Thursday, May 19, 2011

Culture Shock 05.19.11: It's the end of the world as we know it (again)

Maybe you haven't heard, but Saturday is the end of the world.

Not the end of the world exactly, but it is the supposed date of the Rapture, after which all of us left behind on Earth will be in for a really nasty time, culminating in the real end of the world on Oct. 21.

That's the prediction of Harold Camping, the 89-year-old president of the Family Radio network. You may have seen one of his billboards proclaiming that the end of days is upon us.

It's hard to tell for sure, but Camping seems to have developed a following, even though he doesn't exactly have a good track record when it comes to forecasting Judgment Day.

Twenty years ago, Camping predicted the world would end in 1994. (Oops.) Camping, naturally, can explain in great detail why he got it wrong then and why he has it right this time. He's sure Saturday is the day.

"It is going to happen," he told National Public Radio. "There is no Plan B."

Technically speaking, this is Plan B. Plan A was in 1994. The real question is, is there a Plan C?

But I don't want to dwell on Camping. Lots of people have foretold the end of the world, using both religious and secular arguments. And they all have one thing in common: They've all been spectacularly wrong so far.

The new book "Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better" by Dan Gardner is mostly about the futility of trying to predict the future in general.

But Gardner does spice it up by recalling some of the more notable doomsday predictions of the past century. Y2K, anyone?

There's Marian Keech, a psychic who predicted the end of the world would come Dec. 21, 1955. Then there's Paul R. Ehrlich, the famed biologist who claimed in his still-influential 1968 book "The Population Bomb" that the world would fall into starvation and chaos by the 1980s. Since he wrote, the world's population has nearly doubled, but the percentage of the world's undernourished has more than halved over the same period, according to the United Nations.

(Oops, again.)

Keech is all but forgotten, but Ehrlich is unrepentant and still regarded, by many, as a credible expert.

The 1970s were a particularly fruitful time for doomsday predictions, Gardner notes. Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth" was the decade's top-selling book.

In the '70s, as now, people were worried about inflation, unemployment, the price of gasoline and tensions in the Middle East.

When the world seems chaotic, people crave knowledge about the future, even if that knowledge is all doom and gloom. It's a behavior that seems to be hard-wired into our brains.

Even if we get past this weekend unscathed, we still have 2012 to deal with.

Based on a misrepresentation of the Mayan calendar, some people claim that the world will end Dec. 21, 2012.

If Dec. 21 seems like a popular day for doomsday, that's probably because it's the winter solstice, which people have regarded for thousands of years as symbolic of transition and rebirth.

But actually the Mayan calendar doesn't "end" in 2012. It just cycles back to its beginning, which is what our calendar does every December.

That's how calendars work, and there's nothing special about it. The Earth orbits the sun, heedless to how we humans keep count.

The world will end someday. Maybe in 5 billion years when the sun runs out of fuel, expands and burns the planet to a cinder. Maybe we'll be flung out into deep space when our galaxy merges with the Andromeda galaxy in an estimated 3 to 5 billion years. Or maybe we'll go out the old fashioned way, done in by an asteroid, just like the dinosaurs.

But if I were you, I'd still plan on going to work Monday — unless you have a really good Plan B.

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