Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Why We're Suckers for Stories of the Apocalypse


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.


Follow me on Twitter: @philipyam

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

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