Messages from heaven?

Statistician William Briggs posted an article on his site titled The Fourth Crisis Of The Church & Pope Francis. Briggs is very critical towards the reformation attempts by the pope.

I replied to this article, which triggered a reaction by another reader, and I followed that up. I copy the small discussion here:

I agree partially with you, but not on everything, e.g. on the role of women in the church. In my opinion our pope tends to the right direction for that subject, whereas he is wrong on secular issues such as migration and AGW.

It is hard for humans to know God’s intentions for us. Jesus did not give clear instructions about many issues, such as the possible clerical roles for women. So in principle part of the current church rules may be wrong. How can God communicate clarifications to us? He cannot send some paperwork to earth, or a CD-Rom or USB stick. His messaging should probably be through prophets and/or spiritual visionaries. Many people may claim to be a prophet or visionary, but how to judge their reliability? Somehow God should provide accompanying evidence.

The following case relates to my earlier stated opinion.

My late father studied for decades claimed apparitions from heaven, and tried to judge their reliability and interpret the messages. One source he investigated were the so called apparitions of Mary in Amsterdam, from 1945 to 1959, under the title Lady of All Nation. On 10 December 1950 the seer, named Ida Peerdeman, reported:

“THEN IT IS AS IF THE LADY UNITES THOSE TWO ROWS OF PEOPLE. SHE BRINGS THEM TOGETHER WITH AN ARCH. NOW I SEE ENDLESS ROWS OF MEN AND WOMEN NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER. THEN ALL OF A SUDDEN THAT ARCH FORMS A LARGE DOME, AND ABOVE THAT DOME IT FORMS INTO A LARGE CHURCH. INSIDE THAT CHURCH I SEE THE FOLLOWING IMAGE APPEAR: A WHITE DOVE EMITTING RAYS OF LIGHT.”

From this my father concluded that women should have access to the same roles as men in the church. I think this conclusion is warranted, assuming that the apparitions are genuine.

In the decades of the Amsterdam apparitions the church dismissed these, partly because some of the messages are critical of the church. However, in the nineties bishop Bomers of Haarlem, to whose diocese Amsterdam belongs, became supportive. In 2002 his successor Punt concluded that the Amsterdam apparitions are of supernatural origin. A few years later this recognition was undermined somewhat by Archbishop Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So who is right in this? My father was convinced that the church had not carefully investigated the case of Amsterdam. In the second half of 1965 he noticed some remarkable coincidences, seeming to imply that a specific dream of saint Don Bosco would soon apply to the Dutch bishops. In January 1966 my father wrote a warning letter to the seven Dutch bishops, stating three of them might soon die. This came quite accurately true. 18 years later my father found that this tale matched some passages in the book of Revelation.

More details are here on my web site.

What could a statistician say about the significance of such coincidences?

Josh the Aspie replied to me:

@André van Delft

Speaking as someone who is trained in statistics: Loads of people make load of claims. Gather enough together, and sift through them all, and you will still find many who had claims for the (then) future that came true. This is not necessarily due to the qualities of the individual, but due to there being a probabalistic distribution, and a large enough sample size.

Those claiming to be able to predict future events often keep events fairly vague (in the “near future” 3 of 7 old men will die. However could I have predicted that?)

And those supporting these people will often ignore the ways in which a prediction was wrong, or the times when the prediction was entirely wrong.

Future-reading scams are often built around this principle. In fact, there was an episode of mathlock built around this idea. And by the way, no, that’s not a typo. I’m talking about a sub-show inside the old children’s math TV show “321 countdown”.

There may be modern day prophets with visions by God. But before I even say “Yes, there are” I will need deeper bible study, since I have seen controversy over that question… let alone whether any individual is in fact prophesying the future, or new revelations of instructions from God.

And I answered:

@Josh,

It was not just about “3 of 7 old men will die”. You can read details in the pages that I linked to. A short summary:

The letter pointed at 2 bishops in particular (Haarlem implicitly and Breda explicitly), for improper handling alleged apparitions. These two bishops were among the three that died.
Two days after sending the warning letter, the newspapers reported that one of the bishops (of ‘s Hertogenbosch) had been diagnosed a brain tumor.
The first bishop died on the eve of the date that my father had mentioned as possible starting date.
The letter took about a half year of preparation. During that period my father took two striking events as a confirmation he was on the right track.
One of these was the comet Ikeya Seki, which broke in October 1965 in three pieces just before its perihelion. Its journey through the constellations matched elements of the prophesies by Daniel and the Revelation, and of apparitions in Garabandal, exactly 4 years earlier.

My father had never had an apparition himself nor did he ever hear a strange voice or so. He held a PhD in economics, and he aimed to study supernatural phenomena in a scientific way. He studied the bible, alleged apparitions and real world events. He reasoned and wrote, and published at irregular intervals.

He had a mail discussion with bishop Simonis of Rotterdam, who would later become the archbishop of Utrecht and head of the Dutch church province.
Simonis did not believe in the Amsterdam apparitions, and he sincerely asked my father what criteria he would propose to discriminate between real and false apparitions. My father replied that he could not give such straight criteria, because then the devil would be able to abuse this. The only thing that he trusted was whether the coincidences are striking enough.

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