Want to See the Future? Try Watching ‘The Simpsons’
Posted February 4, 2018 5:25 p.m. EST
There is no crystal ball in “The Simpsons” writers’ room, but you’d be forgiven for wondering.
Over its nearly 30-year run, the series about the world’s most famous animated family has alluded to many real-life events long before they’ve actually happened: the Trump presidency, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, 9/11 and, most recently, Disney’s takeover of Fox. By some accounts, the coincidences — predictions, if you will — number in the 20s, or more.
This track record has led the show’s legion of fans to think that “The Simpsons” is, at the very least, a product of television’s most intelligent writers, and, at the most, prophetic.
So is there something bigger going on?
The future can be forecast better than one might think, said Al Jean, one of the show’s original writers and its showrunner since 1998. Episodes of “The Simpsons” air a year after they’re produced, he said, so “it’s just a sort of frame of mind that we’ve got that we think one year ahead.”
“I predict people will make too much of our great predictions,” he joked.
The show is the product of brilliant minds, many Harvard educated, said William Irwin, whose book “The Simpsons and Philosophy” has for years been taught in college courses at the University of California, Berkeley and other schools. Irwin is the chairman of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Writers rule on “The Simpsons,” not the actors, he said.
The result is a show packed with references to art, literature, pop culture, politics and science.
“When that many smart people produce a television show, it’s bound to make some startling ‘predictions,'” he said.
Another possible factor at play: “the law of truly large numbers,” a concept presented by the Harvard mathematicians Frederick Mosteller and Persi Diaconisin their 1989 paper Methods for Studying Coincidences.
“With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is apt to happen,” the law states. “The Simpsons,” a Fox show, is the longest-running scripted TV series in history.
Or, for fans looking for answers far outside conventional logic, Dr. Bernard Beitman, author of “Connecting With Coincidence,” offers the existence of the “psychosphere,” our mental atmosphere that is essentially “group mind in action.”
“Under the right conditions, we can know things that we don’t know we know, and we can sometimes predict events or attract what we are thinking,” said Beitman, a former chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Missouri.
Here are some of the most remarkable coincidences from “The Simpsons,” and how they can, or can’t, be explained.
The weirdest predictions
Sept. 11, 2001
Predicted: 1997 Happened: 2001
In “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” there was a moment that alluded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and not even Jean could explain it.
“There is a frame where there’s a brochure that says New York at $9 a day, and behind the nine are the twin towers. So they look like an 11, and it looks like a 9/11. That one is a completely bizarre, strange thing,” he said.
In 2010, Bill Oakley, an executive producer on the show at the time, told The New York Observer: “$9 was picked as a comically cheap fare,” he said. “And I will grant that it’s eerie, given that it’s on the only episode of any series ever that had an entire act of World Trade Center jokes.”
The show’s unintended connection to 9/11 is far from the only one on television. The pilot episode of “The Lone Gunmen,” a short-lived spinoff of “The X-Files” that aired six months before Sept. 11, includes a plot where a hijacked plane is aimed at the World Trade Center. The pilots regain control and miss the towers just moments before colliding.
Super Bowl XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII
Predicted: 1992, 1993, 1994 Happened: 1992, 1993, 1994
The show predicted the NFL champions three years in a row — in an episode that was all about predictions.
And yes, all three were just lucky guesses, Jean said.
In “Lisa the Greek,” which first aired in January 1992, Homer and Lisa bond over sports — well, sports gambling. Lisa has discovered a knack for predicting football winners, which Homer happily cashes in on. Lisa tells Homer that if the Washington Redskins defeat the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, she would still love him. If they don’t, she won’t.
Washington wins, and all is well between them. Three days after the episode aired, Washington beat Buffalo 37-24.
The episode was reworked in 1993 and in 1994, with the new Super Bowl-bound teams, which were the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills both years. Lisa went with Dallas. In 1993, Dallas won 52-17. In 1994, Dallas won, 30-13.
1994 was the last time “The Simpsons” altered the episode, and the last time Buffalo made a Super Bowl appearance.
The gray area
Disney acquires 21st Century Fox
Predicted:1998 Happened: 2017
The most recent “Simpsons” prediction to come true was Disney’s $52 billion deal for 21st Century Fox, announced in December. In “When You Dish Upon a Star,” there’s a sign that reads “20th Century Fox, a division of Walt Disney Co.”
Jean said this sort of prediction was in line with the writers’ forward-thinking process. The deal “was just another one,” he said. “It happens. There’s always mergers. It seemed logical, you know?”
The Higgs boson particle
Predicted: 1998 Happened: 2012
At first glance, this “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” plot point might seem like the freakiest “Simpsons” prophecy: Homer, striving to be the next great inventor, standing at a chalkboard, on which a complex equation is scrawled.
That equation is a just a hair off what would become the Higgs boson particle, or “God particle,” which was discovered in 2012, decades after it was first presumed to exist.
“That equation predicts the mass of the Higgs boson,” Simon Singh, author of the 2013 book “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets,” told the British newspaper The Independent in 2015. “If you work it out, you get the mass of a Higgs boson that’s only a bit larger than the nano-mass of a Higgs boson actually is. It’s kind of amazing as Homer makes this prediction 14 years before it was discovered.”
But it can be explained to some degree. “The Higgs boson was written into the script by David Cohen, who’s one of the people with a math background on this show,” Jean said. “What he put in was a plausible guess at that time. So it wasn’t like totally out of left field.”
The Trump presidency
Predicted: 2000 Happened: 2016
Mention “Simpsons” predictions to someone, and chances are they’ll respond with: “They predicted Trump, right?” While it might seem pretty amazing, it’s actually one of the show’s most logical prognoses, Jean said.
“There’s a category I would call plausible predictions, which Trump would fall under,” he said.
“People have somewhat forgotten, but he was talking about running for president then,” he said. “So it wasn’t somebody totally out of the blue. It was a guy who was a punchline name and had presidential aspirations.”
In a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the writer Dan Greaney said the joke was intended as a warning. “That just seemed like the logical last stop before hitting bottom,” he said. “It was pitched because it was consistent with the vision of America going insane.”
References to a possible President Donald Trump have made other rounds in pop culture: First in the Michael J. Fox movie “Back to the Future II,” where the bad guy Biff Tannen, who is fashioned to look like Donald Trump, takes power; and again in the “Rage Against the Machine” video for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire” from 1999, which was directed by Michael Moore and filmed on Wall Street.