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Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction
by Clifford A Pickover
Prometheus Books, $20, ISBN 157392895X
I must confess that I do not like books that are overlong, rambling, repetitive and read like extended schoolboy essays. Unfortunately, this book is all of those things. Many of the over 500 pages are taken up with annotated lists: catalogues of mantic activities organised by method, “my favorite diviners, sorted into three categories”, favourite popes, favourite saints. Each subject is lovingly described. But a look at the notes indicates that the information has been recycled from similar collections and encyclopaedias rather than researched from first-hand or specialist sources. So a canard like the old “intoxicating fumes” explanation for the Delphic Pythia’s predictions appears yet again despite the continuing lack of archaeological or geological support. It is perhaps this absence of deep knowledge that makes so many of the author’s explanations seem superficial and banal. And yet Pickover is, in fact, a skeptic. The book reads like a believer’s book: there are even directions for do-it-yourself divination. But once he has the reader’s interest, he begins to question – gently. He admits, for example, to a personal fascination with Nostradamus and goes on discuss the man himself at length. But he also questions the prophetic value of the quatrains. It’s OK to be fascinated, he seems to be saying, but maybe you ought to think more carefully about this.
By contrast, his quote from Randi that “so many naïve scholars … have pored over Nostradamus’s writings … that thousands of pages of drivel are readily available” reflects a more typical skeptical style. Yet, words like “naïve” and “drivel” insult and disparage all but likeminded readers. Pickover’s softly, softly approach is more likely to encourage reluctant thinkers. I did not find this book satisfying nor do I think that readers of The Skeptic will either. But there is a market out there that many skeptical books fail to reach because they adopt a tone that is off-putting to readers whose beliefs could be challenged if they were approached more sympathetically. These people, I believe, Pickover will reach.