Shopping for a prophet

When we hear the words “prophet” or “prophecy”, we think of religion. But the secular world does the same thing. But they call it prediction or modeling. There are interesting parallels and differences. “The end is near” is a religious statement, but if a doctor says to someone that they will have a stroke if they don’t get their blood pressure under control, that’s not religious even though it sounds a lot like “Repent for the end is near”.

The Bible prescribes the death penalty for false prophets. One prediction that didn’t trun out was enough to prove that a prophet was a false prophet. That’s harsh. Or is it? A false prophecy could lead people, even the whole nation, into ruin. In fact, that happened.

There’s a fascinating story about prophecy, human nature and politics in I King’s 22.  Two kings want to go to war together. So they go shopping for prophets who will agree with them, punishing the one prophet who tells them the truth – that they will lose the war. They go anyway with disastrous and macabre results.

In part, I love this story because I see the same thing playing out in American politics and news and in our personal lives. Reporters seek out the experts who will give them the analysis they want and cite them. So we read in the news that “experts say” without any hint that other experts say something different. Politicians do the same. We all shop for opinions and facts we like. This is so common that the sign of a true prophet in the Bible is very often the one who said things people did not want to hear, landing the prophet in trouble. When we ask the Lord for guidance, are we open to whatever he says, or are we just looking for confirmation of what we have already decided? Are we like the two King’s who weren’t really looking for a true prophet, but rather for one who said what they wanted?

In our modern world, businesses also engage in prophecy, although they don’t call it that.

In 2015, Elon Musk said self-driving cars that could drive “anywhere” would be here within two or three years.  Later he doubled down on that prediction saying that Tesla robotaxis would debut by 2020. Others made similar, but less dramatic, predictions about self-driving cars. But many who study artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies say that creating a fully self-driving automobile will take decades or may never happen at all. My point is not mock Elon Musk who is obviously amazing. Instead I’m interested in us – you and me. Sociologists have noticed that we have confidence in people who display certainty in their predictions, while we are less confident in those who make nuanced predictions. We know that the future is uncertain, yet we follow those who say it is certain, even after they make repeated bad predictions. The least reliable political pundits are the most certain of their analysis and we reward them by listening to them and increasing their ratings. But don’t blame the pundits. It’s those who follow them who create the situation.

Walking by faith often means trusting when we don’t know what is going to happen. My life of faith has been an exercise in constantly making decisions without enough information, without certainty about what will, or even might, happen. That’s uncomfortable. It’s much harder than shopping for the opinion I want. But it’s also less dangerous, which is counterintuitive.

Things that didn’t happen

The news is about things that happen. Steven Pinker points out that we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” So things that did not happen usually go unreported, unless you are Jesse Smollet.

Disasters avoided are also not news unless it’s a close call. I read an article by a guy who worked in the the Bush White House on the president’s pandemic preparedness plan and it’s implementation. The president was gung-ho. At the time, this guy thought it was useless, unimportant work. He slogged through it. The effort hardly made the news, until recently, of course. If things that didn’t happen aren’t news, preparations for them are something even less. The Jesse Smollet exception to this rule is nuclear war. I grew up with preparations for nuclear war always in the news. We were big on preparing for that.

Can we make outbreaks of new deseases the kind of motivating threat that nuclear is, or at least was? SARS wasn’t enough, nor was MERS, although those were enough for places like Taiwan and South Korea. We can’t expect our politicians to put big efforts into things nobody cares about, that the news media passes over for any other story, and rightly so because we wouldn’t read it. Expecting politicians to put effort into something that has no hope of making the news or capturing voter interest; good luck with that.

The partisan blame game has predictably started. I would have preferred that we start with voter and news media repentence for deeming pandemic preparations unworthy of the news.