The “Predictive Power” of Biblical Numerics

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Harold Camping predicted Judgement Day will be on May 21, 2011. That day has come and gone. The prediction proved to be incorrect.

Being an engineer myself, I was embarrassed and saddened to learn that Harold Camping received a B.S. from Berkeley in Civil Engineering.

What was the evidence based on which he formed this prediction? The core “proof” rests on a numerological argument which derives the exact number of days since Christ’s crucifixion. Among the fascinating parts of his argument are ideas such as that “5 symbolizes atonement, 10 represents completeness, and 17 is for heaven”. This kind of blurring of the line between metaphysical concepts and the world of numbers is common among religious scholars. A good example of this is biblical numerics which is the “study” of numerical patterns in the Bible.

This kind of abuse of numbers is not an exclusive practice of the religious folk unfortunately. It is common amongst engineers and scientists too. In fact, with the advent of computers, modeling and simulation has become a major source of it in science. We form a model of the phenomena under consideration, and based on that model make predictions. The assumptions underlying the model model can be tweaked to achieve almost any desirable conclusion. It’s the job of the scientific community to question the validity of the assumptions.

That’s probably the biggest difference between scientists and followers of Mr. Camping: the willingness to question. The similarity, on the other hands, is that both communities have an admiration of numbers. Somehow, quantifying concepts makes an argument appear more grounded in reason and logic. But of course, this is an illusion, as the argument must also be grounded in real-world observed data (that’s reproducible).

The proof of the argument I make in this post is the brilliant insight by Douglas Adams that  the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.

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2 thoughts on “The “Predictive Power” of Biblical Numerics

  1. Regarding your remark:
    “This kind of abuse of numbers is not an exclusive practice of the religious folk unfortunately. It is common amongst engineers and scientists too. In fact, with the advent of computers, modeling and simulation has become a major source of it in science. We form a model of the phenomena under consideration, and based on that model make predictions. The assumptions underlying the model model can be tweaked to achieve almost any desirable conclusion. It’s the job of the scientific community to question the validity of the assumptions.”

    I am pleased to see this view expressed, Lex.
    Sadly, such meaningless studies are not uncommon and one wonders how they ever survive peer review.

    • Thanks Peter. I think the rigor of the peer review process tends to be proportional to the size of the claim in the paper. If I claim to have invented a way to travel back in time, then I’m sure my paper will be put through the grind. Of course, that’s one of the main challenges of peer review is to identify precisely how grandiose the novel claim in the paper is.

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