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Scientific American

Codified Claptrap

published June 2003 | Comments Off
The Bible Code is numerological nonsense masquerading as science
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In the epilogue of In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred, Lord Tennyson captured the essence of the quest for a single unifying principle and purpose in nature: “One God, one law, one element,/And one far-off divine event,/To which the whole creation moves.”

The noble dream of finding teleological succor in the march of time has become big business, as demonstrated by works from Hal Lindsey’s 1970s blockbuster The Late Great Planet Earth to today’s Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (Both are said to have sold in the tens of millions.) And if you can sprinkle your homiletics with scientistic jargon, so much the better. The latest and most egregious example of the (mis)use of science in the (dis)service of religion is Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code II, enjoying a lucrative ride on the New York Times best-seller list, as did the 1997 original.

According to proponents of the Bible Code — itself a subset of the genre of biblical numerology and Kabbalistic mysticism popular since the Middle Ages — the Hebrew Pentateuch can be decoded through an equidistant-letter-sequencing software program. The idea is to take every nth letter, where n equals whatever number you wish: 7, 19, 3,027. Print out that string of letters in a block of type, then search left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and diagonally in any direction for any interesting patterns. Seek and ye shall find.

Predictably, in 1997 Drosnin “discovered” such current events as Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Benjamin Netanyahu’s election, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s collision with Jupiter, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, and, of course, the end of the world in 2000. Because the world did not end and current events dated his first book, Drosnin continued the search and learned—lo and behold — that the Bible predicted the Bill and Monica tryst, the Bush-Gore election debacle and, of course, the World Trade Center cataclysm.

Just like the prophecies of soothsayers past and present, all such predictions are actually postdictions (note that not one psychic or astrologer forewarned us about 9/11). To be tested scientifically, Bible codes would need to predict events before they happen. They won’t, because they can’t — as Danish physicist Niels Bohr averred, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. Instead, in 1997 Drosnin proposed this test of his thesis: “When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I’ll believe them.”

Australian mathematician Brendan McKay did just that, locating no fewer than nine political assassinations secreted in the great novel, along with additional discoveries in War and Peace and other tomes (see cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/moby.html). American physicist David E. Thomas predicted the Chicago Bulls’s NBA championship in 1998 from his code search of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. He also recently unearthed “the Bible code is a silly, dumb, fake, false, evil, nasty, dismal fraud and snake-oil hoax” from Bible Code II (see www.nmsr.org/biblecod.htm).

If there is an encrypted message in all this numerological poppycock it is this: there is a deep connection between how the mind works and how we perceive the world works. We are pattern-seeking animals, the descendants of hominids who were especially dexterous at making causal links between events in nature. The associations were real often enough that the ability became engrained in our neural architecture. Unfortunately, the belief engine sputters occasionally, identifying false patterns as real. The habit of faltering may not be enough to prevent you from passing on your genes for detecting false positives to the next generation, but it does create superstitious and magical thinking. This process is coupled to the law of large numbers that accompanies our complex world, where, as it is said, million-to-one odds happen eight times a day in New York City.

Given our propensity to look for patterns in a superfluity of data, is it any wonder that so many are taken in by such codified claptrap? The problem is pervasive and a permanent part of our cognitive machinery. The solution is science, our preeminent pattern-discriminating method and our best hope for detecting a genuine signal within the noise of nature’s cacophony.

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