Witches to Be Held Accountable for Bad Predictions; Why Only Them?

In Romania, life has gotten even harder for practicing witches, as spelled out in a recent A.P. article:

A month after Romanian authorities began taxing them for their trade, the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don’t come true.

Fines or prison if a prediction fails to come true?

Witches argue they shouldn’t be blamed for the failure of their tools. “They can’t condemn witches, they should condemn the cards,” Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told The Associated Press by telephone. … Sometimes, she argued, people don’t provide their real identities, dates of birth or other personal details, which could skew a seer’s predictions. “What about when the client gives false details about themselves? We can’t be blamed for that.”

Seems like a sensible argument. But if I were Queen Witch (for a day), I might frame my argument a bit differently: As soon as the government starts to punish all fortune-tellers — including macroeconomists, financial analysts, government officials, sports pundits and the like — for their wayward predictions, I will gladly join the throng. Until then: no deal.

InTrade is an example of a prediction market that punishes bad predictions. Unfortunately, participation is voluntary. Wouldn’t it be nifty if anyone who made a prediction that other people use to make important decisions about their lives could be held accountable when their predictions turn out to be wrong? Should there maybe be a “prediction tax” for macroeconomists, financial analysts, sports pundits and the rest?

(Let’s do give credit, meanwhile, where credit is due: at the start of the most recent NFL season, Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicted that Green Bay would meet Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Sadly for me, his prediction of a Pittsburgh victory didn’t work out.)

And no, it is of course not a new thing to punish “witches” during tough times. Here’s a pair of related graphics from SuperFreakonomics Illustrated:

Below, a 16th-century account of a witch burning in Schiltach, Germany. The woman in question “was burned and thirty-six items were read out loud that she confessed to. Most shameful, horrible, and damaging things, how she caused mischief and harm to animals and people. For eighteen years she was working with the Devil, and her own mother herself had taught her”:

Claudia Hall Christian

I wish we could tax the weather speculators as their predictions, here in Denver, are more wrong than right. Take, for example, the last snowstorm that only had a 10% chance of hitting Denver. That 10% didn't change until 2 hours into dumping snow...

A hell, let's burn them at the stake instead... ;)

Eileen M Wyatt

What I'd like is for everybody who claims to be highly intuitive and "just has feelings about things" to keep a nice spreadsheet of these intuitions for a month or two and see how many pan out.

I've tried it, and the most interesting results involved there being categories of situations in which my "intuition" gets results markedly worse than chance: that is, my gut feelings should simply be ignored.


This stokes an abiding fear that torments me concerning the "legalization" of drugs, which I strongly favor (legalization, that is, not drugs, per se). Allowing contraband to go legit seems only to subject it to the torment of regulation. litigation and taxation. A different set of feds in a different set of windbreakers will be sure to spoil the fun.


Reminds me of something from "Reminiscences of a Stock Operator".... Two guys got so tired of a CEO giving them stock tips that, time after time, turned out the exact opposite, that one of the guys decided to give him what for. "Wait! Don't do that!" the other guy exclaimed. "He'll never give us any more tips if you do!"

Same with economists. Hope springs eternal that they will finally get one right. And the truth is, that since economists are all over the board, it's almost certain that SOMEONE will get the right answer--even if by complete accident.

Then we hitch our wagon to that school of thought for a while...until another school of thought accidentally gets one right.

Further, if televangelists are any indication, people remember only the right "prophecies," and will overlook and forget a hundred wrong ones if you just get on right.

Then, of course, there is the conspiracy theorist. He claims the market will crash in, say, 2012. If it doesn't, he finds, lo and behold, that he missed some important data, and instead it will happen in 2015.

If it happens before or after that date, he gets to say, "Well, my prediction was right, but my timing was off."

It's a scam. And economists are part of it. They are GUESSERS, just like everyone else when it comes to the future (though, in all fairness, they do try to reason their way to their conclusions).

The difference is that economists are part of the accepted power structure of our nation. Besides, if we give them what for, they might not give us any more tips!

(Said with all due respect to Steven Levitt, whom I admire. Of course, Freakonomics, as much as I love it, is the science of hindsight: When this or that was done, look at this unexpected thing that happened. It doesn't prove or tell us anything much about the future--so hurrah for them!)



Holding predictors accountable would probably cause the simple result of their being almost no concrete, non-obvious predictions. Any predictions would be loaded down with vagueness, hedges and weasel words so as to render them unprovable.

Alberto Ferrer

Let's not forget weather forecasters.


I wonder if there's a correlation between lower temperatures and lower libido in women, and if that has anything to do with it. Probably not, it's just a thought that occurred to me.

Eric M. Jones

The Holy Bible tells us to kill and burn witches. Don't you believe God's Word?

Exodus 22:18 says, "Suffer not (Don't allow) a witch to live." Deuteronomy 18:10 says, "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch."

I predict all our fortunes would improve if we examined the live entrails of hedge-fund managers and big bankers.

Jus' sayin'.... now back to my Wiccan morning alectromancy.


What a silly idea. Anyone (including the government) who employs economists to make forecasts is free to fire them if their predictions don't pan out. But good luck finding someone better; as it turns out, accurate macroeconomic forecasting is very difficult.

Nacho Torres

So, the answer to global warming is to start persecuting women?


Perhaps the people would stop persecuting the witches when it was nice out because they could do more useful things with their time, but when the times are bad there is nothing better to do than find a common enemy to blame. Correlation is not causation, but it is interesting to see nonetheless.


They should have to prove damages from believing the predictions....

Anyway, last May the SEC shut down a fund in which the founder claimed to have (and be using) psychic powers to predict movement in the stock market: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/s-e-c-charges-psychic-with-securities-fraud/


I read a statistic that the Groundhog is wrong 75% of the time, meaning that if the Groundhog sees his shadow, historically there is only a 25% chance of 6 more weeks of winter.

So if you just take the prediction and flip it around, you've got a 75% chance of getting it right.

In more general terms, there's no problem with a soothsayer (or economist or sportscaster) who is consistently wrong. The problem is when they are right half the time.


Like the "Queen Witch" comment: If we're to jail witches (who as non-experts are likely to provide BETTER predictions than experts, according to studies), we should jail economists who fail to predict major changes in economic trends or predict them incorrectly, politicians who fail to predict outcomes of legislation and wars and business leaders who fail to produce to their business plans. In fact, I sense a science fiction book in there somewhere....


It's amazing that in this day and age people are still consulting seers and psychics. Why aren't they arrested and put in jail. They are no different than the scams of the three card monte street dealers.

People want guarantees in life and it comes with none. When it comes down to it, it's all predictions from the morning you get up 'till the next morning-every day of your life.

UpperWestSide Mike

Let's not forget to acknowledge the brief, wondrous life of Paul the Octopus.

Eric M. Jones

@13--Matthias: "I read a statistic that the Groundhog is wrong 75% of the time, meaning that if the Groundhog sees his shadow, historically there is only a 25% chance of 6 more weeks of winter."

Unfortunately the opposite of 75% wrong is not 25% right. This is more likely an intransitive condition. I likewise wondered if losing money on the stock market is the opposite of making money in the market. (Which would simplify my investment.) I would "Buy" when I feel a strong desire to "Sell. But life doesn't work that way.

Mr. Sensitive

So if value is the current perceipton of future anticipations, will they lose their values in Romania?

Impossibly Stupid

I'd say the real question is what separates one kind of fortune teller from another. Perhaps weather and stock prediction that isn't based on reliable science *should* be classified as witchcraft. That's the direction I'd take: immediately start accusing those in power who make incorrect predictions under the existing witchcraft laws, and leave it to them to figure out what stricter laws mean.

"You say your new jobs program will reduce unemployment by 3%, but I say you're actually basing that prediction on witchcraft, and I will prosecute you thusly if you are not correct."

Not that I think pseduo-science should be given a pass, but too often it is countered by a different brand of pseudo-science. If *nobody* could pass a dunk test, it makes little sense to forward it as something that detects witches. Neither should accuracy be the test in modern times. Worse, it adds an air of legitimacy to witchcraft when, by sheer chance, their predictions *do* happen to be correct!



Witches faced greater persecution in times of cold weather; could it be then that the witches were burned for warmth?