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Postdiction

According to critics of paranormal beliefs, postdiction (or post-shadowing, retroactive clairvoyance, or prediction after the fact) is an effect of hindsight bias that explains claimed predictions of significant events, such as plane crashes and natural disasters. In religious contexts it is frequently referred to by the Latin term vaticinium ex eventu, or foretelling after the event. Through this term, critics claim that many biblical prophecies (and similar prophecies in other religions) that may appear to have come true were in fact written after the events supposedly predicted, or that their text or interpretation were modified after the event to fit the facts as they occurred.

Skeptics of premonition use these terms in response to claims made by psychics, astrologers and other paranormalists to have predicted an event, when the original prediction was vague, catch-all, or otherwise non-obvious.

Most predictions from such figures as John of Patmos, Nostradamus and James Van Praagh are deliberately written in a such a vague and ambiguous way as to make interpretation nearly impossible before the event, rendering them useless as predictive tools. After the event has occurred, however, details are shoehorned into the prediction by the psychics or their supporters using selective thinking — emphasize the “hits”, ignore the “misses” — in order to lend credence to the prophecy and give the impression of an accurate “prediction”. Inaccurate predictions are simply not mentioned.

Supporters sometimes contend that the problem lies not with the wording of the prediction, but with the interpretation[citation needed] — an argument sometimes used by supporters of religious texts. This argument may lead to the question: “What is the point of a prediction that cannot be interpreted correctly before the event?” However, the argument is not that the prediction could not have been interpreted correctly prior to the event, but simply that it was not in the case in question, thus the question is working from a false premise.


Accusations of postdiction might be applicable if the prediction was:

Vague

The prediction makes a non-specific claim. For example, it predicts a “disaster” of some kind but not what it is. Such a prediction can be massaged to fit any number of events. Likewise, a prediction that does not state dates or places, or allows itself a large window of possible dates can be made to fit many possibilities. A prophecy attributed to Saint Malachy (but widely regarded as a 16th century forgery) claims to predict the succession of Popes by describing each one briefly. However, each description is sufficiently vague that it can be massaged to fit after the fact.


Open Ended

The prediction has a very long cut-off date or none at all and therefore runs indefinitely. Many of Nostradamus’ quatrains are open-ended and have been postdicted over the centuries to fit various contemporary events.


Recycled

The prediction is reused again and again in order to match the most recent event. Nostradamus’ quatrains have been recycled numerous times.


Catch-all

The prediction covers more than one possible outcome. For example, the Delphic Oracle’s answer as to whether Crœsus should attack the Persians: If you attack you will destroy a mighty empire. Crœsus attacked and thereby destroyed his own empire.


Shotgunning

The prediction is in fact many predictions, designed to cover a range of events and claim credit even if only one of them happens. For example, claiming that a particular date is “unlucky” and then citing a dozen or so things that might happen on it. See selective thinking.


Statistically Likely

The prediction makes a claim for something that happens with enough frequency that a high hit rate is virtually assured. For example, predicting terrorism on any day of the year, or particularly around national holidays, anniversaries (or similar events), or religious festivals.


Unfalsifiable

The prediction makes a claim that is impossible to verify or falsify. For example, a belief arose amongst a few in 2003 that a “Planet X” would pass the Earth in May of that year. When it singularly failed to appear they claimed it was shrouded so that only an “educated eye” could see it and various other excuses, while discounting the most obvious reason — that Planet X does not exist at all in the form predicted.


Unavailable Until After the Fact

A prediction cannot be verified if there is no public record of when it was made. A famous example was the psychic Tamara Rand, who “predicted” that Ronald Reagan was in danger of someone with the initials “J.H.”. The video interview in which this prediction was made was shot the day after the assassination attempt.


Counting the Hits and not the Misses

The prediction may be part of a series, but is singled out because it can be favourably interpreted, even if the series itself follows the laws of probability. For example, the prediction might correctly state movement on the stock market when previous or subsequent predictions have been wrong.


Allegory

The postdiction resorts to tenuous allegorical explanations to turn literal misses into hits. For example the postdiction might explain that a famous person has suffered a “spiritual” death to explain why they are still walking around despite a prediction that says otherwise.


Moving the Goalposts

The event must be “shoehorned” to fit the prediction because it differs in some significant way. For example, the prediction predicts an earthquake on one day when in fact it happens on a different day. Once again, Nostradamus supporters occasionally use this technique, as Nostradamus supposedly predicted the founding of the Institut Pasteur in 1888[citation needed] (it was actually a year later) and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the 45th parallel[1](actually significantly southwards).

These types are not exclusive, so a prediction could be vague, statistically likely and open-ended at the same time.


References

  1. Rex Deux
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