Rush to cite Nostradamus too predictable

Eric Zorn

Published September 20, 2001

If Nostradamus really had predicted last week's terrorist attacks on America as the widespread rumor went, it would have marked a noteworthy moment in the career of the 16th century astrologer and physician: his first accurate forecast.

"In all of the quatrains, ephemeri and almanacs that Nostradamus wrote, there are 103 instances in which he names a specific date, place or person in one of his prophecies," said James Randi, who used part of his 1986 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation to spend several months in France researching the life and writings of Michel Nostredame for a 1990 book "The Mask of Nostradamus."

And, said Randi, "In every instance, he was wrong."

A famous example is the quatrain whose translation begins "In the year 1999 and seven months / From the sky will come the great King of Terror." Followers of Nostradamus used to cite this often. Then July 1999 passed uneventfully.

But most of the nearly 1,000 verses of archaic French penned by Nostradamus in the mid-1550s were ambiguous gibberish: "The secret of close-mouthed one shall be closed / That people shall tread upon and before it" and the like. And though imaginative, credulous or disingenuous interpreters have often taken his words and tried to apply them retrospectively to history, Randi said his research found no instance of anyone using the writings of Nostradamus to foretell an event.

Randi, however, correctly predicted what would happen after the murderous airplane attacks on Washington and New York: He knew cyberspace would nearly choke on bogus Nostradamus prophecies--a tautological expression--related to the horror.

"It was done following the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion, the death of Princess Di and most other prominent tragic events," Randi writes in a commentary appearing on his Web site.

The rumored prophecy this time around, repeated as fact on the air by TV reporter Harold Dow among others, contained such language as, "In the year of the new century and nine months ... in the city of York there will be a great collapse; two twin brothers torn apart by chaos .... two metal birds will crash into two tall statues."

Most responsible news organizations, as well as the legend-busting Web site (please consult it before spreading any wild tale), soon revealed the hoax--Nostradamus never wrote those words--but not before Nostradamania went wild all across the country.

Books and videos on Nostradamus shot way up best-seller lists, libraries and bookstores reported a run on all things Nostradamus and internet search engines saw a 50-fold increase in Nostradamus queries.

Perhaps we in the media should have been more specific. It's not just that this "great collapse ... two metal birds will crash" report was a hoax. All of the cult of Nostradamus is a hoax. He was a fraud, and his legend is kept alive by dishonest translators, uncritical thinkers and hucksters who shamelessly reinterpret his argle-bargle to sell books.

Nostradamus' writings are as useless as the forecasts of contemporary "psychics." "Not one of them predicted last week's tragedy," said reporter Eugene Emery, who annually tracks the New Year's prognostications of tabloid psychics for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "It's the best evidence yet that these people can't do what they say they can do."

Will any leading proponent of Nostradamus debate the matter with James Randi? Randi, who performed magic as "The Amazing Randi" before he became our nation's foremost debunker of supernatural claims, predicts not. All have declined so far, he said and "Why would they risk it? They're making tons of money off their nonsense."

Randi said he'll participate in an online debate moderated by this column in the unlikely event that any Nostradamians are willing to put their claims to the test. I'm looking for takers.

I'm also looking for views on the following larger question: What's more comforting, the idea that the nightmare of Sept. 11, 2001 was ordained at least as long ago as the 1500s and is part of some unavoidable series of calamities and triumphs?

Or the idea that the future still and now most urgently belongs to us; that it's a blank slate, unknown and unknowable, upon which humankind must muster its collective decency and intelligence to write a story of peace?