What are some tips fpr countering/engaging with "prediction claims"?

themaxednoob

New Member
I've always been hearing claims (esp. about covid) that states this *insert movie or book* predicted *insert event* and I'm wondering how does someone actually counter or engage with these kind of claims esp. when there is no current debunking of the claim?
 

Rory

Senior Member.
If you're lucky you'll be able to show that they've been faked or dates have been changed or something. But sometimes coincidences happen - a million speculative books are going to hit the mark sooner or later - and I imagine pointing that out probably doesn't get very far.

Got an example or two?
 

Hevach

Senior Member.
The Simpsons is a frequent subject of these kinds of things, to which I always answer that the show has had over 700 episodes over 33 years (holy heck Bart Simpson has been in 4th grade since I was in 1st grade?) and has had at least one "anthology" episode a year (the Treehouse of Horror does several mini-episodes). They've done a lot of situations and they always escalate the stakes for absurd effect so Springfield is frequently the epicenter of national or global crises. There's going to be parallels just by chance.

But there *is* more than chance involved. Certain kinds of crisis are going to follow certain patterns - the specifics might be completely unpredictable, but the broad strokes of events are more predictable and people in the know have written articles about how it's likely to play out, either in general or hypothetical specifics. Writers do research, and those are the kind of things they will read when outlining their own plots. COVID-19 followed a rough pattern that had been researched on various respiratory epi- and pandemics back to the 19th Century, the US invasion of Iraq was the culmination of a decade of US political developments, local toxic waste and nuclear accidents have all too often followed the same pattern. These are all things that writers will look up and read, and it informs their products. Then, as patterns are wont to do, being patterns after all, they repeat themselves again.
 

Mauro

Active Member
I've always been hearing claims (esp. about covid) that states this *insert movie or book* predicted *insert event* and I'm wondering how does someone actually counter or engage with these kind of claims esp. when there is no current debunking of the claim?
With probabilities, even if this can be an argument difficult to make. Someone dreams of an airplane crash and the very next day an airplane crash happens. A prediction? No, it's just a matter of how often people dreams of airplane crashes and how often airplane crashes happen: when by chance these events overlap we have a 'prediction'. The probability of this specific prediction happening is very low of course, but with some billion people dreaming every night there's no wonder it happens. Or: it doesn't matter if the chances to win the jackpot are very low, sooner or later someone will get it.

In the case of The Simpsons another thing may be said: one can make resonable guesses about future events on the base of his current knowledge, and get the prediction right. This only witnesses to his skills in extrapolating from current events to future events, surely not to any supernatural mean (some science fiction writers are expecially famous for having 'foreseen' many non-obvious things, and The Simpsons are gaining their chunk of fame too, kudos to them).
 
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Mendel

Senior Member.
There's another industry involved in predictions, namely horoscopes and fortune telling. Once you look into how these work, "movie" predictions are easy to explain: make several predictions that are a) unspecific and b) likely, and you're eventually going to be right.

Once you've communicated this, you can examine The Simpsons and see that
a) they made several "predictions", but most didn't happen;
b) the epidemic prediction is "unspecific" in that the portrayal on TV deviates from the subsequent reality, with believers picking only the details that match;
c) there have been epidemics before that also loosely match, i.e. an epidemic is "likely".

The rest of it is psychology, i.e. people believe it for the same reasons they believe horoscopes and fortune tellers.
 

Mechanik

Active Member
For purposes of discussion, it’s also important to define what you mean by “prediction”.

I can state that if Trump wins reelection, he will impose a tariff on foreign export of gasses across the US border. Most people refer to those gasses as atmosphere, but we cannot allow this unregulated export.

If Trump then wins reelection and imposes a tariff on liquid natural gas from Canada, did I predict the future? Nonsense! It was a mild attempt at satire. If you are not truly attempting to predict the future, providing rationale for your prediction, then it’s an accident.

A fascinating read is “Forecast 2000” by George Gallup, Jr. published in 1984. It used polling to attempt to predict what the US would look like in the year 2000. It covers everything from nuclear war to overpopulation and is a fun read now that the target date is 20 years past. There are spectacular misses and many more that are STILL problems from almost 40 years ago.

My point is that, unless it’s a stated prediction, it’s not a prediction; it’s only a coincidence. Cartoons don't count as predictions.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
My point is that, unless it’s a stated prediction, it’s not a prediction; it’s only a coincidence.
This is the key. Any large body of work contains tens of thousands of things. Then thousands of events happen. There inevitably will be coincidences. My next column for Skeptical Inquirer covers this topic a little by looking at coincidences from the TV show Jeopardy. If you do the math, then significant-seeming coincidences are inevitable.

Someone recommended the book "The Improbability Principle" - which looks good, but I've not read it.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EGJAYT8/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

A casino is trying to drum up interest by harvesting predictions from the Simpsons, paying someone to watch all the episodes and note down things that look like predictions that have not happened yet, so people can bet on them.
Article:
“During each episode, the professional will be asked to take notes on stand-out storylines to feedback to us and our team of prediction experts. We will then compile the events into a list of future predictions with a probability of each one happening.”

The analyst (if that’s what we are calling it) will clock in a 35-hour workweek with flexible hours. Along with the salary, the gig is also said to come with a weekly free box of doughnuts to help pass the time. All that is asked of you is a laptop or TV, fluency in English, and strong writing skills.


Which might produce some useful data. But statistics are tricky.
 

Mendel

Senior Member.
There's another industry involved in predictions, namely horoscopes and fortune telling. Once you look into how these work, "movie" predictions are easy to explain: make several predictions that are a) unspecific and b) likely, and you're eventually going to be right.
I would amend that: be vague about when your prediction will happen.

I looked at an astrology paper today where astrologists seemed to do ok at predicting depression in people's lives from their computer-generated astrological charts, but the astrologists failed to agree on at what age those depressions would occur.

If the "psychic" tells you, "you lost a loved one", that's going to be a likely hit for most people, as long as you don't ask who or when. Same with the Simpsons' predictions: if they don't say when, it becomes much more likely.
 

JMartJr

Senior Member
All this puts me in mind of a "contest" n National Lampoon to predict the death of Bess Truman... the supposed winner was a nurse in the hospital in Springfield, Missouri, who called them with the winning entry, "About ten minutes from now." Which is to point out that some predictions are easier than others.
 
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