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Why We’re Suckers for Stories of the Apocalypse

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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scientific american September 2010 coverFor rational people, dismissing the silliness around the supposed end of the world on May 21 is all too easy. In case you haven’t heard, Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping has done some questionable math based on Biblical writing to determine that the faithful will be "raptured" tomorrow and that nonbelievers will be left behind to fester to death over the next few months. (You may think it’d be cool to be left behind with the likes of Steven Hawking and Richard Dawkins, but the cast of the Jersey Shore would be around, too.)


But the fascination with our demise isn’t limited to deluded zealots. Remember predictions of Y2K? Of Malthusian food shortages because of overpopulation? Of life-choking environmental damage from name-your-own-disaster? Certainly, books and movies tap into our apocalyptic fears to rake in the receipts (here’s a list of our favorites).


We explored our obsession with the end last year in a special September 2010 issue (which was a National Magazine Award finalist for a single-topic issue and was part of the issues that garnered our award for General Excellence). Our insatiable interest in endings seems destined to continue considering it has roots in our evolutionary history, as Michael Moyer pointed out in his introduction to that issue:


The impulse [to believe in an apocalypse] is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature—we are, after all, creatures of the savanna, programmed to uncover trends in the natural world. It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points. (In recent years this tendency has been amplified by news media that are very good at turning complex events into cartoon crises.)… Our fears of the apocalypse may in the end mirror the most fundamental fear of all: fear of our own mortality


You can read the introduction here (free to all) and browse the entire issue in a limited way (pay wall), although there are plenty of related, Web-exclusive stories that are free. Don’t worry, you have all weekend to read them all.

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  1. 1. tintinmilou 6:34 pm 05/20/2011

    Global Warming?

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  2. 2. eddiequest 10:29 pm 05/20/2011

    That one will only be "The End" IF we continue doing nothing about it. Kind of like smoking – will we quit the foolishness in time to avoid the human version of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event?

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  3. 3. rshoff 2:39 am 05/21/2011

    Perhaps we have an instinct for renewals. Redo’s, start-overs. The end brings a new beginning. A new chance, opportunity to get it right. Restructure, re-org.

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  4. 4. robert schmidt 11:10 pm 05/21/2011

    The end is a thrill. There are no laws, you have to live by your wits, a chance to prove yourself, the opportunity to drive threw collapsing buildings… All the chains that bind us are suddenly gone and we finally get that chance to be the hero we would have been if we didn’t have to get a job to pay the mortgage, to support the family, to plan for retirement… I think we would all love to make life and death decisions, we just don’t want to really die because of them. The end of the world, like sci-fi, allows us to imagine ourselves in a place where the rules are whatever we want them to be. Of course some people are just plain idiots and really think god is going to bring the world to an end but I’m not referring to the mentally ill here.

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