How to be a Prophet for Fun and Profit:
You Can Be the Next Nostradamus in Ten Simple Steps
So you want to be a prophet. It doesn't matter what system of divination you choose, whether astrology, crystal-gazing, Tarot cards, tea leaves, the flight of birds, or the entrails of animals, because those are all just props. The technique is the same for all of them:
- Make Open-Ended Predictions: An "open-ended" prediction is one that has no specific date by which it must be fulfilled, so it can never be falsified. This is a "heads you win, tails you don't lose" situation. If the prediction happens to come true, you win! If it hasn't so far come true, then you haven't lost, because it could always still come true.
Example: Most of Nostradamus' predictions have no specific dates attached to them, so they have all the time in the world to come true1.
A variation of this technique is to predict an event so far in the future that you'll be dead by the time it fails. While not strictly open-ended, you won't suffer any consequences if the prediction doesn't come true. One of the rare predictions of Nostradamus to have a specific date was that a "great King of terror" would come from the sky in July of 1999 to re-animate the King of the Mongols2, whatever that means. This didn't happen as far as I noticed at the time, but by then Nostradamus had been dead for over four centuries. The failed prediction doesn't seem to have had much of a negative effect on his reputation.
The now largely-forgotten "sleeping prophet" Edgar Cayce made many specific predictions of calamitous "earth changes", including that much of California would be underwater by the end of last century. Fortunately for Cayce, he didn't live to see his reputation under water, having died in 19453.
- Be Vague4: Vague language is imprecise language. If you avoid precise predictions you will never be wrong. Moreover, a vague prediction is like an inkblot in which different people see different things based on what they want or expect to see. For example, if you want to be a "psychic" detective, and you're trying to help find a missing person, predict that the person will be found near a body of water. Given the vagueness of the word "near", almost everywhere is "near" a body of water.
Example: Nostradamus is the great prophet of vagueness. Even his greatest admirers admit the obscurity of his language and make excuses for it. For instance, the author of The Encyclopedia of Prophecy writes: "These predictions…are couched in an enigmatic, always vague, and sometimes incomprehensible language.5"
- Be Ambiguous6: Language is ambiguous when it has more than one meaning. If possible, word your predictions in such an ambiguous way that they will turn out to be correct no matter what happens.
Example: That would-be prophets use ambiguity to have it both ways has been well-known for centuries. For instance, Shakespeare's Macbeth says of the witches: "…[T]hese juggling fiends…palter with us in a double sense, That keep the word of promise to our ear And break it to our hope.7" Specifically, the witches conjure up an apparition that tells him:
Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.8
Macbeth learns later that his foe Macduff "was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripped"9, that is, delivered by Caesarian section and, therefore, never "born" in a literal sense.
One of the most famous prophecies was that supposedly made by the Oracle of Delphi to King Croesus of Lydia who wanted to know whether he should make war with Persia. According to the historian Herodotus10, the oracle predicted that if Croesus attacked Persia a mighty empire would fall. Croesus took this to mean that the empire in question would be Persia and attacked, but his own empire fell. Given its ambiguity, no matter which side won the ensuing war, the oracle's prediction would come true.
The Delphic oracle's prediction is an example of a particular type of ambiguity, namely, amphiboly, or grammatical ambiguity. Cicero, in his book On Divination, writes of another oracular announcement:
…[N]obody believes Ennius when he says that Apollo's oracle gave the following response to Pyrrhus: "O son of Aeacus, my prediction is That you the Roman army will defeat." …Pyrrhus would have had sense enough to see that the equivocal line―“You the Roman army will defeat”―was no more favourable to him than to the Romans.11
A lesser-known play of Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, provides an additional example of an amphibolous prophecy. In that play, another witch conjures up another spirit, asking: "First of the King: what shall of him become?" The spirit answers: "The Duke yet lives that Henry shall depose…."12 Grammatically, the prediction is ambiguous between:
- A living Duke shall depose King Henry.
- King Henry shall depose a living Duke.
So, either way a conflict between the King and the Duke came out, the prophecy could be said to have come true.
- Be General: Make your predictions highly general. Generality is similar to, but not the same thing, as vagueness. A general prediction is one that may seem specific, but will be made true by many situations.
Example: ABC News' Primetime program reported on a so-called psychic detective named Carla Baron, who claimed to help the police find missing persons:
In [one] case, Baron…said she was looking for some railroad tracks, water and "some sort of generator." At one point, she said she got a painful "vision" with some vital clues. "I saw rocks on the bank," she said. "There is going to be a part of the bank, that has rocks…bigger stones…. It's not just water, right at the bank, right at trees."13
How many places are "near" railroad tracks, water, trees, and rocks? The most specific thing in this description is the generator, but would the generator in a car count? If so, then any place within a city or close to a road would be near a generator.
- Fire the Blunderbuss14: Make many predictions. Like shot from a shotgun, most may miss the target, but a few will hit the bull's-eye. The more predictions you make, the more likely you'll have such lucky hits. Ideally, to hide the blunderbuss technique, don't put all your prophecies in one basket: publish or broadcast them in many places. Then, it's unlikely that anyone will notice just how many you make.
- Nostradamus' famous book of prophecy consists of almost a thousand prophetic poems. Given the vagueness, generality, and open-endedness of most of them, it would be surprising if there weren't at least a few lucky hits. Nostradamus' reputation as a prophet is based entirely on only a handful of supposedly correct predictions.
- Another famous example is Jeane Dixon who made hundreds if not thousands of predictions, many of which were confided to various friends and acquaintances15. Most of Dixon's published predictions were wrong, but her reputation as a prophet rests mostly on one lucky hit: the assassination of President Kennedy. As we shall see later, even this prophecy does not live up to its billing.
- Accentuate the Positive & Eliminate the Negative16: When you get a lucky hit from the previous technique, remind everyone of the correct prediction and ignore the many misses. People have selective memories, especially if you refresh their memories of your successes and ignore your failures. Add a lucky hit to people's selective memories and you'll get the usual reaction: "How could he (or she) have known that?"
Example: As mentioned in the previous point, Jeane Dixon's reputation rests mainly on her alleged prediction of JFK's assassination. However, what is left out of this story is that she never predicted specifically that John F. Kennedy would die, or that he would be assassinated. Rather, the prediction, made in 1956, was that an unnamed Democrat president, elected in 1960, would be assassinated or otherwise die in office, not necessarily in his first term. Moreover, in 1960, she predicted that Kennedy would lose the election17! So, in fact, she did not predict the assassination of JFK, but the death in office of some other Democrat president elected in 1960.
In addition, Dixon made many false predictions that are usually ignored. For instance, here is a passage from a talk she gave in 1974:
In 1976, two doctors will get the American Medical Association to accept a cure for cancer―a cure that is in existence now. In 1978, you will see a different Spiro Agnew back on his way up again. … We're going to have one of the biggest civil wars you ever could imagine. … This conflict will begin in 1978. By the end of the 1970s, not only sources of fuel and energy, but also transportation and communication companies will be under government control. The last to be nationalized will be the steel industry.18
Dixon saw through a glass, very, very darkly.
- Coincidence is Your Friend: Coincidences are more common than most people appreciate. By firing the blunderbuss, then accentuating the lucky hits and eliminating the more numerous misses, you can make coincidence work for you. If a coincidence occurs, whatever you do, don't shrug it off. Smile knowingly and try to look humble. Give the credit to God, fate, the Universe, or whatever mumbo-jumbo you like to invoke.
Example: We've already seen how Jeane Dixon built her career on one lucky hit. Here's a former astrologer describing how she became known as a "psychic":
…I took my [Tarot] cards to my part-time job and read them for a colleague during the break. She picked the card for pregnancy, which we laughed about, because she wanted her tubes tied. A week later she said, "Guess what the doctor told me this morning?" She was pregnant, and I was officially psychic.19
Be careful with coincidences, though: if you're not, you may start to believe in your own "powers", and believing your own blarney is the worst mistake you can make.
- Play the Field: If you want to predict an event that has only two or a few likely outcomes, such as an election, predict each outcome to different audiences. Then, after the event has occurred, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negatives by pointing out your correct prediction while ignoring your incorrect ones. To get away with this, you've got to be pretty sure that the false prediction won't accidentally show up and embarrass you. One way to do this is to make the predictions to individual people; then, after the event has occurred, you call upon the person to whom you made the correct prediction as a witness.
Example: As mentioned above, Jeane Dixon made many predictions to friends, acquaintances, and people she had just met. Here's an example of Dixon contradicting herself:
As pastor of St. Paul's parish in Memphis [Father Edward Cleary] had been led to believe that [Ernest & Margaret Medders] would give him $3 million to pay off the parish debt. He never saw a cent of it. Who told him they'd give him the money? He says that Jeane Dixon did. And he believes that this is a case where Mrs. Dixon's psychic powers failed. …
[Denis Brian:] I understand from Frank Medders [Ernest & Margaret's son] that when he went to Mrs. Dixon, she predicted that the money was going to dry up suddenly.
Father Cleary: Baloney! If so, Frank was the only one that had that information.
She told him the money would dry up like a spring.
Father Cleary: … Jeane gave a talk to about 10,000 people in Harrisburg, Mississippi, saying that this would happen [the gift of $3 million]20. She was talking about St. Paul's parish. …
But just suppose Frank is right and that she did predict to him that the money was going to stop like a spring drying up…21
Father Cleary: I would say if she did say that, then she was playing the field. She would tell one person that there would be a great deal of money; she'd tell another there'd be some; she'd tell another there'd be none; she'd tell another it would be drying up. …
Then what would be your best guess about what actually happened when Frank Medders says Jeane Dixon told him their money would dry up…? Do you think he's not remembering accurately?
Father Cleary: I would say that if she did say that―I wouldn't say she didn't―if she did say that, she definitely said the opposite to me. She said it was there. She said I was going to get three million of it.22
- Let People Help You: Realize that most people want you to succeed; they want to believe in prophets, psychics, and miracles. This is the only explanation for the fact that such poor prognosticators as Nostradamus and Jeane Dixon were so successful. This is also why you should make your predictions general, open-ended, vague, and ambiguous, as it makes it easy for people to read into them whatever they want to believe.
Example: Back to our former "psychic":
Some repeat customers claimed I'd made very specific predictions, of a kind I never made. It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation―I would weave a story and, later, the customer's memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she'd had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it. The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend's imagination had done all the work.20
So, just sit back, smile knowingly, and take the credit.
- Always Bet on a Sure Thing: Predict common events that few people realize are common.
Example: People seem to like prophecies of natural disasters, so predict that this month there will be a major earthquake. What most people don't know is that a "major" quake―that is, an earthquake of magnitude 7 or higher―occurs about once every month somewhere23. As long as you're not too specific about the time or the place, you can't go wrong predicting an earthquake.
I predict that if you follow these ten simple rules, you will become a successful prophet, and that's a sure thing!
- Nostradamus, The Prophecies (1555).
- Nostradamus, X-72.
- James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1993), under "Cayce".
- This rule corresponds to part of the second rule in: James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus (1990), pp. 32-34.
- Omar V. Garrison, The Encyclopedia of Prophecy (1978), under "Nostradamus".
- This rule corresponds to part of the second rule in: Randi, 1990, pp. 32-34.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.viii, 23-26.
- Macbeth, IV.i, 91-93.
- V.vii, 19-20.
- Herodotus, Histories, I.53.
- Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Divination, II.116.
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, I.iv, 29-31.
- "Help From the Other Side: To Find Missing College Student, 'Psychic Detective' Enlisted", ABC News, 4/15/2004.
- This rule corresponds to the first half of the first rule in: Randi, 1990, pp. 31-32.
- See: Denis Brian, Jeane Dixon: The Witnesses (1976).
- This rule corresponds to the second half of the first rule in: Randi, 1990, pp. 31-32.
- Ian & David of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, "Did psychic Jeane Dixon predict JFK’s assassination?", The Straight Dope, 2/2/2000.
- Brian, pp. 187-188; paragraphing suppressed.
- Felicity Carter, "I was an astrologer―here's how it really works, and why I had to stop", The Guardian, 11/7/2019.
- Brian's brackets.
- Brian's ellipsis.
- Brian, pp. 91, 94, 97, 101.
- Felicity Carter, "How Often Do Earthquakes Occur?", Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, accessed: 5/24/2022.
Posted: 5/24/2022; Revised: 6/26/2022.