Hitchhiker's Guide to Nostradamus

Douglas Adams, in his "Hitchhiker" science fiction series invented the "infinite improbability drive," a mechanism which utilizes the power of extreme unlikelihood to fuel a space ship. The more improbable the inputs, the faster and farther the space ship can travel. Although Adams invented the I.I.D. to power his satirical writings, the same principle may be at work giving Nostradamus his enormous staying power.

Let's Get Mathematical

Let's assume that during the past 400+ years since the Centuries were published, there were 1,000,000 (or so) events of sufficient note to be candidates for interpretation. Multiplying this by 1000 for the number of N's predictions, we have 1,000,000,000 combinations of each prediction with each event. A quick perusal of the Tables of Contents of some books on the Prophesies shows that roughly 20-60% of the Prophesies have been identified with one or more specific events. Let's assume that 10% (p=0.1) of the prophesies are a good or excellent match to at least one specific event.

Applying some elementary Poisson statistics [I have a PhD: don"t try this at home], this frequency of "hits" would occur by chance alone if each individual "event/prophesy combination" constituted a "hit" only one time in 10,000,000.

What is one in ten million? Your chances of being killed by lightning in any given year are higher. At this level of probability you will win a major state lottery every couple of months. And of course, watch out for falling meteorites! But one in ten million is the level of likelihood that is necessary for the observed rate of "hits" to be observed over 400+ years.

It seems hard to dismiss such obvious "hits" as the Space Shuttle Disaster (my personal favorite), or the Franco/Riviera and Pasteur prophesies. Identifying matches that are significantly less likely than the "magic number" of 10^-7 (1/10,000,000) is the only way to distinguish those that are "true prophesies" from those that are the natural result of random chance.

The writings of Nostradamus provide an excellent opportunity for similarities to occur by chance. The 900+ quatrains in the Centuries are intentionally vague and cover a wide range of 'subject matter" (?). It is thus very easy to mine the Centuries for apparent coincidences with specific events. I dare say that any article in today's newspaper could be matched up with one (or more) quatrains with at least a fair degree of consonance. Here's a modest example:

Analysis of C1,81

- Space Shuttle Disaster (see this link for text and detailed analysis):

Points of coincidence:

  1. Number of people approximately correct
  2. 'sent away" correct
  3. Their fate is determined on departure
  4. No assistance can be given
  5. K-Th-L - 3 Greek consonants match "Thiokol" - maker of the engine that exploded
  6. Someone makes an error (presumably K-Th-L)
  7. People are killed and banished/exiled

Analysis

To tell if the probability of these coincidences significantly less than the "critical value" of 10^-7, it is necessary to consider the probabilities of the individual points of coincidence and multiply.
  1. The number is not exactly correct, so assume that the prophesy only has to come within +/- 50% of the correct number of 7 people, a range of 3-11. Assume that Nostradamus could have chosen any number between 1 and 100 at random: p=9/100 or ~0.1.
  2. Of the 1,000,000 top news stories, how many refer to people being 'sent apart" or 'set aside?" It's not that rare: there's the French Revolution setting aside royalty, Communism deposing the Czar, the Republicans taking over Congress, . . . Let p=0.1
  3. Assuming 20 Greek letters taken three at a time, in any order, the possibility of matching the three consonants in "Thiokol" is:
    20 X 20 X 20 = 8000 => p~=.0001
    However, "Thiokol" is not the only possible word that would match in this context. Others include: Challenger, NASA, Rockwell, Morton, Kennedy, Canaveral, Shuttle, etc. Assuming that there are 10 other possible words, abbreviations, or initials that would also work in context, reduce this by a factor of 10 to p=0.001.
  4. Someone makes an error. I have no idea how many times "making an error" is involved in a top news story. Let's see -- the OJ case (both OJ and the jury), Communism (one big error), the French Royals ("Let them eat cake"), the Pentium Chip, Charles and Diana (g). . . there are a fair number. Let's assign p=0.1.
  5. People being killed is so common in the news that it is hardly worth discussing. Let p=0.1
  6. Fate determined on departure. This might apply to one top story in 10 where it is already established that someone is being killed, sent apart, or set aside. Consider the Czar's family, or a train load of Jews going to Dachau. Assign p=0.1
  7. No assistance or advice can be given. This is very general and again could apply to the Czar, the French Royalty, Nicole Simpson, the holocaust victims, etc. Assign p=0.1.

    Multiplying all the factors together, we have:
    .1 X .1 X .001 X .01 X .1 X.1 X .1 = 10^-10

    Conclusion

    This number is significantly less than 10-7. Therefore it is likely to be a "correct prophesy" n"est pas? Well, another way to test whether this analysis is correct is to consciously attempt to "fit" the verse to a totally different set of facts. A humorous example of such a force-fit is seen in the Pentium Bug. If a particular verse can be fit to a different set of facts with a roughly equal probability score, then there must be other unidentified factors such as vague and ambiguous vocabulary, uncertain translation, etc. that have not been properly accounted for. Here is a conscious attempt to fit the same quatrain to the Czar's death:

    CI,81 - "Death of the Czar's Family"

    1. Nine persons - According to a recent Reuters story, the Czar's party consisted of exactly nine people: Czar, Czarina, the crown prince Alexi, three daughters, two servants, and the family's doctor. A total of nine.
    2. set apart from the rest of the human flock (they are captured and sent to Ekaterinberg where they are killed)
    3. They are removed from the support and advice (of their partisans)
    4. Their fate is decided on their departure (by the revolutionaries?)
    5. Kalinin*, Trotsky, Lenin (Those responsible are named)
    6. someone commits an error (communism?)
    7. the banished/exiled are killed (and thrown in a well for good measure)
    *Kalinin - Soviet president 1919-1946; or possibly Kerensky (Menschevek leader); there were several other major Revolutionary figures whose names started with "K."

    Analysis of this alternative

    interpretation would yield an improbability figure almost identical to that for the Space Shuttle interpretation, at least within a factor of 10 or so. Maybe N. was so smart that he made this prophesy apply to two different events! [I don't think so... ]
    My conclusion is that I have wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how Nostradamus made such an incredible prediction about the space shuttle. I"m going out to get James Randi's book about Nostradamus. Or else go for a ride with Zaphod and Arthur in the Infinite Improbability Drive ship.