The end is nigh: news at eleven

Predicting the future is a mug's game

It’s tough to make predictions – especially about the future.

— Yogi Berra

 

 

 

According to Michael Garcia, you’re not reading these words.

According to Garcia, nobody is engaged in anything as prosaic as turning the pages of a newspaper today, because newspapers — and you — no longer exist. They/we all went kaput on Saturday, May 21, 2011 — the day the world came to an end.

Garcia is a spokesman for a wingnut evangelical cult called, illogically enough, Family Radio. For the past several months Family Radio True Believers have been shelling out cash to rent billboard space around the world (including in 17 cities in Canada) to warn everyone that Judgement Day was upon us.

The True Believers will be okay. The rest of us are in for at least five months of earthquakes, floods, fire, pestilence, plague, itchy, burning piles and, well … Hell on Earth.

I don’t know what Garcia is up to today, but I’m at my keyboard and you’re reading this, so I’m guessing he is busy trying to come up with an explanation for What Went Right.

He’ll hear no snickering from this corner. It’s a tough gig, the predictions biz. A couple of centuries back, the Duke of Wellington snorted that he “could see no reason to suppose that these machines will ever force themselves into general use.”

He was talking about steam locomotives.

About six decades back, Albert Einstein confidently declared that “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.”  

Oracles who base their prophesies on the Bible have an equally dismal record. William Millar, a Baptist preacher who founded what eventually became the Seventh Day Adventists, predicted the Second Coming would occur between 1843 and 1844. Charles Russell, progenitor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, assured his flock that Christ would return invisibly (?) in 1874 and then in the flesh in 1914.

And of course we have the latest crop of Apocalypsers confidently preparing for the end of the world on December 21, 2012 because the ancient Mayan calendar tells them so. 

It doesn’t really, but that’s another story.

Len Fisher is the author of a new book called Crashes, Crises and Calamities which explores the emerging science of disaster prediction. In it, he points out looking for Biblical escape hatches can be particularly unhelpful.

“The whole point of critical transitions and sudden change is that the future is totally different from the past,” he says. “Basically, any attempt to predict critical transitions is nonsense, and I include people attempting to use Biblical prophesies.”

Unfortunately when it comes to one-time Acts of (ahem) God such as tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the pros in the lab coats aren’t much more prescient than the homeless guy on the street corner wearing a sandwich board that reads THE END IS NIGH.

Fisher admits that predicting such one-off natural disasters such as the recent horror in Japan is very difficult.

“Mind you,” he told a reporter for Salon.com, “building a nuclear reactor on the ring of fire doesn’t strike me as the most sensible thing to do.  Plenty of warning signs there.”

So is it utterly pointless, trying to crystal-ball the future? Len Fisher says there’s one thing he’s utterly sure of.  

“Continued population growth is going to lead to catastrophe. Underlying it all — our behaviour, our pollution, our use of resources, the way we muck up ecosystems — underlying all that is the fact that there are just too many damn people.  And there’s no way that everyone in the world could live at a moderate Western level.”

And that’s a prediction you can take to the sperm bank.

 

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