Fortune Tellers and Tsunamis by Christopher G. Moore

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Over the weekend a well-known Thai fortune-teller predicted that Andaman coastal provinces will be hit by a tsunami on Thursday (30 December 2010). The Bangkok Post reported that some tourists reportedly canceled hotel bookings as a result. In Thailand, people take astrology and fortune telling as seriously as Americans who believe, based on the bible, that the earth was created 10,000 years ago. Well we all know the earth was created at least 15,000 years ago so we can dismiss the contrary view. As for going up against the received wisdom of fortune-tellers, what is Thai government going to do when a seer predicts gloom and doom at a major tourist spot at the height of the tourist season? After all, almost everyone in the government wears amulets, visits fortune-tellers to consult for the most auspicious time to call an election, open Parliament, get married, get divorced, and that is just the beginning.

But this fortune-teller was threatening to break a Walmart mega-warehouse worth of rice bowls. One approach was to bring in the director of the Meteorological Department to confirm from its earthquake and tsunami research and development division, “that while no one could predict the precise timing of an earthquake, the department had improved its monitoring systems and disaster response strategies.” If that isn’t a slug in the gut of the fortune-teller, I don’t know what is.

Think about it. Fortune-telling is based on the ability of the seer to predict the precise timing of future unknown events. That’s why generals, politicians, housewives, students, lovers, taxi drivers, bar girls, and just about anyone else you can think of, pay money to Thai fortune-tellers because they can see their future. So what the Meteorological Department has done is to climb way out on a cultural branch of belief and started to saw. The department has cut through the branch by suggesting a scientific monitoring system is superior to mystical forces a fortune-teller is connected to. Who is going to win this battle? Scientist or the fortune-tellers? Don’t hold your breath that this will ever be a close vote in this neck of the woods. Red, yellow, all colors united on this front.

Telling what happens next has always been a tricky business. For countless centuries people relied on astrologers and fortune-tellers to give them comfort. But things haven’t been going well for their industry as men and women in white lab coats have been breaking their rice bowls.

This tsunami prediction is just one example where we find science has reared its ugly head and spit in the mystical eye of the seer. Try getting a professor of geology to make a public statement that the earth is about 4.54 billion years old. He’ll be lucky if he can be inducted into the Federal Witness Protection Program after Fox does a report with all those nice graphics showing that without doubt this anti-religion monster had lied about the age of the earth in the United States—it may be older elsewhere—but in America it’s 10,000 years old. He would be vilified on Fox Network for his atheistic views broadcast during the most holy of holidays.

But this is Thailand. And no one here seems to have a fixed position on the age of the earth or the age of the ground that is called Thailand. Geology, the age of the earth, and earth formation are part and parcel of the forces that create tsunamis. In case, though, the Meteorological Department’s reliance on science doesn’t give enough comfort to tourist thinking of their Phuket beach holiday, there is a second arrow to the government’s bow.

The provincial governor, according The Bangkok Post story urged “people not to panic” over the fortune teller’s prediction, as he said the province had disaster preparedness strategies, warning systems and evacuation plans in place. This appears to be official fence sitting. Unlike the Meteorological Department’s position which could read as dismissive of the fortune-teller’s predictable powers, the government official’s fall back position is we have a way to get everyone off the beaches in time. You know, just in case the tsunami hits on 30th December.

Come to Phuket. The fortune-teller was wrong. I can say this with confidence the tsunami prediction was wrong as this is Friday and the seas are calm. Of course, it might be next Thursday and the fortune-teller got the week wrong. Once the seed of doubt is sewn, it is human nature to phone of the travel agent and ask if there is a nice beach somewhere in Malaysia, Vietnam or Cambodia that they would recommend, and by the way, doubt check to see if any local fortune-tellers in those countries have issued any high tide alerts.

Happy New Year to All.

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