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We've been reading about the future in Skype.  Not about horoscopes, but about figuring out what might happen in the future.  Here's an article from John Prytz about the concept of Futurology.

Prophecy isn't all balderdash. I make this prophecy that the Sun will rise tomorrow morning in New York City! I also make this prophecy that New York City will experience at least one thunderstorm between May and September 2011. Further, I'll make another prophecy that there will be at least one murder in New York City in the month of June, 2011. But, if I make a prediction that aliens will invade New York City in 2011; some New Yorkers will experience the Biblical Rapture in 2011; or that planetary alignments suggest that 90% of couples living in Manhattan will divorce in 2011, well you'd call that balderdash. So, what's the dividing line between making balderdash prophecies and making sensible predictions?

Scientifically Near Certain: Nothing is absolutely certain except death and taxes, thus the use of the word 'near'. However, in this case, scientifically 'near' certain means 99.99999% certain. Examples of this sort of prophecy are the times of the rising and setting of the Sun, the Moon, the planets and stars; the rise and fall of the tides (time of high and low tides); lunar and solar eclipses decades in advance; and other predictable events of this nature in an ordered and clockwork Universe. There is no kudos or pats on the back given for soothsaying in this category.

Scientifically Predictable (Statistically Probable): Not everything is predictable with near absolute certainty, even in science. Some patterns are a bit too chaotic to yield to absolutes. The classic case is the weather. I've known predictions of a 100% chance of rain when not a drop fell! However, that's very rare. Still, it tends to be a chance of thunderstorms, or this or that. That applies to earthquake predictions and similar events. Science can predict with 100% certainty that you're going to kick-the-bucket. However, the exact moment in nearly all cases is uncertain. There is no kudos or pats on the back given for soothsaying in this category either.

Educated Guesswork (But Still Statistically Probable): The shift here tends to be from the physical sciences to the social sciences. I mean predicting the stock market and commodity futures is not an exact science but still something that more often than not you'd better get right if you want to keep your job as a financial advisor! That applies in general to forecasting trends be it forecasting trends for governments, the public sector, or the private sector. There is no kudos or pats on the back given for soothsaying in this category either if you get it right, but expect a kick in the behind if you don't. The general term here that applies is 'futurology'.

Prophecy in General: Let's just say that if you throw enough darts at a dartboard, even blindfolded, sooner or later you'll hit the bullseye. Now just publicise that, and pat yourself on the back for your skill, but conveniently don't tell anyone about, and forget about, all the misses! That dartboard scenario, or analogy, just about sums up the bona fides of the soothsaying profession IMHO.

Now don't quote me Nostradamus as (an example) of a spot-on soothsayer. His verses are quite vague. Not once does he state explicitly that on such-and-such a date, at such-and-such a place, such-and-such an unexpected event will take place. Many historical events have been, sort of, linked to one or more of his various verses, but always after-the-fact, as in gee-whiz, this event might just about fit if you stretch the meaning of this bit and ignore that bit. Translated, nobody before-the-fact saw a clear cut prophecy of his of the rise of Nazi Germany and Hitler; the assassination of JFK; the Moon landings; the events of 9/11. Of course it all became crystal clear that he indeed foretold those events - it's obvious to blind Freddy exactly what certain verses meant, but only as interpreted after the events happened. That's a cheat! It's a cheat given his after-the-fact track record according to his followers' is100%; his before-the-fact track record from a more sceptical point of view is 0%.

Personal Prophecy: When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of prophecy, we're not usually that concerned about predictions of a solar eclipse three decades off; or even the odds that a tornado will hit us next month, or will our portfolio double or half its value over the next week. Acts of God are acts of God and we're pretty helpless in the face of Mother Nature; portfolios, if you take the long term view, usually deliver the goods. However, we are greatly concerned with the more immediate if mundane things in our day-to-day lives: today's success, today's money, today's health, today's power, today's love, today's whatever, etc. That's why you get daily horoscopes (though you can get weekly, monthly and yearly ones too, all equally as vague in that they seem to apply to nearly anyone, anytime).

And so in order to assist our expectations of obtaining the good things in our immediate 'now', well wouldn't it be nice for some powers-that-be to tell us in advance what's coming on down the track that's liable to have a bearing on those personal good vs. bad facets? That is, if we knew in advance of the fact, some knowledge that we could use to our advantage to maximise the good and minimise the bad, well who wouldn't? And so, there's a flourishing industry in astrology/horoscopes; the reading of tea leaves & chicken entrails; caressing crystal balls; using ouija boards, and any other means to get the inside tract on making today a better day. And with such expectations, like with the dartboard, you'll tend to remember the rare spot-on bullseye hits, precisely because they are so few and far between. All the misses you easily forget because they're so common and so prevalent.

Of course all this sort of personal prophecy is pure nonsense. It's harmless fun unless you actually base your day-to-day life, behaviour, decision-making, etc. around them. I'm pretty sure that 99% of people, who consult the astrology column in their daily paper, know full well that what they read there is just vague and general so as to have no real practical and specific application to their personal calling-of-the-shots today. It's a daily 10 second diversion that's a bit of fun. Still, it's a rather sad reflection on how nonsensical superstition, even in the enlightened 21st Century, can still be viable enough for people who know better (but don't care) to actual earn a living by pulling the wool over the eyes of the great unwashed. But that's nothing compared to the wool pulling by religion.

End of the World Prophecy: However, there's a dark side to the forces behind prophecy. The central focus, as always, is me, myself, and I. If you're reading the astrology horoscope, what it predicts for your next door neighbour is probably of no consequence to you. However, if someone predicts that the world is about to go down the gurgler; that the end is neigh, well, you're part of the world, so you're heading down the gurgler too! Now that may, or may not, upset you. For religious reasons, many look forward to the world going down the gurgler, because that means that they, while going down the gurgler too, get deposited at the other end of the tube into an eternal paradise. Or so they believe.

There's one really main problem with end-of-the-world prophecy, and it doesn't matter a hoot what you're ultimate source is that you base, or believe, the prophecy on - to date, 100% of all end-of-the-world predictions have failed (that's bloody obvious isn't it? I mean we're still here; we're still standing)! If I'd received a fiver for each failed doomsday prediction, I, my bank manager and the tax man would all be happy little campers. A 100% failure record - that's a pretty piss-poor track record, 100% opposite to science predicting a solar eclipse three decades down the track. Now if there have been just a handful of these the-end-is-neigh predictions, and I mean down to the exact day of the year, well that could easily be dismissed. However, when the absolute number of them, over the millennia, have been such that if you'd collected a fiver for every one, and that collection of fivers would make you one of the wealthiest persons on the planet, well you've have to conclude that there's an awful lot of deluded people. A 100% track record of failure inspires bugger-all confidence that the next quack or gaggle of quacks that comes along with an 'end-is-neigh' sign can be taken seriously, such as the 21st of May 2011 or the 21st of December 2012 (see below).

Unfortunately people who are suckered into believing that on such-and-such a date they, along with everybody else, are going to meet their maker, well that can have serious consequences. There are more than a handful of case studies which have shown that ordinary people, caught up in the end-of-the-world hype, lacking the qualities of logical and critical thinking, have sold off all their worldly goods, left their homes and families, to await the end - which never came. Some have banded together to form end-of-the-world doomsday cults which have required suicidal philosophies as the alleged end drew near. Human delusion can have tragic consequences.

Most end-of-the-world prophecies tend to have religious overtones, as in Armageddon and the Biblical Book of Revelation. I've noted on the Internet one 54 year old Californian religious loony who is absolutely convinced he will be part of The Rapture on the 21st of May, 2011. That's it - that's the Judgement Day, the Second Coming of Christ, the end-of-the-world as we know it. I predict that he will be very disappointed when he wakes up in his California abode on the 22nd of May 2011 in a totally un-Raptured state. I really shouldn't single him out, it wasn't he who came up with that date, yet still he got sucked into the frenzy. Over the millennium he's but one of millions of loonies who got sucked into the-end-of-the-world frenzy!

It's a pity that so many peoples' lives are so miserable that they literally look forward to someone else (i.e. - God or J.C.) ending their mundane existence of everyday mortality and transporting them into another one of peaceful eternity, although who really knows, maybe it's a case of going from the frying pan into the fire!

But say now, what if you absolutely and firmly believed that within three days the entire world was history. What sort of constraints, the kind normal society places on you, would now have an impact? Probably none. I mean if the end was neigh, what constraints would stop you from stealing, rioting, or murder? Well, let's face facts, there wouldn't be any. Now, what if a significant percentage of the population believed that? What might happen? Mob rule? Total anarchy? Rioting in the streets? The total breakdown of society and society's rule of law and order? All that and more? What if you had an absolute dictatorial ruler who believed that? Why wouldn't that leader, who say hated this other nation for whatever religious or ideological reason(s) decide that's there's nothing to lose now by pressing the nuclear button.

Let me repeat - there have been thousands of end-of-the-word prophecies from the religious Armageddon as given in the Biblical book of Revelation to predictions of alien invasions to nuclear suicide as per the "On the Beach" scenario or maybe some 'the-sky-is-falling' alarmist who's convinced there's an undetected and undetectable asteroid that's heading our way - ground zero; target Earth. It ain't happened - the asteroid anyway - to us, but T-Rex would tell a different tale methinks. T-Rex aside, anyone who places any sort of faith that the next prophetic quack has got it right is in serious delusion. The odds favour the exact opposite. Mother Earth will go on her merry way for a long time yet. If you're anxiously awaiting The Rapture - well, be prepared to wait a lot longer.

The 21st of May 2011 aside, the next predicted doomsday biggie is the 21st of December 2012 for a whole potful of various reasons that's relatively easy to find out about given hundreds of books, articles, Internet sites and blogs, DVDs, etc. all devoted to the subject. Well, I'll go on the record now as prophesizing that it's going to be quite safe for you to plan your 2012 Christmas and post-Christmas activities and holidays and welcome in 2013 with the usual New Year antics we've all come to love and participate in.

Now, to end on a downbeat note, let's return to scientific prophecy. Our world will end! That's 100% certain! At the very least it will end when the lifespan of our parent star, the Sun, ends. Just like your car has a limited supply of fuel in its gas tank, so too our Sun has a limited supply of fuel that keeps it burning. When the Sun exhausts its fuel, well you can kiss life on planet Earth goodbye. However, lest I scare you into losing a good night's sleep, that's still some roughly five billion years in the future, or so modern astronomical prophecy dictates. Even if that's off by 10%, well that still gives you plenty of time to enjoy the good life, including a good night's sleep.

About the author: John Prytz is a retired librarian.