Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Blood Miracle" Fails

AS 2016 comes to an end, the general consensus appears to be that it was a pretty bad year. Not only was this the year of one of the weirdest presidential elections in American history, it also was the year of a seemingly unusual number of unexpected deaths. Some of this is probably standard cognitive bias at work - people have a tendency to fixate on the recent past and idealize or forget things from longer ago. But this last Friday, something ominous took place at an Italian cathedral.

In Naples, Italy, a vial of dried blood kept in a cathedral crypt is said to spontaneously liquefy three times a year. Dec. 16, the anniversary of the 1631 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, is one of the liquefaction days. So far, so good! But last week, on the appointed day, the blood remained stubbornly dry. “We must not think of disasters and calamities,” the local abbot said in response, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes one think about disasters and calamities.

The blood supposedly belongs to Saint Januarius, also known as San Gennaro, who was martyred around the turn of the fourth century, according to lore. As the Italian newspaper La Stampa reports, previous occasions of the miracle’s failure coincided with the beginning of World War II and a local cholera outbreak.

It gets worse. Baba Vanga, a blind clairvoyant from Bulgaria who died in 1996, apparently predicted the recent failure. Believers say Baba Vanga also predicted that Barack Obama would be the last American president, which suggests something alarming will take place before inauguration day. “The Nostradamus of the Balkans” also supposedly predicted the 2004 tsunami, the rise of ISIS, and 9/11: “Horror, horror! The American brethren will fall after being attacked by the steel birds.” (It’s not clear why she didn’t just call them “airplanes.” Do not question Baba Vanga.)

So to apply a little critical thinking here, it's hard to determine how accurate these prophecies are when presented with only snippets and interpretations. I will grant that if the "steel bird" prediction was specific enough to name New York City or September 2001 it might be an impressive hit. However, I'll bet that it didn't, and not only that, I suspect that the phrase "steel bird" was used precisely so it could just as easily apply to planes, missiles, or pretty much anything else that flies - making the prediction more likely to "come true."

As far as the blood miracle itself goes, it's hard to say what might be going on. Scientists have argued that the "miracle" is a natural phenomenon, and even if we consider it paranormal anyway, the start of World War II and a local cholera epidemic are nowhere near the same scale of event. In fact, if you look closely enough at just about any day you can find something bad that happened somewhere in the world. So the liquefaction could depend on some natural factor and have nothing to do with any calamities.

Seeing if anything unusual happens between now and Donald Trump's inauguration will make for a good test. As is generally the case with these predictions, they usually fall apart the moment that they are subjected to strict scrutiny. But I suppose we'll be able to say for sure in a month.

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