Wastler: On Nostradamus
September 19, 2001: 3:24 p.m. ET

Searching the Web for false prophets, and perhaps false profits as well
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - While America was wrestling with the tragic events of last week, the Internet was buzzing. And a lot of good was done on it. Corporations were able to communicate with far-flung employees and more than $55 million in donations was collected by charities, for example.

But superstition was buzzing as well. The No. 1 search item on the Lycos search engine last week was "Nostradamus." On the Netscape search engine, another biggie in the Internet world, "Nostradamus" zoomed from nowhere to the No. 3 spot for the week. On Friday it even beat out "adult."

For those of you who eschew the X-files, Nostradamus was a 16th century French astrologer who published prophetic poetry. Some (mostly the same people who look for Atlantis and watch for crop circles) argue that his prophecies accurately predicted the future. Others say he was just poking fun at the religious and political leaders of his time, but did it poetically to avoid retribution. The writings are ambiguous enough that the fight can't be settled either way.

Last week, as the search results indicate, the curiosity surrounding his work turned into an obsession. Some bookstores even reported a run on Nostradamus literature.

This sudden interest was fed in part by a number of hoax e-mails, claiming to quote particular sections of his work. Here's a typical made-up verse:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,

Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,

While the fortress endures,

The great leader will succumb,

The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.

Spooky, huh? Well, good fiction usually is. It's a combination of cut-and-paste lines from separate pieces of Nostradamus' work and some that were, well, made up. The Urban Legend folks at have a really good dissection of the whole raft of messages.

The fact that someone would start an e-mail chain with a faked-up prediction is bad enough, given the national crisis that was, and still is, going on. But the fact that the public seized upon it says more.

Rationality, or at least some healthy skepticism, should be the response to acts of irrationality. But this Nostradamus Web effect says otherwise. Perhaps assigning events to "fate" is easier than accepting the idea that a huge, almost overwhelmingly complicated problem will have to be handled by man.
Allen Wastler is managing editor and roving columnist for

Now get this. I see the suddenly-popular search terms that hit the Netscape search engines (it's a corporate cousin and they give me a heads-up) every day. On Monday terms like "stocks," "Ameritrade," "Etrade," "NYSE," and "Stock Market" were the big movers.

Given Monday's fall, those terms would seem to be natural. Except if you are already in the market, don't you have your broker and your news bookmarked? Why search for it?

It may mean the same people, or the same amount of people, eating up Nostradamus are looking to get into the market because it's suddenly cheap.

There was a run on gas masks last week as well. I'm not sure either trend bodes well. I sought guidance from a site claiming to have all of Nostradamus' writings, but couldn't get through. The servers were down. Too much traffic. graphic

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