September 11: the Paranormal Aftermath

Sometimes the most successful prophets are the ones that don’t even try

In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and the death of Princess Diana, the world was quickly awash with black humour and very tasteless jokes. But the scale of events in the US on September 11 was such that the reaction has been altogether different. Such humour as there has been has focused on the safer target of Osama bin Laden; the attacks on the World Trade Center, on the other hand, have generated a wave of weirdness, some of it straight-out hoaxes, others apparently attempts to mythologise and make sense of the events.
Nostradamus, always a favourite in times of crisis, was very much to the fore. But, it seems, the great man drew a blank on this one. All the quatrains linked to these attacks and attributed to him are at least partially bogus. Ironically, the most widely distributed (it was mentioned on Holmes, TV3, and in several mainstream newspaper articles) originated in an article written by one Neil Marshall, a student at Brock University in Canada and published on the internet in the 1990s, as a fabricated example to illustrate how easily an important-sounding prophecy can be crafted through the use of abstract imagery. This is how Marshall put it:

“If I make, say, a thousand prophecies that are fairly abstract, for example:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
While the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb

“Well, let us analyse this. For example, what does City of God mean? It could be Mecca, Medina, Rome, Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, or any holy city depending on your religion. What do I mean by thunder – a storm? War? Earthquake? Lots of stuff can be described by thunder. There are a lot of two brothers on this world (I think the number runs among the billions), and “fortress endures”… what? – besiegement, famine, etc? What great leader? How will he succumb? To what?

“Now let the prophecy rest for a few years. Add a couple of thousand more. Eventually, one of them will fit close enough with events that have happened in the future that the prophecy will appear to come true. If you make enough prophecies and are intelligent enough to word them in such a way that they are abstract you become an instant future seer person.”

And now of course, with hindsight, the two brothers are the towers of the World Trade Center, the fortress is the Pentagon, the holy city is New York (why was everyone so happy to accept this one?) and the great leader is George W Bush. The version as distributed recently also has a line tacked on the end, “The third big war will begin when the city is burning”.

Given the internet’s reputation as a spreader of misinformation, it was actually quite hard to find credulous accounts of these mock prophecies on the world wide web. The search engine, HotBot, even went so far as to set up a link labeled “Nostradamus Hoax” at the top of its search results for “Nostradamus” and “World Trade Center”, directing searchers to a site debunking the whole affair. CSICOP have also set up an excellent page,, keeping track of the largely email-spread bogus September 11 material.

One widely distributed photo (two copies were emailed to our address), supposedly from a camera recovered from the WTC wreckage, purports to capture one of the incoming jets in the background of a typical tourist snap: the CSICOP site now has the original airliner image which was digitally inserted into this picture. Other images include satanic faces leering from the smoke of the building – given the human propensity for seeing faces everywhere (eg the Face on Mars) these are easily explained.

And the numerologists have been busy, coming up with a whole bunch of supposedly uncanny occurrences of the number 11 (eg New York City, The Pentagon, and Afghanistan all have 11 letters, the attack occurred on 11/9 — 1+1+9=11, the WTC looks like a giant number 11). Never mind that World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden, to pick two obvious contenders, don’t have 11 letters, the trick with numerology is to run with the hits and ignore the misses.

Another remarkable image (see below) comes from CD cover artwork for the album Party Music by left wing hip-hop band The Coup. It was produced in July, but hastily withdrawn on September 11 before the album hit the market. While it seems spookily prescient at first, it’s worth remembering that the WTC had already been the target of a bombing attempt in 1993, and with the recent huge protests against globalisation, the destruction of the building which most symbolises word trade must have seemed, before it actually happened, an image which would strike a positive chord in some circles. In detail, the correlation between art and reality is not that strong: both explosions occur simultaneously in the artwork, and are the result of high explosives, not aircraft, but we have a tendency to see the parallels and gloss over the discrepancies. It is, of course, this very human characteristic which makes the prophecies of Nostradamus and others so compelling to so many.

Numerology or What Pythagoras Wrought

Numerology, or What Pythagoras Wrought, by Underwood Dudley, Mathematical Association of America, Washington DC, 1997

Here’s a book that might go on the New Age shelves by mistake.

Who’d have thought that a book about numerology could be such fun? Woody Dudley makes it so. He looks at Pythagoras’ original speculations about the mystical powers of numbers, gematria (giving letters numerical values), the number of the Beast, triangular and pyramidal numbers and Pyramid Power, biorhythms, and how modern numerology (properly numeromancy) was virtually invented by Mrs L. Dow Balliett (Josephine, later Sarah Joanna, probably changed to improve its number power) of Atlantic City, New Jersey, about a hundred years ago.

Among the diversions are Shakespeare’s numbers, biblical numbers and rithmomachy, a once-popular board-game, like chess but with numbered pieces whose moves and power depend on not only their own numbers but those of the pieces they are attacking and the distance between them. (He gives enough information that you could make a set and play the game, which looks much more difficult than chess, but would be ideal for senior maths students.)

Another is “number forms” the patterns that perhaps one in 30 males and one in 15 females carry in their heads, on which numbers are consistently arranged, throughout their lives. Such people may think nothing of them and assume that everyone has one.

Two of the book’s useful contributions are the Law of Small Numbers and the Law of Round Numbers: there aren’t enough small numbers or round numbers to meet the many demands made of them. So if you go data-mining for small numbers or rounded-off large numbers and then look for correspondences between them, you’ll find some.

I’m sorry to learn that everybody’s favourite number,

1 + 1
1 + 1
1 + …
= 1.618… or phi,

wasn’t used to design the Parthenon or the Great Pyramid, isn’t generally chosen as the most pleasing proportion for rectangles (1.83 is), doesn’t divide our bodies at the navel (men’s are higher), and apparently wasn’t even called the Golden Section until 1835. It’s still a lovely number to play with, but Dudley shows that many of its mysterious properties also derive from the Law of Small Numbers.

He doesn’t mention our own premier number-cruncher (and muncher, and mixer-upperer), Captain Bruce Cathie, and his invention of “Harmonics” (multiply by 10n, where n is any whole number he pleases) and the grid of great circles he devised/discovered by which UFOs are powered and navigated. Perhaps the puddle is bigger and/or the frog smaller than we imagine.

Dudley never mocks the numerologists, but debunks them with charm and grace and sympathy for their (our) human plight of looking for meaning where there may be none.


Cathie Comments

I just wanted to make a comment on the clipping from the Christchurch Star concerning “nuclear extinction” which appeared on p.9 of the NZ Skeptic periodical. In the clipping, a refutation of this possibility was based on some writings of one Bruce Cathie who is claimed therein to be a mathematician among other things.

That Mr Cathie is read by many around the world cannot be in doubt. The claim that he is a mathematician is an insult to real mathematicians. Mr Cathie is best described in my opinion as a numerologist. I read his book “Harmonic 33” when I was a starry- eyed (but scientifically educated) teenager.

On the basis of what I read, I wrote to the author outlining the defects in his arguments in the early 70’s. The claim concerning the timing of nuclear explosions was among them. I pointed out that nuclear reactors don’t stop and start at particular times and that fission bombs which work on the same basic principles don’t either. I got a reply from his secretary saying he was too busy to answer correspondence. I was disappointed to say the least.

All Mr Cathie’s “predictions” about the French tests were retrospective. I have a firm principle of making those who claim to be able to predict things based on numbers or anything else to front up with a date in advance of a specific prediction. To date, not a single prediction made (and there are precious few) has ever come true.

Other material in that book included photos of mysterious aerials, one of which was instantly recognizable as a quad antenna used by some amateur radio operators. It is too easy for scientifically illiterate people to swallow this stuff and there was quite enough of it to make me gag, even at my tender age back then.

I won’t bore you with a list of examples but the doomsday predictions surrounding the recent appearance of a certain comet have disappeared into nothingness as have those surrounding the planetary conjunction of which Bernard Howard spoke in the same edition of NZ Skeptic. I have no hesitation in claiming that Bruce Cathie is a charlatan whose books should be left sitting on the shelf.

Malcolm Watts, Wellington

The World Will End Last Week

IT IS WELL, at the start of a discussion, to declare an interest. So, I begin by admitting that my fascination with the year 2000 was aroused nearly 70 years ago. Like many mechanically-minded lads of the 20s and 30s, I was a keen reader of “The Meccano Magazine”. One issue of about 1930 looked forward to the distant future, and to what life would be like in 2000. I have forgotten the text, but a picture remains in my mind of tall, elegant buildings lining a wide street, along which glided, speedily but noiselessly, clean streamlined trains. The pictures and accompanying description appealed to the young Howard, and I dreamed how wonderful it would be to grow so phenomenally ancient as to be around at that splendid time.

Continue reading

The Bible Code: One more weird thing to believe in

THE BIBLE CODE, a new book touting the miraculous prophetic nature of the Hebrew Torah in which Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was allegedly predicted thousands of years ago, has swept the national media. Time, Newsweek, Slate, and Charlie Rose explored the remarkable claims of this book, which also predicts a nuclear war that will end the world in 2000 or 2006. Warner Brothers is said to have bought the film rights. The Los Angeles Times ran a front page, above-the-fold feature article by their religion editor. And the Skeptics Society’s phone is ringing off the hook as observers ask “is this scientific proof that the Bible was divinely inspired?”

Continue reading

A Skeptical Miscellany

Picking Winners?

When the short list for the Booker prize was announced there was much chortling about the fact that Jill Paton Walsh had been unable to find a publisher in Britain for Knowledge of Angels. She had to publish it herself.

The Times Literary Supplement (9 Sep, 1994) points out that the English publishing houses could not justify their decision by claiming that they had a surplus of great and worthwhile books. Heinemann has just published what the TLS described as “a work of the purest bilge”. They refer to Nostradamus: his key to the centuries, prophecies of Britain and the world 1995-2010, by V.J. Hewitt.

This adventurous work is not Valerie Hewitt’s first appearance as a seer. In her earlier publication, Nostradamus: The end of the millenium, she predicted that George Bush would be re-elected in 1992, that the Prince of Wales would be crowned King Charles III on May 2 of the same year, and that California would be destroyed by an earthquake on 8 May 1993.

In spite of this unenviable track record, Valerie Hewitt seems to have no difficulty finding gullible publishers. Poetic justice could have won the day. Maybe they asked her, as Nostradamus’ UK agent, to pick the Booker Prize List as well.

An American Dilemma

In the September 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Prof Claude Rawson made a nice point during his review of The Beginning of the Journey — the marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, by Diana Trilling. I’m sure the TLS won’t mind us quoting at length:

“[Diana] too persevered with analysis despite a series of discouraging experiences, including a date with her first psychiatrist, from which she had to be sent home by taxi in a drunken panic … Three of her analysts died on her, an occupational hazard in transactions not otherwise willingly terminated by either party. One was a drug addict who missed appointments and fell asleep during sessions … She was next treated by by Marianne Fris, wife of Ernst, who told her that Lionel was being mishandled by his analyst … At one point the Trillings shared the same analyst and became “sibling rivals, vying for the attention of the same father figure”

This (Stalinist) doctor turned out to be unqualified and had to be retrained. The next “analyst’s wife, herself a psychiatrist” maintained a courteous professional distance. When her husband fell under a car she demanded payment of bills already paid, maintaining professional behaviour to the end. Diana had seven analysts in all and still feels that she “was never properly analysed”.

You might think she was slow on the uptake, but the persistence with which busy and intelligent persons in the US lavish their time and money on analysis in the teeth of a continuous sense of the inefficacy of the whole thing is a cultural phenomenon that awaits explanation.

If you remain unconvinced, watch the wonderfully scary video called Whispers in the Dark. It’s hard to know who is the most terrifying — the psychiatrists or their patient/victims. (Not for children)

Science and the Citizen

On Tuesday 26 September, National Radio’s Morning Report carried an interview with a scientist discussing his research programme which I hope is better founded than it sounded — seeing that we are all paying for it.

Apparently some Danes have shown that males who eat organic food are more fertile than those who eat regular (inorganic?) food. Our local scientist plans to repeat the programme here because if they confirm the Danish findings, it will prove that — and wait for it — pesticides cause male infertility.

Where does one start being decently Skeptical?

Would it not be simpler and much more direct to dose people with pesticides — without greatly increasing the doses they are presumed to be absorbing from their normal fruit and veges — and then send them out into the world to multiply?

And surely any Skeptic can think of several reasons why organic food-eaters might be more fertile than the average member of the population. Do they wear organic ill-fitting underpants?

But there are even more interesting hypotheses to test. We know that we eat about 10,000 times as many natural pesticides as we do synthetic ones (J.D. Mann, New Zealand Skeptic 32). I buy organically grown potatoes because they taste so much better (even though they cost about twice as much), which suggests that they contain a greater and more concentrated range of compounds than the regular watery variety.

Maybe it’s these “special secret ingredients” in the organic fruit and vegetables which serve to boost fertility among Danish males, rather than any tendency for nasty chemicals to diminish the fertility off their less “green” brethren.

And what might these extra compounds be? I presume that the way to raise vegetables which are resistant to the normal range of pests and diseases is to grow them so robust and healthy that their natural defenses are good enough to provide adequate protection. (Any gardener knows that healthy plants are much less prone to disease than sickly ones.) So maybe the reason these Danish organophiles are more fertile is that they are taking in far more natural pesticides than the rest of their countrymen. (And yes they are men!)

Could be it be that our crafty bodies respond to this toxicologic challenge by producing extra sperm to improve the survival chances of our selfish genes?

Who approves funding this stuff — New Zealand On Earth?

New Zealand Skeptic will watch for the outcome with pitchfork drawn and at the ready.

Numero Uno?

I was driving my car when Kim Hill spent half an hour of public broadcasting time interviewing a woman who claimed to be a Pythagorean Numerologist. The woman claimed that she had not appreciated Pythagoras at school because the teachers focused on arithmetic and all that other dry stuff. But later she learned that Pythagorus was a genuine mystic at heart and was worthy of redemption.

Our numerologist explained to a somewhat sceptical — but not falling-about-the-floor laughing — Kim Hill that Pythagorean Numerology could identify all our personality traits by translating the letters of your born name into numbers and then combining these numbers with the numbers of your birthday.

Evidently we can then all be identified as five/sevens, tens/tens or whatever. As you would expect, a five person could be careful with money, but could be able to overcome this tendency by applying the determination which is also associated with five. These people would make wonderful economists — on the one hand this … but on the other hand that …

Kim Hill did raise the difficulty that Pythagoras used the Greek alphabet, but our numerologist explained that the system had been adjusted to fit the Roman alphabet.

Now if telepathy worked at all, Kim Hill would have heard my 10,000 watt telepathic messages saying “Ask her about the birthdays.” Even Pythagoras could not predict the assumed birthdate of Jesus Christ, so its difficult to imagine him building a numerology system based on his being born on the 30 September 582 BC or whenever. And I cannot conceive of any algorithm which would translate the calenders of Pythagorean times into the Gregorian calendar dates we use now.

Once again telepathy failed me, and we never heard how our numerologist dealt with this problem. However, we learned something about Pythagoras. Evidently he ran a University in which everyone would have been vegetarians, because vegetables, unlike meat, are such spiritual food. I suppose this explains the behaviour of that other famous vegetarian, Adolf Hitler. One of Kim Hill’s questions indicated that our numerologist’s extensive research seemed not to have revealed to her Pythagoras’s famous aversion to beans.

However, my frustration with all this nonsense was eased later on in the morning’s programme when Kim Hill read out a fax from an alert Skeptic who complained bitterly about the use of public radio to disseminate such garbage over the air waves. Well done.

Don’t these programmers realize that this sort of stuff makes it doubly hard to argue in favour of preserving public radio. The more National Radio sounds like No Idea On Air the harder it is for any of us to argue its case for survival.

Predicting the End of the World

Vicki Hyde suggests (Skeptic 30) that we are in for a lot more doomsday predictions as we approach the year 2000. I am afraid she is right, but why should fundamentalists get so excited about a round number of years?

They believe that the world was created in six days, and a very ancient prophesy is that it would last six thousand years because “…one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). That seems logical enough.

This prophecy originates from the first century when it was believed that the world was already around four thousand years old. It is contained in the Epistle of Barnabas1 chapter 13, and The Secrets of Enoch2 chapter 33. The former letter had as good a claim to be in the New Testament as several books that were included. Some early Christian writers believed it had the same author as the Epistle to the Hebrews.

This is thus a very ancient prophesy, but it is difficult to decide just when the 6,000 years are up. Our system of dating which identifies this year as AD 1994 was invented in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus. He tried to start his system from the birth of Jesus but miscalculated.

The Roman republic had counted years “AUC” (Ab Urba Condita, the year of the city). Afterwards they counted “in the year of the Emperor”. Dionysius added all this up, but missed the four years from when Octavian won the battle of Actium (31 BC) until he accepted the title of Emperor Augustus (27 BC).

That is the real reason why Authorised Versions of the New Testament claim that Jesus was born in 4 BC. If Dionysius had counted correctly he would have started his system four years earlier. Of course, that means that the world should end in 1996 rather than 2000. It is later than you think.

Relax again, that is not the only alternative. Dionysius’s near contemporary, Victorius, produced a system of dating years from the Passion of Jesus. This was taken to occur in the year we call 28AD, and the system should have great appeal to fundamentalists (although I doubt that any have heard of it), the Passion being much more important than the birth of Jesus.

Consequently, many old dates may have an error of 28 years, because it is not known which system was being used. And the end of the world may not be due until 2028 — what a relief!

The popular idea that there was an end-of-world panic around AD 1000 is almost certainly a myth. There are (so far as I am aware) no contemporary references to such agitation. But at that time probably nobody knew the date. Although the system of Dionysius was nearly 500 years old it was rarely used. The world of Islam counted the years since the Hegira. Much of Europe counted “in the year of the Emperor”, and the Catholic church counted “in the year of Pope”. In Western Europe few outside the church were literate or numerate. According to Barbara Tuchman3, even as late as the fourteenth century in Western Europe no two writers ever agree about the date.

To go back to the beginning — literally — all these predictions are based on the world’s being created in six days. We know this is not true. It is not just geology and biology that refute the biblical creation story, geography does too. Try reading Genesis 1. The creation account assumes a flat Earth, for only a flat Earth can experience the “mornings and evenings” described. A spherical world has neither a date nor a time. There is always a morning somewhere, and always an evening somewhere else.

1. English translation in The Lost Books of the Bible, New American Library [text]

2. English translation in The Forgotten Books of Eden, New American Library [text]

3. A Distant Mirror

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt. Random House, $15.95

This book explains an approach to interpreting the French “prophet” Nostradamus’s predictions. It is the culmination of 16 years research by an English woman, V.J. Hewitt. She has invented a system of decoding his quatrains using anagrams — and not just the sort that you get in cryptic crosswords, but huge, French ones. She takes a Nostradamus quatrain, mixes up all the letters, removes the letters of the subject she is interested in (and it could be anything from soccer hooliganism to an air traffic controllers’ strike), adds the date, and then rearranges the remaining letters to produce the prophecy that Nostradamus had clearly intended. What’s more she does it in French.

Here’s a New Zealand version of what she does. Take the first two lines of our National Anthem: “God of Nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet. ” There are, in this dreary verse, many hidden prophecies which V.J. Hewitt would extract like this…

Remove the word “fish” because we want to see what the future of fishing is in this country. Mix up the remaining letters and you get: “Too many boats net the food we love. Ten get fined.” What could be clearer than that? On the other hand — and this is a little confusing — another anagram gives: “Eels need to have fatty food, gin. None wet bottom.” This could be disqualified by the grammatically pedantic on the grounds that it should be “wets” rather than “wet.” But Hewitt is a little flexible herself — in one prediction she is forced to change Phillip to Philip in order to get the anagram to fit the prediction comfortably.

Hewitt explains how unique and successful her system is, reminding me of the Spike Milligan line: “My uncle was a great man. He told me so himself, and you can’t argue with facts like that.” She is realistic enough to admit in her closing lines that she is “vulnerable to criticism unless and until each prediction is fulfilled.” Unusually for this sort of book, she is foolish enough to tie the events to reasonably definite dates. Most soothsayers pronounce woolly sooths but are cunning enough not to cite dates. She should have learnt a lesson from the “End of the World is Nigh” brigade — they tend not to pinpoint “nigh” and most of their placards seem to be made of fairly durable material.

What will happen of course is that Christmas shoppers will buy this book, be enthralled by the forecasts, and then forget it, until…in April 1994 Nelson Mandela actually does become the President of South Africa. Then they’ll say: “Didn’t Nostradamus predict that somewhere? Doris, go get that Hewitt book — I think it was written in there. There it is on page 48! Extraordinary!” No mention of similar predictions of political scientists world-wide nor, more importantly in terms of this publication, any mention of the fact that Nostradamus also predicted on page 47 that at the end of May (only a week or two before) two female Yeti would be found in the Himalayas, presumably out on a Sherpa-capturing expedition.

Large anagrams are funny things. You start with real creativity and freedom — there are a lot of letters to play with — but as you get near the end and all the “e”s have gone, there’s a “q” and no “u” left, and “Qantas” doesn’t suit a prediction on the return of Maggie Thatcher, so you juggle and end up with a small, three or four-letter word. It may take a lot of imagination to tie this in with the substance of the text. But like most Nostradamus students, Hewitt has a fertile mind. She is particularly motivated by the discovery that her very own name is mentioned in the 16th-century verses. Having been chosen as the official Nostradamus interpreter for the 20th Century, I suspect nothing will divert her. (It should be noted that when I solved the relevant quatrainal anagram the name I came up with was not “V.J. Hewitt” but “J.T.V. White,” who just happens to be my old maths teacher).

So we will continue to be presented every year with the V.J. Hewitt Annual Almanac regardless of the previous year’s inaccuracies, and it doesn’t take much of an anagram to predict quite a useful income for her from the New Age bookstores. This sort of book is a waster of time and forests, a ramble down one person’s “spiritual” cul-de-sac. Ingenious or ingenuous, it will still probably outsell Carl Sagan.