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Believing In The End Of The World

by Stuart Shapiro

In 2012, it was the Mayans; in 2011, it was Harold Camping.  We’ve had a run of end-of-the-world scares recently.  But do people really believe that the world is ending?  Recent research suggests that they do:

Economist Ned Augenblick of the University of California at Berkeley and his co-authors have now provided such a test. At least for Camping’s followers, the answer is unambiguous: Their belief was entirely sincere.

Here’s how the test went. Four weeks before May 21, 2011, Augenblick and his co-authors asked a number of Camping’s followers: Would you prefer to have $5 today or some greater amount of money after May 21? That greater amount ranged up to $500. The researchers posed exactly the same questions to members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who also believe that Judgment Day is coming, but not by a specified date.

The median cutoff answer from the Seventh-day Adventists was $7 — well within the range of answers given by most people. By contrast, the median cutoff answer from Family Radio members (Camping’s followers) was $500, meaning that they would prefer $5 now to $500 on May 22. As far as the researchers could tell with the payments they offered, there was no amount that Family Radio members would prefer on May 22 to $5 today — compelling evidence that they sincerely believed that the rapture was coming on May 21.

The post goes on to discuss how the world not ending did not change the views of Camping’s followers.  If people can be convinced that the world is going to end, then clearly they can be convinced that climate change is not real or that Iraq had a role in 9-11.  That is why the reality based community has such an uphill fight.

About Stuart Shapiro

Stuart Shapiro Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels. Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

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