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Hart Williams

A Surfeit of Soothsayers

I have been getting a number of phone calls lately -- in my capacity as our Astronomical Society info-person -- asking about the comet that's going to hit the Earth in April.

It took some digging, but I finally traced it (thanks to Charles S. Morris at the NASA Comet Page -- http://encke.jpl.nasa.gov/index.html) to an article in the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS stating that the Hubble Telescope had discovered a comet (not true) and that this comet would hit Earth (ending Life As We Know It)on April 7th. Again: not true.

At this point, the discriminating reader will no doubt expect a facile rave about critical thinking, and about how readily people accept whatever detritus is rammed down their video-hypnotized throats. Sorry; nope.

You see, in order to separate "illegitimate" news sources (i.e. WWN) and theories (i.e. "Alien Crash Autopsies in Roswell") from "legitimate" news and theories, I'd have to have some sort of critical method of separating the wheat from the chaff.

I don't: most of it is cockamamie.


You heard me: almost all of it is daft. Seen from this perspective, you'll have to admit that a comet smashing up Earth in April isn't very far afield qualitatively from any other "wacko" prophesy you've read. I want you to realize just HOW many prophesies you hear EVERY DAY that never come true, but you've been hypnotized into accepting them as "legitimate."

Consider the current political coverage: every newscaster and reporter, it seems, tells you not what HAS happened, but what WILL happen. The David Brinkley roundtable, "The McLaughlin Group," your editorial page: all of them trade in prophesies. "Beware the Ides of New Hampshire, Bob Dole!" they trumpeted. First, Dole was "unbeatable." Then, he was "fatally wounded."

Well, you KNOW what happened. But this is NOTHING else than prophesy, and, at the expense of the attempted dignity of this column, it is bullshit. 'Bullshit' is the only term precise enough to describe the quandary, and, perhaps, to imply the scent of these 'pundits'.

But don't think that I'm just having a bit of fun at their expense: Consider your local weatherperson. Their job description is to ... what? To PREDICT the weather. And are they often completely preposterous vis a vis reality? You bet they are.

Or consider your stock broker. The job is to predict how the economy will 'perform,' and how YOU can make money off it. (Hint, when civil war is imminent, nobody ever lost money on munitions stocks.)

Now, we KNOW that predicting the future is generally useless. There are some predictive activites that are useful (the weather, for instance) but the failure rate of even so venerable a profession as that SHOULD serve us with a warning. And yet, so much of what we read, watch on teevee, hear on the radio is prediction (that, thankfully for the predicters, nobody ever seems to check up on) that a Martian visiting our blue marble would have to rapidly conclude that prophesy was the chief pastime of the human species. Look:

Nearly ever contractor is required to "bid" a job before undertaking it. They must predict how long it will take, and fudge for the unforseen. I have done this, and it is no picnic. Rather than being paid for the work one does, one is paid for the work one PREDICTS that one will do.

How many paint store salesmen are required, every day, to predict how much paint will be required to cover a wall that the salesman has never seen, and never will see?

How many bestsellers are based on "legitimate" predictions by various "experts" (how much more honest to call a soothsayer a soothsayer!): the one that comes to mind, of course, is HOW YOU CAN PROFIT FROM THE UPCOMING RECESSION. I've been waiting for the obvious sequel (HOW YOU CAN PROFIT FROM THE UNIVERSAL WORLD APOCALYPSE) for a few years now. But you take my point.

Or consider the "Intelligence" community: How many times has the CIA been hectored and lampooned for missing "obvious" events, like the Iranian Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, etc.? But that's what we PAY them for! To "analyze" the "data" and PREDICT.

(There is a secret prejudice contained herein: that extrapolation from "legitimate" data isn't REALLY reading tea leaves, but is somehow "scientific.")

Or take the fight between the OMB and CBO in the Great Budget Imbroglio: OMB is criticised for being too "optimistic" in their augury, while CBO is more "real world." Oh, puhleeeze! They are reading llama entrails, just like everyone else. Most of the debates in Congress are based on "if this continues ...." But the batting averages EVERYWHERE are so abysmal that we actually praise ninnies when occasionally they get it right. We SHOULD know better (as should THEY).

I could prate for as long as you might read, but I'll predict that I've made my point. We live in a world of hooey, of absurd prognosticators, and yet we never once blink when we're told that the Fed intends to raise the interest rate because the "economy isn't experiencing enough robust growth."

Seen in this light, WHY do we consider it so outrageous when we are told that a comet is going to destroy Earth in April? Absurd, of course, but is it any MORE absurd than what we hear every evening when we are told "on Wall Street, investors, reacting to increased housing starts, pushed the market up to a new record ..."? Who but a soothsayer could possibly know this?

Is this any LESS outrageous?

I suggest that you take a moment for, say a week, to classify the "facts" that you hear into "data" and "prediction." I have this feeling that you might just decide to subscribe to a strange tabloid. Their batting average isn't any better than any other fortuneteller's, but at least there is the saving grace that no "legitimate" fortuneteller actually takes them "seriously."

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