Predicting the Future

A perennially popular belief is that some people have the inexplicable ability to foretell or foresee what is going to happen in the future. Among those who have been claimed to have such an ability are the 16th century occultist Michel de Nostredame, and more recent “seers” such as Irene Hughes, Criswell, Jeane Dixon, Edgar Cayce and Sylvia Browne. The “accuracy” claimed for such visions of the future is 90%–100%. During late December or early January many newspapers print “predictions of top psychics” for the coming year. Again, high accuracy is claimed for such predictions. It is suggested the reader try the simple experiment of saving such a newspaper and reading it a year later. Such tests have been done many times, and the result is always that, at best, only 5%–10% of the predictions bear any resemblance to actual events; the ratio of successful to unsuccessful predictions is generally far below even the chance level— if one makes random predictions for events which have only two possible outcomes, one should surely get pretty close to a 50% success rate. “Real” seers do not do even this well. In fact, a 1% “hit-rate” is fairly common.

The classic case is that of French seer Michel de Nostredame (1503–1566) aka Nostradamus. His writings consist of nearly 1,000 four-line rhyming stanzas, full of grammatical and printer’s errors and untranslatably obscure phrases. No actual names or dates are used. Important figures are called “The Great Man,” “the young Hero,” “the false Antichrist,” etc. Competing groups are “the yellows,” the blues,” “the greens,” etc. No specific places or locations are referred to, except in very rare cases. Situations described are universal: revolutions against tyrants, famines, plagues, assassinations, murders, wars, invasions, conquests, and martyrdoms. Nostradamus hinted that his prophecies were the result of astrological computations, or going into trances, but modern research reveals that in fact he heavily plagiarized various collections of prophecies, many dating back to Roman times. His major source was Mirabilis liber, an anthology of predictions first published in 1522 when the teenage Nostradamus was working as an apothecary and compounder of quack medicines. Because this collection of prophecies was written in Latin, aimed at scholars, and never translated into French, Nostradamus could safely depend on his readers seeing the material for the first time in his own verses.

The classic, “ambiguous” school of prophecy has its beginnings in the earliest surviving prophetic writings of 3000 years ago and continues most famously in Nostradamus. Presented with essentially meaningless “prophecies,” it is the reader himself who is the prophet, because it is he who is forced to interpret the opaque stanzas according to his own experience, concerns and expectations. L. Sprague de Camp made a study of various translators of Nostradamus. He found that each “translator” rewrote certain passages so that they referred fairly unambiguously to actual past events. Other stanzas were rather arbitrarily taken to refer to future events, and were re-written correspondingly. The result, as one might expect, was that in each case stanzas taken to refer to events that had already taken place were “100% accurate,” but stanzas taken to refer to events that had not yet happened were (in retrospect) 100% wrong! There are several “new” translations of Nostradamus by cranks and cultists every decade or so, and the pattern remains true. If the “translation” was carried out in 1986, one finds that every event described up to, say, 1985, is “just right,” whereas everything thereafter is hopeless nonsense. Hence the need for a new book every decade or so; ironically, the cult of Nostradamus depends not at all on his original writings, but entirely on the most recent “interpretation.” If Nostradamus had never existed and all his prophecies were modern forgeries, the situation would be the same. This actually happened with the possibly imaginary 16th century wise woman Mother Shipton; she unquestionably left no written prophecies, so later commentators were able to make them up completely, with perfect freedom. The most famous lines attributed to her were in fact composed by Charles Hindley in 1862 as a deliberate hoax. Almost every pseudoscience book that mentions Mother Shipton still quotes Hindley's lines, now more than 140 years after the hoax was exposed. The infamous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were matched by bogus “Nostradamus” predictions which began to circulate through the Internet within a few hours of the news breaking. During World War II, both the Allies and the Nazis, as a propaganda device, circulated Nostradamus predictions of ultimate victory; some were real quotes, suitably reinterpreted, and some were made up out of whole cloth. It really makes no difference!

Modern “seers” can use approximately the same technique by rewriting their own prophecies in retrospect so that they agree better with what actually happened. Psychics and seers are forced these days to make most of their predictions about the fortunes of celebrities. This is hard on the psychics since nothing is more unpredictable than whether or not a given movie actor or actress will get married or divorced in the next week, much less the next year. A classic case is that for 1968 every famous “psychic” predicted that Jacqueline Kennedy would not remarry in that year. She remarried on October 20, 1968. Jeane Dixon, for example, simply withdrew her syndicated astrology column for that date— in which she had unfortunately written, “I still stand on my New Year’s predictions and see no marriage for Jackie in the near future”— and replaced it with a new one that was “corrected” suitably. Reading a book by one of these people copyright 1980, one will be amazed at how every event mentioned between, say, 1960 and 1979 is said to have been gotten just right, what a miracle, but how every real “future” prediction in the book is totally nonsensical.

As the example indicates, would-be prophets since the late 19th Century have realized that you can make very specific prophecies: “On January 4, 1999, the head of state of a major Western nation will commit suicide.” If you make 100 such prophecies per year, and if you keep your own score, you are bound to be right sooner or later. As soon as you have just one correct prediction, you tout that from then on as your claim to fame. “I, Sophia Frump, correctly predicted the breakup of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.” Of course if you just read the newspapers and predict that what is already happening will continue to happen, while being specific, you will rack up dozens of correct predictions. But this is too much work for the “top 100 psychics.” They tend to “predict” according to random whim.




The reader can judge for himself. Here are some widely publicized predictions of Edgar Cayce (1877–1945). Earth’s polar axis will begin to tip catastrophically in 1936. 1958 will be the most critical year of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. Communist China will be Christian and democratic by the year 1968. During 1960-70 the whole west coast of the U.S. will be broken apart; Japan will sink almost entirely into the sea, and the upper portion of Europe will be grossly altered. Here are some equally widely publicized predictions of Jeane Dixon (1904–1997). Red China will go to war with the U.S. in 1958, beginning World War III, which will devastate every continent on earth. Richard Nixon will be elected president by a landslide in 1960. The Vietnam War will end within 90 days from May 7, 1966. Fidel Castro will be dead by the summer of 1966. The Russians will be the first to land on the moon. Picking a year at random: for 1979, 100 of the “Nation’s Top Psychics” made predictions for the National Enquirer. More than 80% of these top-ranked seers foresaw that 1979 would bring “a major breakthrough in cancer which will almost totally wipe out the disease,” and “contact with aliens from outer space who will give us incredible new knowledge.” None of these great seers had any inkling of such events of 1979 as the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran, the Chicago plane crash that killed 275 people, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, etc., etc. Picking another year at random, 1998, no psychic predicted the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinski, or Clinton's impeachment trial, or Frank Sinatra's death, or any other newsworthy event of the year. Typical predictions were that Oprah Winfrey would buy CBS, Elizabeth Taylor would marry Burt Reynolds, all cats in the US would be destroyed to prevent spread of a mystery virus causing blindness in humans, Fidel Castro would move to Beverly Hills, etc.

Modern physics sheds much light on the possibility of prophecy. The structure of the physical laws that correctly describe fundamental processes of nature— processes at the sub-atomic level— is such as to rule out the existence of specific information about future events; if such information existed, the laws would have a totally different form than they are found to have, and would also not agree with experiment. Quantum phenomena involve chance at the most fundamental possible level; the precise outcome of a given process cannot be known until it happens. All that the laws of nature permit us to predetermine is the probability of each possible outcome. Of course, one such probability may in some cases be unity, in which case one can, for example, calculate the future position of even a quantum object with very great accuracy. And for objects as large as dust motes or larger, classical Newtonian physics is accurate for all practical purposes, and predictions of future states of very simple classical systems are unique and reliable— as is the obvious case with astronomical phenomena, such as eclipses. But in general, accurate knowledge of the future of any fundamental process is completely ruled out by the structure of the physical laws that correctly describe our universe.

Elementary logic also tells us that there are other difficulties with the concept of accurate knowledge of future events. If a prediction of the future could be made detailed and particular enough, it would automatically invalidate itself by its potential influence on the future it is supposed to foresee. For instance, if I know in advance that something specific is supposed to happen at a very specific spot accessible to me at a very specific time, I can easily take steps to insure that such an event could not possibly take place, by removing the conditions that make it possible. Again, being aware of a prediction, I could force it to “come true,” when otherwise it could not have happened. In other words, the causal link is from prophecy to event, not the other way around. In general, the existence of a known prediction influences the future it is supposed to “fix” in ways that are themselves inherently unpredictable, and thus actually increases rather than decreases the uncertainty and unpredictability of future events. This is the paradox of prophecy.

Whenever you hear that someone claims to have made a “successful” prediction of any event of everyday life, you might profitably ask some of the following questions:

1. Is there any evidence the prediction was made before the event? Or has a very vague and ambiguous prophecy suddenly been “reinterpreted” to refer very unmistakably to an otherwise unforeseen event?

2. What is the probability of the predicted event occurring? If it was 100% certain— plane crashes and earthquakes somewhere in the world, death of some show-business or sports celebrity by drug overdose, assassination attempt against some public official somewhere— the “prophet” is playing with the net down!

3. What is the predictor’s rate of error for all predictions he has made? About 50% is not too impressive if all predictions are for events with only two possible outcomes! Don’t let the “prophet” keep his own score. If “prophecy” were possible and a valid procedure was carried out to obtain the prophecy, there is no acceptable excuse for less than 100% accuracy.

4. What is the physical connection between prediction and event? Remember that causality runs only one way. A prediction must by definition occur before the event it predicts, and thus is always a potential cause of or influence upon the event. Self-fulfilling prophecies are not too mysterious. (Nor are they uncommon.)

5. How does the prophet earn his living? Does it not seem strange that someone who can accurately foresee future events and can demonstrate this ability reliably is not making a fortune in the stock market or at horse races? The usual answer is that the “mystic power” cannot be used for selfish ends. If this is so, why is the prophet then not working full time for the Emergency Medical Service, or the United Nations, or the Weather Bureau, or some other appropriate government agency? Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that a person with such a wonderful, inexplicable, fantastic talent earns his living giving $50 private readings to customers whose questions and problems are generally purely selfish? Doesn’t it suggest something when one realizes that the prophet’s published predictions mainly serve the purpose of drumming up free publicity for himself, so as to bring in still more $50 bills?

It’s difficult to believe that any educated, intelligent person could take fortunetellers, seers, readers, and psychics seriously. Yet readers say business is booming. Many people seem to have a desperate need to be reassured about their futures, and to have advice on personal problems of one kind or another. Where the personal problems are financial, legal, or medical, or where the fortuneteller callously dispenses warnings and predictions of disaster, just to revel in his power over the poor sucker who’s in his clutches, the consequences are often horrible to contemplate. Many people have lost their life savings or avoided medical treatment that could have prevented or postponed serious illness and even death, by following the careless, thoughtless, irresponsible, stupid, cruel, and cynical advice dispensed by some fortune teller, reader, seer, or psychic.

Over my lifetime to date, I have sometimes gotten the strong impression that the collective IQ of the human race has dropped precipitously, certainly during the past 40 years or so. One possible piece of evidence is the completely daffy concept, famously revived around 1994, of the “Holy Code.” The idea, such as it is, is to take some supposedly Holy Book (any one will work) and use it to predict the past. The past? The concept is so mindless that in order for us to grasp it clearly a specific example is needed. Suppose we arbitrarily pick a simple sentence, let's say, “Ron Reagan shot.” This is very old news, but no matter. We take some book and use a computer to search for the letters R, O, N, R, E, A, etc., you get the idea, at some arbitrary but equal spacing somewhere in the text. Now, it should be obvious that in a long enough text, it is essentially certain to find any short enough statement. Let's pick two consecutive sentences from Genesis [Chapter 31, line 28, KJV]: “And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and daughters? Thou hast now done foolishly in so doing.” Let's look for “Roswell UFO.” Even in such a short passage there are two equidistant letter sequences forming just the message we wanted. In case you don't spot them they are indicated by capital letters: RsthOuhaStnoWdonEfooLishLy (every four letters)... and UhastnowdoneFoolishlyinsOdoing (every 12 letters).... The pseudoscience scenario would presumably be that this is a secret code planted by the gods who wrote the book. Alas, we have no books written by gods! Needless to say, any book whatsoever, of any significant length, can be used to extract any message you want to extract. What this has to do with prophecy is anyone's guess!  [The earliest version of such Holy Code claims seems to trace back to a Rabbi, Michael Weissmandel,  whose modest 1950s “discoveries” were deservedly instantly forgotten... until the unwise revival of the 1990s.]

Suppose the claim were that the book has to be some special old Holy Book... say the Torah or the Talmud. The problem is that any book that predated the invention of printing existed only in error-riddled, hand-copied versions, and even a single error would invalidate any presumed code. There are no two ancient handwritten versions of the Torah that agree, and very few that are complete; each differs from any other in many dozens of places. Ironically, “official” versions of the Torah, used in Jewish religious services, are still required to be handwritten!

Of course the normal “prophetic” use for Holy Books is actually to read the book and suitably “interpret” the literal text as being a (poetically concealed) prophecy. Probably the most famous modern practitioner of this field (in which there are tens of thousands of crazed preacher competitors) is Hal Lindsey, who since 1970 has been writing best-selling books such as The Late, Great Planet Earth filled with large numbers of fairly specific predictions, essentially zero of which have “come to pass.” Lindsey and his competitors, despite their completely nonexistent success rate, do not in any sense lack for followers... or financial reward.

Staying alive in the world takes patience, intelligence and courage. Every day can bring bad news— the doctor says we have cancer, a tornado or earthquake destroyed our home and scattered all our possessions, we just got fired from our job, the fund in which we invested our savings was run by crooks and all our savings are lost, and there's another hurricane on the way! Fortune tellers will be glad to “help us out,” by making vague or specific predictions which could either bring false security or unnecessary fears, but that in any circumstance, in the long run, can only make our situation worse. Intelligent preparation for possible future events is one thing— switching off your mind and listening to a paid charlatan is quite another.


  • Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There, by Richard Wiseman, MacMillan, London, 2011, Chapters 1 and 7.
  • Doomsday Prophecies, by James R. Lewis, Prometheus, NY, 1999.
  • Eve of Destruction, by Eva Shaw, Lowell House, LA, 1995.
  • Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard, Norton, NY, 1999.
  • Jeane Dixon: Prophet or Fraud? by M. Bringle, Tower, NY, 1970.
  • ESP, Seers, and Psychics, Milbourne Christopher, Crowell, NY, 1970, pp. 78-100.
  • Myths of the Space Age, D. Cohen, Dodd, Mead, NY, 1967, pp. 96-132.
  • Spirits, Stars, and Spells, L. Sprague and C. C. deCamp, Owlswick, Pennsylvania, 1966, Chapter 4.

  • Prophecy for Dummies is not only hilariously funny but completely accurate.

    Hardhitting Psychic Predictions— for 2003, how well did they do? When the page comes up, click on the name to see the predictions. Marvey! Strangely, also, 2004 was definitely not a good year for the world's top psychics! Some predictions for 2005 here, essentially all of which have turned out badly. Sylvia Browne's 2005 predictions were equally floppola. She was not alone in her cluelessness, by any means! Failed End of the World Prophecies for 2006. However, it is truly great that my all-time favorite prophet Criswell (1907-1982) is still remembered! Some other sites of interest: a collection of spectacularly failed Doomsday prophecies; More failed 2004 predictions; still more failed predictions; A collection of recent failed predictions; the track record of cult leader Garner Ted Armstrong, from the 1950s to the present, here; Recent prophets and prophecies collected by the great Crank-dot-Net! Despite the large number of self-proclaimed prophets in the world today, I am aware of only one who accidentally included the words “terrorists” and “September 11, 2001” in the same sentence, verifiably before the events! How about some hard-hitting, inexplicable prophecies by the ineffable Uri Geller?  Prophecy books with the right (or do we mean far-right?) religious slant remain constant good sellers. Check out more lists of failed predictions, here. You can listen to an audio track of the Amazing Criswell (drawn from his regular West-Coast radio broadcasts of the 1960s and 70s) here. At the time I looked at it, this was an accurate history of the origins of Tarot cards, and their much later association with fortune telling.

    Bible Codes and other Holy Codes:

    There are a number of good sites developed by computer scientists and mathematicians which demonstrate the non-existence of "secret prophetic codes" in various Holy Books... and find them in WAR AND PEACE, and MOBY DICK! Here is one such site, and here is another; all have links to other similar sites. Best of all, here's a computer program you can run on-line to search for "hidden prophecies" in any text whatsoever that you can copy and paste into the appropriate window on the site page. Try it here!

    This fact sheet was written by Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin. These fact sheets were originally created for distribution by the International Cultic Studies Association.

    Typical Old Testament Prophet, Circa 600 BC

    The Pythic Oracle at Delphi (circa 800 to 300 BC)

    The Delphic Oracle supposedly inhaled fumes from a crack in the floor of the Temple of Apollo.

    Avoiding Facing Death!
    Blavatsky, Queen of Pseudoscience!
    Cities on the Moon?
    Creationism and “Intelligent Design”
    ESP Experiments!
    Flying Saucers (1947–1985)
    Fortean Phenomena
    Gods from Outer Space!
    Higher Space Dimensions!
    Hollow Earth!
    Kirlian Photos and the Aura!
    Martian Canals!
    Monsters! and Ape Suits!
    Mystery Spots?
    Mystical and Bogus Physics!
    The New Age!
    Postmodernism versus Science!
    Pyramid and Crystal Powers!
    Medical Quackery!
    Psychic Detectives!
    Science Fiction and Pseudoscience!
    Our Space Brothers!
    UFOs 1985-2005