Statistical scholars debunk much-publicized `Bible code'

Friday, September 10th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) -- An international team of statisticians is
debunking the controversial "Bible code," which claims the Old
Testament has hidden references to 20th century events that can be
revealed by a computer.

Proponents of the code claim that names and events were hidden
in the Bible as written thousands of years ago and can be found
through computer searches of the Hebrew text. Television
documentaries, fast-selling books and numerous articles have
popularized the theory, first published in the academic journal
Statistical Science.

Now the same journal, published by the Institute of Mathematical
Statistics based in Hayward, Calif., is offering an article
challenging the technique it reported in 1994. The article will be
published in the quarterly next week.

Believers in the "Bible code" theory treat the Hebrew Bible as
a string of letters without spaces, looking for words formed by
equidistant letter sequences. For instance, computers might select
every ninth Hebrew letter and register a "hit" when a "coded
word" intersects with a Bible verse containing related words.

Five years ago, three Israeli scholars published the results of
their search in the journal. As they explained, they took names of
famous rabbis from a reference dictionary, applied letter sequences
and found the names near the rabbis' dates of birth or death.

Using the same technique, others have claimed the Bible contains
secret predictions, including everything from the assassination of
Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 to a Los Angeles earthquake in 2010.

Major Bible scholars ignore the code because, they note, no one
has a letter-by-letter version of the Bible as originally written.
The oldest surviving manuscripts include slight variations, any of
which would throw off computer test results.

In the upcoming edition of Statistical Science, the new study's
authors -- Dror Bar-Natan, Maya Bar-Hillel and Gil Kalai, professors
at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and Brendan McKay of the
Australian National University -- combine expertise in mathematics
and computer science to debunk the theory.

Using other spellings and assumptions, they ran hundreds of
tests that repeated the experiment with different variations and
applied it to more biblical books.

"Despite a considerable amount of effort," they write, "we
have been unable to detect the codes."

This is significant, Bar-Natan said in a Thursday interview,
because "truth in science is never based on the results of a
single experiment. A significant requirement is repeatability."

Their results were no more successful with the Hebrew
translation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Such letter
configurations can be found in any long text, they say. The trick
is to find letters in close proximity that form significant words
more often than by chance.

But Eliyahu Rips, an Israeli mathematics professor who was
co-author of the 1994 article, said in a statement that evidence
for the code is "stronger than ever" and said a detailed reply to
the new criticism would appear soon.

His ally Michael Drosnin, author of "The Bible Code," said the
critics "told a lie."

Robert Kass, head of the statistics department at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh, edited the journal when it
published the first article and said it was reviewed by other
experts. He is disturbed that people perceived publication as "a
stamp of scientific approval." That first article, he said, merely
presented a puzzle -- one that has now been explained.

"The new study shows there were many, many choices,
particularly for things like the names of the rabbis, that involved
a lot of latitude. It was only for special sources that the results
appeared," he said Thursday.

He said such studies must avoid statistical "tuning," just as
medical research projects follow strict protocol.

Bar-Natan says that procedures in the 1994 project had "enough
wiggle room to produce whatever you want."

Authors of the earlier article could not be reached for comment.