Features Australia

New prophets of doom

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

Picture a scene. A cowed audience is gathered to listen to a wise man.  He tells them that he has seen a dire future for them. A collective intake of breath can be heard. There is silence.  A listener summons the courage to stand and ask: what can we do? The wise man replies: I have seen the future and we will be ruined.

This is not an historical sketch. The wise man is not a soothsayer or mystic, but a modern scientist. The audience is not an ancient tribe, but highly educated contemporaries of ours. The apocalyptic prophecy, which we associate with the pre-modern world, is back in vogue.

Prophecies are categorical statements about a given future event. No ifs, no buts, no qualifications. A prophet will claim to have had a vision of the event in question, whether it be a famine, war or destruction of the society in which they live. This is expressed as a certainty, not a theory or hypothesis, not a possibility or even a probability. The prophet’s audience has a simple choice. They either believe or reject said prediction. There is no scope for questioning, debate or doubt.

We associate prophecies with primitive societies. With no alternative source of learning or knowledge to draw on, pre-modern man had little choice but to rely on soothsayers and visions. This satisfied a basic psychological need to know the future. The Enlightenment, as we know, marked a victory of rationality and empiricism over mysticism and visions.

This was a liberation. A democratisation of knowledge if you like. What was formerly vouchsafed only to the prophet was now accessible to any educated person. What Martin Luther achieved for Christianity was accomplished in all areas of learning. But while knowledge was made more accessible, its scope was necessarily narrowed. If we were to be guided by fact and rationality, there would be no place (or at least a less uncritical reception) for visions of the future.

These changes were celebrated by some, but opposed by others. Critics of the Enlightenment, including those in the Romantic movement, decried (what they regarded as) its sterility and superficiality. For them, knowledge came from passion and inspiration, not dry learning and scholarship. Rationality was not the answer, but a set of blinkers.

It seems to me that prophets have not disappeared, only changed their guise.  They now present themselves as scientists or experts. Their visions are not inspired, but stem, they tell us, from research. They may have an apocalyptic ring, but are expressed in the dry language of academe.

We saw this in the early 1970s with the Club of Rome: a group of scientists confidently predicting the imminent exhaustion of oil and other natural resources in a matter of decades. Experts regularly predict the decline of the US. In the ‘50s, America was going to be eclipsed by the Soviet Union, a few decades later Japan and now, of course, China. And in the wake of the global financial crisis, economists who should have known better proclaimed the end of capitalism.

The future, of course, cannot be foreseen, but each of these prophecies has been uncritically believed by many. Why do we let our defences down? If a priest or politician or a neighbour claimed to know the future, we would immediately condemn them as cranks. But if an expert or scientist, wearing the proverbial white coat, does the same thing, we meekly accept it.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that we are unable to distinguish between legitimate and pseudo science. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff when regarding the work of scientists? Are we qualified to judge them at all?

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, offered a simple test for us to apply. He argued that for a statement to be regarded as scientific, it must be potentially falsifiable. In other words, it must be subjected to, or be capable of being subjected to, the test of evidence. Popper rightly dismissed any other kind of statement as an assertion or profession of belief. He demanded one thing from any scientist: tell us, in precise terms, what has to happen for your theory to be disproven.

But this is exactly the test prophets rarely set for themselves. Unlike genuine scientists, they do not entertain the possibility of being wrong. If the facts seem to contradict their story, they look for a new set of facts or recast their predictions to make them bullet proof. This can be done in a number of ways. The imminent cataclysmic event can be rescheduled (this was not possible with Y2K and Brexit).  Or the prophecy can be broadened to include events which will happen in any case. The economist who foresees a turn of the business cycle is a prime example of this. Cycles vary in size and duration, but are part and parcel of the market system.

Whereas a scientist is humble about the endless complexity, variability and indeed mystery of the world he encounters, for the prophet these riddles have been solved (typically by crude extrapolation from current trends or application of a simplistic model). He is only in awe of his own brilliance.

While many will rightly laugh off modern prophecies, I think we should take this phenomenon seriously.

Prophecies, once they gain a foothold with certain groups (a process more akin to a wildfire spreading than anything else), quickly become orthodoxies.  Believers become emotionally attached to them, reacting angrily against anyone who questions them. Any shade of grey in opinion must disappear. As a consequence, rational public discussion of their merits becomes impossible.

The most attractive prophecies offer apocalyptic visions, preying on and in turn feeding popular anxieties. Capitalism is only one crisis away from collapse. Our natural resources are at the point of exhaustion. Our computers are close to eliminating most of our jobs. Intellectuals are drawn to such negativity, but tend to pick up and drop particular issues with the prevailing fashion.

As in primitive societies, prophecies are manipulated by those seeking power. If history’s destination is clear, we have no choice but to bow to this outcome, we are told. This is a guaranteed way to railroad public opinion and gain support for proposals, which if freed of this prophetic sanction, would be questioned.

So how do we arm ourselves against prophecies? The best protection is a simple one. Remind yourself, whenever you see one trotted out, that the future is vouchsafed to no one: neither soothsayer nor scientist. An uncertain world is an uncomfortable prospect, but if the future were predetermined, freedom of both thought and action would be an illusion.

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