New “Knowing” Film Based on Numerology and Bible Code Pseudoscience

March 19, 2009

In the new film "Knowing," Nicolas Cage plays a professor who is given a piece of paper containing a mysterious number code taken from a time capsule at his son’s school. He decodes the message and realizes that the numbers accurately predicted past disasters—as well as an imminent apocalypse. That last bit, of course, makes it into an interesting movie. If he’d stopped at "discovering" the hidden code, the movie would end with him writing a best-selling New Age self-help book.

Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled "The Bible Code," in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics (including CSI Fellow David E. Thomas) demonstrating that the "meanings" he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.

In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia. It is related to paredolia, the mind’s ability to find faces and images in ambiguous stimuli such as clouds, tortillas, food stains, and so on. In statistics, there is even a name for this type of thinking mistake: a Type I error. A common example of a Type I error is a false positive result on a medical test, for instance detecting a disease.

The premise behind "Knowing" has several roots, including numerology—seeing significance in numbers. Sometimes the significance is said to be lucky (7), unlucky (13), or just somehow evil (666). After the September 11, 2001 attacks, many people found meaningful coincidence or significance in the number 11, such as that the twin towers resembled the number 11, that "New York City" has 11 letters, and so on. With a little effort and creativity you can find or create whatever significance you like.

Of course, the film’s roots in pseudoscientific silliness don’t mean it won’t be an entertaining film. In fact, previews suggest that there will be a token skeptic who gives a brief explanation of apophenia and tries to convince people that it’s all an illusion. And, of course, he will be wrong; such is Hollywood.