Saturday, May 21, 2011

Beyond Schadenfreude: The Road Past Rapture

"Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know." - Lao Tzu

So now, I can presume, we all agree the Rapture isn't happening this weekend. To be honest, I presume we (=anyone I know who'd have stumbled across my blog) all agreed that beforehand anyway, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't step outside at 6 PM, just to see if flying bodies were in the air, because, on the 0.000001% chance that Mr. Camping was right, and I missed that sight because I was watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, well, that might have been an embarrassing tale to tell during the subsequent remaining five months of existence.

But I was still kind of angry at myself for even stepping outside, and angry that a buffoon who had previously predicted the world would end in 1994 had gotten so much attention, the latest in our cultural affirmation of the Warholian edict of 15 minutes of fame, a cycle so rapidly churning that the death of Bin Laden already feels like distant past, and next month Camping will be as forgotten as Rebecca Black is today.

There's a couple things at play here, but the one I'm concerned about - and the reason I can't just treat the non-Rapture as the punchline to a great cultural joke - is the overwhelming power of certainty. There is very little I am certain about in life - while I operate under a series of hypotheses, these are open to revision and change at any time, to the extent that my neuroprogramming allows, anyway. So when I am confronted by someone who is absolutely certain, my first impulse is to assume that, if they are so convinced about something, they must know something that I don't.

This weekend throws into relief why that is a very, very bad first impulse. Whether Mr. Camping was a charlatan or sincere in his beliefs, he projected certainty to his followers, who in turn spent their life savings on billboards warning of said rapture, and some even going so far as to plan to kill their pets. His certainty, even to those of us who were convinced that he was hopelessly wrong and a complete buffoon, nonetheless captivated people's attention, an attention that could be so much more usefully deployed in so many other ways. (And, personally, yes: I do consider watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN a much more useful way to spend one's attention.)

But here's the thing: the lesson from this weekend is not "don't trust people who pick a specific date for the rapture". It's this: don't take people who are overly certain at face value. Whether that's about religion, or politics, or the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, or anything.

And - especially - do not take them seriously just because they have a vague explanation couched in certainty. This is the point where I provide my semiannual advocacy of Ben Goldacre's book BAD SCIENCE, which looks at how pseudoscientific bullshit is used to fill people's heads with false beliefs. It takes just the proper deployment of a couple scientific terms for otherwise reasonable people to turn their heads off and buy into ideas no less outlandish as Camping's rapture prediction.

Too often, the terms of the debate in the world is set by people who are most sure of themselves. For so many of us, that voice of certainty is the voice of reason. If we can learn anything, may it be to dissociate those two ideas; that, in fact, the voice of certainty is, more than likely, diametrically opposed to reason.

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