A Moment of Science

Observational Selection: Predicting The Future Through Books

Do certain books predict the future? Find out on this Moment of Science.

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Photo: Jason Morrison (Flickr)

Some people believe you can predict the future by arranging strings of letters.

Science is all about rationality. It’s about figuring out the way things really work.

New Strings

Recently, I read Michale Drosnin’s book The Bible Code. It’s the bestseller where the author made strings of letters by taking, say, every 50th letter from a famous bible passage.

Then he claimed those strings predicted the future. The new strings of letters keep producing words and even phrases!

Observational Selection At Work

Statisticians call this kind of thing “observational selection.” That means if you are allowed to ignore all the data that add up to nothing, it’s actually easy to come up with apparently amazing coincidences.

An Australian computer scientist named Brendan McKay set out recently to demonstrate that the same thing can be done with any long book.

He applied Drosnin’s observational selection technique to Moby Dick and produced such eerie phrases as “M L King” next to “To be shot by them” and “Princess Di” next to “mortal in the jaws of death.” So by throwing away all the strings that spell nothing, you can just wait until eventually a coincidence comes along. That’s the error of observational selection.

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