The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Doomsday Comes to the Movies

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2009

A recent article by Ben Radford provides an excellent skeptical analysis of a doomsday pseudoscience being popularized in the new movie “Knowing”, which stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who decodes a string of numbers that supposedly predicted past disasters and also predicts an upcoming apocalypse.

knowing

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for the movie which pretty clearly lays out the plot and the pseudoscience behind it…

The skeptic shown briefly in the trailer (the guy who tells Cage’s character to “just step back a moment”) hits it dead on – given enough random data, pretty much anyone can find pretty much any pattern for which they are looking. As Ben Radford goes on to elaborate in the article…

Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled “The Bible Code,” in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics demonstrating that the “meanings” he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.

Similar “hidden codes” were found in other books such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” demonstrating that any sizeable text can produce such codes if you look long enough.

In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia.

The main problem with the pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists who cater to this style of doomsday thinking is common among the woo crowd… they count the hits & ignore the misses, and in order to count the “hits” as true hits, they have to massage and arrange the data!

So, while I find Nicolas Cage to be a good actor and enjoy a good disaster flick, I anticipate an unfortunate amount of woo-related activity due to this movie, the recent economic downturn, and prophecies of impending world doom related to the year 2012. All of this put together makes for a nice mix of irrational fear out of essentially nothing. And while fantasy does make good movies, it makes lousy real life.

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