When prophesy fails, and fails, and fails

Back when they were conveying knowledge to the masses, David Wallechinsky and his family produced The People’s Almanac (1975). For their very first chapter, they obtained predictions from many contemporary psychics. So, 38 years later, how did the psychics of the 1970s do?

Would you trust this man with the future?

Would you trust this man with the future?

In general, not too well. There are few successful predictions. David Bubar must have seen Nancy Reagan’s astrologer when he predicted that “[p]sychics will hold important government positions” in the 1980s. Criswell, he of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame (see at right), made a prediction that the devil will rule the earth from 1975 to 1978; that was a bit off for the Carter Administration. Joseph DeLouise said there would be an economic panic by 1980, but that’s kind of a given, sort of like predicting there will be earthquakes. Similarly, Ann Jensen wasn’t going too far out on a limb in predicting the Vietnam War would end by 1980. There were some other no-brainers that didn’t require psychic ability to predict.

On the other hand . . . Malcolm Bessant predicted that New York would be underwater “in a few years.” Several other psychics made similar predictions; I guess losing Miami to the same coastal flooding didn’t seem so important. David Bubar was certain the generation of the 1980s would be grotesquely tall; maybe he got confused and mistook height for weight. Criswell (1907-82) predicted an “Aphrodisiacal Era” in 1988-89 when clouds of aphrodisiacs would float over the United States. My love life could have used that. Jeane Dixon (1904-97), one of the few psychics mentioned whom I remember, went all Biblical Revelation with the Cold War going hot around Israel during 1988-2000. Ann Jensen saw a woman at the head of a world government by 2000. (Several other psychics thought the United States would have a woman President by now.) Olof Jonsson (1918-98) saw the automobile outlawed by 2000, presumably by that female-led world government, I suppose. And Alan Vaughan had apparently missed reading about Chappaquiddick, because he predicted Ted Kennedy would become President in 1976. That probably would have set back having a female President for a few more years.

Some of these people faded away before the Internet became popular, and so they’ve left little trace of their existence on the web. Others are still in business today, despite their inaccurate predictions. And it’s not as if these predictions have been forgotten; while writing this entry, I found at least two other articles on the web discussing this chapter of The People’s Almanac.

Is it fate or sex appeal that allows Merlin to be trapped like this?

Is it fate or sex appeal that allows Merlin to be trapped like this?

Personally, I’ve never been too keen on the idea of psychics predicting the future. If someone can reliably know the future, then that means the future is fixed. It also means the psychic either can a) obtain thoughts or sensory data from a large number of people in the future without their being aware of it, or b) have some form of transcendental mechanism that allows them to see and perceive things from perspectives unavailable to normal humans, or c) can grasp the entire working state of the universe and understand exactly how it will evolve over time.

And yet, I can see the lure. Prophesy implies that one’s actions are cosmically significant, and who wouldn’t want that? In real life, prophesy has been used to put a divine seal of approval on people and events; Suetonius is loaded with prophesies, portents, and omens about the rise and fall of the first twelve Roman emperors (counting Gaius Julius Caesar as the first). In fiction, prophesy can provide the protagonist with a destiny, a puzzle, a paradox, or even a curse. And the protagonist always has the choice, to accept or to try to defy a prophesy. It’s good drama. Just ask Éowyn and the Witch-king of Angmar in The Lord of the Rings.

It's 2013? Never mind.

It’s 2013? Never mind.

I’ll leave the last word to Mother Shipton (1488-1561): “The World to an end shall come / in Eighteen hundred and eighty-one.”


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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8 Responses to When prophesy fails, and fails, and fails

  1. L. Palmer says:

    Unless the psychic meant we have a unified world government led by a woman, I think Margaret Thatcher’s run as Prime Minister of England would count… Wait… Now that I think about it, that one already happened. Queen Victoria ruled people across all 7 continents (counting Antartic explorers) during the 1800’s. I think that qualifies as a ‘world government.’ So, the psychic was a little late.

  2. I’d love to believe it was possible, but the evidence you have presented (and my own common sense!) keep telling me otherwise. Doesn’t stop me having the odd attempt with my tarot cards though!

  3. crimsonprose says:

    To obtain sensory data from people in the future? Or to use some transcendental mechanics? I’m thinking here of the speculated spiritual nature of dark matter & energy which underpins FF & Neve. Now, were that to be, and the spiritual dimension, of which all life partakes, was continuous, knowing no limitations of time, then yes, both those propositions would be valid. It would also explain the claims to reincarnation. “I tapped into the spiritual dimension and and thought me the same fella who once lived before.” 🙂

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Well, once we admit other dimensions, all bets are off. We’re as vulnerable and confused as the creatures in “Flatland” when confronted with the third dimension.

  4. danagpeleg1 says:

    I love astrology and Tarot, but not as divination tools, for the reasons you named. Even in the Old Testament, the prophecies are of the if/then sort: “if you continue your bad ways, God will punish you. Repent and save yourselves.” This is why general predictions are so useless and stupid, really. We have so many choices. The best prophecy could only imply an “if/then” scenario, that’s all.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      An omnipotent god who knows the future creates further theological difficulties. What then becomes the function of prophesy? If everything MUST happen, then prophesy is just telling us what is going to happen anyhow, and its function must be (in declining order of ethical value) to a) help us prepare, b) impress us with the god’s power, or c) show us that the god is about to shaft us. If events are still contingent, so much for the god being omniscient about the future, and if/then prophesies are the only valid ones, and even they can’t be too reliable.

      • danagpeleg1 says:

        Such omniscient or omnipotent god is clearly a tyrant, and of a sadistic kind. If he (it’s always a “he”) dictates the future, doesn’t it make him an abusing god for his followers, or un-followers? It’s like that part of the Exodus story, where God hardens the heart of Pharaon so as to make his refuse Moses. The result is, of course, another plague. This is why I don’t worship him, or other, similar gods. This is why I chose the Goddess, who is not an omnipotent goddess in this sense, but a power which is part of us, and we are part of her. In Earth-based spirituality believers not terrorized by this inifinite force (have you ever read the Book of Job?) as supposedly small and insignificant creatures – but rather invited to take part in it. A real democratic deity, so to speak. And since there are so many factors involved, one cannot predict a certain future… just like you wrote.

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