If you’re not a subscriber and you’re reading this, then it may mean the world has not, in fact, ended. Let me explain. According to some doomsayers, the end is nigh on December 21. This date apparently marks the end of the fourth Mayan “age of man”, and as the Mayans didn’t appear to say anything about a fifth age, it was taken as meaning the world would end. Coincidentally, it was also December 21 (but in the 1950s) that was supposed to see the devastation of North America, which was the focus of the famous When Prophecy Fails psychological study.
Is 2012 particularly special as far as doomsday goes? Sadly, no. Although the Mayan calendar “prophecy” has received a lot of attention in the popular press, and even more in the dark recesses of the internet, we live constantly with the threat of Armaggedon. There were more than 20 predicted doomsdays for 2011 alone. Probably the most spectacular of those was the work of Harold Camping, host of a North American Christian radio show.
Camping predicted that on May 21, the Rapture would occur – the worthy would be taken into heaven and the unworthy would live forever in torment. When nothing obvious happened on the 21st (apart from a lot of spoof pictures of empty clothes draped over ride-on mowers, etc), Camping argued that the Rapture had started and would continue until October 21, when the real Armageddon would go down.
Of course, it didn’t, or if it did then Armageddon was a bit of an anticlimax. But that doesn’t mean some people didn’t heed Camping’s word. There are tragic accounts of people selling all their possessions, spending their life savings on advertising the End, suicide, and even killing family members to save them.
First question: how did Camping come up with his dates? He had lots of converging evidence. For example, it could be taken as the 7000th anniversary of the Flood because God gave Noah a seven-day warning where “one day is with the Lord as 1000 years, and 1000 years as one day” (and assuming you know when the Flood happened). It can also be arrived at through numerology – if five means “atonement”, 10 means ”completeness” and 17 means “heaven”, then a simple calculation of (5 x 10 x 17)2 gives us 722,500 days since Jesus’s death …
I don’t find this particularly compelling, but Camping and many others did. This is an example of a particular kind of magical thinking called apophenia – the predisposition to see patterns and make connections between things that are not actually connected.
In one study I’ve collaborated on, taking away a person’s feeling of control can make them see things that aren’t there. This “style” of thinking can be found in other places, too – conspiracies are an obvious example. Camping believed the Rapture was going to happen and went looking for evidence to say when – and therefore fell prey to confirmation bias, or looking for things that would support what he already strongly believed.
Second question: why did other people even pay this a moment’s thought? This is trickier ground – there has been little research on why people endorse doomsday beliefs. But here’s what I think based on what we do know. There’s reason to think the more television you watch the more dangerous you think the world is – probably because anyone who watches a lot of television news is going to see a lot of bad stuff. We don’t like to think bad stuff just happens, and some of us have a strong need to believe that the world is a just place – when bad things happen to people it must be because those people are bad and deserve it.
If we can’t reconcile that with what we see around us, then what? For some of us, boom.