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End of the World (Again)

Entry 1385, on 2012-05-04 at 20:57:02 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

The end of the world is a great topic of discussion. In this blog alone I have mentioned it in "Epic Fail" on 2011-05-22, "The End of What?" on 2011-03-18, "The End of the World" on 2009-08-19, and "Doomsday" on 2008-09-11. But predictions of the end go back thousands of years. So what's the latest?

Reuters just published the results of a poll which found that nearly 15 percent of people worldwide think the world will end during their lifetime. The poll covered over 16,000 people in more than 20 countries but I can't find the exact questions or other methodology. However this result seems to fit in with the ridiculous beliefs many people have so I see no good reason to question it.

One of the researchers said "Whether they think it will come to an end through the hands of God, or a natural disaster or a political event, whatever the reason, one in seven thinks the end of the world is coming." so it sounds like there is a variety of different "reasoning" involved.

One question I often have in this situation is exactly what "the end of the world" means. Does it mean the physical destruction of the planet? Or maybe it just means the extinction of the human species or of all life on Earth. Or maybe something as simple as some sort of apocalyptic destruction of society with the planet and life surviving in a somehow diminished form.

If a supernatural process is invoked then all bets are off. One attribute of the supernatural is that there are no rules. A god or other supernatural entity can do anything at all so the whole universe could be just "switched off" at any time the god feels like it. But any speculation of that sort is barely even worth acknowledging, at least in some ways.

Predictions of the end of the world have been continuous since people first considered the possibility. And (obviously) every one has been wrong so far, or maybe it's not obvious, because at least one religious group has claimed that the apocalypse has already happened: we just didn't notice! And that is a real claim - could I make up something so ridiculous?

The latest mindless fad leading to end of world predictions is the Mayan Calendar which cycles every 5125 years. The fact that it cycles rather than ending hasn't stopped people claiming this could mark the destruction of Earth by some (mostly unspecified) mechanism. Up to 10% of people worldwide think this is a possibility according to the poll.

Of course Christian eschatology has been a great source of end of world predictions. According to the most sensible interpretation of Jesus' own words (standard disclaimer here: if Jesus even existed and if the gospels bear any resemblance to what he said if he did exist) he would return in an event marking the end of the world before the life of the people with him ended (see Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32, for example). It seems to me that he's a bit overdue!

The world will end eventually I guess, but it will probably survive in some form even when the Sun reaches its much discussed giant phase where it will expand to many times its current size and "consume" the Earth. And that event is still 5 billion years away so it's of no immediate concern!

But who cares about all of this stuff anyway? What difference does it make if people believe crazy stuff? I think it does have some relevance because I think the biggest problem we have today is short-term thinking. The two major sources of this are the political system which concentrates on a single (3 or 4 year) political cycle and the economic system which concentrates on producing good results for the current reporting period (generally one year or a few years in the future).

Many problems don't respond to thinking of that sort and they are the problems which are increasingly threatening to end our current way of life (note that I'm not talking about the destruction of the Earth, or the end of human life, just a major change in how we live). These problems are well known: overpopulation, peak oil, global climate change, decimation of food sources such as fisheries, and others.

If people think the world is going to end soon anyway what's the point of long term thinking? If you don't think this is a genuine problem then look at this quote from James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior during the Reagan era: "We don't have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand." He's a total moron, right? Unfortunately that moron was in charge of American environmental policy! So nutty beliefs are obviously dangerous.

But it goes beyond people with crazy beliefs getting into positions of power. If a sufficient number of voters have crazy beliefs then they get that power effectively too. They can vote for extremists and other people with no handle on reality. And that is dangerous.

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Comment 32 (3277) by OJB on 2012-07-10 at 13:49:09: (view earlier comments)

Yes, we agree that all outside influences should be stopped from offering what are effectively bribes to political parties. I do have to repeat though that big business offers far more bribes and gets far more results than any other group, especially in the US.

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Comment 33 (3282) by SBFL on 2012-07-10 at 14:01:35:

But you agree it's not only "big business" and you agree that "big business" contributes to both the left and right?

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Comment 34 (3283) by OJB on 2012-07-10 at 14:03:16:

Yes and yes, although there is no real "left" in the US. And even if there was, bribing the left as well as the right makes things worse, not better!

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Comment 35 (3284) by SBFL on 2012-07-10 at 14:12:06:

And you have said this before (no real left in the US), so I'll say you are consistent at least.

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Comment 36 (3286) by OJB on 2012-07-10 at 14:56:46:

Yes, there is no left in the US.

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