(For some idiot reason, I was absolutely certain that today was the 12th. It's not. It's the tenth. D'oh. There's a freakin' time&date widget on my screen! Thanks to the commenter who pointed this out.)
A bit over a year ago, before the big move to Scientopia, I wrote about a loonie named Harold Camping. Camping is the guy behind the uber-christian "Family Radio". He predicted that the world is going to end on May 21st, 2011. I first heard about this when it got written up in January of 2010 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
And now, we're less than two weeks away from the end of the world according to Mr. Camping! So I thought hey, it's my last chance to make sure that I'm one of the damned!
Camping is a numerologist. I've written a lot about numerology-related stuff before. For those who aren't familiar with it, the kind of numerology that Camping plays with involves creating associations between words and numbers, and then playing arithmetic games with the numbers. The most well-known form of this is gematria, from the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.
As an aside, I've got a personal fascination with gematria. I don't actually believe that there's secret meanings hidden in texts that can be uncovered by using gematria. But I think it's a really interesting tool for engaging your creativity. When I'm working on something, and I'm totally blocked, I've found that it's a useful trick for finding a different approach. When you're focused on a problem, it's easy to get locked into a particular way of thinking about it. If you're going in circles, it's useful to have some way of throwing some randomness into your thoughts. Gematria is a great way of doing that. You convert what you're doing into numbers, play around with them, and try to fold whatever you come up with into your reasoning about your problem. There's nothing magical or mystic about it, but it's fun and it really can help.
The problem with it comes when you believe that the patterns you find must represent something real and meaningful: not something that you created, but something that has some kind of independent reality. As I've said before: there are so many ways of combining numbers together that if you're willing to spend enough time searching, you can find some way of producing any result that you want. Camping's end-of-the-world date is pretty much a classic example of that. It's particularly funny because Camping is really amazingly impressed by his own work. He thinks that what he's done is so amazing, so deep, so complicated... According to him: "he came up with the very precise date of May 21 through a mathematical calculation that would probably crash Google’s computers."
What does Camping's calculation that would crash Google's computers do? It finds words, associates them with numbers, and then screws around with multiplying, adding, and subtracting those numbers. No division: non-integer arithmetic is just too hard!
Mr. Camping starts off by claiming that there's a correlation between certain words in the bible and certain numbers. So he's not even being quite as rigorous (if that's the right word) as a gematreist. He's got no consistent method of assigning relationships between words and numbers. It's just some sort of very loose association that he happens to notice. Using these fuzzy associations, he concludes that the number "5" means "atonement"; the number "10" means "completeness"; and the number "17" means "heaven".
So, as our starting point, we've got the numbers 5, 10, and 17.
Next, he says that the crucifiction happened on April 1, 33 A.D. There are 1,978 years between April 1, 33 and April 1, 2011. Unfortunately, 1,978 doesn't fit any combination of numerical operations performed using 5, 10, and 17 that Mr. Camping could figure out.
So, he took the length of a solar year, to 7 significant digits: 365.2422 days. He multiplied 1,978 years by 365.2422 days, to come up with 722449.0716 days. Why use 7 significant digits for the length of a solar year? Because using that number of digits produces a result that he can tweak into a connection with his three magic numbers. Why use 10 significant digits for the the number of days? Because it looks really impressive.
See, if you take the three magic numbers, multiply them together, and square the result, you get 722,500. Why square them? No particular reason, other than the fact that, by golly, it works! Now, take that as a number of days.
So, take the two numbers we've come up with: 722,500, and 722,449. They're different by about 51 days. And hey! 51 is 17 times three, and 17 is one of our magic numbers. (Three isn't, but we'll just wave our hands and ignore that.) Since it's a multiple of our magic number 17, that means that it's not a fudge factor, it's meaningful! Therefore, if you just add 51 days to the supposed anniversary of the crucifixion, you get the date of the end of the world!
So May 21, 2011 is the end of the world - because it's (atonement times completeness times heaven) days squared since the crucifiction.
According to Camping, "I just about fell off my chair when I realized that".
Since then, he's come up with other random reasons. He worked out his own date for when Noah's flood supposedly happened, and - what a surprise! - it works out to May 21st, exactly 7,000 years ago. No room for fudging there - he worked out his chronology completely independently from his doomsday prediction.
Like I keep saying about this topic: when you play with numbers, you'll constantly find patterns. Numbers are a beautiful closed system, where you can easily spin in circles without even knowing that you're doing it. If you're willing to spend enough time looking, you can always find some sequence of arithmetic operations that will produce whatever result you want. There's nothing meaningful about it.
To make matters sillier, this isn't the first time that Camping has pulled this. An earlier calculation of his predicted that the world would end on Sept 6, 1994.
People are incredibly gullible when it comes to this sort of shit. You can be wrong time and time and time again in these kinds of predictions - and it just doesn't make a damn bit of difference. The suckers will fall for it, again and again. (The worst case of this that I know of is "The Lord's Witnesses", an offspring of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who have, to date, made 159 incorrect predictions since the year 2,000.) The same people who sat outside Camping's church in 1994 is busily preparing for the end of the world.
This kind of thing isn't just harmless. The suckers that Camping has taken in are doing all sorts of crazy things in the name of this. For example, in a writeup of this crap in my old hometown paper, the NJ Star Ledger:
That is daunting to Anthony Hernandez, a 44-year-old technology worker from Chester Township who runs a monthly Bible study class in his home. Although he devotes himself to proclaiming the message of the May 21 date, he knows that doesn't guarantee his salvation.
"If I find myself here May 22, then I'll be unsaved, because all the believers will be taken," he said. Asked if that scared him, the father of seven replied, "It is scary. I don't know if my children are saved."
He's made no contingency plans for life after May 21, neither booking a summer vacation with relatives, nor stocking up on provisions.
"I've done nothing, because if I'm lost, I'm lost. It's over," he said.
It's genuinely scary to think of what this jackass could do come May 22nd when his kids are still there.
Camping gets even sillier, but I haven't been able to find his numerological reasoning. He insists that the end of the world will come in an earthquake. And it will come right around 6pm on the 21st. This earthquake will work its way around the planet - it will occur in each location right around 6pm local time, so that no matter where you are, it will happen at 6pm. Per Camping: "People will see this coming to them from around the world. It will follow the sun around." Alas, he didn't share his calculations for that... apparently they're just too complicated for our puny brains to follow.