Rehabilitation of the Prophets of Doom

Non comprare qualsiasi banane verdi.
—Dante (att.)

In cartoons and on the city streets, they’re bearded and robed old men with fire in their eyes, carrying signs urging repentance because the end of the world is nigh. Asked to free-associate on the word “prophet,” many of us will think of these poor deluded souls before recalling that prophesy was once—millennia ago—a highly esteemed and important calling. In a world without databases, computer models, and trend-lines, communities relied on wise elders to sense and warn of long-term dangers. These visionaries foretold the consequences of environmental pressures, bad leadership, and profligate social behavior. Unlike seers, who could only discern the will of the gods by studying bird entrails or rodent droppings, prophets had a direct line to the gods and spoke with moral authority, urging the people and their leaders, when necessary, to avert catastrophe by changing course.

The “false prophets” were, generally speaking, those whose prophesies missed the mark. Evil motives were sometimes imputed to them and, indeed, many misused the public’s trust to mislead and manipulate.

Little has changed, except that (1) a single bone-headed leadership decision can now destroy all life on earth, and (2) our world now has databases, computer models, and trend-lines. There are still prophets among us, more abundantly than ever, though we  seldom recognize them as such. Their professional titles are different now—preacher, theologian, climatologist, earth scientist, economist, political commentator. They publish in the New York Times, they write books and appear on talk-shows, and they preach on the airwaves. They warn of civilizational collapse, ecological crisis, economic meltdown, or God’s wrath (as wrought through hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes) if we refuse to repent, change our economic policies, or end our addiction to fossil fuels. Many of them are false prophets, shills for false gods.

Meanwhile, what has not changed is our species’ DNA. We are genetically no different than our Bronze Age ancestors, and our amygdalas—those small primitive almond-shaped brain modules that manage our four F’s (fight, flight, feeding, and making love) still rule. Even more worrisome is that we seem no less susceptible to cognitive biases than were our ancestors. As Albert Einstein remarked, “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”

However, we—the modern prophets’ public—have two significant advantages over our ancestors in the task of evaluating prophesy. We have a vastly enhanced collective memory, and we have statistics. Our exponentially greater access to information and to the power of information processing is key, and we know—or should know—that a nearly certain predictor of prophetic failure is the prophet’s inability or refusal to tap into the vast and unsurpassed resources of modernity.

Harold Camping

Prophets of imminent rapture have a continuous history going back to the Christian gospels. They have missed the mark with such tiresome regularity and predictability that they’re now highly esteemed mostly by late-night comedians. Their methods are totally uninformed by either science, reason, or accurate information, because they rely solely on a book that was written before any of these goods became widely available.

Other false prophets: Those who are hired by think-tanks to confuse or misinform the public about the dangers of tobacco, environmental pollutants, and climate-change. They abuse science and distort its findings, and their fraudulent prophesies are motivated not by idealism but by greed. Dante’s Inferno has a choice of two circles for them—the fourth circle for greed and the eighth for fraud. May they take their pick and roast without reprieve.

And then there are the failed prophets who, despite their best intentions, just “get it wrong.” They have neither the skill, the fortitude, nor the vision to make the right calls. You can provide your own examples. May they achieve renown in some other pursuit.

Finally, there are the ones who do consistently “get it right,” or who, though still unproven, have offered strong scientific evidence of trends. Though chance may factor into their successes, we honor them nevertheless for their courage, their persistence, and their dedication to scientific inquiry, species survival, and human flourishing.

My picks:

Economics: Paul Krugman, Antonio Damasio, Robert Reich

Climate Science: James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Al Gore, David Suzuki

Political Commentary: Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Bill Moyers, Keith Olbermann

Culture: James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan

Political Satire: Bill Maher (sometimes), Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert

Religion: (Get back to me on this.)


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