For centuries people have been proclaiming that the End of the World As We Know It is right around the corner. Are there any psychological studies of how these people cope when the date passes and the world doesn't end?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
So Gabriel, let me get this straight. You think the doomsayers are wrong?
Granted, their accuracy hasn’t been the best. I could fill the rest of this column with a list of end-of-the-world prophecies that didn’t pan out, starting with early Christians who thought the Second Coming would happen in their lifetimes and ending (for the moment) with religious radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who recalculated after the world failed to terminate on May 21, as he’d confidently foretold, and now predicts doom on October 21.
The devout aren’t alone in being off on their dates. In the late 1990s author James Howard Kunstler argued that Y2K would bring civilization to its knees. Didn’t happen, but that didn’t lead Kunstler to rethink his views on the end, just the means. In his 2005 book The Long Emergency he declared that the kneeification of humanity would arise from a shortage of oil.
Perhaps the best-known example of a failed scientific prophecy came from Stanford biology professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne, who in their 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted massive global starvation due to overpopulation in the 1970s and 80s. Was there starvation in those decades? Yes. Was it massive and global? No. Were the Ehrlichs chastened? Not so much. While they concede their scariest doomsday scenarios were “way off,” on the larger question of looming disaster they say they were “too optimistic.”
These cases give us insight into the doomsayer’s mentality. Are they flung into an abyss of existential despair when their predictions don’t come true? I won’t say it never happens. The leader of the Japanese sect Ichigen no Miya (“The Shrine of the Fundamental Truth”) predicted an earthquake would destroy his country on June 18, 1974 at 8 AM. Distraught when this failed to occur, he attempted suicide. But he’s an exception. More commonly the reaction is: eh, so I messed up on the scheduling details. From a meta point of view I was right.
And you know what? Doomsayers are right. Atheists and fundamentalists agree the world will end someday. The sole unknowns are how and when.
What persuades doomsayers to fill in these missing details? Let’s look at a typical case. A couple decades ago climatology consultant Iben Browning predicted a huge earthquake centered on New Madrid, Missouri. New Madrid is in the middle of a well-known earthquake zone, and seismologists have long predicted a cataclysm there. However, they’ve never given an exact date, because to do so is beyond the grasp of current science. Public reaction to these open-ended prognostications: yawn. Browning’s innovation was to assert flat out that the earthquake would happen on December 3, 1990, backing up his claim with a convincing pseudoscientific spiel. Result: a media frenzy, but no quake. Lesson: there’s no profit in facts; the payoff’s in precision BS.
A more consequential example is the Ehrlichs. To give them due credit, their take on how life as we know it will end was (and is) all too plausible: we’ll simply run out of resources. As for when, on the other hand, their methodology was just a couple pegs above Browning’s. They predicted demographic disaster by extrapolating the trend du jour, which showed the earth’s population rising at a geometric rate. If that kept up, they wrote, in 900 years the planet would house 60 million billion people.
That was crazy talk, as the Ehrlichs themselves acknowledged. Their forecast of imminent mass starvation, intended more seriously, was also unfounded. Environmentalist Barry Commoner, hardly a mindless optimist, pounded the Ehrlichs for their apocalyptic warnings. He noted that developing countries typically experienced a “demographic transition,” when birth and death rates got temporarily out of phase and the population spiked up, only to flatten out later. Commoner thought the same thing would happen on a global scale, and events so far have borne him out.
But the Ehrlichs’ scaremongering worked. Their book was hugely popular, in large part because of their frightening predictions, and helped raise public consciousness about the genuine perils we face.
That brings us back to your question, Gabriel. How do doomsayers cope when their predictions go south? There’s a common thread regardless of how delusional they are. In When Prophecy Fails, a landmark 1956 study of cultists awaiting a world-ending flood, psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes how people rationalize their continued adherence to disproven claims.
The shrewder doomsayers do this too, but their rationalizing is often something like: all in the service of the greater good. You can’t blame them, really. They’re just making practical use of the paradox known to every politician who ever walked the earth: people will listen when you lie to them, and ignore you when you tell the truth.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.