Friday, 24 March 2017

Didn't See That Coming!

We should keep in mind that it is easy to concoct stories explaining the past or to become confident about dubious scenarios of the future. We should view both explanations and prophecies with skepticism. - Leonard Mlodinow

If there's one thing that can really make naked ground apes sit up and pay attention, it's predictions of the future. This is not unreasonable, of course, because any genuine knowledge of the future can pay dividends. Who among us hasn't dreamed of finding out the upcoming lottery numbers prior to purchasing a ticket, or fantasised about a sports almanac finding its way back from the future laden with already settled results? In Paradox! A Game for all the Family! we explored some of the latter and its consequences in terms of the so-called Grandfather Paradox, as well as some possible resolutions.

Here, I want to look at the former. Specifically, I want to look at the difference between different kinds of prediction about the future that some primates have been very impressed by in the past and, in some cases, continue to be so.

Many of the world's religions are founded or sustained on prophecy in one way or another. One often comes across the claim that something that science has discovered was mentioned in the Qu'ran. 

One such example is that the Qu'ran detailed what later became known as the big bang in Surah 51:47. According to one Quranic apologetics website, it reads: 
“And the heaven We created with might, and indeed We are (its) expander.”
An obvious issue with this would lie in the way it's translated. A quick look at the Skeptic's Annotated Qu'ran gives a slightly different translation of this as:
"We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof)."
Of course, the believer will tell you that there can be no good translation, as the text can only be properly understood in the original Arabic. I've never been entirely clear on why this should be, although some attempts at explanation have been offered. The most common is that no language is sufficiently sophisticated to capture the nuance of the original, but this claim doesn't stack up in reality. English, for example, is not only a vastly larger language, it also has built-in the ability to construct just about any concept, and to absorb words from other languages.

In any event, regardless of this alleged issue, the passage is pretty vague, and certainly doesn't give us the wonders of modern cosmology. More importantly, as we've seen in several previous outings, modern cosmology has no robust theory dealing with any beginnings. See links at bottom for more on this. 

Ultimately, all of the alleged predictions in the Qu'ran fail on the same grounds, being so vague that they could really be talking about anything. They all commit a fallacy that's come to be known as the 'Texas Sharpshooter' fallacy, because what they're actually doing is taking bullet-holes produced by science and then coming along and painting the targets on afterwards. 

Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, this is the underlying fallacy being committed by all apologetics surrounding statements that can allegedly be taken as predictions in agreement with science. It's an extremely common fallacy, and can be dismissed with one simple question, namely 'how are we to tell that that's what it's talking about?'

There's one prophecy in the Judeo-Christian canon that actually is quite specific, and is taken to be a fulfilled prophecy by many, even to the point that some point to this as their best supporting evidence for their belief in Yahweh. It comes from  Isiah 66:8.
"Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children."
It seems pretty unequivocal, doesn't it? Many have taken this to refer to the formation of the modern state of Israel, which of course occurred in 1948 in a single day. Now, it would be easy to simply point out that the process involved in the formation of the state of Israel took considerably more than a single day*, but there's a better way of dealing with this alleged prophecy.

In treating this properly, we need to deal with just what constitutes a reasonable prophecy. For example, if I say that I'm going to have pizza for my dinner tomorrow, and then it transpires that I do indeed have pizza, does this count as a prophecy? I don't think any thinking person would think so. How about if it were more specific? In one instance, this was actually erected as an objection against this example, but it doesn't stack up. I could, for example, say that it will be a Calzone Piccante with extra mozarella and mushrooms, that it will cost £6.50 and that it will arrive within 30 minutes of ordering, I've gotten pretty specific, yet I still don't think anybody would classify this as a prophecy, and the reason is perfectly clear, because I know about the prediction, and can work toward ensuring that it's fulfilled.

There was a bit of a scandal in this year's FA Cup tournament. Sutton United, a team from the National League, the fifth tier of English football, were in a cup-tie with the Gooners. As is often the case with sporting events, people like to gamble. In the UK, there's a fairly strong tradition of having bets on silly stuff that might happen, and this match was no exception. One bookmaker, Sun Bets, had offered a price on Sutton's reserve goalkeeper, Wayne Shaw, eating a pie live on air. He duly did, and then the excrement made contact with the cooling appliance. Shaw is now under investigation by the FA and the UK Gambling Commission for breaching rules relating to integrity and betting. He insists that it was a bit of fun and that he didn't gamble on the game, but has resigned on the basis of bringing the club into disrepute.

There's our big clue to what would really constitute a prophecy. It would rely on a set of predicted circumstances involving actors who were entirely unaware of the prediction. This is certainly not the case with Israel, as everyone involved in the process was fully aware of the prophecy. This particular example, even if constituted a specific enough instance, and even could it be shown that this was what it was talking about (it can't, which means it also commits the Texas Sharpshooter), this would constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy of exactly the same type as my prandial prediction above. In short, there's nothing remotely impressive about it.

So what about other kinds of prediction?

There's a long tradition of preying on the gullible, manifesting in society in myriad ways, not least in the manner from which the umbrella term by which sceptics refer to the purveyors of such practices has come to be known - snake-oil salesmen - and such predation is extremely common in the form of prediction. Those who fleece the unwary and the credulous in such a manner are worthy of a particular contempt I usually reserve for corporate and political creationism, and they show no sign of letting up.

In recent years, since the advent of television, they've managed to get their nonsense in front of a wider audience, even spawning many shows specifically aimed at promulgating this nonsense. For the most part, what gets on television is largely harmless drivel, much like the horoscopes in newspapers (although they're also guilty of this). However, these broadcasts lend weight to the ideas themselves, which are in turn utilised to fleece people of their hard-earned.

Over the years, I've encountered quite a few examples of people who defend the practices of such 'psychics', and there's one instance that highlights just how they operate. There was an appearance some years ago on an Australian show called The Circle by James van Praagh, a well-known charlatan, who picked on a member of the audience. I wouldn't recommend subjecting yourself to the entire clip, not least because his methodology and its failure are pretty obvious from the outset, and there's a danger that your intestine will try to leap up and strangle your brain at the stupidity of it.

Among his first bits of fishing might, to some, look impressive. He starts out in the usual manner, by fishing for a name, Mary/Margaret. Now, this might seem to be a pretty difficult thing to pin down, but he isn't without clues, and these clues are essential to the process. He gives the game away somewhat with what follows.

We'll come back to the name, because one of the audience picks up on it quite quickly. The first thing to note is that, after each thing he says, he asks the audience member if it makes sense to her, and all the time he's watching her reactions. His second question is if she had some problems with medication before she passed. This is hardly predictive brilliance, since the vast majority of people have some medication in their last days. He then goes on a fishing expedition to try to pin down the medical problem and, when he fails to hit his mark, he shifts the focus of this fishing to the audience member herself (I'm getting something about the back, does that make sense? I'm seeing a cushion behind her back, no? Or was that you?) then he moves on to the legs. It's pretty easy to see what he's up to. Then he asks if there's anyone that had trouble with the legs, and the audience member says that her father had had two hip replacements. Van Praagh says 'so he can't walk as well as he used to'. This is a real clanger, and exposes his ignorance, not least because anybody who's ever known anybody with new hips will tell you that, in the vast majority of cases, they walk much better afterwards.

He goes fishing again, looking for somebody by the name of Kathy, another fairly common name, and one of the audience member's family talks about a cousin named Kate, who was having surgery.

Now he changes tack, and says that he gets the sense that there's a Catholic connection somewhere, and we're not supposed to notice that the audience member is wearing a crucifix so, again, hardly an Earth-shattering revelation.

He waffles about a funeral for a bit, and then talks about 'mother Mary'. He smiles when he sees a reaction and thinks he's on firmer ground, except that the family member points out that pretty much ALL Catholics have a mother Mary around somewhere...

I won't belabour the point any more but, even with his catastrophic failure, his methodology is blatant, and it's clear that he's not even a competent charlatan, which begs the question of why he gets away with it. This process is known as 'cold reading' and it's reasonably obvious why. What he's doing the entire time is looking for clues that you give away, in the form of what you're wearing, your bearing, and easily-read microexpressions. 

He's not alone. In most cases, it's understood that, when you go to one of these shows to see a psychic, not only are you often asked to fill out a personal information form of some description, but there are plants in the reception area talking to the audience members before the show. There are documented instances of psychics using an earpiece and being fed lines and directions. Put all of this together with cold reading, and the verdict is clear: this is not a robust area for prediction.

Before I move on to the last class of prediction, I want to highlight one more instance from this general area, because it's really telling.

 There was a  marvellous programme  on BBC3 a few years  ago called Bullsh!t  Detectors. In it, the  presenter set up a  scenario in which  parapsychologist  Ciarán O'Keeffe wrote  a fake history and it  was posted on the  website of an  abandoned chocolate  factory that had been  converted into an arts  centre. Somewhat conscious of the length of this, I don't want to go into too much detail, so I'll just link the video.
It's perfectly obvious that the three mediums in this had read the fake history on the website. What's most interesting is the mental pretzels they engage in when the lie is exposed and they need to save face, with one suggesting that he must have read the presenter's mind, begging the question of why he didn't spot it as a fake. I also found it incredibly amusing that one of the psychics went through the motions of pretending to be receiving information about the fake former owner's name while he was standing in front of a framed picture of the man with his name on a name plate at the bottom, as if he - and we - couldn't see it as plain as day.

So, what are we to take from all of this? Is it impossible to predict the future reliably?

Actually, no. There's one means we've found that manages to accurately predict future events, and we all rely on it every day, even while maybe not aware that we are.

I'm talking, of course, about science. Science gives us the ability to not only reliably predict the future in vast swathes of phenomena, it also doesn't make any pretence at anything like the mysticism in the above examples. It's a methodology that anybody, with hard work and diligence, can learn to employ. There's nothing mysterious about it, even though it's known to use some symbols that we might see as arcane.

In short, if you really want to know what's going to happen in the future, there's one way, and only one that we know of, that will allow you to do it, and it's open to all.

Science: It works, Bitches!

Thanks for reading. Nits and crits welcome as always.

Cosmology and beginnings:
In The Beginning
It Wasn't Big, and it Didn't Bang
You Must Be Off Your Brane!

*The process took considerably more than a year, from the first murmurings in the newly formed United Nations in 1947 to the cessation of the British mandate in 1948 and the formation of Israel proper.