The Cubs Yearbook Prophet Is More Likely a Probability Whiz

Getty Images / Jamie Squire

In 1993, a high school senior in Mission Viejo, California, made a wild prophecy that might squash Back to the Future’s failed 2015 World Series prediction for the Chicago Cubs. Under a grinning photo, Michael Lee allegedly rings an eerie prophecy: “Chicago Cubs. 2016 World Champions. You heard it here first.”

We say alleged because after the senior yearbook photo showed up, many began to question its validity. Some of Lee’s classmates have posted their own yearbook photos to prove it’s real, while others claim it’s all a scam. SB Nation decided to go science on this, and brought in the use of an online software that detects photo manipulation.

The analysis, they believe, isn’t conclusive, but shows “there’s more proof showing it’s real than a fake.” When they used FotoForensics on a page that has Lee’s quote, among other seniors, temperature analysis shows that the text below each photo has the same sort of coloration. Comparatively, when SB Nation manipulated the text themselves and analyzed it, their doctored text showed up noticeably different.

So if the prediction and the photo are real, how is it possible that Lee thought 2016 would be the Cubs year, 23 years ago? While getting a random guess right is possible, an ideal probability scenario, like a binomial experiment, involves a fixed number of trials. That’s why FiveThirtyEight can plug in the odds of a Cubs win into a best-of-seven probability formula, and figure that there’s a 60.3 percent probability for a Chicago curse-breaking win. So if Lee actually decided to do the math, he would have had to give himself a fixed variable — like, for example, that the Cubs would win at least 30 years after his graduation.

That works under the assumption that Lee is a skilled futurist, who knew not to fall for the trick of folk numeracy (the Cubs were pretty big in the 1990s), and gave them the benefit of time in his prediction. And that’s possible — in an analysis of 20,000 regular Americans (not trained in forecasting), Wharton professor Phil Tetlock found that amateur predictions were just as, if not more, accurate than people considered to be forecasting experts.

Either that, or Lee was a just a high school senior, who chose a date at random … or maybe the superstition was destined to break this year.

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