Oct 18 2011

Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy

Harold Camping is now, among other things, an IgNobel Laureate. He shares the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics: “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”

This Friday, October 21, Camping predicts the world will end – making him just another doomsday crank. He came by this date through a complicated and thoroughly contrived calculations involving the Bible. It’s not the first time. He predicted the world would end in 1994. It took him a while to recover from that lack of the end of the world back then.

He became more widely known for his recent prediction of the rapture on May 21 of this year. This was frequently misrepresented as a prediction for the end of the world, but Camping only predicted that the world would be wracked with earthquakes – that there would be obvious signs of God’s wrath and the faithful would be raptured and spared. The earth would then suffer God’s wrath for five months until the final destruction of the world  – which brings us to this Friday, October 21.

The first phase of his two-phase prediction did not work out very well. May 21 came and went without anything unusual happening. At first Camping and his followers were perplexed – how could the careful mathematical calculations have led them astray (never mind the dubious underlying assumptions).

But if there is one thing that Doomsday cults teach us is that the human capacity for rationalization is limitless. In general, people do not like to be wrong. We are protective of our self and public image, and are generally adept at deflecting criticism and accusation of error. When the stakes get high, so does the motivation for rationalization.

Imagine how high the emotional stakes must be for a group of people who went on a campaign to tell the world that the rapture was coming, and then – fizzle. They must realize that they earn the prize for the greatest chumps of the month, which automatically enters them to win the grand prize as greatest chumps of the year.

So it didn’t take them long to come up with their juicy rationalization – well, the judgment did occur, it was just a spiritual judgment, not a physical judgment, hence the conspicuous absence of earthquakes or any other physical manifestation. This is not an uncommon form of rationalization – when the predicted thing does not manifest, the true-believer can always claim that the thing did manifest, but that it is invisible or undetectable. It’s a convenient way to insulate a belief from falsification.

Some people do quietly drift away – and Camping’s followers have been dwindling. People rarely openly admit error, however. They are more likely to just move on and pretend nothing happened. When they do admit error then they need a face-saving strategy, which usually is to portray themselves as victims. They were conned by an especially slick con-artist.  Whatever helps you get up in the morning.

My point is not really to be critical but to point out that this behavior is a result of universal human psychology. We all hide from our mistakes, to some degree, or at least have some strategy to protect our egos from the implications of terrible error. We can’t really change this, but we can mitigate the effects by being aware of it. We can utilize more adaptive rationalizations -“Hey, we’ll all imperfect humans. We all make mistakes, as long as you admit them and learn from your mistakes.” It’s still a rationalization, but at least it’s a healthy way to move forward.

I admit I have a morbid fascination for extreme rationalizations. How do people react when their error is monumental and undeniable? It’s like seeing a really horrific car crash. You know you shouldn’t take some pleasure in seeing it, but you can’t help looking.

So on Saturday, assuming the world does not end, I will be surfing the web looking for accounts of the reaction of Camping and his followers to the non-end of the world. We know it’s coming.

I predict this time they will be better prepared. In May they seemed to be truly taken aback, and needed a day or two to figure out their rationalization. This time I think they will have rationalizations at the ready.

Camping is already preparing the way. NPR reports that he recently said:

“The end is going to come very quietly, probably within the next month,” Camping said.

They note the “probably,” – not as cocky as he has been previously. This is anticipatory rationalization, giving yourself an out in anticipation of future error. His followers are likely picking up on this as well.

In any case, we’ll see on Saturday.

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