Among the Baule people in Côte d’Ivoire, “trance diviners” – many of whom, according to one sympathetic observer, Susan Vogel, “seemed to be powerful, imaginative, charismatic, and sometimes unstable personalities who might have had a hard time living ordinary Baule lives” -- can be “respected leader[s] of the community.” (Susan M. Vogel, African Art Western Eyes 225, 227 (1997).) Vogel pays close attention to the sculptures and objects that the trance diviners acquire, and explains that: “A diviner’s reputation rests in part on his or her personal presence and ability to create a persuasive and arresting performance, a process in which mystifying and interesting-looking paraphernalia are a great asset. They attract and intrigue the audience of clients, and they increase the diviner’s success in telling the truth” – this last because the spirits, the asye usu, “sit” on the sculptures. (231, 230).
The world of trance diviners may be coming to an end, but our need to discern hidden truths has not. James Surowiecki, in an essay on “Punditonomics” in the New Yorker of April 7, 2014 discusses “the peculiar economic incentives of punditry” (at page 23 in the print edition; the online version requires a subscription). What he reports is, essentially, that there’s a great deal of reward for being right when others are wrong, but not much penalty, in many fields, for having been wrong. So “[e]xperts in a wide range of fields are prone to making daring and confident forecasts, even at the risk of being wrong, because when they’re right the rewards are immense.” Once you’ve been uniquely right, you can “live off the success for a long time” – and that despite the fact that one study found that “people who successfully predicted an extreme event had worse overall forecasting records than their peers.” Moreover, we non-experts are bad judges of experts: still another study “found that experts who claimed to be more certain were more in demand in the media, even though they were less likely to be correct.”
Unfounded predictions may be reassuring, as Surowiecki notes, “because of our aversion to uncertainty.” But it would seem that while some of us look for reassurance, others are looking for, and exploiting, information. That seems to be the gist of Michael Lewis’ account of fast trading in the stock market (an adapted portion of which appears in the New York Times Magazine for April 6, 2014); whoever gets information in the fewest milliseconds in effect knows the future, as compared to those who haven’t yet heard the news. Knowing something a few milliseconds early is neither supernatural nor intuitive; but it is real knowledge, and it has apparently been worth a lot of money to some few people.