Perfect prognoses

Making hasty recompense for our recent overlooking of Dalrymple’s BMJ column, I give you his January 4th work (subscription required), in which he asks:


Is all knowledge necessarily good? I once discussed our understanding of the brain with an eminent professor who thought that it was. He was all for maximally increased understanding, whereupon I described a patient of mine who believed that his neighbours had developed an electronic scanner that could read his thoughts at a distance. If such a thing were possible, would it be desirable? I thought not; on the contrary, it would be hell on earth. Only secrecy makes life tolerable.

There then follows a discussion of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1939 book Life-Line, in which “a maverick researcher…has developed a machine that is able to predict with great accuracy the time and date of any person’s death.” And then he relates a story we recently recounted here on the blog:


A fortune teller at a funfair once predicted when I was 16 that I should live to be 84, and since her only other two predictions (that I should be a doctor and travel extensively) have come to pass I cannot help but wonder whether I shall spend the 84th year of my age in a state of anxiety, notwithstanding the scientific absurdity of her proceedings. Fortunately she kept her predictions to three because I paid her only half a crown instead of five shillings. For the higher sum I probably would have learnt the nature of my last illness and would have been turned into a hypochondriacal wreck.

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