Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The mathematician and the Bible decoder

One of my besetting sins is riffing continuously on the same themes, and if I seem to be saying the same thing over and over again in different guises, I hope I can be forgiven on the grounds that there is so much work to do in the realm of getting people to think critically.

I feel the need to start with this disclaimer because once again I've bumped into a wonderful example of how good humans are at assigning meaning to random patterns.  Our minds are really pattern-finders; we are constantly, and mostly subconsciously, looking for relevance in what we experience, because (as I've commented before) we evolved in a context where a rustle in the grass might or might not have been a hungry lion, and far better to assign that meaning to it and be wrong than to fail to assign that meaning to it -- and be wrong.  The result is we often invent meaning where there is only randomness, only chaos.

Enter Michael Drosnin, author of The Bible Code, The Bible Code II: The Countdown, and The Bible Code III.  Drosnin is the fellow who took the Hebrew original of the Torah (Genesis, Leviticus, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers) and purported to find hundreds of encoded messages predicting the future -- everything from the Holocaust to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  His technique, if you can dignify it by that name, involved running all of the letters in the Torah in a string, and then finding patterns -- taking every nth character, or characters that formed straight lines (including diagonal ones) when the text was assembled in lines of X letters long.  He generated hundreds of diagrams like the following, which supposedly predicts the attacks of 9/11:

Well.  This whole thing got various mathematicians and statisticians in a lather, because the general rule is, if you're allowed to assemble a string of characters of sufficient length any way you want, and apply the rules of character selection any way you want, you can create any message you want.  The whole thing seems self-evident to me, not to mention my general skepticism that prediction of the future is possible however you might want to go about it.  Mathematician David Thomas was more blunt than that, saying, "The Bible Code is a silly, dumb, fake, false, evil, nasty, dismal fraud and snake-oil hoax."

And Drosnin responded, "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." 

As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

Mathematician Brendan McKay rose to the challenge, and took the text of Moby Dick, applied Drosnin's technique to it, and found "predictions" of the assassination of:
  • Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India
  • President René Moawad of Lebanon
  • Soviet exile Leon Trotsky
  • Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss of Austria
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Robert F. Kennedy
  • Princess Diana
For the entire thing, which is well worth reading, go here. And to Drosnin, I can only say:  ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

None of this is recent news; but on the other hand, none of it seems to be discouraging Drosnin from continuing to Bible Code like mad.  His most recent book (The Bible Code III) was just released a year and a half ago, and the word is he's working on a fourth book (tentatively titled The Bible Code IV).  And, of course, his books still sell like hotcakes, which I have to admit bugs me for a variety of reasons.  It galls me that someone who is so obviously using spurious reasoning to make ridiculous, illogical claims is making money by taking advantage of the credulity of the book-buying public.  It also bothers me when someone just won't quit when they're debunked; we've seen it with such luminaries of the woo-woo world as Erich von Däniken, Uri Geller, and Immanuel Velikovsky, not to mention apocalyptic religious fanatics like Harold Camping.  Arguments, facts, and evidence pile up, you're shown to be a misguided wingnut at best and a deliberate hoaxer at worst -- and you don't do what most of us would do in this situation, which is to turn bright red, mumble an apology, and vanish -- you keep going.

Unfortunately, the fact is that there are still enough people who believe all of this stuff that the money still flows, even after the theories are debunked and disproven.  So whatever else you can say about woo-woo bullshit, it's lucrative.  And if I can be allowed to make a rather depressing prediction of the future myself -- I'm sure that The Bible Code IV, V, and VI will all be raving successes.


  1. From my perspective, the same intelligent mind that can so vehemetly defend their conclusions, is the same intelligent mind that knows what they are saying is bullshit.

    1. Woo-woo stew:
      3 Cups Money (cannot be substituted. Integral to the dish)
      2 Cups Boredom (can be substituted with lack of something better to do)
      2 Cups Desire to be remembered for something
      1 Cup Confirmation Bias
      1 Cup Lawyer-istic, unwavering defense of ideas
      4 TblSp Laziness (College=Years of study for noble pursuit)

      Mix together, slop into a bowl. Garnish with infamy and suspended disbelief. Serve lukewarm on a poorly designed website.