It’s the end of the world again

In a move that surprised very few people, the world did not end today. Or yesterday. Slightly more surprising was that it didn’t end Friday, but only slightly.

Newton was apparently not a fan of the various apocalyptic predictions, and in predicting (in 1704!) that the world would not end before 2060 said:

This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.

Sadly, it’s only gotten worse since his time. I’m not sure what causes people to make a prediction which requires the prognasticator to die if proven right, but it seems like a popular hobby regardless. I was curious what sorts of timelines are popular, so I put together a chart based on Wikipedias surprisingly long list


I’ve got number of years between when the prediction was made and when it was supposed to happen on the X-axis, and the year of the predicted end on the Y-axis. I coded 1-day as 0.01 years, and 1 month as 0.1 years. Much of this data is ballpark, as it was too time consuming to track down the actual year a prediction was made, so I just took predictors birth year + 20 when I couldn’t quickly locate a year. The rather large number of year-2000 predictions are excluded, believe it or not, this only includes predictions up to 1999 CE. Negative numbers are BCE.

The data doesn’t cluster too well, which I thought was surprising.There are definitely more predictions post-1500, although that’s most likely a reflection of our society having more people and keeping better records. 10-100 years looks to capture a plurality of predictions. One poll found 15% of people think the world will end during their lifetime, and that was taken May 2012. I’d be curious to see how that poll would look  when taken next year. One would think it would dip, as the end of the Mayan calendar came and went with nary an apocalypse to show for it. However, my guess would be that people just have a hard time believing the world will keep going for a long long time, finding an event to actually end it is a secondary concern.

There are a few common themes in predictions:

0. “<Horrible event> is a sign that the world is ending”. There are a few of these, and they tend to have short timescales. If I woke up one day and the sky was dark, I might get pretty freaked out.

Believing that whatever war was currently happening was a sign of imminent world-wide destruction is also fairly common. I sympathize; if any of the nuclear powers went to war I’d get pretty nervous. However, people often put forth the argument that the war/unrest currently being experienced in different from the thousands of wars experienced throughout history. In 2002 somebody handed me a flyer explaining that the current unrest in the Middle East was a sign of the end, which I thought was pretty funny. If war in the Middle East meant the world was ending soon it would’ve ended a few dozen times over the past century.

1. “Through complicated math I have determined that the Bible says Jesus will return on X”. These predictions seemed to have timescales ranging from a few decades to a few centuries. Jesus is apparently not a patient fellow. Many seemed to think that the world would only last 6000 years from the date of creation, so if you trace that back to about 5000 BCE (give or take) you then get when the world ends

2. “My last prediction was wrong, but it’s gonna happen pretty soon no really this time”. My favorite category. The initial predicted date was for roughly 10-20 years after the date of prediction, revisions were usually for a couple years. Harold Camping made predictions of the form “rapture on this date, end of the world to follow soon thereafter”. Which had the nice effect that when the rapture didn’t happen, he could just say “well maybe it’ll happen closer to the end of the world”.

If I’m around to see the end of the world, I just hope it happens quickly. I’d hate to end up living in Zion eating gruel with Neo. More importantly, many thousands of people would come out of the woodwork claiming to have predicted it, and listening to their bullshit would be incredibly painful.



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