“Most of the prophets of the past millennium were more concerned with scansion than accuracy. You know, ‘And thee Worlde Unto An Ende Shall Come, in tumpty-tumpty-tumpty One.’ Or Two, or Three, or whatever. There aren’t many good rhymes for Six, so it’s probably a good year to be in.”
Aziraphale, in Good Omens* by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
If I’m somewhat skeptical of prophecies of doom and gloom these days, it’s because I got it all out of my system when I was younger. At some point in my early teens, some eejit introduced me to the prophecies of Nostradamus ensuring that I would my last few years of childhood plagued by nightmares and terrified that the world was about to end.
The prophecy that particularly obsessed me read; “The year 1999 and seventh month, from the sky will come the great king of terror” giving me two major worries; would the world end in 1999 and, if so, would it at least have the grace to do it after my birthday which was early in the month? Surely by July, they meant mid-to-late July, right?
Worrying about the future comes naturally to me, as least as it pertains to me personally. In fact, worrying about the future is something humans seem to excel at. From doomsday cults to end-of-time prophets, from massive enviromental failure to Mother Nature throwing a terminal stroppy fit, we’re all ready to listen whenever Chicken Licken tells us that the sky is falling, again.
Dan Gardner’s Future Babble – Why Expert Predictions Are Wrong And Why We Believe Them Anyway is an analysis of this, and of why humans seem to long to hear the worst. He argues that finding the glass not just half-full but possibly poisonous is a useful survival trait, which may go some way toward explaining Nostradamus’s enduring popularity, and how we are more likely to give credibility to experts who get it almost always wrong than the quieter ones who occasionally get it right. And by occasionally, he means about half the time if they are lucky – Gardner pulls no punches in his condemnation of our practise of trusting expert opinions on the future.
“Let’s face it: experts are about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys. And yet, every day, we ask them to predict everything from the weather to the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Future Babble is the first book to examine this phenomenon, demonstrating why our brains yearn for certainty about the future, why we are attracted to those who predict it confidently, and why it’s so easy for us to ignore the trail of outrageously wrong forecasts.”
And while many books on the future make the reader feel the end is nigh, Gardner explores cognitive psychology, political science, and behavioral economics to come up with an optimistic outlook; the future is always uncertain but – despite what the experts often say – the end is not always near.
It’s long gone 1999, and we’re all still here. Actually, a small bit of fact-checking now seems to suggest that the great king of terror could have been Ricky Martin, whose brain-meltingly catchy Livin’ la Vida Loca dominated the airwaves to claim the number one spot in mid-July. Just sayin’.
* On a side note, Good Omens is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of comedic writing especially if you – or someone you need a gift for – is a fan of Pratchett, Gaiman or Douglas Adams.