Rush to cite
Nostradamus too predictable
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
"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
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
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
Most responsible news organizations, as well as the
legend-busting Web site snopes.com (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
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