If you’re reading this I guess it’s safe to assume you weren’t raptured.
Although most of the world filed claims about the impending apocalypse under ‘K’ for “Ka-RAY-zee,” I think there are some aspects of the whole non-event that deserve a closer look.
Most of us have a hard time comprehending how someone could give up a job, a house, a family or any other earthly possession for something that seems (to us, anyway) so ridiculously implausible. But plenty has been written about the psychology of cults – from the masterminding leaders to their blindly obedient followers and what happens when the predictions (inevitably) fail to materialize.
Often an incorrect doomsday prediction does not alienate believers, but rather reinforces their beliefs. This counter-intuitive response is a well-studied phenomenon in the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ where two simultaneously held beliefs contradict one another. In this case, the expectation of the raputre was met with, well, nothing. The rapture didn’t happen. According to the theory, it’s human nature to try to decrease the level of dissonance between the two ideas, which is often achieved by rationalization. The last time Harold Camping incorrectly predicted the end of the world, he admitted that he hadn’t finished studying the Bible and forgot to include some key calculations. Seventeen years – and millions of dollars – later, his following was as strong as ever.
We’ve seen this before, the most recent example being the Birthers. Hard, unequivocal evidence meant diddly squat. If anything, it just provoked new, more creative conspiracy theories.
As outsiders, we expect believers to wise up and reject their beliefs after they are proven wrong. But this is because we see the event as isolated, and they see it as a minor flaw in a complex web of beliefs. It’s far easier to tweak their ideology than to reject it entirely. That the rapture didn’t happen doesn’t mean they were wrong, it just means they failed to take everything into account.
And then I realized, this happens in science ALL the time. Someone comes up with a theory. Observations either support or weaken the theory. The theory is updated to be consistent with data. Repeat.
Scientists, for example, have been looking for the Higgs boson for 50 years trying to prove its existence after a theory suggested it should be there. That they have continually failed hasn’t stopped them.
The biggest difference between scientists and doomsday fanatics is that, as a community, science is willing to admit defeat when the data don’t support the idea — alchemy and geocentrism immediately come to mind. I’m sure there are others.
But after that, the differences are more subtle. Where do theories originate? In science, new theories either arise as a way to describe an unexplained phenomenon (such as the popular account of Newton coming up with the idea of gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple) or to provide a solution for a problem (a far more esoteric example, but supersymmetry allows the Higgs boson to have a small mass, which allows the theory of the Higgs boson to remain self-consistent). Doomsday prophecies often emerge from religious texts. But both kinds of theories are interpretations based on some sort of foundation – they don’t pop up out of nowhere.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this particular end-of-the-world-is-nigh prediction is that Harold Camping – a former engineer and Berkeley graduate – didn’t claim to hear voices or receive messages with instructions on how to prepare the world for the endtimes. No. He used math. The language of science. How could people not believe him? It was right there in the numbers. The math.
Of course, his math was based on his own interpretation of a millennia-old document. I’m not worried so much about the actual numbers as I am about the fact that he used math – however flaky it was – to validate his claims. To me, this says that Harold Camping knew exactly what he was doing.
Millions of people have submitted to far crazier doomsday scenarios on far shakier grounds. Camping easily could have staged miracles or talked of redemptive spaceships. So why base his claims in math? Perhaps because that’s the language he understands. As with any fraud, convincing others is easier if you believe it yourself. Perhaps he used math because, as a trained scientist, it was something he could stand behind.
Along the same line, it’s also been claimed that the longer someone lies, the more they start to believe it. By 2011, perhaps Camping truly did believe the end of the world was coming. But I don’t think it started out that way. I think he used math as a way to scam thousands of people.
Various news reports have said that followers donated millions of dollars to fund his non-profit broadcasting organization, Family Radio; that, unlike his followers, he did not sell his business or his house; that he left a farewell note and instructions to keep his business running; rumors are circulating that he made plans to flee the country after May 21. The last time his prophecy failed, Camping was in the media, admitting that his calculations were amiss. This time, the shades on his California home are drawn and he is nowhere to be found.
As for his followers, they are divided over whether to be mad at Camping. The rest of us are divided over how sympathetic to be toward his duped devotees. Personally, I think the real victims in this are the families of those who chose to believe Camping, especially the children, who were given no choice of their own. People who truly believed May 21 would be their last day on Earth are now faced with mortgage defaults, mounting credit card bills, unemployment and mouths to feed.
I’m curious to see if a legal suit will come out of this. In fact I’m kind of hoping that it does, because I’m curious to see evidence from both sides trying to prove either that Camping was knowingly manipulating people for personal gain or else he was just another misguided believer himself.