Will There Ever Be An Apocalypse?

Using science to read the future and find out if, how and when the end is near.
Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

(Inside Science) -- An interview with Matt Stanley, a professor of history and philosophy of science at NYU.

“The most important apocalypse and Judeo-Christian tradition is their Revelation to John, the last book in the Christian Bible, which describes amongst other things the destruction of the world. There’s this idea that there is a secret knowledge of the future out there that’s hidden, and you would get a prophet or a priest and they would be able to access the future.

“Come the 20th century, scientist are actually better at talking about the future than a lot of religious figures are. So, it becomes possible to talk about a scientific apocalypse that is now, the scientist can read the future and figure out what the end is going to look like.

“Part of what’s going on is that the ideas of the apocalypse and apocalypticism in general have been profoundly influential on America. One of the most important divisions is between apocalypses that you can do something about and apocalypses that you can’t. Scientific apocalypses are divided the same sort of way. Normal, sort of American Protestant, apocalypticism says the end is coming -- so repent, but there is nothing you can do to prevent the end of the world -- where scientific apocalypses usually say, a bad thing is going to happen unless we do this. So, if you’re a scientist and you want to get across an idea, it turns out the apocalypticism is a useful framework for doing these sorts of things.”

Dr. Stanley gave a talk at the American Institute of Physics Sept. 13, 2016, titled, “From Physics to Prophecy: Learning to Predict the Scientific Apocalypse”

“Tonight, I’ll be talking about theories of asteroid impacts and nuclear winter. And one of the things that I find interesting is that both of these depart from the realization in the 1980s that the dinosaurs were killed by a celestial impact. Nowadays, the government funds research to prevent an asteroid from hitting us. So, that’s a sense in which the asteroid impact scientists were successful -- that is, people took their apocalyptic warning seriously, but it took a very long time -- essentially took 20 years to get people to take it seriously.

“There are many different kinds of apocalypses, right? So, you can have fire and brimstone falling from the sky. And then once the scientist gets talking about things, we have things like asteroid impacts and nuclear winters and global pandemic and environmental destruction and resource depletion. And all of these look quite different. In order to be persuasive, scientists can’t be too apocalyptic. That is, they have to present themselves as being disinterested experts. They have to look like they don’t have any kind of political agenda.

“Apocalypticism gives them categories that they use to talk and to explain to the world and also, it’s a mode to which people are receptive. So, if you’re a scientist and you want to get across a particular idea, it turns out that the apocalypticism is a useful framework for doing these sorts of things.

“The effective scientific apocalypticist will warn you that it’s imminent but not very imminent, and then give you a list of actions you should take to prevent that from happening. So, the scientific apocalypses tend to be more calls to actions rather than telling people to lead their lives in different ways.”

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Jason Socrates Bardi is the former News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.