Fortune telling has a bright future

Reading ancient Roman history can leave you with the impression that fortune telling works.

A soothsayer informed Julius Caesar to beware of the ides of March (March 15). He was murdered on this day.

An astrologer correctly predicted that Otho, who had no familial ties to the ruling dynasty, would one day be emperor.

The emperor Domitian was predicted to meet his end at noon time. Despite the emperor’s best efforts to be on guard each day at noon, he was finally murdered at noon time.

The Roman king Hadrian was cursed by one of his opponents to “long for death but be unable to die”. In his later years, Hadrian was gripped by an illness that caused him much suffering. He tried several times to commit suicide, but each of these were discovered and foiled.

This list of accurate prophesies can go on and on. However, there is sure to be a much longer list of prophesies that did not work – a list that is lost to us, since people only talk about and record prophesies that work.

Consider a person who visits an astrologer. Say, the astrologer makes 10 predictions, of which merely 1 materializes with great accuracy. It is natural that the person tells the story (with much animation) about the 1 accurate prediction at a dinner party, whereas the other 9 are forgotten. Prophesies are asymmetric – accurate prophesies make for good stories, whereas the ones that miss their mark merely bore everyboday. Ancient Roman historians merely reinforced this asymmetry across generations to leave us with a selection of prophesies that seem deadly accurate.

The reason fortune telling is still practiced in the 21st century is merely due to our mind’s ability to hand-pick accurate predictions, while forgetting false predicitons. Despite all our scientific progress, fortune telling will continue to thrive so long as we don’t let the boring truth ruin an interesting story.

So here’s my 21st century prediction – fortune telling has a bright future.

Recommended listening: The History of Rome

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