Thursday, December 6, 2012

The End of the World is Nigh

One of the most widely held but irrational beliefs around today is that the apocalypse is just around the corner. Hopefully some TOK students will still be around after December 21st of this year, when the Mayan calendar allegedly predicts the end of the world (this appears, incidentally, to be a misconception based on the fact that one counting period is due to end and another to begin), and this post might actually get a few hits. If we do survive, I confidently predict that most doom-mongers will simply explain the miscalculation away, switch to a different date and continue to prepare for the worst.

It appears to me that beliefs like this are ingrained in many people due to an unconscious (or perhaps conscious) feeling that they exist only to be witness to something truly extraordinary at some point in their lives (known as religious 'solipsism'). Perhaps this is a by-product of  our evolutionary past, allowing us to value our own survival (or maybe just an indication of a big ego). However something weird is at work in cases like this where huge numbers of people ignore reason in favour of blind belief. Some kind of backlash against scientific evidence and authority also seems to be at work; so much so, that with approximately a quarter of the American public believing that the world will end during their lifetime, NASA has decided to publish a document to refute their claims.

The tortured logic of some apocalyptic claims is actually quite amusing (especially where 'scientific evidence' appears to be cherry-picked to support them). As always, a quote by my favourite blogger, Ben Goldacre, is appropriate here: "...You can't reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into" (Bad Science, Harper Collins, London, 2009). In the clip below, American radio evangelist Harold Camping predicts the end of the world on May 21st, 2011. This came after he had incorrectly prophesied the End on two previous occasions:

I think its a childish character trait of mine, but I really enjoy making predictions that come true and then being able to tell people "I told you so". While correctly predicting the apocalypse would be the ultimate 'I told you so' moment, it's unfortunate that there would be nobody around to actually say this to. And if the world doesn't end on December 21st, 2012... well, I told you so.

Our Obsession With the Apocalypse

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