What About False Prophets (and Kooks)?

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A prophet is someone who has the gift of recognizing how current behaviors, beliefs, and trends will bring calamity in the future. Prophets tell us what not to do, and predict the dire consequences that will befall us if we don’t listen.

And we don’t listen.

Yesterday, we looked at three reasons people don’t listen:

  • The Semmelweis Reflex, which says people reject information that contradicts longstanding beliefs.
  • The Power of the Status Quo, which says people believe the future will always be a linear progression of the recent past.
  • The Time Horizon, which says that if the calamity doesn’t occur close enough to the time of the warning, people begin to dismiss warnings in general.

Now, we’ll add a fourth problem to the mix: false prophets and kooks.

False Prophets

False prophets are shysters who hope to gain by giving false warnings. False prophets, like the classical Levantine prophets, speak about the present. Like true prophets, they warn us that bad things will happen if we don’t listen. But that’s where their similarity to true prophets ends.

True prophets, unlike false prophets, do not seek personal gain. True prophets hope simply to avoid being caught up in the calamity. True prophets know that the calamity will hurt them just as much as it hurts everyone else. So true prophets have a motive, too. But they probably won’t gain a lot if people listen and repent.

False prophets believe believe that the evasive actions taken to avoid the calamity they predict will somehow benefit them personally.

Repent, by the way, means to change your ways. Chance your mind and actions as a result of knowledge. It doesn’t mean to confess your sins, though confession and remorse of past sins is a natural stage in the repentance process.

The global warming prophets in academia may fall into this category. Their funding usually depends on evermore spectacular predictions. Climate prophets stand gain now and in the future from evasive action.

Kooks

Kooks are easier to spot because they’re out of touch with the present. They might be false prophets, but probably not. They warn of bad things if we don’t listen, but their description of the current state is so out of touch with reality that we’d be foolish to listen.

True Prophets

True prophets, unlike false prophets and kooks, usually suffer in the present for warning us. True prophets are called “naysayers” and “Debbie Downers” and pessimists. They are accused of spreading hate and fear. They are often labeled xenophobes, misogynists, or racists.

Past true prophets were treated no better. As Nassim Taleb points out in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder:

Jesus, mentioning the fate of Elijah (who warned against Baal, then ironically had to go find solace in Sidon, where Baal was worshipped), announced that no one becomes a prophet in his own land. And the prophetic mission was not necessarily voluntary. Consider Jeremiah’s life, laden with jeremiads (lamentations), as his unpleasant warnings about destruction and captivity (and their causes) did not make him particularly popular and he was the personification of the notion of “shoot the messenger” and the expression _veritas odium parit_—truth brings hatred. Jeremiah was beaten, punished, persecuted, and the victim of numerous plots, which involved his own brothers. Apocryphal and imaginative accounts even have him stoned to death in Egypt.

Pagan prophets were treated no better:

Further north of the Semites, in the Greek tradition, we find the same focus on messages, warnings about the present, and the same punishment inflicted on those able to understand things others don’t. For example, Cassandra gets the gift of prophecy, along with the curse of not being believed, when the temple snakes cleaned her ears so she could hear some special messages. Tiresias was made blind and transformed into a woman for revealing the secrets of the gods—but, as a consolation, Athena licked his ears so he could understand secrets in the songs of birds.

True prophets usually suffer in the present and gain little from evasive action, except for avoiding the consequences that will befall the entire society if people don’t listen.

The Fourth Possibility: Neither True nor False nor Kook

There is, of course, the fourth possibility: simply being wrong.

Most “prophecies” fall into this category. Well-meaning people of sound minds and with good grasps on the present predict some outcome that never arrives. They simply misread the tea leaves. Or they don’t see all the confounding variables that could come into play.

Most predictions for the new year fall into this category. These predictions are often less warning than suggestion. Or they involve sequences of events that no one has the power to stop or alter.

And these non-prophecies are more likely to describe positive events as calamities. “You will find your soul-mate.” “You will get your dream job.” “You will reconcile with your estranged sister.”

These are not prophecies at all. They are mere predictions. They don’t warn us to repent, to change our ways, or to prepare for bad events if people don’t listen. Instead, they’re simple estimations that assume that the future will be a linear progression of the recent past. Or they apply some statistic to a specific case and forecast a possible outcome. In truth, Roger Boisjoly’s warning about the O-rings on the space shuttle was not so much a prophecy as a statistical prediction. But Boisjoly’s warning lacked a key detail that people with power needed to connect all the dots. So, he was treated like a prophet.

True prophecy involves a vision of the calamity that the prophet cannot fully explain. Prophets can’t connect the pieces. Prophets can’t map out a perfectly logical sequence of events to arrive at some certainty in the future. Instead, true prophets see the finished puzzle and tell us what it reveals. And what we must do now to prevent it.

Prophecy Is a Gift

We end with a simple assertion that will be unpacked in a later post: prophecy is a gift.

Not all prophets are born prophets. Not all people have the gift of prophecy. You can’t major in prophecy in college. But you can attune yourself to the messages that prophets hear more clearly and visually than most.

Prepare.

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