Viewpoint: Why Predictions Fail but Prophecies Don’t

We should be less concerned with how things will be and more with how they should be

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Jemal Countess / 2009 WireImage

Paul Krugman (with Arianna Huffington and Elizabeth Warren) at the TIME 100 gala in 2009. Of a survey of 58 pundits, Krugman's predictions proved the most accurate.

Everyone loves to make predictions and almost everyone is bad at it. Not only are we enchanted by our own forecasts, but people in all fields — journalism, politics, tech, marketing — make a nice living off fawning over the future, pretending to know which gadgets will sweep the next decade and whether the economy will recover and when. But a 2011 survey of morning talk shows came to the remarkable conclusion that the pundits featured were no more accurate than a coin toss. The realization that most predictions fail has been elaborated upon in Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, and has even inspired Philip E. Tetlock, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to launch a project seeking to improve punditry’s abysmal record.

(MORE: Predicting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Field—and Discovering the Selection Committee’s Biases)

That we are wrong far more often than we are right can be explained by the odds alone; for every way of being right there are thousands of being wrong. There are always more variables than can be calculated, and we barely know what is going on in our own heads, never mind the world at large.  Still, each time an expert rears up to proclaim a new prediction we forget the previous errors.  When someone hits, we are fantastically impressed. When they don’t, the backup strategy is to explain why the prediction hasn’t come true yet. But mostly, we just count on each other to forget.

But instead of trying to improve our ability to see the unforeseeable, maybe we should reframe the entire exercise. The prophets of the bible are thought of as predictors, but far more often they are moralists, less concerned with how things will be than how they should be.  Yes, occasionally a biblical prophet would venture a prediction that was inaccurate as a sportswriter in spring training. It has been a long time and neither repeated invocations that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (Joel, 4:14) nor cosmological speculations, “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day nor the shining of the moon by night” (Is. 60:19) have panned out all that well.

(MORE: The Limitations of Being “Spiritual But Not Religious”)

Yet most of the time prophets strained not to see the future, but to see the present. They extrapolated from moral trends. So rather than saying the poverty index will rise or fall in the coming year, Amos talked about the rich buying the poor for silver or a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6) and Isaiah denounced the corruption of the city: “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Ch. 1:23).

So much of what we hear in the media is prediction of the most ephemeral sort — this person might run for office, that person’s remark gained or lost support. What we do not hear from pundits is what we would hear from prophets — the poor continue to languish, work is often unrewarded, there is still, even in our country, sexual slave trade, families are struggling to survive, we consume without wanting to know where or how our goods were produced.

(MORE: America’s Forgotten Economic Challenge)

Prophecy in this sense does not require you to believe yourself on a mission from God. No matter your beliefs, society is ill-served by endless predictions about the trivia of tomorrow and silence on the urgencies of today. We risk being morally neutered by our love of analysis and trends.

Technology is a tool whose utility is entirely dependent on the values that drive it. This is not a call for self-righteousness but for moral seriousness. Don’t devote yourself to idle guesses that will be disproved next week. Listen, someone is crying now.

10 comments
AV
AV

Sum: 

Predicting signals is punditry, predicting rules in the noise is prophecy... 

Unsurprisingly, they are true in a different sense: some verified by one-time events, so by reading the news for a thousand years.

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

Most probably, what I understand about prediction versus prophecy, is that the former contains emotional visualization, while the latter contains spiritual visualization. Since the prophets, according to the holy Bible, Holy Qur'an or their similar holy books were revealed upon reverend prophets from time to time, as per belief of various religious doctrines, it is believed that they had the special capacity of visualizing and perceiving things and matters in advance because of their having extra-ordinary spiritual powers, which is not commonly found in common humans.......  

   - A.R.Shams's Reflection - Press & Online Publications - Moral Messages for Humans Worldwide...

meropin
meropin

I comprehend the differences between prediction and prophecy as, ones are active and others are passive. And we, humans are too complicate to conclude which one is good or bad.

T.P.Chia
T.P.Chia

To say "society is ill-served by endless predictions about the trivial of tomorrow" is to belittle the value of future predictions. Predictions of the future are by no means trivial. Is the projection that Lake Mead has the chance of running dry by 2025 a trivial prediction?

It is true that predictions are often wrong, just as history is full of false prophecies made by religious leaders. Prophecies also fail as often as predictions.

It is true that some gossip-type of  predictions are unnecessary, but meaningful future predictions are of great social significance.

Rabbi Wolpe's degradation of the value of future predictions is religiously biased, and his argument for embracing prophecies is socially prejudicial.  Future orientation and predictions are the source of huiman progress--not prophecies.

TshegoPadi
TshegoPadi

I concur with Dewey. To extend: The belief in an anthropomorphic God in this day& age is inidicative of the fear-based dogmas that were inculcated into the minds of the unknowledgable thousands of years ago. What's truly disppointing is the continued supposed 'faith' in the new generation.

To support my argument, I say, as we all know, the universe into which we are born is infinite. Why would the Creator of All necessarily look or resemble a human being? Let alone the male version.

Let's all be kind to one another. That's all.

EugeneVisser
EugeneVisser

So sad... Mr Sayenoff and his distrust and rejection of Biblical prophesy (BTW, I am with you on the rejection of "Carnival fortune tellers and the like, but I reject your diatribe against Biblical prophesy) Rabbi Wolpe and his well meaning and eloquently written article, albeit with complete disregard for the true meaning of Scripture like Isa 60:19. But then, my Saviour, dying on the cross so that YOU and I don't have to drink the cup of God's wrath (Ps 75:8), beaten, swollen, bleeding,asking for no favours from his tormentors, yields to His humanity and begs for a drink - "I thirst"... And the best we can come up with for the Creator of the rivers and seas, is sour wine on a stick. You Rabbi Wolpe, and You Mr Sayenoff, are offering your Creator vinegar on a stick, when all He asks is you allegiance, your love. Whether you reject Him or accept Him, it makes no difference to the fact that He loves you, and died for you. 

Maybe I am of "below average IQ" Mr Sayenoff, but not only has Biblical prophesy been spectacularly accurate, it also gives me a clear view ahead, even as to the scoffers of the last days...

I look forward to a place where brotherly love and Godly love will unite man's passions and "every knee shall bow", a place where there will be no more tears, no more dying, where there will be no need for "the sun by day or the moon by night", since the glory of the King of Kings will light my way...

What are you looking forward to?




DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I believe what was missed here is that prophesy is so vague that anyone can apply it to so many different situations because of their beliefs, and have, that they're just as unreliable as definite predictions.

Carnival fortune tellers, tarot cards, fortune cookies and other such "prophesy" tools do the same thing.  The statements are general and vague, with an indefinite timeline.  And because of that, the human mind is open to the notion of trying to fit that vagueness to something concrete.  We do that kind of thing all the time by seeing Jesus in a bowl of cottage cheese.  It's like being told "pink hippos", and at some point you come across a Disney movie that has hippos dancing in pink tutu's and think, "Ah HA!"

Finally, and it may be unkind to say, half of all people are below average in IQ.  Combine this with the fact that almost no one ever gets training in critical thinking - how to overlook the human tendencies we're born with and see the cottage cheese as, well, just cottage cheese.  Even intelligent people indoctrinated into a mythology from birth will have difficulty putting aside the myth for reality because these myths have had thousands of years to adapt themselves to being so vague and indefinite about "proof" via prophesy, a person will go a lifetime without any evidence that their beliefs are in any way justified, let alone true.

Occam's Razor states that as you shave off possibilities in explaining things, you always save off the least likely things first.  Or as Netwon put it, We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. This means that to explain prophesy is relatively simple.  It's human nature to link vague things to real things.  Mankind as individuals weren't stupid four thousand years ago.  Some knew then, as today, that we have certain quirks.  Human nature hasn't changed significantly in that time.  One could take Babylonian prophesy or Mayan prophesy (the real Mayan prophesies, not the ones made up by apocalyptic-minded Westerners), or even the quatrains of Nostradamus and say, "Look!  This is what he predicted!" MANY TIMES OVER in history because they apply so often to so many similar situations.  By looking at the PRESENT, one can easily predict what will happen in prophesy.

Here's mine.

War and death in God's name comes.
Thunderous sounds of massive drums.
Candles fly and flames renew.
Mankind won't know what else to do.

Prophesy is easy.  Mankind is stupid.  And I'm hardly divinely inspired.  

One doesn't need mythology to be taught morality.  Conversely, one doesn't need prophesy to cheat the masses. To be moral, one only needs the will to be so, and the strength to avoid inflicting damage on others.  This is accomplished through living by the golden rule: Harm none.  Morality naturally follows because if you do harm, then in some real, physical, demonstrable way leaving punishment after death and spiritual mumbo-jumbo out of it, you harm yourself, too.  Most people are bright enough to eventually figure out that the bad things they're doing to others is hurting them, too. Those who would be moral in the first place will seek to do no harm.  Those who wouldn't be moral regardless of mythological threats or prophesies of doom, won't be.  Prophesies, mythologies, spiritual extortion, guilt, intolerance, hatred...  Those can all be laid aside because they are demonstrably harming others - and yourself.  It's pretty much that simple.

chukigwe
chukigwe

Hello Rabbi,


Thanks. 

During this week of Passover and Easter, It is always refreshing to point out in  a subtle way what the prophets of old and current ones are making of our society. My  favorite quote is from Amos: Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.

JBReynolds
JBReynolds

Rabbi Wolpe, thank you for your thoughtful, insightful message. A signal mark of the old prophets (and the modern ones if you believe in them) was a message to love God and one's neighbor -- and do something about it. I'll vote for any politician that exemplifies this message. It's a challenge to live up to this message but it's important that we try each day.

sumguytang
sumguytang

@DeweySayenoff 

Brilliant Dewey, absolutely brilliant.  The author entirely misses the difference between prophecy and prediction.  Namely predictions are quantitative and provable.  Prophesy is non quantitative, vague and general.

The author also misses the point that certain human endeavors in the natural sciences are highly predictive. We all get into our cars and expect to have the engine start and the brakes work.  And that it is in the social sciences - particularly religion, politics and economics  where predicting events has a record of abysmal failure.