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Lessons from a failed doom

Posted: May 26, 2011 8:09 a.m.
Updated: May 27, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Harold Camping, the religious broadcaster who said Judgment Day would come last weekend, now says he doesn't want to talk about that anymore. I'm sure he doesn't. But I don't believe he has received enough ridicule.

No, I do not wish to make fun of those who hope and pray for Jesus to come again. But people like Camping make his believers look foolish when they profess a "word from the Lord" that turns out to be mostly Camping's word alone.

It was Camping who put his own reputation on the line and disrupted numerous lives while mostly amusing the rest of us as he stirred up what one headline writer cleverly called a "Mediacalypse."

The host of the Bible-focused Family Radio program was so absolutely, positively certain that Judgment day would arrive on May 21 that he urged his believers quit their jobs, leave their families and turn over their savings. Family Radio dispatched caravans of volunteers, rented a reported 1,200 billboards, posted Internet ads and distributed thousands of leaflets to alert and alarm the rest of us about the big event.

He now declares, according to AP, that he got the date wrong. Again? He said that in 1994, too. When the world failed to end as he predicted, he claimed a mathematical error in his calculations and reset Judgment Day for May 21. This time after humanity remained stubbornly untouched by anything worse than the usual disasters, he readjusted his prediction. Now, he says, we can look for the Rapture and a big ball of fire on Oct. 21. Left unsaid is why any of us should trust his math, if we ever did.

But rest assured, someone will. One person's folly is another person's following. You might think that the followers of doomsday predictors no longer would listen to them, once their predictions fail to pan out. But guess again. Human beings can rationalize their beliefs against all manner of contrary evidence. Ask anyone who ever stood by a lying politician, a failed ideology, an outlandish conspiracy theory or a cheating spouse.

In that vein, Camping's folly offers us a valuable lesson in what I would call a foolish certainty -- which, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said of a "foolish consistency," is "the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

We humans have amazing powers of forgiveness, especially for those who help us to believe what we desperately wish to be true.

That was the big lesson in the late psychologist Leon Festinger's famous 1956 book titled "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World."

He based his study on a Chicago area doomsday group called the Seekers. They were strikingly similar to Camping's movement, except for one notable detail: Seekers leader Dorothy Martin predicted that they would be rescued by aliens in a flying saucer before a great flood would wipe out everybody else.

After the doomsday date came and went, leaving humanity stubbornly alive, Festinger found the reaction to be remarkably mixed. Some members left the cult and some stood dazed and confused as to what to do next. But others immediately followed Martin's revised prediction: The world was still going to end, she said, but on a different date.

Festinger came up with the theory that has popularized the term "cognitive dissonance." In short, it describes how we are all strongly motivated to avoid opposing viewpoints and rationalize what we want to believe despite conflicts with inconveniently opposing facts.

We saw a version of this in post-mortems on the Iraq War in the "stovepiping" of intelligence information, the selective presenting of only that intelligence information that supported certain conclusions -- like Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

More recently, we have seen the foolish certainty of conspiracy theorists who insist that the Bush administration somehow engineered the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We've also seen the hardcore "birthers" who continue to doubt President Barack Obama's birth certificate, despite Obama's presenting of more evidence than any other known Hawaiian has had to present.

So let us give the doomsday prophets their proper amount of ridicule, but don't call them crazy. It is not insane for us humans to prefer our feelings over facts. It's just wrong.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

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