TEOTWAWKI Bonus: Failed Predictions

The “Failed Predictions” episodes of the TEOTWAWKI specials were first published in May 2018 and can be downloaded here.

Failed Predictions and Other Bunk

Hello, and welcome to this very very special bonus edition of the TEOWAWKI specials. If you’re listening to this, it probably means that you’re a Patreon subscriber, or an episode-purchaser, or you know someone who is — and I want to thank you from the very bottom of my cold, dead heart. When I first started this show, of course I had dreams, but I never really thought that people were likely to pay to listen to me witter on and on. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You make it possible.

So while I was doing the TEOTWAWKI episodes, I realised it was all a little bit doom and gloom, and that maybe people would feel a little bit miserable about the way I was effectively just listing all the various ways that we could be roasted and mashed into a pulp, or die horribly of foul diseases… or else the entire planet is obliterated by supervolcanoes and debris from outer space… and yes, I agree, after a while, thinking about all this stuff might start to depress you a little bit. It’s only natural.

And there’s that mathematical argument, isn’t there? The one that involves a little bit of sleight-of-hand, and goes like this:

You should assume that you’re nothing special. You should, in fact, assume that you’re a pretty average human life. If there’s a big long chain of human lives, then, chances are, you’re somewhere near the middle. Right now, we can estimate that there are around 7 billion humans alive today. It’s difficult to estimate how many people have *ever* lived, but a decent calculation by the Population Reference Bureau suggests that maybe 100 billion people have died before us. That’s somewhat comforting — at least the dead do outnumber the living — but then you realize that if there are only another 100 billion people left to go… which makes you and me dead average — then things are going to have to change. After all, even if the population stays steady at 7 billion, which seems unlikely given the way things have been going… even then, we’d only have another fifteen or so human life-spans left, maybe a thousand years or so. Then we would have used up all of the people, if this argument is true. A thousand years is not really all that long, in the course of human history; the same population reference bureau estimate uses 50,000 BC as the time when the first Homo Sapiens were around, which means that we just have 2% of the time left for our species in a thousand years. Although it is a lot more optimistic than half of the episodes in my series, such as the ones where I said we could all be dead by the end of the century, or that it’s a miracle we’re not all dead already.

There’s another way of putting this argument. Imagine you have two jars before you. One of them contains ten lottery balls; the other one contains ten billion balls. They’re all numbered, 1,2,3,4 and so on. If you pick out a ball from a jar, and it says 7, then you must think: wow. I almost certainly picked a ball from the jar with ten balls.

Those jars are like models of the human future. And the ball you picked is your life. In one model, humans are going extinct fairly soon — so the number of humans that will ever have lived will be around 100 billion, and you might be the 70 billionth human to have ever lived. In the other, though, humans get past our difficulties, and manage to spread through the galaxy. In this case, you might expect, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a ridiculous number of humans. Imagine the populations of thousands of Earths, evolving and changing and growing for millions of years. We know that this is at least theoretically possible, and it seems to make sense that this is what will happen if we carry on — call it a manifest destiny for the cosmos, if you like. Maybe, in this scenario, there are a trillion trillion humans who ever live. In which case, being only the 70 billionth human is very unlikely. Which means that, observing our place in the cosmic narrative, you might expect human extinction to be more likely than you’d otherwise have assumed.

But it’s worth pointing out that, if the second-ever human had applied this same logic, they would have assumed that only three humans would ever live… and, I guess, start mourning the species straight away. The Doomsday argument, as this line of reasoning is called, is a fascinating one — and it can be mathematically formalized to spruce it up a little bit. But there are lots of counterarguments. The one I like the best is the assumption that, a priori, we are in the earliest 5% or so of humans to be born. If you assume that, at some point, the human population will be steady for a very long time — which seems a reasonable possibility, to me at least — then the tumultuous times that we’re living in now are evidence that we’re very early on in human development. After all, if our species is going to survive and spread amongst the stars or anything like that, then it should be clear that we’re really very early humans; after all, modern and effective medicine has only existed for a few hundred years. In other words, we’re still adjusting to the scientific and technological developments that have made the eventual ‘steady state’ of human population possible. So we’re early in the timeline. And if you buy this as an argument, then the Doomsday logic kind of just reduces to whether you think humanity can survive in the long-term — for hundreds of thousands of years — and then, since that era has not yet started, you can argue that the Doomsday logic doesn’t apply.

The point is, people predict the end of the world all of the time. I guess we all want to be those special humans who get to witness the end of everything — especially if we believe that there’s some chance we might get to say a final, glorious, “I told you so” to all the nay-sayers and doubters before the Earth is engulfed in a fiery ball of death. As you might have noticed, every end-of-the-world prediction so far has… spectacularly failed to be correct. At least, the ones for dates before now…

Usually I don’t think it’s very fair to laugh at people for being wrong. Being wrong is almost always the first step towards learning anything. But predicting the end of the world is a pretty bold prediction; and it leaves you with a massive amount of egg on your face when it all goes wrong. So let’s explore some of the failed prediction stories; what they thought would happen, how it didn’t happen, and what happened next. Maybe laughing at how badly wrong predictions have proved to be will make us all feel better… Who knows — maybe a thousand years in the future, some poor future historian will find my podcasts and they can all have a good laugh at my expense. And so the cosmic ballet of mockery will come wheeling back around to bite me in the bum.

So while I was researching this article, my eye was naturally drawn to the fact that — as I write this — the end of the world is incredibly close. I’m writing at the end of July, and, according to no less reputable a source than The Sun newspaper, the end of the world is going to occur on August 21st, 2017. Which means, given my current release schedule, you’re never going to hear this episode at all. Rather sad, really. I might as well stop writing now.

What’s going to cause the end of the world? Well, a solar eclipse, apparently. Namely, the solar eclipse that will affect much of the UK and North America on August 21st, 2017. Quoting from the aforementioned rag:

“Conspiracy theorists have pointed to passages from The Book of Revelation to support their predictions, the Daily Star reported.

They have highlighted passages describing a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon at her feet.

Scripture says the woman will be hunted by a Satanic seven-headed dragon looking to eat her unborn child.

They also highlighted predictions of twelfth-century Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel, who reportedly said the end of the world would come in 2017.

But, the doomsayers do hint at some uncertainty in their predictions as they’ve also said that scripture warns “no one knows” the hour of the apocalypse.”

So this ‘prophecy’ is basically a perfect example of a vast chunk of end-of-the-world prophecies. Taking the vaguest of justifications for saying what they’re saying from a suitably ambiguous text -such as the Book of Revelations, or Nostradamus — a group of people read way too much into it and start predicting the apocalypse. And, usually, they have some kind of ulterior motive. Then they realize that their justification is incredibly flimsy — for example, in this case, that passage from the book of Revelations that you can *just about* read as referring to a solar eclipse (although, obviously, not any particular eclipse…). That’s not going to convince too many people: so you need to throw in all kinds of different pieces of ‘evidence’, in a ‘but wait there’s more’ conspiratorial kind of a way. In this case, they mention the prophecies of Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel. He was a Rabbi who lived 800 years ago. There’s something quite odd about all of this, to me. If someone shows up today and says they have special information about when the world’s going to end, they’re usually dismissed as a complete crackpot — even if what they’re saying is based on things that might be scientifically plausible. And, after all, if someone’s going to get special knowledge somehow that the end of the world is nigh, wouldn’t it make sense for them to get that knowledge pretty soon before the apocalypse? It just seems bizarre that people would somehow find a prophecy more credible just because it happened a long time ago.

In this case, though, they can point to a long track record — because apparently Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel also predicted that Jerusalem would be conquered by the Ottoman Turks, held for 600 years, then in ‘no man’s land’ for 50 years, then recaptured by Israel for 50 years — which broadly fits with modern history; then the end of the world is signalled, or something.

Except, of course, that Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel said no such thing — it’s just another one in a line of people who try to make prophecies look more realistic by sprinkling in some true information at a later date. There’s actually no source earlier than 2008 for this particular “translation” of the Rabbi’s works. He never said it. So, not only is this justification for the apocalypse not particularly convincing anyway, but it also turns out to be entirely fictional.

One of the things I enjoyed most about looking into this rumour: there were a lot of articles debunking it. A lot of these articles seemed pretty factual, rational, and well-researched until… right at the very end. Then they reveal that the reason this prophecy is obviously false is that, of course — only the writer knows the true date of the end of the world! They debunk a conspiracy theory to make their own seem more plausible. I guess maybe they assume that anyone looking this stuff up is already “end-of-the-world curious” and maybe they’re susceptible to a different brand of bullshit.

I guess I can understand why a lot of people want to believe that this stuff is true; because, in researching TEOTWAWKI, I felt it would be neat to be part of that special generation that believes that the end of the world is nigh. And, of course — and I can’t really skirt around this any longer — there are a lot of people out there whose religions say that, at some point, there’s going to be an apocalypse, or a judgement day, or a rapture, or a Second Coming — at any rate, something that’s going to be the end of the world as we know it, regardless of whether you think it’s going to be good or bad for you. According to an oft-quoted stat, 40% of Americans believe that Jesus is returning within their lifetimes. If that is something you believe, then I can see why you’d want to look for any possible sign that it’s going to occur. This has been the case since the very start of Christianity, where the original beliefs amongst early Christians was that Jesus’s return would be imminent — as time passed, it became less and less clear that it was, in fact, imminent.

I don’t want to offend anyone who does believe this; but what I will say is that if you believe in a Second Coming, you’ll have to agree that a lot of people who don’t really know when this is going to happen are rather making fools of themselves by constantly predicting it when — presumably — the point is that it comes pretty much unannounced. It was predicted, presumably, possibly, in the Bible — but the idea that a few people would be able to figure out the date, while everyone else remains clueless, surely seems a little bit odd.

So, for example, one of the groups that discusses this stuff is a Christian news organization called “Unsealed”; and they describe that what they’re predicting is not, in fact, the end of the world per se, although it would fit under my definition of TEOTWAWKI. On their website, they have a very long letter to those left behind after the Rapture — when they believe all the righteous will instantly vanish and go to heaven — explaining that in the next seven years, the anti-christ will appear as a charismatic world leader, sign a peace treaty with Israel, and proceed to lead humanity into eternal damnation unless they repent, et cetera.

Their website is very cute. They have a “Rapture Index” — along with a lot of other websites — that determines how close they think this is to occurring; it’s currently set at 9.2. Another rapture index I found has basically been predicting the Rapture, on and off, since 1990.

You might think I’m being unfair — after all, the other famous Doomsday Clock; the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — is an attempt to measure how likely and how imminent the end of the world might be. And this Doomsday Clock has always dramatically been poised at a certain number of “minutes to midnight”, which is always suggestive that the world is about to end. It started at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947, as fears about nuclear weapons grew; spiked to 2 minutes to midnight in 1953 when the Soviets got the bomb; relaxed a little over the years of the Cold War as arms treaties got signed and the stalemate in. Then Reagan came, and the Doomsday Clock started freaking out again as his tough rhetoric had both the Soviets and, apparently, the Bulletin convinced that he wanted to “win” the cold war with a nuclear strike. This is in the 1980s. And, in fairness to the Doomsday clock, those two very near-miss incidents with nuclear weapons — with Stanislav Petrov, remember, who had that heartstopping moment when he saw all of the nuclear missiles flood across the screen — well, they did happen in 1983–4 when communications were icy and the clock was at 3 minutes to midnight. For such a Cold-War obsessed doomsday clock, it relaxed massively to 17 minutes to midnight with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and has steadily crept back up since as new forms of instability — terrorism, global warming, and a lack of nuclear disarmament — have dashed the post Cold War hope. It’s currently set at a rather alarming 2 and a half minutes to midnight, the worst since the height of the Cold War — so, you know, they’re dramatically predicting the end of the world too, and it’s only because they’re a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that I’m not having a go at them.

Or maybe neither side is making a concrete prediction, but both are using their measurements to indicate how likely they think something is to happen. Unsealed has been predicting the Rapture since at least 2013, but they’ve only recently stuck a specific-ish date on it; September 2017, or thereabouts. Every time anything happens in the news, including the election of Trump and Brexit, it becomes somehow evidence for the Rapture and linked to vague passages in Revelations: they spent eight years saying that Obama’s presidency was sending America into decline, and this was a sign of the Rapture — and on the day Trump got elected, the guy is instantly changing his story, saying that actually many Bible passages suggest that the Rapture will come out of the blue, when things are looking perfectly fine — which for this guy, means Trump is in the White House. One of the signs of the imminent Rapture is even that people are saying “Where’s the Rapture?”… which they would be at pretty much any time it’s not the Rapture. Oh, by the way, you can find literally thousands of rapture predictors who disagree with how and when this is going to happen — so if you’re feeling miffed that I didn’t mention your theory, I’m just picking on a particular example. And I don’t feel that bad about picking on them, because their other incoherent articles show them to be incredibly intolerant of people with different opinions. Again, all I would say is that if you believe that the Rapture will happen, then having a whole bunch of people out there predicting it without good cause is bad for business, surely. And just to point out this is not a new problem, it happened in 66AD, 365AD when a bishop announced it, 400AD when another bishop declared the antichrist had already been born. Sextus Julius Africanus predicted the end of the world for 500AD; he later changed his mind to 800AD. Equally wrong — but he was smart enough to pick dates after he would be dead so no-one would laugh at him. The year 1000 was a big year, obviously, because apocalypse-predictors love round numbers; a lot of people got very upset about that. I’m not going to list them all, but it’s noticeable that the list gets much denser towards the last centuries until there’s practically a prediction for every year, the last few centuries. This probably has less to do with modern people being more inclined to predict the apocalypse, and more to do with the fact that more of what people said was recorded. There’s not an awful lot of reason to continually document in the history “on this day, the world was supposed to end, but didn’t”. Thanks a bunch, Father Dougal Maguire. Recording that for all eternity, back when writing was at a premium and there weren’t too many people who could do it, doesn’t make sense.

Another trend, though, is that a lot of early predictions were for dates after the people involved died, but a lot of the more recent ones (after the Middle Ages) involved wannabe prophets — often citing complicated biblical calculations — who predicted an “End Times” scenario that fell within their own lifetime. And quite often, they had legions of followers who were convinced that the prophecy would come true, and did as they were commanded by their leaders. In 1524, a group of astrologers predicted that the world would end beginning with a gigantic flood in London — and 10,000 Londoners ran up a hill for safety, and, presumably, to avoid the flood so they could die along with everyone else in the main event. When the predicted apocalypse… you know… didn’t quite materialise… the astronomers decided that the best course of action was to shift the date forwards by a hundred years. “Sorry everybody, Brian forgot to carry the 1…”; of course, it helps that none of you will be alive to be proved wrong a second time. Even the great Renaissance painter, Botticelli, was predicting the Rapture and the end of the world. He believed he was living in a time alluded to in the Bible called the Tribulation, which is a period of great upheaval and suffering. You can see that there are plenty of times in history that people might have looked around and said “I think we’re living through the Tribulation right now” — including, for some people, the last few months. A Professor of Theology at the New York Times put it best when he pointed out that these apocalyptic predictions can actually distract Christians from their mission of redeeming the world. In much the same way, scientists should remember that predicting that climate catastrophe, or a disastrous singularity, or a Malthusian catastrophe are “inevitable” doesn’t spur people to action so much as explaining how these things might be prevented.

In a lot of cases, people who predict that the end is coming genuinely believe what they’re saying; even though, time and time again, it’s been proved wrong.

But, a lot of the time, people who predict the end of the world have ulterior motives. I’ve been cruel enough about the doomsayers who haven’t yet been proved wrong. Let’s look at everyone else.

A classic example of this charlatanism was during the Anabaptist Siege of Munster in 1534. The Anabaptsists were one of the sects that spread out of the initial translations of the Bible from Latin into languages that were more commonly spoken, such as German; the Protestant reformation lead to a great many people reading the Bible for the first time and coming up with alternative interpretations, and while some of these were mainstream, some were downright apocalyptic. The Anabaptists gathered in Munster, in Germany, under the leadership of their charismatic Jan Mathys, who said that he received visions from God and predicted that the apocalypse was coming soon and that only the city of Munster would be spared. The city ended up being besieged by the authorities in Germany — who were a little concerned that it has essentially been taken over by a fringe of extremist radicals. Jan Mathys was clearly an example of a Doomsday prophet who genuinely believed what he was talking about; since, after receiving another message from God, he rode out into battle with a few dedicated followers against the besieging forces. I guess he believed that he and his twelve followers were destined to conquer the besieging army of hundreds, but it didn’t work out, and he was killed and dismembered.

After they stuck his head on a pike and nailed his unmentionables to the door of the city, there was understandably considerable panic amongst the people of Munster who were maybe slightly less convinced that the apocalypse was about to arrive, and that God was really on the side of Jan Mathys. It was at this point that Jan van Leiden, another Anabaptist leader, stepped up to the plate and took up the role of apocalyptic prophet. And while he may have believed in some of the prophecies of Matthys, he wasn’t above using the apocalyptic predictions to his own advantage. Like the time he insisted that, in order to greet him, God needed a certain amount of finery and gold… so everyone should turn over their good clothing and jewellery to the new King of Munster. Or that time he was caught in bed with a servant and immediately declared that God wanted everyone to be polygamous and take many wives, you know, like in the Old Testament. When the city ran out of food, van Leiden reportedly told the people that the cobblestones would be turned into bread for them. All the while, his personal charisma and the promise that the end was soon nigh, and that none of the things that seemed to be rather important right now — the besieging army, the lack of food — were going to end up being remotely important. That’s the thing about the end of the world. It’s a pretty good trump card if you want to persuade people to do things that they might otherwise be a little reluctant about, and so it proved for Jan van Leiden.

The end did come for him, of course; eventually they were betrayed, the city was recaptured, and he died a rather awful death. You can look it up if you’re interested; the details are rather gruesome. So, you know, that was one particular failed prediction that had some pretty disastrous consequences for a lot of the people involved; many of them gave up their jobs and possessions to travel to Munster, the Anabaptist paradise, and many of them lost their lives in the ensuing siege and recapture of the city. Jan van Leiden may have enjoyed his time as King of Munster, wearing lots of jewellery and taking lots of wives, but it came at a terrible cost. But it’s worth remembering that even some of the more mainstream members of the Protestant Reformation shared this conviction that the end of the world was coming soon — Martin Luther said that it would be no later than the year 1600. The apocalyptic theme has always been a factor in the religion, and it probably always will be.

A more modern version of a very similar story involves Roland Weinland. He founded a splinter sect called the Church of God, Preparing for the Coming of the Kingdom of God. This happened in 2000; in 2008, he hopped on the 2012 bandwagon for the end of the world that you probably all remember, and set May 27, 2012, as the date for his apocalypse. His motivations might be a little clearer when you learn that he was eventually imprisoned for tax fraud, and was found to have diverted an awful lot of church funds into offshore bank accounts; despite claiming that the money was just resting in the Swiss Bank account, he ended up with a hefty fine of a quarter of a million dollars and four years imprisonment. When the May 27 prophecy failed, at first Roland seemed to tell his followers to ‘move on’; then, later, he changed his mind and said that the prophecy had in fact come true, but that the end of the world would take a year to unfold. A week or so before May 27, 2013 — his second favoured date — Roland once more chickened out, and said that the end of the world was delayed for another few years; he’s currently flogging a book that says 2019. I won’t hold my breath.

Cotton Mather is another interesting case of someone whose initial failed prediction didn’t stop them from trying again. A Puritan preacher from the 17th century, he has a mixed record when it comes to being on the right side of the facts. He vigorously defended the Salem Witch Trials, in which innocent people were killed for reasons of pure superstition. But he was also one of the leading proponents in the American colonies for smallpox inoculation/vaccination, amidst fears at the time that all vaccination did was to spread the disease. (You’ll remember from our episode on pandemics that the widespread vaccination effort has effectively wiped out smallpox, although some governments insist on holding small stockpiles of the virus.) But he did have three goes at predicting the end of the world, trying again with different years twice to no avail.

Perhaps one of the stranger versions of this kind of prediction involved an English domestic servant, Joanna Southcott. In the late 1700s, she became convinced that she was a prophet with a hotline to God. What’s amazing about some of these stories is just how charismatic individuals have been shown to be, on so many occasions: I know for a fact that if I started claiming I knew the apocalypse was coming, no-one would listen and everyone would laugh. But Joanna Southcott, from her humble position, managed to publish her prophecies and convince tens of thousands of people to follow her. Perhaps part of the motivation for her predictions was revealed in the fact that she sold seals which would guarantee you a position as one of the 144,000 who will be liberated from the Earth. Incidentally, Revelations clearly states: “No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. For it is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.” No word on whether the people who paid twelve shillings a piece for these seals had actually read this bit of the Bible or not. Joanna Southcott, at the age of 64, predicted that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and that in October 1814, she would give birth to the new Messiah, Shiloh, triggering the apocalypse. Thousands of people showed up to greet the new prophet, but it was announced that he had been immediately taken up to heaven upon being born — although some report that this is an example of a phantom pregnancy, where Southcott psychosomatically had several of the symptoms of pregnancy and believed herself to be pregnant. Phantom or not, there was no messiah, and she died a few months later. What’s really amazing about Joanna Southcott is — you know, in spite of the fact that her end-of-the-world prediction completely failed to materialize, and the idea that she at 64 was pregnant with the Messiah is a little odd — is that a lot of people are still interested in her predictions and take them seriously. She left behind a sealed box of prophecies that should only be opened ‘in a time of national turmoil’ and then only by all of the assembled bishops of the Church of England. Since then, the fate of the box has been disputed by many. A publicist claimed to have opened it in 1927 and found nothing of interest; some people maintain this was the true ‘box’, while many other surviving groups of Southcottians claim that they are taking care of the box and awaiting the correct moment. Other groups believe that someone else is in possession of the box, and one organization used to take out advertising space in the Daily Mail demanding that the box be opened, thus allowing us to prepare for the world to come in the prophecies. One group believes that the Messiah has been reincarnated into the body of Prince William. Another group of them maintains a table with 24 chairs in place, just on the off chance that all of the bishops of the Church of England decide to rock up and open the box. Some people say that the British Museum has the real box, and that they opened it and found little of interest inside. You can find almost as many stories about the box as there are splintered groups of Southcottians — and, since there’s really no way of verifying the authenticity of anyone’s claims, we’ll probably never know for certain. The question that really needs to be answered is quite why anyone is that interested in what Joanna Southcott had to say when she was so discredited in her own life…

Of course, end of the world predictions are not just a Christian phenomenon — far from it. People don’t just predict from the Bible — Charles Manson, head of the grisly murderers the Manson family, made his apocalyptic predictions based on a bizarre interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album. Why he thought that John, Paul, George and Ringo had the secrets of the Universe, I had no idea, but he was criminally insane. There are plenty of superstitious societies that have fixed a specific date for the apocalypse, and some degree or other of mass panic has followed. The ancient Romans, for example, believed that Romulus — the mythical founder of the city — had been told that his civilization would only last for 120 years, leading to widespread concern when the city reached its 120th anniversary. Rome went on to stand — and, indeed, eventually dominate the Mediterranean world — for centuries to come.

Has anyone listening to this ever seen Plan 9 from Outer Space? It’s widely considered to be the worst film of all time. Terrible editing, awful acting, and a diabolically rubbish script, for sure. This is true of plenty of films. But there are also some little facts about Plan 9 that just catapult it over the edge. Like the fact that the star, Bela Lugosi, died halfway through shooting and was replaced for the rest of the flick by the director’s wife’s chiropractor, who tried to conceal the fact that he… you know… patently wasn’t Bela Lugosi… by wearing a big cloak over his head. It’s as about as effective as you’re imagining.

You really know you’re in for a treat, though, when the narrator shows up at the start of the movie. I can’t do the sheer weird desperation of it any justice at all, so I advise you to look up the video if you haven’t seen it, but here’s the script and my best impression (since you paid to hear this):


Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places, my friend we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?

I’ve loved this film for a really long time, but I had no idea that the narrator — and Criswell Predicts — were both real phenomena outside the batshit insane world of this movie. The man involved, who went by the stage name The Amazing Criswell, built his career on being a psychic and making often very inaccurate predictions. He wrote a book called Criswell Predicts, in which some of the predictions are… pretty wild. His second book was reviewed by the fanwebsite Criswell Predicts.com as “… a combination of fashion tips, financial forecasts, amazing labor-saving devices, spicy gossip and gloomy tales of impending social collapse.” A lot of them are your standard futurist fare where you try to extrapolate modern trends to their extremes, and end up with flying cars, or aeroplanes with dozens of wings. He was writing around the time that the Stonewall Riots happened, and that’s probably what inspired him to predict “homosexual cities.” Some are reasonable guesses, such as the idea that Fidel Castro would be assassinated; predicting the exact date for that to happen, though, borders on lunacy. Other predictions are slightly more outlandish:

“Can our whirling, turning, churning earth last out the night? Our geologists tell us that the danger to Mother Earth lies not in the uncharted vast of outer space, but from inner-earth! … Here is what will more than likely happen according to geologists: Small tidal waves will play havoc for no reason at all. The surface of the earth will bulge ever so slightly and highways will slightly buckle. Foundations will tip, and floors will slant. When you pour a cup of coffee or a glass of water, the rim will not level. Telephone coin boxes and vending machines will refuse to work. Delicate instruments will go haywire. Elevators will go out of whack. Jukeboxes will be mute. Radio and TV will fail. All electric power, gas and water service will cease. And then will come the time when garbage cans roll across the street for no apparent reason. Then and only then will you realize the advanced corrosion spelling the end of our Earth. The seas will quickly fill up with a gooey mass of inner-earth rubble. Our streets and city lots, farms, and deserts will bubble up like a festered oil, marking the complete collapse. Has this happened before? More than likely. And it will again happen in your incredible future.”

Criswell predicted that in 1980, Denver, Colorado would be hit by a giant beam of energy that came from outer space and turned everything into rubber. There is no known astronomical phenomenon that would beam radiation so effectively onto a single city, and certainly nothing that will turn “lumber, concrete, bricks and mortar into jelly.” Criswell further predicted that London would be hit by a meteorite, killing everyone in the city, in 1988. I’m sitting a few miles away from Euston, and, while there are areas that could do with a bit of a tidy, there’s not much sign of a devastating meteor strike. He predicted a nuclear strike that would mostly be deflected by a missile shield except for “a few missiles that rained down on the helpless state of Vermont.” Sorry, Vermont. And, finally, he predicted the end of the world to take place in August of 1999.

“That day, every point on earth will be covered by a black rainbow — not just any black rainbow, mind you, but “a jet-black rainbow; an ebony rainbow; a black rainbow which will signify the coming suffocation of our world. This black rainbow will seemingly bring about, through some mysterious force beyond our comprehension, a lack of oxygen. It will draw the oxygen from our atmosphere, as a huge snake encircling the world and feeding upon the oxygen which we need to exist. Hour after hour, it will grow worse. And we will grow weaker. It is through this that we will be so weakened that when the final end arrives, we will go silently, we will go gasping for breath, and then there will be only silence on the earth.”

There’s something poetic about just how ridiculous Criswell’s predictions are. Alongside the ridiculously dramatic destruction of several cities, this is a quite bizarre sci-fi/fantasy idea for the end of the Universe that… has no basis in anything else that anyone has ever said, at any point. Predicting that the world will end due to the Rapture, or by nuclear war, is one thing; these are, at least, feasible apocalypses that people have discussed for a long time. But it takes a special kind of creativity to predict something this ridiculous, and it seems pretty clear to me that Criswell had little belief in anything he was saying and just liked to put on a dramatic show. Please, watch some video of him, and you’ll see what I mean. When you see his dialogue from Plan 9 in Outer Space, you can clearly see that he’s reading it from an autocue; I thought that was a one-off, but… you can hear some radio shows where there are some bizarre pauses where he’s clearly reading his predictions from pages that he’s turning in real time. And the entertainer Johnny Carson said of Criswell — you know, he’s 80% right, 20% of the time. And yet, he did genuinely apparently predict the assassination of JFK, saying that he would not run for reelection in 1964 because “something would happen to him” in November 1963. Which initially seems eerie until you realize just how much of what he said was hilariously wrong, and that most of his predictions contradict each other in astounding ways.

One of the predictions of his I quite like is that “Women will earn most of the money and spend 93 cents out of every dollar, and what are we poor men to do? I for one welcome it, because we men have made such a mess of things, that naturally the women must come to our rescue and do better.” Here’s hoping.

I’ll leave this section with Criswell’s own words:

“For years, I have related the unbelievable and the unexplained, and shown it to be… MORE THAN FACT!”

It certainly is, much, much more than fact.

[Split episodes here if I go on much longer?]

Astrological and astronomical phenomena have often led to people predicting the end of the world. I like the fact that this hasn’t changed as we’ve become more and more informed about what’s really going on in outer space. Seeing a shooting star, an eclipse, or a dramatic meteorite strike or shower would be really really startling if you lived in a society where you had no idea what any of these things meant. Especially an eclipse — the Sun literally going out, or so it appears for a few minutes. So it’s understandable that people would view them as signs of the End Times, or bad omens at the very least. But nowadays, we know that shooting-star trails are caused by burning fragments during atmospheric re-entry, and that a solar eclipse is just the Moon passing between our line of sight and the Sun; there’s no reason that any of these events should cause particular alarm. We know about the trajectories of comets like Hale-Bopp or Halley’s Comet as they approach us, too, so we can be scientifically reassured that they’re not going to wipe out life on Earth. Yet there is still a fringe of people who, in all their pseudoscientific glory, predict the apocalypse whenever anything interesting is going on in the heavens. I guess the cultural link between the stars, and concepts of fate and destiny, has never really been completely broken. And, of course, we discussed in the episode Death From Above all of the various ways in which outer space may genuinely threaten our existence — providing we don’t invest in asteroid-deflecting technologies as we so obviously should!

A theme that often comes up in this is Nibiru, or Planet X. These are some pretty wild conspiracy theories. I hadn’t even heard of Nibiru until just the other week, when I was at a Radiohead concert and — bizarrely — the guy behind me was wearing a Radiohead/Nibiru t-shirt. It said “There will be *No Surprises* when Nibiru arrives”, and had a pretty illustration of a planet crashing into Earth in a massive ball of fire. I don’t know whether this guy was a Radiohead fan who just happened to believe in Nibiru, or a Nibiru conspiracy theorist who went to every major concert in the area to tell people about the news, but either way, it was a little unsettling to be reminded that a lot of people around me do believe that the end of the world is nigh. Or maybe he was just being ironic; I suppose you can’t rule that out. It was a pretty cool t-shirt. Love that home-made crackpot aesthetic.

So the Nibiru myth is the idea that a large, planet-sized object is going to pass through the Solar System at some point in the 21st Century, and either cataclysmically crashing into the Earth and destroying it, or somehow causing the Earth’s magnetic poles to realign, which will trigger the apocalypse.

One thing that’s common to most conspiracy theories is that they rely on people’s mistrust of authority, so naturally, no amount of debunking from NASA and others has changed many of the die-hard conspiracy theorists’ minds about this. I think a lot of the psychology here is that people want to feel like they’re part of something important; like they have special, forbidden knowledge that marks them as smarter than the experts, or noble freedom fighters against a corrupt system. Guardians of the truth, so to speak. And a lot of conspiracy theories actually, perversely, give us a more reassuring view of the world. When a 9/11 event, or a JFK assassination occurs, maybe it’s more comforting to think that a vast conspiracy had to be behind such a world-changing set of events, rather than the idea that a lone gunman or a fringe group of radicals could change the world in such a dramatic way. But really, even if you’re a core conspiracy theorist, I’m not sure how you could view Nibiru as credible.

The origins arise with Nancy Lieder, a Winsconsin woman who claims that she was contacted by grey aliens called Zetas as a child. According to Nancy, the aliens implanted a communications device in her brain, and started telling her about astronomical phenomena.

Now, this really is a core example of someone who is probably suffering from some kind of mental illness, possibly schizophrenia. Such people need medical attention; believing in their predictions, or supporting them in any way, is a really terrible thing to do to such a person, regardless of your motivations. It’s not like this is someone who claims to have made astronomical observations that are being suppressed by the scientific establishment; the idea is that aliens have visited Earth (zero evidence, highly implausible) and inexplicably chosen just one person to communicate this information to, for reasons unknown.

Yet beyond this, there are even more reasons to be sceptical of her claims. For a start, any planet-sized object that was approaching the Earth would be visible in the sky; there would be absolutely no way to hide it; thousands of amateur astronomers would have located it and would be tracking it. None of this has happened, and people have to resort to very unscientific explanations to explain why not. When she first came to prominence, it was claiming that the Zeta aliens had told her that the approaching Hale-Bopp comet was “Nothing more than a distant star.” When the comet was observed and had all of the trademarks of a comet, including a bright tail, these predictions were changed. Then there’s the fact that she originally predicted the end of the world to occur in 2003; she later claimed that first date was “a lie to fool the establishment.” Of course. In 2012, she claimed that Barack Obama had secretly tried to “warn the world about Nibiru”, and in 2014 she again predicted that Nibiru would arise. Time and time again, this conspiracy theory has been debunked by the scientific establishment; all of the associated predictions have completely fallen apart over the years. Why anyone would continue to find this particular conspiracy theory credible is a complete mystery to me, given all of these facts; but, of course, the key to conspiracy theory belief is a willing ignorance of the facts. Sometimes it seems like the more counter-evidence there is, the more willing people are to believe in these theories; after all, it’s all just establishment figures spreading lies and disinformation, right?

And yet major, idiotic newspapers like the Express, the Sun, and the Daily Mail — all report, with massive, attention-grabbing headlines, as if this was fact. One of them plays to the anti-establishment conspiracy theorist angle with the stunning revelation that “world leaders prepare to hunker down in an underground bunker, leaving the rest of us doomed”. If you read all the way down to the bottom of the articles, most of these so-called journalists do feel obliged to admit that no credible source actually backs up these claims, but by that point, the damage is done. The fact that people can continually spread ridiculous conspiracies in major publications for clicks and increased sales, constantly eroding the trust of the public in scientists, is incredibly frustrating. Freedom of speech is a fundamental and important right, but giving credence to this kind of rumour is tabloid journalism at its worst. The real shame is that the conspiracy theorists are so unoriginal. The latest round of articles about Nibiru was sparked by a chap who I won’t dignify by naming him; he’s stolen all of Nancy Lieder’s predictions and her following in an attempt to plug his Kindle book. Amazing.

Alongside mysterious rogue planets, some of these astronomical end-of-the world conspiracy theories mix in a little bit of fact with the complete fiction that the rest of the story is based on. An example is all of the predictions that are based on some kind of ‘planetary alignment’. Richard W. Noone in his book 5/5/2000: Ice, The Ultimate Disaster, Noone predicted that a “planetary alignment” on this date would trigger a series of natural disasters, beginning with a disruption of Earth’s polar ice caps. A lot of the 2012 apocalypse scenarios indicated that a “planetary alignment” would play havoc with the tides and cause massive flooding and tsunamis.

This one should be really really easy to dispel with a little bit of high school physics. All you need to do, to work out the relative force of gravity on the Earth from all of these things, is use Newton’s Law.

Newton’s Law tells us that the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the mass of the two objects multiplied together, divided by the square of the distance between them. So, let’s consider the gravitational effects of all of these bodies on the Earth, relative to each other.

It’s generally considered that the Moon is most important in determining the tides on Earth — and this kinda makes sense, because it’s so close to us, and the dependence on distance squared probably dominates even though the Moon weighs less than the planets and Sun. So, in our system of units, we’ll take the Moon’s effect on us as 1. Let’s assume that everything is aligned in such a way as to be as close to Earth as possible.

Then you just need to divide lots of ratios of (mass of object / distance to object squared). So let’s do that.

Then you can work out that the gravitational force of Venus on the Earth is over a thousand times weaker than that of the Moon. The gravitational force of Mars on the Earth is a million times weaker than that of the Moon; Jupiter is about 0.5% because it’s so heavy. In other words, the effect of the planetary alignment is tiny and won’t cause any kind of apocalypse, even if all of the effects constructively reinforce and act together.

(In actual fact, to calculate the TIDAL force, and not just the gravitational force, it depends on the difference in the gravitational force from one side of the Earth to the other. And this depends on the ratio of the Earth’s diameter to the distance between the object and the Earth — which means the effects from the distant planets are much much weaker compared to the Moon than even the rough calculation above suggests, since the Earth’s diameter is a much bigger fraction of the distance to the Moon.)

So there’s absolutely no way in the world that planetary alignment could possibly cause the apocalypse; it’s just a fun coincidence. Sorry, everyone.

People also love comets. Every time a comet comes close, or is mathematically predicted to come close to the Earth — when close means fifty million miles away, often — people predict that the comet is going to strike the Earth and kill it. Famous mathematician and physicist Bernoulli apparently predicted a comet would destroy the Earth in 1719; every reoccurrence of the Halley’s comet and the Hale-Bopp comet have led to predictions of the apocalypse. Tragically, in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult, they believed that the Hale-Bopp comet was a spaceship that would allow them to ascend to a higher plane of existence providing they “hitched a ride” by committing mass suicide when the comet arrived. The founder, Marshall Applewhite — perhaps showing that he was deluded but not a total charlatan — committed suicide alongside 38 of his followers when the comet arrived.

One thing that’s noticeable about most of the unfulfilled prophecies — at least, the ones that people took seriously, rather than the jokey ones from the Amazing Criswell — is that people are very reluctant to abandon them, or at the very least the idea that they might be partially right. Usually, one or several of the following things happens:

  • The date for the end of the world changes by some amount, or the people involved insist that the end of the world is coming soon but at some unknown imminent date
  • The initial evidence — whether it’s from quote unquote examining scripture, or astrological phenonema, or aliens communicating via chips in people’s heads — is re-examined and some ‘flaw’ found. This way, the people can say: well, our method was right, and we do have predictive power, but we made a mistake here. Often goes hand in hand with picking a new date.
  • The people involved declare that the prophecy has in fact been fulfilled, but in some vague, abstract, and unverifiable way. So an example of this is all of the people who say that the “apocalypse period” has begun, and that the events that are going on around us are in fact the end of the world. In the Siege of Munster, Jan van Leiden had a particular date that he predicted for the Rapture, when everyone in Munster would be ‘saved’ from their predicament. When the appointed day came and the city was still under siege, and people were still starving, van Leiden explained that he had only meant that they would be ‘spiritually saved’ — and that, in fact, this had already occurred, and their souls were now guaranteed to go to heaven. You know, a totally unverifiable claim. Harold Camping, who predicted the Rapture a couple of times back in 2011, did the same thing; when his initial prediction failed, he said that a “spiritual day of judgement” had occurred in March and a physical one would occur in October. But, if at first you don’t succeed, redefine success, right?

Of course, the perennial obsession of many an end-of-the-world predictionists is round numbers. Let’s just point out a couple of things: there is nothing mythical, or mysterious, or even immutable about the calendar. In Roman days, they understood this a little better, because constant astronomical recalculations lead to people sticking in a few leap days here, while political considerations might force you to declare a few holidays there; you’d very quickly realize that there was nothing particularly important or sacred about any of the days. The Romans dated their calendar from the foundation of the city — but no-one really knew exactly when this was, especially given that the first few years of the city’s history were shrouded in deeply convenient myths, where warrior-kings and philosopher-kings alternated with each other and often had implausibly long reigns. And everyone knows that the date of Christmas was fixed by the Council of Nicaea to coincide with a previously existing pagan festival, the Winter Solstice, and to steal some of the pagan thunder. Jesus was probably born on some date in January, maybe epiphany. And, although it was the date that the consuls were sworn in under the Roman Empire, what was the first modern-day country to adopt January the 1st as the first date of the year? It was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It wasn’t the first day of the year in the Anglosphere until the 1700s. The point of this, of course, is to say that there’s no reason that the first day of January, 2000, should have been significant intrinsically. Only humans provide that day with any specific meaning — so, unless you’re predicting an anthropogenic apocalypse, there’s no reason it should be special. This was equally the case with the Mayan calendar apocalypse; although it was sweet and perhaps a nice testament to the wisdom of the ancients that so many people seemed to believe they might have been able to see something, thousands of years ago, that eluded modern science. Of course, the Mayans weren’t predicting the end of the world, or anything like it; it was a combination of long-cycle numerology and a calendar that simply ran out of space. Our dedication and superstition about these round numbers is very cute, isn’t it? At least superstition around comets returning makes some sense: there’s a viable mechanism by which the world could be destroyed, even if all the scientific evidence tells you that it’s not actually going to happen. Our superstition around round numbers on calendars, though, is nothing more than a testament to the fact people haven’t gotten used to the idea that we’re nothing special. It’s your birthday? The cosmos doesn’t care.

But January 1st, 2000, at least, was a round and special calendar date that did have a viable End Times scenario attached to it: although, of course, it was completely down to humans that the date was special. Well, humans, and the machines that we’ve programmed. I’m talking, of course, about the Y2K bug.

The issue here was that, due to the way dates were stored in computers, the changing of the guard from the year 1999 to the year 2000 may have baffled unprepared systems. Some might become convinced that a hundred years had passed, unable to distinguish between 2000 and 2100; others, passing from 99 to 00, might think they’d gone back in time. Luckily, this was anticipated, and around $300bn was spent on Y2K preparedness, which meant that there’s only a small list of reported Y2K bugs that people actually noticed/had severe consequences.

I was around (albeit immature) during the Year 2000. The most apocalyptic scenarios imagined by people who investigated the Y2K potential singularly failed to materialize; aeroplanes didn’t fall out of the sky, toasters didn’t jump out of walls and start electrocuting people. Yet the Y2K fever was noticeable, because it embodied so many of the key aspects of these incorrect predictions. People exploited the natural fears of others for profit; survivalists, often hawking their product ranges or custom-built shelters, did their best to whip people up into a frenzy. Fears of the apocalypse were born out of an unease with the changing nature of society, and our increased dependence on computers — which is behind so much of the fears behind cyberwarfare (TEOTWAWKI 8) or the singularity (which won the bronze as you’ll remember!). The hysteria may have led to a lot of overprepared-ness in many cases; there are still arguments to this day as to how bad the problems might have been if all that preventative money hadn’t been spent. Small businesses and schools, which did little to prepare for Y2K, did not report significantly greater chaos than usual. It’s one of these completely impossible problems that relies so much on counterfactuals that it’s quite difficult to say what the real value of the preventative effort was. I can’t help but imagine wild-eyed coders from the 90s, doing their best Vietnam veteran impressions: “You weren’t there, man…” and maybe they did save the world. Like many apocalyptic scenarios, our usual means of assessing risks finds it difficult to calculate what the relative significance is when you multiply a tiny probability of things going wrong with the potential catastrophe that could occur if they do.

What is also difficult to assess is the cost of these failed predictions. For some people, of course, the cost is massive. Southcottians have arguably dedicated lots of their free time to a myth, although it’s arguable that most of us do this anyway (with varying degrees of resulting success and enjoyment.) The Anabaptist faithful in Munster forfeited their property, endured a terrible siege, and in many cases were killed due to faith in predictions that failed to materialise. 45 million books were sold by doomsday apocalypse true-believers, or cynical charlatans who see an opportunity to sell some cheap and nasty books. (And, if you look up the “also written by…” for lots of the people flogging books about Nibiru, you will usually see a long chain of bandwagon-hopping nonsense, self-help guru trash, and other assorted ephemera, suggesting that these people may not in fact be the astronomers and physicists they claim to be.)

There is always going to be a place in society for people holding cardboard signs that say “the end is nigh.” In a lot of cases, their fears are ridiculous and sometimes they’re even worthy of ridicule. But the shrill proclamations of everyone with the Chicken Little gene (thanks, Dan Carlin) often serve to alert the rest of us to risks and considerations that we might otherwise have blithely ignored. Rationally assessing these threats is difficult, but there is a place in the discourse for people who insist that the sky is falling in; even if their only role is to be smacked down by science. But — just occasionally — there are real reasons to fear these end-of-the-world-scenarios. What we then choose to do about them is down to us.