2203: Prescience

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Lots of people called their ships unsinkable before the Titanic. Voicing your hubris doesn't make failure more likely, just more memorable.
Title text: Lots of people called their ships unsinkable before the Titanic. Voicing your hubris doesn't make failure more likely, just more memorable.


In this comic, Cueball states that it's been a long time since there's been a really big meteor impact. Due to the Gambler's Fallacy, this is taken to be Cueball implying that a big meteor impact is coming soon. The off-panel voice is annoyed about his statement, but whether from fear of it happening or because he does this all the time is unclear, see more below. The joke is that Cueball does this often, also with other types of major random events, just in case they do actually happen soon. For instance, if there does happen to be an impact soon after he made the statement, it makes him look incredibly prescient, whereas if there isn't one, no one really cares or remembers.

It is also unclear how big an impact he refers to. It has been 60 million years since the impact that killed the dinosaurs, but that if that is the type of event he refers to, then maybe no one will be there to remember what he said. So, it is likely much smaller impacts he is talking about. Prescience means to predict the future. It is clear from this comic that Randall makes fun of both of those that claim to have prescience and of those that have a superstition against talking about something happening that could cause it to happen. Although only one method is scientifically recognized, there are at least three possible sources of prescience recognized by people.

The first of the two main ways of predicting the future involves a mix of common sense and historical knowledge. By understanding the past, the direction of the future can be guessed at with varying levels of accuracy. This type of prescience is also known sometimes as future modelling, statistical prediction, psychohistory, and even wisdom to name a few. The second way to predict the future is not scientifically recognized but remains popular in culture and fiction. It can involve magic, psychic power, higher powers (gods), and other such methods. Collectively, they are labelled supernatural; any method to predict the future using this class of method cannot be easily measured by science.

Although not technically a way to predict the future, the third way to predict the future is through superstition. The method involved in this comic effectively boils down to "speak the name of evil, and you will summon it." This superstition can have surprising power in people's lives, however. A woman planning her outdoor wedding may feel the urge to hit her friend if they say "Gosh, I hope it doesn't rain on that day." A doctor working in the Emergency Room may feel the need to kick anyone who says "Wow, it's really quiet around here." Such thoughts spoken aloud do not have the power to control the weather or cause people to seriously injure themselves. Yet people often react emotionally as if not speaking the name of 'evil' will keep it away.

This comic may reflect that emotional reaction when the off-screen character yells at Cueball: "Will you stop that?!". Alternatively, it is one, like Megan, who knows Cueball well enough to know that which is stated in the caption, that he only does this to look good if said thing happens. And the person is so tired of it! Maybe Cueball does it at least once a week, and obviously from the caption, it is not only about meteor impact, but any major random event, that he could then be remembered as having predicted. The title has a double meaning. The first meaning is about the prescience that would appear if one actually predicts a natural disaster this way. The second meaning involves the fact that it is spelled pre-science - since there are many more scientific ways to predict meteor impacts, even though they aren't entirely accurate. This comic has a clear resemblance to the My Hobby series. This would also make it clear the Cueball in this comic is actually Randall. The entire setup and punch line of this comic is very similar to this old comic: 525: I Know You're Listening, and 628: Psychic and 858: Milk also use the idea of guessing something that will make you look special.

The title text refers to the RMS Titanic, a ship which was claimed to be unsinkable by those promoting its maiden voyage. The use of multiple water-tight compartments allowed the ship to suffer a moderate amount of damage without sinking. Unfortunately, there existed a way for the ship to suffer damage in a way which caused more compartments to be filled with water than it could survive; and, therefore, it could — and eventually did — sink. But with all the news stories that had just been published hailing this unsinkable ship as a modern wonder of the world, this shipwreck was particularly ironic. The story of the sinking of the Titanic has been memorialized in popular culture, most memorably in the 1997 film Titanic.

In the title text, Randall thus suggests that lots of ships had been called unsinkable before Titanic. But saying such hubris aloud doesn't make any ship more likely to sink. But when such a ship, like Titanic, then sinks it does, however, increase the value of the story ensuring it will be remembered. It should be noted that few among the ship's builders or crew boasted the Titanic to be unsinkable. Most of the boasting came from the owners that used the news media of the day to create hype and promote their ship, just when the ship was finished and dedicated (the ship's builders did, however, boast that the ship exceeded all safety standards of the time). In addition, the hubris was only one small part of the fame of the sinking of the Titanic; the Titanic's status as a world record setter for most massive ship ever built, the incredible wealth of most of its passengers, and the fact it sank on its maiden voyage all contributed to the fame and hype behind the great maritime tragedy.

Ironically, part of what caused this disaster was hubris, since those that were interested in promoting the ship also wished it to make a speed record, by reaching New York a day before expected. Thus, the captain, even though he would have realised that the ship could sink, took the fateful decisions of running at full speed through waters known to contain icebergs during a still night with very calm waters. Spotting icebergs in such conditions is known to be difficult, especially as there will be no notably foaming waves around the icebergs' bases and patchy mists will inconveniently diffuse the horizons and any useful starlight.


[Cueball is sitting in an armchair holding a book. He seems to be looking off as he talks to an off-panel person behind him. This person replies.]
Cueball: You know, it's been a while since there's been a really big meteor impact.
Off-panel voice: Will you stop that?!
[Caption below the panel:]
I say this kind of thing every so often, because I don't believe it affects the outcome and it has a slim chance of looking incredibly prescient.

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I can't remember the last time a sitting President has been struck by lightning. 16:09, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

You know, they still haven't attained world peace. 16:34, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

Don't risk it: there is one remarkably easy way to attain world peace. Just fire all nukes. It will be very peaceful some time after they detonate. The mentioned giant meteor impact would also attain world peace ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:26, 16 September 2019 (UTC)
I'm sceptical. First of all there's not enough carriers (~4k worldwide, maybe much less; the number is for deployed warheads, not necessarily the deliverable ones) to launch all of the nuclear charges (~14k, deployed + in storage). Second, there's far not enough charges themselves, to cover all population centers, from huge to small, much less all habitable areas. One charge is able to destroy a biggish city or a town and contaminate a considerable area - but there's much more than 14k population centers in the world, even if you somehow manage to plant these 10k warheads that don't have an immediate means of delivery. And there are huge rural and sparsely populated areas. ~14k warheads won't scorch all the lands on Earth. Quite many people out of 7.5 billions will survive - and immediately start wars over scarce resources decimated by the nuclear war. What would be the final outcome including long-term effects of all-out nuclear war is very hard to predict. Maybe humans will go extinct, maybe not. Most certainly, life as such would continue to exist. It would take much more energy to sterilize all the biosphere. -- Malgond (talk) 08:24, 17 September 2019 (UTC)
Not sure. There's not just the immediate destruction, after that comes fallout, nuclear winter, radiation... not to mention the level of dependence on technology many societies have reached today. There might be some survivors in the end but that would probably be some indigenous groups in rural areas near the equator. They might be good at world peace after all. -- 14:04, 29 September 2019 (UTC)

I can't find it right now, but reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) story of a Stanford professor who was on the phone to a colleague at Berkeley. Berkeley guy suddenly says "I gotta go, there's an earthquake!", and hangs up. Stanford walks out into the hall, takes a sip of his coffee, looks at his watch and says "hey, aren't we about due for an earthquake?", right before the tremors hit.UStralian (talk) 16:49, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

+1. I came here explicitly to relate this anecdote! John.Adriaan (talk) 02:02, 17 September 2019 (UTC)
I found a more formal telling of this story in Randall's blag at https://blog.xkcd.com/2011/08/24/earthquakes - "I once heard a story (originally told by Kevin Young) about Gerson Goldhaber, who was a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He was talking on the phone with another physicist at SLAC near Stanford University near the end of the day on Tuesday, October 17, 1989..." It turns out the SLAC physicist is the one that reported the earthquake and hung up, and Gerson Goldhaber at Berkeley was the one that impressed others with his earthquake prediction powers. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 04:19, 18 September 2019 (UTC)

I love the pun in the title between _prescience_ (awareness of the future) and _pre-science_ (before science)... Gidds (talk) 17:17, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

This is the way most tech bloggers operate these days. Throw enough mud up against the wall, and some of it will stick.  Print enough rumors and suppositions, and eventually one of them will prove to be correct.RAGBRAIvet (talk) 20:46, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

The worst example is actually economists. There are some who always predict a downturn. They keep saying it and being proven wrong, year after year...until when one finally comes they're suddenly on all the talking head shows with the host saying "this guy predicted the recession. Now he's going to tell us what's coming next and how to get out of it." — especially if the way to get out of it involves the broken window fallacy of "stimulus spending". — Kazvorpal (talk) 21:52, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

Not sure about unsinkable, but there were several Invincible ships ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:48, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

I saw this article awhile ago, which I feel like may have inspired this comic? 22:53, 16 September 2019 (UTC)

Given that Randall has made other comics both like this (see #Trivia) and with end of the world scenario, I do not think he was inspired by some random article from a week before. But it is fine to have it mentioned here in the discussion. --Kynde (talk) 13:19, 18 September 2019 (UTC)
Recent news of the continued deterioration of the Titanic wreck may have inspired the title text - of course, that ship was deemed "virtually unsinkable". 17:33, 20 September 2019 (UTC)

Saying something that have more importance if you are correct reminds me of [this] 04:50, 17 September 2019 (UTC)

What about connecting this and https://xkcd.com/628/, which also discussed Cueball using random coincidence to impress people. 19:35, 17 September 2019 (UTC)
I have added both 525 and 628 and Lupo has since added 858: Milk to a trivia. And all these other three now also have this trivia connecting them. Thanks for remembering. --Kynde (talk) 13:15, 18 September 2019 (UTC)

ESP style prescience can and has been measured by science. The measured value is zero, with tight bounds. 16:50, 20 September 2019 (UTC)