive. I don’t understand it practically at all. Woo-practitioners co-opt it to explain away magic, though I suspect it could very well be actions of a greater-than-three-dimensional universe (remember, people like Hawking believe we live in an eleven-dimensional one, though we only perceive three-plus-time).

    But yeah. Get *all* the physics models *exactly* right, get *all* the data about *every* molecule, and let the program run, and I bet you could calculate out the end-state of the universe. Probably not BEFORE the end-state of the universe, mind you. But as computer models become more sophisticated they can abstract things far beyond anything we’ve managed before, like climate or even short-term weather.

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