I remember the tabloid magazines from years ago at the grocery store checkout stand in January. They splashed famous psychics’ predictions across the cover of every new year’s first edition. What Hollywood or royal celebrities would get embarrassed, arrested, or divorced? What gaffes would various world leaders commit? What natural disasters or wars would happen?
What was surprising was how they could keep doing this, year after year, when the issue just one week earlier had the end-of-year scorecard showing how badly the prior year’s predictions had done.
Kidding! There was no scorecard, not at the end of the previous year or ever. Why acknowledge the elephant in the room?
The tabloid fan might admit that if you really want to get precise about it, sure, the occasional prediction wasn’t completely accurate. If the prediction was that a celebrity would lose a child due to a drug overdose, but what actually happened was that their ex got divorced, that was close enough, right? Blur your eyes and score generously, and those psychics were still worth reading.
This has been called the Jeane Dixon effect after a prolific psychic. From her oeuvre, you can find loads of preposterously wrong predictions as well as the occasional correct one. Knowing what sells, the media celebrated the hits and forgot the misses. (One author called this kind of selection bias the Jeane Dixon defect.)
And isn’t it fun to believe? It’s like a kid waiting for Santa. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get that pony you asked for.
Maybe, just maybe, the psychic will be right, the predicted natural disaster will happen, and you can say you knew it all along.
And maybe, just maybe, your prayer for a miracle will be answered.
We see the same naïve belief in some Christians today. The fraction of Americans who say that we’re living in the end times as described by the Bible is 41 percent. Of American Evangelicals, it’s 77 percent.
When you or I hear a tragic news story—the November ISIS attack in Paris, for example—we likely see this in the context of bad stuff that happens across the world from time to time. For apocalyptic Christians convinced that Armageddon is around the corner, however, any tragedy neatly confirms their conclusion.
John Hagee’s recent hysterical blather about the four blood moons scratched that “All aboard!” itch that these apocalyptic Christians seem to have. They’re playing the poker game of eternity, they’re all in, and they’re eager to show their cards. About the four blood moons, Hagee said, “God is literally screaming at the world, ‘I’m coming soon,’ ” and “The coming four blood moons points to a world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.”
(You didn’t notice the world ending in October? No four horsemen? Nothing to suggest the End? Me neither. The only blood is Hagee’s bloody nose when he got smacked with reality.)
As with psychics’ failed predictions in tabloid magazines, Christian prophets have no final reckoning. The Jeane Dixon defect is in play, and failed predictions are either ignored or reinterpreted to be close enough.
One difference, though, is that the Bible demands the death penalty for false prophets.
A prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded … is to be put to death. (Deuteronomy 18:20–22)
It’s almost like Christians aren’t consistent and are selectively reading the Bible.
Comparison: psychics vs. prophets
The National Enquirer psychics predicted big things for 2015: an assassination attempt on Pope Francis, a Hollywood job offer for Barack Obama, significant volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest, and a deathbed confession that that whole moon-landing thing really was a hoax. As of this writing, half an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, none of those predictions was correct.
No 2015 prediction about ISIS or the Paris attacks or Charlie Hebdo? Nothing about the Obergefell decision or Christian bakers or Kim Davis? Nothing about Donald Trump and the comedy that American politics has become? I’m omitting many big stories of 2015, but then there’s a lot of that going around.
We can laugh at how badly the psychics got things wrong, but then the Christian prophets, perpetually crying wolf about the latest disaster, were just as laughably wrong. My prediction for the new year: more empty and irresponsible predictions from both psychics and Christian prophets.
Risky predictions have been successfully made
thousands of times in science,
not once in religion.
— Vic Stenger