Self-defeating Prophecies: How to navigate the Prophet’s Dilemma.

A self-defeating prophecy is a prediction that prevents what it predicts from happening. It is a prediction that becomes false as a consequence of having been made. That is, self-defeating prophecies come from the belief that X will happen in the future, leading to X’s opposite.

The prophecies are generally about undesirable outcomes, a premonition with negative consequences, and are thus also known as the prophet’s dilemmaEvery prophet of doom with a moral conscience not only fervently hopes that their predictions will be proven wrong, but they will also try their utmost to ensure his predictions will not be borne out.

The Year 2000 problem or Y2K problem is an instance of a self-defeating prophecy. Y2K refers to the possible errors related to the formatting and storage of calendar data for dates in and after the year 2000 in computers. In the 1990s, many computer programs used only the final two digits to represent four-digit years, making the year 2000 indistinguishable from 1900. Computer systems’ inability to distinguish dates correctly could bring down worldwide infrastructures for industries ranging from banking to air travel. It was predicted that massive technology failures were due to occur in the Year 2000 caused by computers’ internal clocks rolling over to the new millennium . However, the massive propaganda encouraged concerted efforts to fix it in advance to avoid those failures.

Other examples of possible self defeating Prophecies are :

  • If an economic crisis is predicted, consumers, manufacturers, and authorities will respond to avoid economic loss, breaking the chain of events that would lead to crisis. 
  • Predictions of environmental issues are sometimes corrected via legislation or behavior change and thus never happen.
  • Epidemics (such as Coronavirus) with grim projections also encourage changes that can prevent those projections from coming true. Massive intervention measures were made by governments worldwide to counter the Covid 19 pandemic, and many are being made time and again with subsequent waves and new strains emerging. However, many people question the necessity of these recurrent restrictions and measures because the projections did not come true to be as dire as initially predicted. 

A self-defeating prophecy can result from preventive action, defiance, or dissent to the prediction or warning. Suppose the subject or a populace of a prediction is interested in seeing it negated or prevented, and its fulfillment depends on their actions or inaction. In that case, then, the subject’s actions are likely to make the prediction less plausible on being mindful of the prediction. The prediction itself leads to behavior change which in turn changes the outcome. This is a characteristic of what is sometimes called “level two chaotic systems.”

Self-defeating vs. Self-fulfilling Prophecies

It is essential to distinguish a self-defeating prophecy from a self-fulfilling prophecy that predicts a negative outcome. If a prophecy of a negative outcome is made, and that negative outcome is achieved as a result of positive feedback, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if a group of people decides they will not be able to achieve a goal and stop working towards the goal. As a result, their prophecy was self-fulfilling. Likewise, if a prediction of a negative outcome is made, but the outcome is positive because of negative feedback resulting from the preventive action or defiance, then that is a self-defeating prophecy.

It is essential to appreciate the nature of self-defeating prophecies because we know there is no shortage of possible catastrophe that could hit organisations, economies, nations, and whole humanity. In his book, The Precipice : Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord explores the risks to humanity’s future, from the familiar man-made threats of climate change and nuclear war to the potentially greater, more unfamiliar threats from engineered pandemics and advanced artificial intelligence.

“… our lack of concern about these threats is much more to do with not yet believing that there are such threats than it is about seriously doubting the immensity of the stakes.”

– Toby Ord, The Precipice : Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

A downside for the Prophets or Pundits who make self-defeating prophecies is the criticism from skeptics for the failure of their prediction. That leads to the prophet’s dilemma, a strange paradox: as soon as crisis is averted, the cynics come forward and claim that it wasn’t as the “fearmongers” had predicted. In the long run, it leads to distrust, and they risk being branded alarmist for their clairvoyance.

However, a surely worse outcome will be no one paying heed to your warning and ultimately making your prediction of unfavorable event coming true. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but was also cursed that her true prophecies would not be believed. One of the consequences was the fall of Troy to the Greeks. She herself was captured, and then killed.

“The function of sci-fi is not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” 

– Frank Herbert

American biologist Paul Ehrlich made a strong case for how population growth would outstrip food and resource supply in his 1968 best-selling book, The Population Bomb.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

– Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb

Years later, when these predictions did not come true thanks to better distribution and increased food production, Ehrlich even suggested that his predictions were not wrong but may have helped create the solution. 

How much should environmental scientists or campaigners stoke probable future crises? If they believe a calamity is approaching (species extinction, climate change, resource depletion, etc.), should they tell the worst-case story to draw attention and generate action?

When your prediction foretells an undesirable eventuality or a catastrophe, you desire your forecast to be proved wrong. Even at the potential cost of being branded a pessimist or naysayer, it is our moral duty to make aware of possible future risks, big or small. 

“So if we drop the baton, succumbing to an existential catastrophe, we would fail our ancestors in a multitude of ways. We would fail to achieve the dreams they hoped for; we would betray the trust they placed in us, their heirs; and we would fail in any duty we had to pay forward the work they did for us. To neglect existential risk might thus be to wrong not only the people of the future but the people of the past.”

– Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

However, to avoid the dilemma while making your prediction public, 

a. Seek endorsements from other experts.

b. Call attention to the way the prediction can fail. 

c. Ensure to have adequately illustrated counter argumentation, a process whereby you ask yourself or enlist the help of others about how your initial assumptions and beliefs might be wrong.

d. Acknowledge Unknowns and unforeseen positive events which may defeat the prophecy.

In case your prediction entails minor or frivolous consequences, you could follow the advice of English educator and philosopher, Lawrence Pearsall Jacks. 

“If you want your predictions to come true, keep them to yourself.”

– Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, The Alchemy of Thought


Leave a Reply