Prophets, Futurists and Illusionists

In 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, three soldiers came across the tomb of Nostradamus. With nothing better to do, they decided to dig up the corpse of the great seer. Buried with the body was a plaque engraved with that day’s date – Nostradamus had accurately predicted the date of his own exhumation.

There was also a message claiming that the holder of Nostradamus’s skull would gain all his knowledge and then die. One of the soldiers picked up the skull, assumed an expression of amazement and was promptly killed by a stray bullet.

The dated plaque would be Nostradamus’s most amazing prediction if not for the fact that the whole story is a fiction. A variant of the story was first published by the diarist Samuel Pepys in the 1660’s, more than a century before the French Revolution.

Like Nostradamus, most prophets, seers and futurists have a less than enviable record of predicting the future. A summary of how they rate can be found here, although it’s now more than ten years old.

There are various ways to make a success of future prediction. The method used by Nostradamus was to make his predictions open-ended and so vague that they can be retrospectively fitted to events, a process called postdiction. Despite the many accurate predictions attributed to Nostradamus, from the Great Fire of London to the September 11 attacks, none have been inferred prior to the events actually occurring. Which doesn’t mean they’re wrong, only useless.

Another technique is to make lots of predictions and focus only on the correct ones. British illusionist Derren Brown once offered a woman the chance to test his technique for picking the winners of horse races. After he correctly predicted the winner of a race, she placed a bet on his next prediction. His horse won again and so did his third and fourth predictions. The woman became so confident in Brown’s predictions that she risked financial ruin with her bet on the fifth race. Which is when Brown revealed his system. She was only one of thousands who began the experiment. Those whose horses lost where eliminated after each race until, after four races, only a six people remained. By convincing each of the six that they were the only people involved, Brown created the illusion of being able to predict the winners.

Non-mystical futurists generally do a little better than their mystical counterparts. By analysing the past and extrapolating into the future they can often make startlingly accurate predictions, at least in the short-term. H.G. Wells made some remarkably accurate predictions in 1933 about World War II, such as the rise of Hitler, the German invasion of Poland in January 1940 (only four months off), the Pacific War between Japan and the US, and the Cold War. But beyond 1950, his predictions start to sound absurd. Wells’s late twentieth century, a balkanised world ruled by pilots, sounds like science fiction.

Despite all of this, one name stands out. David Goodman Croly was the Don Bradman of futurists yet barely anyone has heard of him. His book,  Glimpses of the Future, written in 1888, made 53 predictions, forty of them correct. Unlike Nostradamus, they were specific and had a used-by date of the year 2000. He predicted air travel, movies, women’s liberation, World War I, the rise of Russia, electricity superseding steam power and India’s independence from Britain.

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