When Prophecy Fails

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Flipping channels today on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere I’m reminded of a famous book in social psychology.

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger, the same researcher who coined “cognitive dissonance,” released a fascinating book in 1956 called When Prophecy Fails.

When prophecies fail, the most fervent believers often double-down on their original beliefs, asserting that their very actions and diligence were precisely what prevented the dire prophecy itself. That is, bad things would have come true had they not acted.

It began when Festinger stumbled on a story in his local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from Planet a Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood.” Budding Scientologist Dorothy Martin of Oak Park, IL typed out a dire prediction: a devastating flood would arrive just before dawn on December 21st, 1954 and consume the earth. (In Festinger’s subsequent book, Dorothy Martin was given the alias Marian Keech.)

A small but fervent apocalyptic cult formed around Keech’s prophecy.

Dozens of people believed. They gave away worldly possessions, left jobs, dropped out of college, even left spouses. In so doing, their own actions cemented their certainty and demonstrated their commitment to the prophecy. They reinforced one another.

Yet December 21st, 1954 came and went uneventfully. The prophecy never happened. So what became of those who believed so fervently in the prophecy? It turns out most of them believed even more strongly that they were right. But how?

About 4AM that morning, their leader told them at they had been spared because of the “force of Good and light” that the group members themselves had spread. And because of this, most of them ended up believing in the cult even more fervently.

In the book, Festinger and his associates recount how they had inflitrated Keech’s group, and they provided this sequence of events:

  • Before December 20. The group shunned publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 am, December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 am. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 am. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 am. Another message by “automatic writing” is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

(above bullets from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails)

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing: After the predicted Apocalypse was disproven, most of the believers became more fervent in their belief that Keech was a prophet. A new justification had taken hold among the true believers: the prophecy didn’t come true because those who fervently believed, simply by the strength of their belief, were able to hold off disaster.

Festinger stated that five conditions must be present if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a disconfirmation:

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he or she behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

It will be interesting to watch what happens in the wake of the Mueller investigation whether people (appropriately) move on to other areas of concern or whether they seek to confirm that their actions actually prevented that which they thought would happen.

Elektro, the Smoking Robot of 1937

I’ve always been fascinated by past visions of the future. Science fiction uses the future to tell us something about ourselves, so looking back on past visions of the future, we can learn something about that age and the values, myopia, optimism and fears of the time. It’s also healthy to continually do cross-checks on “how accurate was that prediction” and “what did we miss?” so that we can improve the accuracy of futuristic predictions over time.

Lost in the drama and bloodshed of the WWII age is the story of Elektro, the Smoking Robot.

In an era when we should have been much more focused on the rise of authoritarianism and threats to freedom, we human beings actually built, at great time and expense, a robot that could respond to basic voice commands, talk, distinguish red from green, do confined movements and smoke a cigarette.

Built by Westinghouse in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1937, Elektro was a 7-foot, 250-pound star of the 1939 World’s Fair. Elektro responded to voice commands of the operator, which did basic syllabic recognition. The chest cavity lit up as it recognized each word. Each word set up vibrations which were converted into electrical impulses, which in turn operated the relays controlling eleven motors. What mattered was how many impulses were sent by the operator, not what was actually said.

Check out this video to see a full demonstration of what Elektro could do, from The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair:

The Tin Man was to make his appearance on film that year, in the 1939 release The Wizard of Oz.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hitler was set to invade Poland. Alan Turing was off taking mathematics seminars by Wittgenstein in Cambridge, England. His Enigma decoding efforts had not yet begun. But those efforts would, within 3 years, help usher into existence the age of the computing and the programmable machine.

Elektro didn’t house any real software, aside from pre-recorded audio. He also didn’t learn anything — what Elektro could do was entirely predetermined by engineers through circuitry, relays and actuators.

Elektro could:

  • “Recognize” basic spoken words — actually, just distinguish between the number of impulses
  • Do basic audio output (via 78rpm record player)
  • “Walk” and move his hands (thanks to nine motors)
  • Recognize red or green
  • …and of course, smoke

A series of words properly spaced selected the movement Elektro was to make. His fingers, arms and turntable for talking were operated by nine motors, while another small motor worked the bellows so the giant could smoke. The eleventh motor drove the four rubber rollers under each foot, enabling him to walk. He relied on a series of record players, photo voltaic cells, motors and telephone relays to carry out its actions. It was capable to perform 26 routines (movements), and a vocabulary of 700 words. Sentences were formulated by a series of 78 RPM record players connected to relay switches.

Elektro did his talking by means of recordings, thanks to 8 embedded turntables, each of which could be used to give 10-minute talks. Except for an opening talk of about a minute, his other speeches were only a few seconds long. A solenoid activated by electrical impulses in proportion to the harshness or softness of spoken words makes Elektro’s aluminum lips move in rhythm to his speech-making.

Millions stood in line for as many as three hours to watch Elektro during his 20-minute performances at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York City.

The hole in Elektro’s chest was deliberate, since Westinghouse wanted visual proof that no one was inside. As commands were spoken to him, one of two lightbulbs in his chest would flash, letting the operator know he was receiving the signals. He could turn his head side to side and up and down. He talked and his mouth opened and closed. His arms moved independently with articulated fingers.

He also smoked. An embedded bellows system let him puff on a cigarette, which was lit by his operators. Apparently, one of the operators trained to work Elektro (John Angel, shown below) used to smoke a pipe, but then quit when he saw how much buildup was in Elektro during the cleaning after each day.

Elektro was later joined by a robotic dog, Sparko:

After the World’s Fair, the two embarked on a cross-country journey. Apparently, a female companion was planned for Elektro, but when World War II broke out, aluminum was in short supply, Westinghouse was needed on many projects, and the plans to build one were cancelled.