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5. Bible Codes - Have Appropriate Skepticism

Not everything that people want to believe is true is in fact true. Many people get overexuberant in their interest in such areas as Bible Prophecy and (in the last few years) "Bible Codes." It is important to examine these things carefully so as to not be pulled into things that are a waste of time.

Bible codes are a good case in point. The people that have written books on "Bible Codes" have nicely convinced me that they neither understand generating functions, state spaces, nor null hypotheses, which are pretty basic requirements to show that they understand the probabilities of the combinations that they are looking for. The primary thing that they have succeeded at is at coming up with yet another way of promoting books and computer software.

Putting it another way, from my "graduate school" understanding of statistical mathematics, it is clear that the people writing the books are not using more than a layman's understanding of probabilities in order to evaluate their results.

The first issue that they miss in any material I have seen is how they have dealt with the frequencies of letters in the Hebrew language. A typical sort of thing that must be stated in a competent statistical analysis that involves multiple random events is how the probability distributions are related.

For instance, if you roll two dice, then it is typical for the two events (rolling each die) to be identical and independently distributed. Bayes' Theorem asserts that, in such cases, you can consider the joint probability of two such events to be the product of the probabilities of the two independent events. It is an entirely common mistake in the analysis of statistical events by laypeople to treat all events as being i.i.d. like this. That is most certainly not the case in general, and more pointedly, is not the case here with the analysis of letter patterns that fall out of written text that is anything but random.

A proper assessment of probabilities of particular combinations of letter patterns must consider the frequencies of letters within the text. I have seen no evidence that that the authors of "Bible Code" books are sufficiently statistically literate so as to even recognize this factor. Some skeptics have set up ELS searches and had little trouble finding similar sorts of "interesting prophecies" in fictional works such as [Moby Dick] and [War and Peace], neither of which are commonly considered to have "divine inspiration."

The research done on Bayesian schemes for spam filtering demonstrate further that the patterns in common sets of text not independently distributed. Advanced Language Classification using Chained Tokens describes how the chaining of tokens is highly significant in textual analysis.

Equally important is the notion of having something as a "base" to compare to. Statistical assertions that one wishes to "prove" are normally formulated using a "null hypothesis" where one asks the question: "Can we prove that this result somehow says something statistically significant? Or could it have just as easily happened by chance?" Many things that appear unlikely at first glance prove to be reasonably probable once one enumerates the state space and the number of ways that the condition can be satisfied within that state space.

To be sure, the use of common words, therefore giving patterns of letters, built into common patterns of phrases, means that there's plenty of bias leaving plenty of room for ELS to find results that sure won't look random.

Many of the books purport to be "about Bible Codes," but seem to use it rather as a mere stepping-stone to sell Yet Another Dubious Tome On Biblical Prophecy.

Here are a variety of web links presenting the "pro" side of the Bible Code issue:

Here are some somewhat more skeptical sites on the issue:

I stand quite firmly on the "con" side, and I would not be disagreeable to "con" being interpreted either to mean that my opinions towards Bible Codes are "contrary," or even that I consider them to be a "confidence scam."

Bible Code books seem to me present little more than an updated-to-the-computer-age version of Jewish numerology and "kaballah" beliefs of the middle ages, nicely convincing to those to whom computing and mathematics are as "magic" as any of the other things that they would consider "occult".

I would argue that "Bible Coding" represents, from a Christian perspective, a clear occult practice, and that Christians should thus regard "Bible Codes" in the same fashion that the Bible indicates they should regard other occult practices such as palmistry, witchcraft, necromancy, divination. (At which point I start hearing in my head lines from a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail... I'm sometimes not real reverent...)

Returning to seriousness for a moment, anyone who is truly fascinated by this sort of thing should also consider reading the book Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna. That novel presented a rather similar scenario where the protagonists used computers to generate random matrices of letters, searching for patterns that might relate to "Illuminati" conspiracy theories.

It starts out as a mere game by some skeptical academics, but it turns out that their "random guessing game" drags them into the true conspiracy amongst those people that do truly believe, that think that these "random guesses" are truly the answers, and that aren't capable of understanding that it was all just a game with random numbers.

The danger is that even if it's all hogwash, there are still some people that truly believe in it. Not all of (Christianity | Islam | Judaism | Dianetics | Hinduism | Animism | ...) can be true at once. And there have been ample "hotheads" amongst believers in these sorts of groups to result in real and bloody conflicts resulting in significant numbers of deaths.

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Contact me at cbbrowne@acm.org