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soothsayer's delusion

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. - John Kenneth Galbraith

A soothsayer is one who practices divination (fortune telling), i.e., one who claims to be able to foresee events through special means (supernatural or paranormal) rather than through the ordinary powers of inductive reasoning. The sacred books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam condemn fortune tellers as false prophets and evil. These religions make it clear: only their god knows the future and only their god can reveal the future to prophets. Anyone who practices soothsaying or consults soothsayers is evil and deluded. The scriptures of these religions are right in seeing soothsaying as a delusion. The soothsayer can no more divine the future than you or I. But these scriptures were right for the wrong reason. The soothsayer cannot divine the future because the future cannot be divined (except, of course, by using ordinary powers of inductive or deductive reasoning). There is nothing special about predicting that a glass will break when you hit it with a hammer or that a mighty king will be victorious when two mighty kings send their armies to the battlefield to wage war until the enemy surrenders.

The condemnation of soothsaying in Biblical texts has not stopped many Christian evangelists from doing what we might call 'retroactive soothsaying.' Instead of prophesying, these evangelists shoehorn events to make it look like they understand their god's will. That is, instead of saying "if liberals and atheists don't stop sinning, god will cause an earthquake and tsunami that will kill thousands,' they wait until after the earthquake has happened and claim that their god did it intentionally to punish us for our sins. Here's an example from my entry on shoehorning:

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, fundamentalist Christian evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson shoehorned the events to their agenda. They claimed that "liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility...because their actions have turned [my] god's anger against America."* According to Falwell, his god allowed "the enemies of America...to give us probably what we deserve." Robertson agreed. The American Civil Liberties Union has "got to take a lot of blame for this," said Falwell and Robertson agreed. Federal courts bear part of the blame, too, said Falwell, because they've been "throwing [my] god out of the public square." Also "abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because [my] god will not be mocked," said Falwell and Robertson agreed. [Hear these men talk it out in mp3.]

The distinction between a true prophet (one to whom a god has revealed the future) and a false prophet (one who claims to know the future without doing any reasoning or receiving any revelations from a god) is of no interest to those of us who reject belief in gods and other spirits as delusions or false beliefs. This distinction is mentioned only because the majority of people on earth believe in prophets or soothsayers. Atheists can agree that belief in the ability of some people to see into the future by supernatural means is a delusional belief. But some atheists might still believe in the ability of some people to see into the future by paranormal means. Still others, though a small minority, believe they can see into the future because there are occult forces at work that contradict what science calls the laws of nature.

You might think that a rational person in the 21st century who has an understanding of what scientists have discovered about the origin and nature of our universe and of what philosophers and psychologists have revealed about the nature and limits of the human mind should know that those who predict the future using astrology, numerology, the I Ching, Tarot, necromancy, and the like are deluded. Belief in these various forms of soothsaying is, nevertheless, widespread among all classes of society, even in the most educated countries.

The soothsayer's delusion is due to the natural inclination of human beings to rely on magical thinking, to find meaning where there is none (apophenia), and to see significant patterns in insignificant noise (pareidolia). Psychologists who have studied this phenomenon attribute it to the inherent uncertainty in human existence and the consequent fear and anxiety uncertainty produces. Evolutionary psychologists account for the soothsayer's delusion in terms of the survival value of being overly cautious and excessively driven to find patterns and meaning. Modern science has developed methods of research and investigation that mitigate the power of this delusion. A proper education in science includes an understanding of the many ways we deceive ourselves while trying to understand the workings of nature, including the workings of our own minds. Soothsayers and those under the sway of the soothsayer's delusion mistakenly think that the elaborate systems of some astrologers, card readers, psychics, palm readers, etc. that provide satisfying readings for so many people is clear proof that the systems are 'real' and that their craft is grounded in scientific evidence. What drives success in these fields is ignorance of basic human nature and of the many cognitive biases and illusions that hinder our ability to think critically..

The writer James Michener learned an elaborate form of fortune telling while a young man in Egypt. His teacher was an older lady he called "the Princess." Years later, Michener did many readings as "Mitch the Witch." He describes the experience in chapter XII of his memoir The World is My Home. He summarized the basis for the soothsayer's delusion quite succinctly. "People desperately want to have their lives put into order," the Princess told him. "People long for structured situations." The 'structurization' doesn’t have "to be reasonable or even sensible; it merely requires it be firm." He discovered these truths for himself when he became aware of the power he had over people who came to him for a reading.

Soothsayers bring order to a disordered world. They provide guidance and structure and meaning to lives desperately in need of such. It doesn't matter that what they tell people is based on some elaborate system that has no basis in reality or whether it is made up on the fly. As long as the subjects can find meaning and order in what they are told, they will be satisfied. The subjects ignore and forget the statements they can't decipher. The soothsayer is successful and the craft "works" not because there is anything real about it, but because the subjects validate the soothsayer's utterances.

Michener gave up fortune telling when he realized that a chance remark he'd make could have a profound effect on people. He was dismayed that people could be changed when an off-the-cuff bit of nonsense that he made up would be taken as guidance. Telling a woman to avoid a certain color would give her something she could do something about, even though it was meaningless. The fact that he could do much good with chance remarks made up on the spot made Michener "a sober man as far as fortune telling was concerned." It wasn't worth it to see people deluding themselves about their lives. Seeing the power he had over people "finally compelled me to stop giving readings," he wrote. People, said Michener, "deserve better guidance than I can give them." So, he quit his gig as Mitch the Witch and "the comedy ended."

Psychologist Ray Hyman tells a similar story to Michener's in his account of how he got interested in the psychology of self-deception. He was a college student, earning money as a palm reader. He'd read several books on the art but didn't believe any of it. He got so much positive feedback from his customers, however, that he started to think that maybe he did have psychic powers. He was advised to tell people the opposite of what he would normally say. To his surprise his clients became even more devoted to him. Ray gave up fortune telling and spent the rest of his professional life investigating things like the soothsayer's delusion. (A more detailed account of his experience can be found here.)

crystal ballIt is not that hard to see why people believe in fortune telling. A Tarot reader advises a client not to travel this year and the client is killed in a car accident a few weeks later while on a trip to visit his mother. The client's wife returns to the reader after the funeral of her husband and begs the reader to tell her what the future holds in store for her. The woman is deluded. She thinks that the reader saw her husband's death occurring before anyone could know it would happen. He didn't. The reader makes thousands of outrageous claims every day about many things. Once in a while, an amazing coincidence occurs and people refuse to see it as a coincidence. Nobody keeps tracks of the thousands of predictions the reader has made that could not be retrofitted into a meaningful story that might make it look like the reader accurately foresaw events. The soothsayer's delusion is grounded in what psychologists call the illusion of understanding. This illusion occurs frequently due to selection bias and confirmation bias. By selecting only data that support one's position and ignoring relevant data that would falsify or compromise one's position, one can produce a convincing but misleading argument. By seeking only examples that confirm one's belief and by ignoring examples that disconfirm it or reveal the insignificance of the data you've put forth, one can easily create the illusion of understanding. The illusion of understanding is particularly prominent in the field of economic forecasting.

Economic forecasters don't usually claim to be using paranormal or supernatural powers (some claim they use astrology), but many claim to have some sort of esoteric system they use that apparently isn't obvious to other forecasters.

The emergence of statistics as an essential mathematical tool in science has given rise to what we might call occult statistics, using statistics to prove occult forces exist that the scientific community has missed but which allow us to predict the future now or will allow us to predict the future once we figure out how to magnify and harness these forces. Parapsychologist Dean Radin and statistician Jessical Utts are advocates of the latter. A person who wrote me claiming to be 'a researcher, not an astrologer,' is an example of the former:

I made a prediction weeks in advance that there was going to be a large solar storm on the 7/8th of December [2014] due to the conjunction of Mercury and the Sun from the perspective of the earth and it happened. [personal correspondence]

The likelihood that the position of two planets in our solar system causes solar storms is about zero. The sun is about a million times larger than Earth and Earth is about 3 times larger than Mercury. Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun and Mercury is about 36 million miles from the sun. The amount of magnetic or gravitational or any other kind of physical influence these planets have on the sun is negligible. To believe planetary alignment causes solar storms is delusional. This person also wrote me:

I began my research into the true nature of "astrological" influences about 40 years ago. I have applied statistics to everything I have been able to in this regard. My most comprehensive research has been into the relationship between earthquakes and planetary aspects. I have studied many thousands of earthquakes and have found a very stable relationship between the positions of the planets and these events.

This fellow claims that "quantum wave equations" can explain how astrology can predict solar flares and earthquakes. You will search in vain, however, for any scientist using quantum physics to predict solar storms or earthquakes. Google 'astrology earthquakes,' however, and you will quickly see how popular the notion is among astrologers that they can predict earthquakes by studying planetary alignments. They are correct, of course. Astrologers can predict earthquakes, but their predictions are of no value since they are almost always wrong. There are millions of earthquakes each year, so it would be a dismal statistician who couldn't find correlations between earthquakes somewhere on the planet and many different celestial events. Seismologists don't consult astrologers because astrologers have no useful information to share. The whole lot of them are as deluded as the economic forecasters when it comes to predicting the future. Fortune tellers and economic forecasters of all stripes have constructed elaborate, Byzantine, systems that confirm their biases. Soothsayers know nothing, apparently, about subjective validation, confirmation bias, and communal reinforcement. If the soothsayers would spend as much time studying the cognitive biases and illusions that hinder all critical thinking as they do finding correlations between astronomical facts/events and terrestrial facts/events or terrestrial facts/events and the market, they'd have a better understanding of how their crafts "work."


[note: The Michener material is from an unpublished manuscript housed in the University of Northern Colorado Archives in the Michener Library and is used with permission. Michener wrote more than 40 books, all of them published except for the work on fortune telling and one on Russia. My review of the manscript is posted here.]

See also the Arthur Ford hoax and precognition.

further reading

Ariely, Dan. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins.

Carroll, Robert Todd. 2011. Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! James Randi Educational Foundation.

Carroll, Robert Todd. 2013. The Critical Thinker's Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusions and What You Can Do About Them.

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Gilovich, Thomas. 1993. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kindle 2011) Book review.

Kida, Thomas. 2006. Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. Prometheus.

Levine, Robert. 2003. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold. John Wiley & Sons.

Mackay, Charles. (1841). Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (Crown Publishing, 1995).

Malkiel, Burton. 2007. A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing. Revised and updated. W. W. Norton & Co.

Pickover, Clifford A. Dreaming the Future - the fantastic story of prediction (Prometheus, 2001).

Roberts, Lauren Cahoon. 2013. Belief in Precognition Rises When People Feel Helpless. LiveScience. August 7.

Sherden, William A. 1999. The Fortune Sellers: The Big Business of Buying and Selling Predictions. Wiley.

Steiner, Robert A. "Fortunetelling," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 281-290.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2008. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Random House.

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).

Last updated 04-Feb-2016

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