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By Leigh Rich

JANUARY 12, 1998:  HEAVY PSI: Unearth those bunkers and stock up on Spam, the end of the world is near. This is nothing new--prophets have been talking about it for, well, millennia. The Great Pyramid of Giza supposedly dates world annihilation to the year 2001. The ancient and exceedingly accurate Mayan calendar spares us till 2012. And the Vikings and the Celts predicted a catastrophic, and ultimately apocalyptic, battle between good and evil merely two years from now.

Can chaos and nihility be so close at hand? Is entropy the order of the day?

Today's psychics--at least the ones making predictions in our favorite supermarket tabloids--don't see such Armageddon in our future. But then, they have a pretty spotty record.

Gene Emery, a columnist with those ghost-busting killjoys at the Skeptical Inquirer, tracks the tabloid predictions every year. In the January/February issue of SI, he reviews 1997's prognostications, which were less than accurate. Among the predictions (culled from the National Enquirer, the Star and the National Examiner) that didn't materialize in 1997:

Martha Stewart did not become the fifth wife of the Sultan of Brunei.

Bryant Gumble did not end up with five different wives after joining a religious cult that preachers polygamy.

Kathie Lee Gifford did not get scooped up by space aliens for five weeks and end up dumped in the Colorado wilderness with amnesia five weeks later, all while a massive worldwide search was underway.

Fergie did not join the cast of Melrose or marry Calvin Klein.

Madonna did not become so concerned about the quality of children's television that she bought the right to The Mickey Mouse Club so she could revive the show and star in it.

Jerry Seinfeld did not have his character killed off in a freak bathroom accident (although Jerry is keeping a tight lid on his plans for that final show this spring).

Meanwhile, we happened to be watching Montel one recent afternoon when we spotted "world-renowned" psychic Sylvia Browne spinning ho-hum insights involving weather disasters and medical breakthroughs: hurricanes plague Florida and California, allergies worsen with increasing molds, and new medications promise relief for AIDS and multiple sclerosis patients. Puh-leeze, any pro-simian with a New York Times and an eye for headlines could prognosticate as much. (Though her multiple sclerosis "prediction" already came true. The Weizmann Institute reported successful clinical trials of its MS drug, Rebif, early last year.)

A few of Browne's predictions, however, pack potential as future movies of the week. Japan's volcanic eruption could bring Lois and Clarke's Dean Anderson back to the TV forefront, and an earthquake in Madrid might just divert network attention from future Robin Cook adaptations. Most exciting, of course, will be the end of the Internal Revenue Service and "inevitable" institution of Steve Forbes' flat tax. Go ahead, Sylvia, taunt the IRS.

With the death of Jeane Dixon (known for supposedly predicting John F. Kennedy's assassination), the Star's tabloid divinations are even less revealing. Based on tarot cards read by somone calling herself Athena Starwoman, 1998 promises the usual ups and downs for Hollywood's favorites. Katie Couric will remain interminably perky, Tom Cruise fabulously wealthy, and Charles and Camilla continually scrutinized.

As for Princess Di, whose spectacular exit was somehow overlooked by psychics worldwide, Browne blames the tragedy on a yet-to-be-revealed remote-controlled computer chip placed surreptitiously in the car. Hardly even a well-versed hypothesis, her accusation sounds more like a bad James Bond plot.

To Montel's probing question, "Will 1998 be better than 1997," Browne reassuringly promises, "By 70 percent." Whew! Hate to have the apocalypse marred by down times and bad luck.

But time is arbitrary and death is imminent. The problem with predictions per se, whether Star Brown's or Edgar Cayce's, is they're only good in retrospect. The future is left for history to judge: Either the end came or it didn't. Must humanity idly wait for some cosmic "told you so"? And what action would we take anyway? Even Caesar didn't tiptoe through the Ides of March.

We've come a long way from Nostradamus. Today's soothsayers seem mere charlatans, reiterating the premonitions of the true modern prophet--the scientist. What are Einstein's thought experiments or quantum mechanics if not visions of the future? Forget consulting the cosmic order, science puts destiny within reach. Our fates are not written, our journeys not preordained--we can improve the road ahead and steer clear of disaster. Or create more.

What we do today affects what happens tomorrow. Anyone who's read Ray Bradbury or seen Back to the Future knows as much.


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