Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The End Is Nigh! Repent!

By Peter Bowditch

One sure prediction about the end of the world is that there will be failed predictions about the end of the world.

I’m probably wasting my time writing this because we will all be dead or ascended into Heaven by the time you would normally be reading it. The world that we know was supposed to end on 21 May, just before this magazine is supposed to be arriving in your letterboxes.

That’s right – the latest prediction from some religious folk for the end of time is 21 May 2011, and it must be true because I read it on the Internet.

Despite Jesus clearly saying that nobody would know when he was returning, people who claim great faith in the Bible keep ignoring this and foolishly declaring definite dates. In 2009, for example, one religious group announced that the Rapture would happen on 21 September, 23 September (mercifully missing my birthday on the 22nd), plus several more dates in 2009 as each deadline passed unnoticed.

There is always the possibility that life might continue beyond May, but don’t get too complacent because if 2011 doesn’t get you, December 2012 will.

Scholars examining the ancient Mayan calendar have established that it only runs until 21 December 2012. After this there will be no more days, much as there was no time before the Big Bang. Everything will stop because there won’t be a name for it.

One thing inspiring confidence is the track record of apocalyptic predictions in the past. Unless I’ve managed to transform into a solipsist while I wasn’t paying attention, it must be obvious that all the predictions made in the past have failed to come true, so let’s look at a few of them.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church grew out of a movement founded by William Miller, whose first prediction of the end was “some time in 1843”, later modified to “some time between March 21 1843 and March 21 1844”. When 22 March 1844 came and went, Miller’s followers (known as Millerites) did some more refining, finally deciding that Jesus would return on 22 October 1844. This date is now known as The Great Disappointment.

Another manifestation of religious apocalyptism drove much of the Y2K hysteria, as 2000 was seen by some as the time mentioned in Revelation when Jesus would return to punish the wicked. When this became entwined with a largely-manufactured hysteria about how all the computers were going to fail it became a very lonely business to be a skeptic. (Strangely, there was little congratulation of the skeptics afterwards.) Many of the religious loons (and I used that word kindly) actually expressed hope that all technology would cease to work, as the subsequent collapse of society would trigger Armageddon.

By the way, millennial fever isn’t new; Charles Mackay’s excellent 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds described madness in London in 999 that was echoed in major cities around the world in 1999.

Then there was 15 May 2003, when the mysterious twelfth planet, Planet X, was going to pass close to the Earth and stop the Earth’s rotation on its axis. (No, I don’t know why the twelfth planet wasn’t called Planet XII.)There was a backup for that date in case it didn’t happen, because the sudden reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field on 23 May was going to wreck everything anyway.

Am I worried that the world will have stopped for me on 21 May? Not really. Am I worried that we will run out of calendar days in December 2012? Not any more than the Mayan coffee vendors I saw at a Mind Body Spirit Festival who just happened to be right next to and totally ignoring a stand declaring that all Mayans believed that the end of the world was coming.

You might ask why I am writing about this nonsense in a science magazine. It’s because science is not just about test tubes, doctorates and hadron colliders. It is a process of rational thought and a search for the truth about the universe we live in. I was drawn into the “official” skeptical community in 1999 because I saw the uncritical thinking, the reliance on anecdote and the rejection of evidence that drove much of the computer-related Y2K hysteria.

People have every right to believe what they like, but there is a process that can examine the probability that some event might happen. That process is called “science”, and while it has sometimes been lightly dusted over some of the predictions I have mentioned, a true application would have revealed them all as nonsense before any damage was done.

There are enough real problems about the future, such as climate change, population growth and resource depletion, without wasting our scientific and intellectual effort on nonsense. Apply the science to the nonsense and then move on.

I will see you all next month. I hope.