The Way the Future Was
What did Knoxvillians at the last turn of the century predict for 2001?

Net Effect
Our intern's guide to Y2K web insanity

Our Fearless Predictions
What does life hold for Knoxvillians in the next millennium?

Bug Out!
Take your pick of Y2K bug millennial disasters

Pop Apocalypse
Heed the words of the radio star prophets


A skeptic takes on the Apocalypse

As we at Metro Pulse got hip-deep into this special millennium issue, some of us started to get a little nervous. Formerly level-headed writers (using the term "level-headed" loosely) suddenly began obsessively checking their VCRs, washing machines, and automatic lettuce-rinsers for any sign of impending shutdown. We found it harder to ignore the daily cries of the street-corner preacher outside our offices, flinching against the apocalypse at each cry of "Allll-ley-lu-yaaaaa!" Some particularly impressionable sales reps even started stockpiling firewood inside their cubicles and demanding to be paid in ammunition and canned goods. In desperate search of a voice of reason to quiet our mounting anxiety, we turned to our favorite skeptic—Massimo Pigliucci, an associate professor of biology at the University of Tennessee and a founding member of the Rationalists Society of East Tennessee. His reassuring words follow.

Of course, from a rational viewpoint, the year 2000 (or, more correctly, 2001—the real start of the new millennium) is as arbitrary a date as any other in our calendar, and has therefore no real significance whatsoever. It marks 2,000 years of what the western world refers to as the modern era. Admittedly, a lot has passed in these two millennia, and there is cause for reflection upon it, from a historical perspective. Of course, given the number of wars, atrocities, and environmental disasters we have managed to commit in the meantime, it should be more a cause for pause and somber consideration than for celebration. But then skeptics would be accused of ruining the party, so I will not dwell on that.

What is astounding is that so many people fall for the significance of the 2000 mark and feel that it is an objective benchmark of something. Naturally, some fundamentalist Christians are (eagerly, it seems) awaiting the end of the world on that date. This, of course, has been prophesied many times before and never happened, and there is good reason to think that we will survive the current doomsday as well. Christ even predicted that his disciples would see the new order in place within their lifetime. That didn't happen, as the Romans kept ruling undisturbed. Around the year 1000 the mood was again inclined toward impending cataclysms, and there was much relief when (obviously) nothing happened. It may be healthy to simply consider the fact that we live near the year 2000 only in western countries, and that other cultures around the world are using different calendars (all equally arbitrary), marking different times for their millennial celebrations.

The so-called Y2K panic, the total chaos that will result from the fact that some computers will not be able to tell the year 2000 from the year 1900 (because they store information on the date using only the last two digits) is another symptom of the credulousness and lack of critical thinking so widespread in our society. For one thing, the problem is much less widespread than it is given to believe (that is, the actual number of computers/programs affected is not as high as it is being trumpeted). Secondly, it may be hard to believe, but before computers took over managing our lives, we did just fine for three million years, producing such high points in civilization as Greek philosophical thought, the Enlightenment, and even the Industrial Revolution (not to mention the invention of baseball).

Even skeptical scientists such as Stephen J. Gould have joined the euphoria. He actually published a book on the topic, boldly subtitled "A rationalist's guide to the new millennium." Well, do not hold your breath. There is no guide to anything relevant, though the Harvard paleontologist managed to write a whole book on the fact that the millennium actually starts in 2001 (he is not new to this kind of scientific-literary feat).

Why are we so hung up on the year 2000? Probably for the simple reason that we are pattern-seeking animals. Throughout our evolutionary history, there has been a premium on finding and interpreting patterns. Probably one of the first things that distinguished us as humans was the ability to interpret data from the world around us and predict what will happen in the future (e.g., observing the traces of an animal and deducing where it went and how long ago—see the wonderful book The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn). Unfortunately, hard-wired propensities such as this one can backfire when we are exposed to environments or patterns that did not occur for most of our evolutionary history. For example, if you see a license plate that says 999-HHH, you will immediately try to discern what the hidden meaning of it is, even though that sequence is as likely to occur as the much more innocent-looking 578-GTD. This pattern-seeking behavior gone astray, by the way, is at the root of so much irrational or superstitious belief in modern humans. We desperately try to make sense of things, even when there clearly is nothing to make sense of.

So, what to do when confronted with prophets of doom during the next year or so? Well, you can: A.) ask them about their record of past achieved prophecies; or B.) inquire about coherent, evidence-based reasons for their prophecies (do not accept any sort of authority as a cheap substitute for reasoning!), or C.) more simply and effectively, ask them to come back in 2001, if they dare...