These prophesies share something else as well. Whenever an apocalyptic prediction fizzles, the doomsayers remain strangely silent — until the next opportunity to capture the public’s imagination. The new millennium did not bring down airplanes or knock out power grids; but no software engineer has confessed that the Y2K scare was a con — or at least a serious mistake — that cost the United States alone an estimated $300 billion. On the contrary, some have begun to warn that, in 2038, certain computer software and systems will experience “integer overflow,” causing them to report negative system times and, in turn, to fail.Unfortunately, these crackpots would not get any kind of free publicity were it not for the media that seem eager to jump to such sensational story.
The interval between a doomsday prophecy’s fall and the rise of the next one evidently is decreasing, perhaps owing to the accelerating pace of modern life — and, with it, the acceleration of forgetting, which enables potential beneficiaries to capitalize. Last year’s misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar clearly helped — and was probably helped by — the proprietors of some Yucatan hotels, which reached 100-per-cent occupancy in the weeks surrounding the world’s projected end.
Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets are eager to provide a platform for fear-mongers. Doom sells; scientific empiricism, not so much. In an increasingly cutthroat media culture — in which falling behind a story is often considered worse than making a mistake — serious journalism has largely given way to infotainment and sensationalism.
For example, in 2008, the Russian physicist Grigory Vilkovisky claimed to have proved that black holes radiate away only about half of their mass — contrary to Stephen Hawking’s celebrated finding that they radiate away their entire mass. At the time, I wrote that, if Vilkovisky were correct, accepted ideas about black-hole physics would have to be radically altered, and “black holes created at CERN might actually survive long enough to be taken seriously.” While I intended only to suggest that the black holes would be considered seriously as a scientific phenomenon, my words were interpreted to mean that the black holes could pose a serious threat to Earth.
Anyone who has written a science article for the public, or have science blogs, will inevitably encounter something such as this:
On the other hand, the rising incidence of false prophecy might equally reflect the increasing prevalence of charlatanism masquerading as science. Each time I publish a scientific essay, I attract the attention of a dozen self-proclaimed messiahs eager to impart their divinely inspired ideas, which invariably lack higher mathematics (or, in the case of the black-hole sentinels, rely on elevated but meaningless mathematics). Their conviction that they represent the Alpha and Omega of knowledge is as rigid as their scientific illiteracy.
I certainly have. I lost count on how many "comments" I had to delete coming from people who claim to have solved the entire mystery of the universe. Love that DELETE button on Blogger. I've ever used the MARK AS SPAM on habitual crackpots who can't seem to get a clue that none of their garbage will ever get free advertisements on here.
Ah, such fun!