What is at least semi-interesting about this latest failed doomsday prediction is the mental malfunction that led Camping to his conclusions in the first place, and the reaction of believers after his spectacular failure.
The first thing I did this morning was go to the FamilyRadio website, where Camping has been promoting his doomsday prediction, to see if there was any official reaction from Camping. I guess a lot of other people had the same idea, because it took me a lot of tries to get through. But once I did I was greeted by his countdown to judgment day, reading “00 days left” and “the Bible guarantees it!” That’s classic irony rivaled only by the sign, “Psychic Fair canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
Camping was so certain (at least he claims) about the date of the apocalypse because of his biblical numerology – seeing significance in numbers. Humans have brains built for math – there is actually a part of the cortex dedicated to performing calculations. Even more – we feel math. Musical progressions, for example, are based upon mathematical relationships. We also have brains built to see patterns.
Other parts of the cortex, however, have the job of evaluating patterns that we think we see and determining whether or not they are likely to be real. So on the one hand we notice patterns and find them compelling, but we also filter alleged patterns through a reality-testing process to get rid of the noise. There is a certain balance between these two processes, and everyone has their own particular balance. Most people’s brains tend to err by default on the pattern accepting side of the equation. It takes learned critical thinking to turn up our reality-testing filter and turn down the emotional appeal of apparent patterns.
Numerology is nothing but pattern recognition and a large dose of magical thinking (i.e. turned-down reality testing) applied to numbers.
One important fallacy that contributes to numerology is the fallacy of data mining. When we see a pattern in numbers we tend to grossly underestimate the probability of that pattern occurring by chance alone. This is partly due to our poor inherent grasp of probability, but also to the lottery fallacy. We tend to be impressed by the high apparent improbability of the pattern we are seeing, but fail to recognize that it is just one of countless possible patterns that could have existed. It is similar to confusing the probability of John Smith winning the lottery (hundreds of millions to one against) vs the chance of anyone winning the lottery (almost guaranteed to happen on a regular basis). We tend to think, “what is the probability of this numerical pattern occurring?” when we should be thinking, “what is the probability of any apparent pattern occurring?”
The other fallacy Camping is committing is ad hoc reasoning – making it up as you go along. He assigns significance to numbers on an ad hoc basis, after he decides which numbers he needs to make an apparent pattern. He is then impressed by the fact that he can make it all seem to hang together, that there is some symmetry or pattern to his construct.
This is often a subtle fallacy that affects more than numerology – even serious scientists can fall prey to this cognitive siren. Because we can construct an elegant explanation for something, we think the explanation must be true. Astrology is built almost entirely upon this fallacy. But it is just another version of the lottery fallacy. Humans are good at constructing explanations for things – even things that do not exist or are illusions. They we look upon our constructs and are profoundly impressed – and we think our constructs must therefore represent reality.
Well, Camping has now smashed head on into the rock wall of this fallacy. He did so by doing the primary thing that enables us to distinguish real patterns from illusory ones – using our construct as a basis for making a falsifiable prediction. That an explanatory system is beautiful, consistent, elaborate or elegant, and can explain what is already known or has happened in the past is not sufficient (internal consistency and explanatory power is necessary, but not sufficient). Successful theories must also make predictions about what is currently unknown.
No rapture on May 21 means that Camping’s construct was in error. He was wrong. Even Camping must admit that now. (I doubt he will go for the “we were right, but our prayers stopped the rapture” rationalization because that is too inconsistent with his theology.) The question is – to what degree was Camping wrong? In my opinion Camping’s entire construct is rotten down to its deepest roots. His premises are false and his methodology hopelessly flawed. Camping, however, is likely to assume that he made a superficial or trivial error, that his basic premises and approach were correct but that his formula has to be tweaked in some way.
This is the “back to the drawing board” phase of crank failure that we see over and over again – with free energy gurus, cold fusion enthusiasts, and every type of wanna-be prophet. Failure is met with – “I’m still essentially correct, now just give me a minute to check on the details a bit and I’ll have this working.” This phase is almost invariably followed by the phase where they fade into obscurity. They may pop up again, as Camping has – he predicted the end of the world in 1994 – but largely they are destined to be forgotten, along with whatever lessons could be learned from their failure.
That Harold Camping was wrong was never in doubt, outside his circle of cultists. Even the Christian Evangelical movement did not take him seriously (although often for their own dubious reasons). Except for a few sad cases, most people either used the whole affair as an excuse for a party, or just ignored it. I guess this is appropriate. But as skeptics it’s also useful to deconstruct Camping’s particular madness to find out what general lessons we can derive about human cognitive frailty. We also serve as the repository of cultural memory about such events – so that hopefully we can remember the lessons to be learned from such spectacular failures.