Watching the Coming Predictions – Prognostication by Film

alt Last week, the Sympatico/MSN home page had a fun article called When Hollywood Predicts the Future. The article featured six movies and TV shows that have allegedly forecasted, not just general trends, but specific events. As it was a light-hearted article, there was no attempt to make claims about paranormal abilities for Hollywood producers and writers, so it doesn’t cry out to be debunked. However, the article does prove to be a good example of how psychics make claims about their alleged success.

The article highlighted the following movies and TV shows:

The China Syndrome (1979) – In the movie, a reporter witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant and subsequently a staged emergency. At one point in the story, “a safety expert tells [the reporter] that a meltdown at that plant could render an area ‘the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.’ ” Twelve days after the film is released, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, experienced a meltdown.

The Lone Gunmen, pilot episode (2001) – Six months before 9/11, the pilot episode of this X-files spin-off featured “a plot by the U.S. government to fly an airplane into the World Trade Center by remote control and blame terrorists for it, so that they could justify increasing military spending.”

The Siege (1998) – In the movie, bombings in New York City by Islamic terrorists cause the government to round up Arab men in search of terror cells and take extraordinary security measures that suspend Constitutional rights in order to confront the domestic threat. The movie received much criticism because these themes were seen as highly unrealistic prior to 9/11.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Graduation Day” episode (1999) – This finale of the third season “about students who take up arms at … school and wind up blowing the whole thing up” was not aired because the Columbine massacre happened the previous month.

Back to the Future II (1989) – In the movie, which was written and released long before the Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997 or even existed, the main character overhears a news broadcast in the future about a Florida team playing in the World Series.

Bob Roberts (1992) – In the movie, “a folksy Republican with conservative Christian values … bills himself as a ‘rebel’ and appears on a sketch comedy TV show to perform a song he wrote about his campaign for public office”, approximating Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential run and appearance on Saturday Night Live, except for her refusal to sing the song written for her.

The first two examples are a bit eerie, but the rest are a stretch. I have rewritten the summaries to shorten them but also to word them as advantageously as possible to imply prediction hits, but then that is what psychics do when they make claims. Here are some other guidelines:

  • Make lots of predictions. By starting with a large group of potential predictions and not distinguishing which ones are going to be the test cases, you can sift through the baseline to find the coincidences. The larger the group; the more likely the occurrence of coincidences. In the case of this article, the earliest example was from 1979. Think of how many movie and TV shows have aired since 1979. In fact, the article did not actually limit itself to that time period, so potentially all movies and TV shows were available for selection. Since only six shows were worthy of mention, the point that this vanishingly small number seemed to have predicted events is already unamazing.
  • Don’t limit the timeframe for occurrence. By not stating exactly when the prediction will come true, you give yourself all of time, at least all of the subject’s or reader’s lifetime, to make your hit. In The China Syndrome example, the supposed prediction happened 12 days later, and for some reason, that recency increases the marvel of the prediction. But in reality, no one said that the event would happen in that period of time. If “within a few days” were the criteria for success, then why are the other examples offered that supposedly occurred months or even years later?
  • Ignore misses. People’s cognitive tendency to ignore misses and remember hits is essential to belief in and survival of the psychic industry. Usually, subjects believe that the psychic is making many more hits than misses, and only realize the selection bias after the fact when confronted with a recording of the reading. For this article, no one would claim that movie and TV shows predict the future more often than not; yet, the fact that only a handful of hits compared against a huge body of misses can elicit wonder shows how selection bias still has influence.
  • Exploit existing trends. Going with the flow is not always a good strategy. Cold readers often try to predict against type in order to create a more stunning effect with their hits. Selection bias mitigates any penalty they should pay for using this strategy; subjects are forgiving of the misses. However, predicting based on extension of existing trends, such as social, political and cultural trends, can increase hit potential. The plots for movie and TV shows are often inspired by concerns of the time, which are usually concerns for a reason. Trends can actualize. One motivation for producing The China Syndrome was to exploit the public concern for the trend of safety incidents and production problems at existing nuclear power plants. The fact that this trend resulted in a major incident is not necessarily all that surprising given the context of the nuclear power industry at the time.
  • Accept symbolic explanations and near misses as hits. Believers of psychic power seem to be very forgiving of its inexacting methodology. Psychics, who claim to have a flawless ability to see spirits, past occurrences and future events, always seem to have trouble with specifics and have to enter into a dialogue with their subjects to work out the details. Cold readers explain that, in these dialogues, subjects forget who establishes the detail and will attribute it to the psychic. As well, cold readers rely on symbolism and near misses as a means of explaining their way out of dead ends and increasing their hit score. The end result of this accepted methodology is the general acceptance of vagueness in predictions. In Back to the Future II, the movie actually predicted the Florida Gators losing against the Chicago Cubs in the 2015 World Series, not the Florida Marlins winning against the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 event. It would be a stretch to call this even a near miss, and yet the urban myth that was spawned claims that the movie predicted the exact events.
  • Reword predictions to make occurrences fit. To bastardize Johnnie Cochrane’s phrase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must edit,” which is where we started with the guidelines. A prediction can seem far more amazing if you emphasize the similarities and imply intention in the prediction. Few people would have drawn parallels between the movie Bob Roberts and Sarah Palin’s SNL appearance, but selective description makes the comparison seem better than it really is. The best example of creative linking, though, is the Buffy episode. The student-provoked mayhem in a school has vague similarities to Columbine, but in the episode, the students were “battling an evil mayor who turns into a giant serpent and attacks them”, so the prediction has little going for it other than the need for the network to show sensitivity at the time and the wholesale use of generalization in describing the linkage.

Again, I don’t think the author intended anything more than to have some fun with coincidences, but the article did serve as a useful example of how psychics claim successes when all they are doing is guessing and cold reading. An interesting thought experiment is to use the above guidelines to influence the hit outcome of a purely random event. In throwing a pair of dice, calculate the probability of rolling a pair of fives five times in a row in the next 10 throws. Now see how your probability improves if, instead, you don’t commit to when your 10 throws begin, you don’t limit yourself to 10 throws, you ignore up to three misses between successful throws, and you count a four-five and a five-six as close-enough hits. Then, while you are conducting your experiment, if another set of doubles fits the criteria sooner, then rework the initial intent to make it the claim. The improbable quickly becomes likely.

Another example of how these guidelines are used to inflate a psychic’s reputation is the case of Nostradamus. His prolific source of close to a thousand quatrains have an ongoing timeframe for coincidental linkage that people in every generation seem duty-bound to reinterpret from their vantage point in history. Words and events are contorted to establish absolute proof of prophecy, only to be reworked in later decades for other events. An excellent explanation of how the above guidelines are used by Nostradamus’s credulous followers is The Mask of Nostradamus by James Randi.

16. February 2009 by barry
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