Fri 10 Sep 99 20:47
Steve Quarrella
"Bible Code" debunked

[SQ note: We'd have been HAPPY to do this for them. :) ]

Scholars Debunk "Bible Code"

NEW YORK Sep 10 -- An international team of statisticians is debunking the controversial "Bible code," which claims the Old Testament has hidden references to 20th century events that can be revealed by a computer.

Proponents of the code claim that names and events were hidden in the Bible as written thousands of years ago and can be found through computer searches of the Hebrew text. Television documentaries, fast-selling books and numerous articles have popularized the theory, first published in the academic journal Statistical Science.

Now the same journal, published by the Institute of Mathematical Statistics based in Hayward, Calif., is offering an article challenging the technique it reported in 1994. The article will be published in the quarterly next week.

Believers in the "Bible code" theory treat the Hebrew Bible as a string of letters without spaces, looking for words formed by equidistant letter sequences. For instance, computers might select every ninth Hebrew letter and register a "hit" when a "coded word" intersects with a Bible verse containing related words.

Five years ago, three Israeli scholars published the results of their search in the journal. As they explained, they took names of famous rabbis from a reference dictionary, applied letter sequences and found the names near the rabbis' dates of birth or death.

Using the same technique, others have claimed the Bible contains secret predictions, including everything from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 to a Los Angeles earthquake in 2010.

Major Bible scholars ignore the code because, they note, no one has a letter-by-letter version of the Bible as originally written. The oldest surviving manuscripts include slight variations, any of which would throw off computer test results.

In the upcoming edition of Statistical Science, the new study's authors -- Dror Bar-Natan, Maya Bar-Hillel and Gil Kalai, professors at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and Brendan McKay of the Australian National University -- combine expertise in mathematics and computer science to debunk the theory.

Using other spellings and assumptions, they ran hundreds of tests that repeated the experiment with different variations and applied it to more biblical books.

"Despite a considerable amount of effort," they write, "we have been unable to detect the codes."

This is significant, Bar-Natan said in a Thursday interview, because "truth in science is never based on the results of a single experiment. A significant requirement is repeatability."

Their results were no more successful with the Hebrew translation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Such letter configurations can be found in any long text, they say. The trick is to find letters in close proximity that form significant words more often than by chance.

But Eliyahu Rips, an Israeli mathematics professor who was co-author of the 1994 article, said in a statement that evidence for the code is "stronger than ever" and said a detailed reply to the new criticism would appear soon.

His ally Michael Drosnin, author of "The Bible Code," said the critics "told a lie."

Robert Kass, head of the statistics department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, edited the journal when it published the first article and said it was reviewed by other experts. He is disturbed that people perceived publication as "a stamp of scientific approval." That first article, he said, merely presented a puzzle -- one that has now been explained.

"The new study shows there were many, many choices, particularly for things like the names of the rabbis, that involved a lot of latitude. It was only for special sources that the results appeared," he said Thursday.

He said such studies must avoid statistical "tuning," just as medical research projects follow strict protocol.

Bar-Natan says that procedures in the 1994 project had "enough wiggle room to produce whatever you want."

Authors of the earlier article could not be reached for comment.


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