Why We Don't Believe Prophets

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Q: What was the epitaph on the hypochondriac’s tombstone?

A: “I told you I was sick!”

I happened to see a Facebook post from the George Gilder today. The post announced why Gilder is coming out of retirement at age 79.

(I rarely look at Facebook, but there’s flooding in my town today. Facebook is the best source for reports from the ground.)

I followed George Gilder closely for many years back in the mid-1990s. He became a household name, along with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House.

Gilder is described as a technology futurist. I would call him a prophet. He has also been a speechwriter for Republicans, including Richard Nixon and George Romney.

So, what’s dragging Mr. Gilder out of retirement?

Something big. But that’s not the point of this post.

When you read the Bible or secular history, you see a repeated pattern: every calamity was prophesied, and every prophecy was ignored.

More accurately, prophecies were ignored by the people who could actually do something about them. For example, take the Challenger disaster.

This post is about why we ignore prophets and the consequences of sticking the plan.

What is a Prophet?

Most people think of a prophet as soothsayer who can “see” the future. They also think people can’t see the future, therefore, prophets are nuts.

But Nassim Taleb has a more useful definition of a prophet. From Anti-Frigale: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb:

The classical role of the prophet, at least in the Levantine sense, is not to look into the future but to talk about the present. He tells people what to do, or, rather, in my opinion, the more robust what not to do. In the Near Eastern monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the major role of the prophets is the protection of monotheism from its idolatrous and pagan enemies that may bring calamities on the straying population. The prophet is someone who is in communication with the unique God, or at least can read his mind—and, what is key, issues warnings to His subjects.

More succinctly, Taleb says:

By issuing warnings based on vulnerability—that is, subtractive prophecy—we are closer to the original role of the prophet: to warn, not necessarily to predict, and to predict calamities if people don’t listen.

Let’s use the classical Levantine idea of a prophet: one who warns of calamities if people don’t listen.

We Ignore Prophets Until It’s Too Late

Prophecies aren’t always supernatural. Sometimes, they’re based on hard data. Sometimes, they’re based on gut feelings in a person who recognizes an emerging pattern.

Roger Boisjoly was a NASA engineer, and a good one. He warned his superiors that the O-rings on the Space Shuttle were defective, and that launching when the temperature was below about 60 degrees posed a serious risk.

(Learn about a new book on taking risks like a spy.)

Roger’s chart explaining his prophetic conclusion did a poor job of making the risk visible to his superiors. Roger could see the missing data in his head, but others could not. Impressed with Roger’s diligence but doubting his conclusions, NASA executives gave the okay to launch.

We know what happened.

(Read more about Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster.)

In the post mortem, everyone agreed that Roger’s prophecy was completely accurate. His data showed a high probability that an O-ring would fail, based on the expected temperature at launch time. Hindsight is 2020.

So, why didn’t we listen?

There are three reasons:

  1. The Semmelweis Reflex
  2. The Power of the Status Quo
  3. The Time Horizon

The Semmelweis Reflex

Ignez Semmelweis was a physician. In 1847, he was destroy, professionally and personally, by the medical establishment of his day and time. Semmelweis was destroyed because he proposed an unorthodox (at the time) approach to stopping an epidemic of infant deaths.

From Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business Model by Jim Benson:

Semmelweis figured out that if medical staff simply washed their hands with a disinfectant of chlorinated lime after performing an autopsy, the rate of disease dropped dramatically. His peers (other doctors) found his theory laughable – even repugnant. His theories could not possibly explain all the cases of childbed fever -— after all, most doctors did not directly handle cadavers. Discredited and, worse yet, unable to prove his theory correct and knowing that babies were continuing to die, Semmelweis fell into a deep depression and was committed to an institution where he later died.

We know, of course, that Semmelweis was almost right. He was right that washing hands would reduce the number of new cases of childbed fever. He was wrong about the cadavers. The hospital staff was carrying the disease from one child to another, not just from cadavers to children. But, had he recommended the washing of hands between each patient visit, it’s likely his peers’ reactions would have been the same: shame and ridicule.

Benson, a professional planner of huge projects, has a sobering conclusion that helps explain why we ignore prophets. From Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business Model by Jim Benson:

Throughout my career, I’ve watched this play out while building freeways (what do we need ramp metering for!?), planning rail systems (why not just drive?!), contracting software projects (what do you mean you can’t say exactly what the software will look like?!), and introducing new process ideas (creating tests first is a waste of time!). People require an extremely high level of proof to offset a strongly held belief. And yes, sometimes those people were me.

We don’t listen to prophets because we’ve spent our lifetimes convincing ourselves that the future will be linear, gentle progression of the recent past. And we consider disruptions to the linear progression “anomalies” then can never happen again. So we ignore prophets.

The Power of the Status Quo

The kind of status quo here is the status quo of power, wealth, or status. It’s not status quo that says, “but this is the way we’ve always done it.” It’s the status quo that thinks, “but if I do what the prophet says, I’ll lose my place.”

In the Old Testament, the people seduced by the power of the status quo were usually kings. Today, they’re CEOs, pop stars, athletes, politicians, and bureaucrats—people on a pedestal they’d rather not fall from.

They’re also the people prophets warn.

Sure, prophets warn ordinary people, too. Ordinary people try to listen. Many of them try to heed the prophet’s warnings. But they’re limited in how they can respond.

Ordinary people respond to a prophet’s warnings by preparing for the calamity rather than trying to prevent it. That’s because ordinary people have wisdom. The people know that the powerful won’t avoid the calamity because avoiding the calamity might diminish their power.

We see a growing number of “preppers” because of the status quo. Preppers are people who pay attention to many prophets. Preppers know that many of the prophets are wrong or crazy. But, they also know practical math. And practical math tells that one prophet might be right.

If one prophet is right, no one cares that 99 were wrong. The calamity happens.

A number of prophets warned of the financial collapse of 2007-2009. They were right. The people in power—the people who could have averted the collapse—ignored them. Had the people with the power (and the money) to avert the financial collapse heeded the prophets’ warnings, the people with the power (and the money) would have lost their power, their money, and their credibility. You see, you can’t prove that your evasive action prevented a calamity. You can only argue that the calamity would have happened if you hadn’t taken evasive action. But the naysayers, who are usually others who lose power and money because of the evasive action, hate you for it.

The prophets of the financial collapse were dismissed for another reason: because many other prophets had been predicting a financial collapse for many years, but it hadn’t happened.

The Time Horizon

Prophets who speak for God might know when a calamity will strike. Prophets who are expert engineers or scientists might be able to model an approximation of when the conditions will be ripe for calamity to strike. But most prophecies are more ambiguous when it comes to the moment the calamity will strike.

Roger Boisjoly probably didn’t say, “The Challenger will blow up 30 seconds after launch.” He probably said something like: “If you launch 10 shuttles when the atmospheric temperature is below 65 degrees, six of them will experience an o-ring failure and three of them will experience catastrophic failure.”

Roger didn’t know that one of the three-in-ten would be the first one launched under such conditions. I believe in the movie about the disaster, the Boisjoly character was asked directly, “can you say for sure that the Challenger will suffer catastrophic failure?” And he honestly and accurately answered “no.”

When we listen to prophets, we wonder “when will this happen?” We don’t do it consciously all the time, but our brains ask this question. If the prophet doesn’t answer it—or if he says “I can’t guarantee it will happen on the first launch”—our brains generate one of two answers:

  1. The brain supplies its own date and holds the prophet to it.
  2. The brain dismisses the prophet as a pessimistic crank.

(Prophets are often dismissed as pessimists. In business, they get fired for “naysaying” and hurting morale.)

If you fix your own date on the calamity, and the calamity doesn’t happen, you probably become skeptical. You start believing that the calamity will never happen because it’s never happened before.

Time horizons might be the most powerful of the cognitive biases that cause people to ignore a prophet’s warnings.

How to Deal with Prophecies

Every calamity that ever happened happened for a first (or only) time. Before that first (or only) instance of the calamity, prophets warned the people and the powerful. Most people ignored the warning by telling themselves, truthfully, that such a thing had never happened before.

And then they died or suffered miserably in the calamity.

Or not. Maybe they died of tuberculosis or typhoid or old age centuries before the calamity struck.

But the calamity struck, and many people suffered.

Prophecies come true. Not necessarily when we expect them to. But they do. George Gilder predicted the future of technology back when most homes didn’t yet have a computer more powerful than a Texas Instruments pocket calculator. He got some dates wrong, but the technology is pretty much what he said it would be. And the culture has changed as he predicted. For example, Gilder saw 2019 as far back as 1994. In an interview with Religion and Liberty, Gilder said:

Religion is primary. Unless a culture is aspiring toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, and wants the good and the true, really worships God, it readily worships Satan. If we turn away from God, our culture becomes dominated by “Real Crime Stories” and rap music and other spew… When the culture becomes corrupt, then the businesses that serve the culture also become corrupt… Secular culture is in general corrupt, and degraded, and depraved. Because I don’t believe in secular culture, I think parochial schools are the only real schools.

To prove his point, I simply looked at Twitter and found this:

Prophecies come true. Sadly. We didn’t listen to George in 1994.

When it comes to big, massive calamities like the Yellowstone Caldera exploding, the time horizons tend to be very long. The widow of doubt is wide, as is the window of possibility.

But the caldera will explode.

When it comes to smaller calamities, like a software project failing or a business going under, the time horizon is much shorter, but the certainty is the same. Projects fail most of the time, and all businesses eventually fail.

When you hear a prophet’s warning, assume he’s right but that he doesn’t know the hour or the day. Whether it’s in the news or in a meeting at work, assume the calamity will strike.

And, so, prepare.

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