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A Many-Headed Hydra: Reasons for the Persistence of the ‘Bible Code’ and Suggested Anodynes

P.A. Hancock

Skeptical Briefs Volume 17.3, September 2007

At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I had occasion to wander out of the conference proper onto the busy sidewalks of Connecticut Avenue in the heart of Washington, D.C. A few blocks from the hotel, I happened upon a large and vibrant bookstore that was both exceptionally busy and exceptionally well-stocked. Imagine, then, my horror on approaching the philosophy section, when there, not merely alongside Plato and Aristotle but literally above them, as the featured philosophical topic, was an advertising spread on the egregious and sadly ubiquitous Bible Code. While this assignment to the philosophy section was most disturbing, it is perhaps more important to understand why this misconception continues to proliferate, even in the face of extended and fatal critiques (see Thomas 1997). To understand this, we need to first provide a brief précis of the dissemination and structure of the so-called “code” itself.

The Bible Code has not experienced the quiet demise it so obviously deserves. Most recently, there has been a second History Channel feature on the topic (History Channel 2005), and it has been featured in several newspapers. For example, in December 2002, the U.K.’s Daily Mail printed a series of three-page regurgitations by Michael Drosnin of the code’s accuracy. Drosnin is not simply a by-line journalist but rather the leading public proponent of the Bible Code, having reaped the rewards of multiple best sellers on the topic (Drosnin 1997; 2002). The Bible Code is purported to reveal predictions of future events embedded in a matrix representation of biblical text. This is a particularly disturbing form of nonsense since it cloaks itself in a patina of mathematics while apparently embracing a fundamentalist perspective, all overlaid by the stock-in-trade of the prognosticating mentalist: namely, under-specification before the event and great claims to accuracy and premonition after the event has occurred. Playing on the religious convictions of some, the credulity of others, and the math phobia often endemic in the general population, the Bible Code represents a highly seductive idea to many. This hydra-headed fallacy must continually be debunked.

Drosnin recently claimed that the code foretold the attack on the Twin Towers (why was this not reported before the event?) and predicts nuclear war in four years. In retrospect, Drosnin claims the Bible Code predicted virtually all major events of the last century, ranging from the assassination of John F. Kennedy through Watergate to the Gulf War. The Bible Code may be particularly appealing to fundamentalist Christians whose convictions center around the literal truth of the Bible. After all, Drosnin’s ideas entail that the Bible Code predicts the future as well—a seductive prospect indeed.

Because of the complexity of these overlapping assumptions and fallacies, the Bible Code continues to proliferate. The Bible Code provides an interesting guide to unraveling the complex nuances of similar claims employing obfuscation to hide deception (see Wiseman 1997). The Bible Code invokes a ferociously powerful level of combinatorial mathematics without sufficient care for the explosive increase in explanatory degrees of freedom that such numerical computation releases. A second deception lies in the areas of pattern matching and wish fulfillment in distilling “messages” that an individual has primed himself to find. Embedded within these overarching concerns are specific problems. For example, one which we have previously examined in detail is the increased frequency of word possibilities in Hebrew letter combinations as compared to English, a fact which is never evident when proponents convert their matrix pronouncements into plain English text (see Koltko-Rivera and Hancock 2005). Beyond these empirically addressable issues, Drosnin, among others, invokes the respected authority fallacy. For example, he cites the claim that Sir Isaac Newton also proposed that there was a code embedded in the Bible, but that despite his (Newton’s) genius, he was unable to decode it. He then attributes his present “success” in decoding it to his use of computers and to a “self-effacing but highly respected figure” (a man named Eli Rips); these aides have allowed him to reveal that which has “eluded man for millennia.”

These obfuscations are not open to obvious experimental attack. This is because Drosnin and other proponents are fundamentally creating the problem and then producing the Bible Code as the necessary solution. The problem thus created has now become an ‘issue’ that has “eluded us for millennia.” Philosopher David Hume was very aware that by the act of naming a concept we give a form of reality to that concept. Drosnin abuses this function by championing a spurious code which he then claims has been so elusive. To this conjured brew, Drosnin adds a dash of great names (Newton), a soupçon of respected authorities (Rips) and finally the almighty power of the computer to reinforce the reality of the issue and the authority of his study. Simply stated, the problem is that with a text the size of the Bible, one can retrospectively conjure virtually any message. With sufficient time and computing power, one can constantly search the database of the text and derive an almost unlimited number of conjunctions which prove sufficiently psychologically intriguing so as to appear non-random.

In general, the Bible Code (although not the Bible itself as plain text) is an example of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). In Drosnin’s specific case, it’s a little more seductive as it’s WIWO (words in, words out). One can ask a computer program to search text (i.e., engage in a degree of pattern matching) for one keyword or a series of word-phrases and then print out the perceptually most intriguing pattern matches. This is why the retrospective aspect of the code is so problematic—the readers of the Code see what they wish to see. The keywords (essentially world events) are input, and the close matches are used to represent output. Of course predictions never appear as an exact match using continuous colloquial English (Hebrew, Aramaic, American?) sentences, the reader has to add all the conjunctions themselves, which of course naïve individuals are very ready to do. In the Daily Mail article, Drosnin shows a matrix emphasizing the spatial proximity of the keywords twin, towers, and airplane. Although appearing in arbitrary locations in a matrix, Drosnin arranges them in the order above, not twin, airplane, then towers. Why? Because it is perceptually more appealing to link twin and towers together. Note that the final word is not even airplanes, (plural). No, with the under-specificity so critical to success, Drosnin leaves the reader to fill in these critical gaps.

Drosnin also gets tied up in the highly problematic issue of free will and determinism. For example, he observes that:

Long before September 11, I had been warning world leaders that the ancient prophecy of the Apocalypse was about to come true. [But when?] I told them that, according to the Bible Code, we were already in the ultimate time of danger, the End of Days and that within a decade [plenty long enough to forget this time!] we might face the real Armageddon [presumably and logically then we also might not]—a nuclear world war starting with an act of terrorism in the Middle East [or presumably near the Middle East River?] It was a message I had given to the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Israel and the leader of the Palestinians. I told them all that we might [there’s that might again] have only five years [five or ten?] left to save the world—but no one would heed the warning.

But there is a problem here. How can The Bible Code, which is derived from a fixed and fundamentally deterministic text, now warn us about opportunities for change? There can, by definition, be no present behavior which can change current events since such events are already, in Code terms, determined and have been now for many centuries! This is a difficult problem to solve. However, I am quite sure that Bible Code proponents can (and will) subsequently find other matrices in the text to counter any awkward, unfulfilled observations. However, using different parts of the text to provide contradictory information depending upon one’s own particular wants of the moment has already been done. Indeed, this is evident from a straight reading of the Bible which in almost every case provides its own contradiction to any positive pronouncement made (perhaps this being one of the principal reasons for its success and longevity). Thus, these so-called leaders that Drosnin cites, if they then truly believed Drosnin’s Bible Code, would be perfectly justified in ignoring any such observations since, after all, their actions are already preset. Like most of these forms of prognostication, and it is evident that Nostradamus acts as the poster boy here, one finds they are a priori sufficiently indeterminate to allow all interpretations—and again this is the fundamental error of the Bible Code. In purporting to be able to predict everything, the code reveals its fatal flaw of actually predicting nothing.

What Drosnin also has to justify is the level at which the pattern matching is made. By this I mean the choice at which the pattern match is made within the text. One could, for example, derive a code at the chapter level. However, merely rearranging each whole chapter of the Bible in a different order gives us virtually no combinatorial room for new, revealed messages. Rather than chapters then, we could use sentences, phrases, or words, but again even though these rearrangements are possible, the number of new combinatorial possibilities are comparatively limited. In invoking the code at the level of an individual letter search, Drosnin has sufficient combinatorial freedom to generate any new message. However, he must champion an absolute and unchanged original of the Bible. To do this he cites a “Textus Receptus.” Of course, if there is any question about the veracity of the version chosen, the code is immediately discredited. Needless to say, true Bible Scholars still search and research such “authenticity,” but if the chosen text is altered in any way, the code must change. Drosnin could claim that like the Genetic Code much text is vestigial and only specific parts are ‘active’ but discounting parts of the text would lose him the support of radical fundamentalists and thus much of their patronage. Perhaps those better versed in Bible scholarship might be better to comment on the text changes over the years and the claims made in this area. However, the point about the level at which the pattern matching is made is much more important. Why should we stop at the level of individual letters? We could use the level of the individual pen stroke, which collectively constitute each discrete letter. Fortunately, this level is much more powerful and includes a virtually endless combination of possibilities. With such a powerful brush, what pictures could not be painted, what events not predicted—but only in retrospect, of course. Please note, I constructed the whole of this article by a pattern-based rearrangement of only twenty-six letters and even more impressively only four basic pen strokes: forward, back, up, and down!

The rest of Drosnin’s pronouncements are the usual hodge-podge of unspecified hand waving of the sort so beloved of astrologers and politicians. For example, Drosnin’s final pronouncement is that “The Bible Code is not a prediction that we will all die in 2006. It is a warning that we might all die in 2006, if we do not change our future.” By using an ineffectual word like might Drosnin produces the usual tired, old, vacuous and underspecified general prediction of the sort found in any of the less informative of the supermarket tabloids. Fortunately, in being skeptical of the Bible Code we are not alone. The British Magazine Private Eye, known for its realistic and satiric view of life, took on this issue:

meanwhile, for an entire week in December the Mail ran extracts from the latest book on the Bible Code, a fantasy dreamed up by American hack Michael Drosnin to prove that a hidden code in the Bible foretold the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The cipher, Dragon revealed, was created by extra-terrestrials thousands of years ago: “There were clear references to what can only be called ‘UFOs’ in the unencoded text of the Bible—most notably in the Book of Ezekiel, which tells of a flying chariot in the sky from which few living beings emerged. This drivel, no less bizarre than the Raelian’s beliefs, prompted no mockery or scepticisim from the Mail far from it: “Dare we ignore this message?” it demanded! Can it be long before [the] editor bows to the inevitable and renames his paper the Daily Rael?

Amazingly, Drosnin promises that the Code reveals where Bin Laden is hiding, so by the time of my original writing in early March 2003, I assumed he would no longer be at liberty! But of course, by this reckoning, the Bible Code has revealed where Bin Laden is hiding since before Bin Laden was born!

Perhaps comedy and invective is the best response to the The Bible Code. As such, we should applaud the observations of the British magazine Viz (not always known itself for following societal norms). In their September 2004 Issue (No. 138), they also lampooned the Daily Mail’s inclusion of the extended coverage of the Bible Code. The headline of the segment read: “Science Reveals Shock New Daily Mail Code.” The article went on:

Mathematicians at top boffin coffin Oxford University have uncovered a secret code in the pages of the Daily Mail. Close study of the text has shocked the egghead community—revealing a series of cogent, legible messages, cunningly hidden within the rambling paragraphs of the unreasonable right-wing rabbit hutch liner. . . . Scholars have looked for sense in the Daily Mail for thousands of years, but it is only in the last two decades that computers have made text searches inevitable.

In the end, Drosnin’s “drivel” is simply yet another version of the astrologer’s flummery, now obfuscated by the use of a computer program. Little wonder that the series also bought a howl of adverse comment from Mail readers (see Daily Mail, December 5, 2002, letters page). Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, Drosnin’s actions are an abuse of one of the most revered of human texts. I hope that, if only on this one issue alone, the skeptical and the fundamentalist communities (never the easiest of bedfellows), can join together to reject what at the very best can only be regarded as misguided nonsense and at the very worst . . . well, on this I will defer to higher authorities.


P.A. Hancock

Peter Hancock is Provost Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology, the Institute for Simulation and Training, and at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Central Florida.