Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

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The World Will End Last Week

IT IS WELL, at the start of a discussion, to declare an interest. So, I begin by admitting that my fascination with the year 2000 was aroused nearly 70 years ago. Like many mechanically-minded lads of the 20s and 30s, I was a keen reader of “The Meccano Magazine”. One issue of about 1930 looked forward to the distant future, and to what life would be like in 2000. I have forgotten the text, but a picture remains in my mind of tall, elegant buildings lining a wide street, along which glided, speedily but noiselessly, clean streamlined trains. The pictures and accompanying description appealed to the young Howard, and I dreamed how wonderful it would be to grow so phenomenally ancient as to be around at that splendid time.

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The Bible Code: One more weird thing to believe in

THE BIBLE CODE, a new book touting the miraculous prophetic nature of the Hebrew Torah in which Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was allegedly predicted thousands of years ago, has swept the national media. Time, Newsweek, Slate, and Charlie Rose explored the remarkable claims of this book, which also predicts a nuclear war that will end the world in 2000 or 2006. Warner Brothers is said to have bought the film rights. The Los Angeles Times ran a front page, above-the-fold feature article by their religion editor. And the Skeptics Society’s phone is ringing off the hook as observers ask “is this scientific proof that the Bible was divinely inspired?”

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Predicting the End of the World

Vicki Hyde suggests (Skeptic 30) that we are in for a lot more doomsday predictions as we approach the year 2000. I am afraid she is right, but why should fundamentalists get so excited about a round number of years?

They believe that the world was created in six days, and a very ancient prophesy is that it would last six thousand years because “…one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). That seems logical enough.

This prophecy originates from the first century when it was believed that the world was already around four thousand years old. It is contained in the Epistle of Barnabas1 chapter 13, and The Secrets of Enoch2 chapter 33. The former letter had as good a claim to be in the New Testament as several books that were included. Some early Christian writers believed it had the same author as the Epistle to the Hebrews.

This is thus a very ancient prophesy, but it is difficult to decide just when the 6,000 years are up. Our system of dating which identifies this year as AD 1994 was invented in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus. He tried to start his system from the birth of Jesus but miscalculated.

The Roman republic had counted years “AUC” (Ab Urba Condita, the year of the city). Afterwards they counted “in the year of the Emperor”. Dionysius added all this up, but missed the four years from when Octavian won the battle of Actium (31 BC) until he accepted the title of Emperor Augustus (27 BC).

That is the real reason why Authorised Versions of the New Testament claim that Jesus was born in 4 BC. If Dionysius had counted correctly he would have started his system four years earlier. Of course, that means that the world should end in 1996 rather than 2000. It is later than you think.

Relax again, that is not the only alternative. Dionysius’s near contemporary, Victorius, produced a system of dating years from the Passion of Jesus. This was taken to occur in the year we call 28AD, and the system should have great appeal to fundamentalists (although I doubt that any have heard of it), the Passion being much more important than the birth of Jesus.

Consequently, many old dates may have an error of 28 years, because it is not known which system was being used. And the end of the world may not be due until 2028 — what a relief!

The popular idea that there was an end-of-world panic around AD 1000 is almost certainly a myth. There are (so far as I am aware) no contemporary references to such agitation. But at that time probably nobody knew the date. Although the system of Dionysius was nearly 500 years old it was rarely used. The world of Islam counted the years since the Hegira. Much of Europe counted “in the year of the Emperor”, and the Catholic church counted “in the year of Pope”. In Western Europe few outside the church were literate or numerate. According to Barbara Tuchman3, even as late as the fourteenth century in Western Europe no two writers ever agree about the date.

To go back to the beginning — literally — all these predictions are based on the world’s being created in six days. We know this is not true. It is not just geology and biology that refute the biblical creation story, geography does too. Try reading Genesis 1. The creation account assumes a flat Earth, for only a flat Earth can experience the “mornings and evenings” described. A spherical world has neither a date nor a time. There is always a morning somewhere, and always an evening somewhere else.

1. English translation in The Lost Books of the Bible, New American Library [text]

2. English translation in The Forgotten Books of Eden, New American Library [text]

3. A Distant Mirror

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt. Random House, $15.95

This book explains an approach to interpreting the French “prophet” Nostradamus’s predictions. It is the culmination of 16 years research by an English woman, V.J. Hewitt. She has invented a system of decoding his quatrains using anagrams — and not just the sort that you get in cryptic crosswords, but huge, French ones. She takes a Nostradamus quatrain, mixes up all the letters, removes the letters of the subject she is interested in (and it could be anything from soccer hooliganism to an air traffic controllers’ strike), adds the date, and then rearranges the remaining letters to produce the prophecy that Nostradamus had clearly intended. What’s more she does it in French.

Here’s a New Zealand version of what she does. Take the first two lines of our National Anthem: “God of Nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet. ” There are, in this dreary verse, many hidden prophecies which V.J. Hewitt would extract like this…

Remove the word “fish” because we want to see what the future of fishing is in this country. Mix up the remaining letters and you get: “Too many boats net the food we love. Ten get fined.” What could be clearer than that? On the other hand — and this is a little confusing — another anagram gives: “Eels need to have fatty food, gin. None wet bottom.” This could be disqualified by the grammatically pedantic on the grounds that it should be “wets” rather than “wet.” But Hewitt is a little flexible herself — in one prediction she is forced to change Phillip to Philip in order to get the anagram to fit the prediction comfortably.

Hewitt explains how unique and successful her system is, reminding me of the Spike Milligan line: “My uncle was a great man. He told me so himself, and you can’t argue with facts like that.” She is realistic enough to admit in her closing lines that she is “vulnerable to criticism unless and until each prediction is fulfilled.” Unusually for this sort of book, she is foolish enough to tie the events to reasonably definite dates. Most soothsayers pronounce woolly sooths but are cunning enough not to cite dates. She should have learnt a lesson from the “End of the World is Nigh” brigade — they tend not to pinpoint “nigh” and most of their placards seem to be made of fairly durable material.

What will happen of course is that Christmas shoppers will buy this book, be enthralled by the forecasts, and then forget it, until…in April 1994 Nelson Mandela actually does become the President of South Africa. Then they’ll say: “Didn’t Nostradamus predict that somewhere? Doris, go get that Hewitt book — I think it was written in there. There it is on page 48! Extraordinary!” No mention of similar predictions of political scientists world-wide nor, more importantly in terms of this publication, any mention of the fact that Nostradamus also predicted on page 47 that at the end of May (only a week or two before) two female Yeti would be found in the Himalayas, presumably out on a Sherpa-capturing expedition.

Large anagrams are funny things. You start with real creativity and freedom — there are a lot of letters to play with — but as you get near the end and all the “e”s have gone, there’s a “q” and no “u” left, and “Qantas” doesn’t suit a prediction on the return of Maggie Thatcher, so you juggle and end up with a small, three or four-letter word. It may take a lot of imagination to tie this in with the substance of the text. But like most Nostradamus students, Hewitt has a fertile mind. She is particularly motivated by the discovery that her very own name is mentioned in the 16th-century verses. Having been chosen as the official Nostradamus interpreter for the 20th Century, I suspect nothing will divert her. (It should be noted that when I solved the relevant quatrainal anagram the name I came up with was not “V.J. Hewitt” but “J.T.V. White,” who just happens to be my old maths teacher).

So we will continue to be presented every year with the V.J. Hewitt Annual Almanac regardless of the previous year’s inaccuracies, and it doesn’t take much of an anagram to predict quite a useful income for her from the New Age bookstores. This sort of book is a waster of time and forests, a ramble down one person’s “spiritual” cul-de-sac. Ingenious or ingenuous, it will still probably outsell Carl Sagan.

The End Is Nigh – Or Thereabouts

Are the End Times drawing nigh? Are fires and floods from heaven on the brink of seething down in wrathful purge, damning the damned and raising the faithful? Is God’s finger poised on the panic button?

It could be, but I wouldn’t cancel the beach party on the evidence. Doom forecasters have been striking out with almost miraculous regularity since the dawn of time.

Putting the history of the end of the world into a fast 400 words isn’t easy. In fact it borders on madness. It’s like stuffing the entire Labour Party into a phone booth, except weirder. I mean, you can always push a Labour-packed phone booth off a cliff; but who’s going to push 400 words off a cliff? It doesn’t make sense. Armageddon does this to you after a while.

Disaster merchants have always been around, but it was the Christians who really put death and destruction on a pedestal when they gave us the Book of Revelation.

No one knows what this book means, but it’s so horrifically spectacular it doesn’t matter. More importantly, it doesn’t give any dates, thus giving open slather to soothsayers and paving the way for twenty centuries of inaccurate predictions.

Methods of prediction vary. For some it’s a case of creative arithmetic. Dates with big simple numbers, like 500, are good too. Anything goes in number juggling.

Christians, for instance, were driven to a near frenzy of ecstatic fear as year 1000 approached. Signs and portents were sought and found. The tension grew. Sinners repented in droves and fled to the hilltops. The time was nigh! But…

No worries! The Apocalypse should have been dated from the death of Christ instead of the birth. But…

In the early 1800s a New York farmer named William Miller made a two-year study of the Bible and was astonished to discover that the world would end in 1843! He gathered a sizable flock who put up with three false-alarms before losing interest. Refugees from Miller’s movement evolved into Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, both doomsday fanciers.

The Witnesses maintained a healthy zero batting average by striking out in 1874, 1914 and 1975. Surprisingly, few left the church, which shows you how integral reason is to religion.

Hearing voices is another popular method of predicting doomsday. This process is known as channeling. Here the “prophet”, or channel, gets “the word” first-hand from angels or devils, or nowadays, mysterious space aliens. But in either case, the amount of reliable information received adds up the same — nilch!

Objective investigators are more inclined to explain channeling in terms of multiple-personality-disorders and related mental problems, rather than invisible space lizards… but try telling that to the faithful.

Little has changed over the years. The methods are eternally the same and the results are eternally wrong.

As the year 2000 approaches I predict many predictions.

The End of the World is Nigh, But Don’t Panic…Yet

For those of you who didn’t notice, the end of the world came and went on November 14th. It also ended on November 24th, and is set to do so at the end of this year. If you’ve got a Christmas trip to Los Angeles planned, don’t bother going — a massive earthquake wiped out the city of the Angels as well as neighbouring San Diego at 7pm on May 8th.

Are you wondering why you haven’t heard about any of these earth-shattering events? It’s because they were all predictions made by psychics, fundamentalists and other people apparently keen to see more misery and destruction in the world than already exists.

Yes folks, we’re gearing up for the end of the decade, the end of the century, the end of the millennium and — according to assorted doomsayers — the end of the world. Some have it ending rather neatly on New Year’s Day, the year 2000, while others are predicting all manner of wars, earthquakes, famines and increasingly decadent behaviour in the run-up to the big 2000.

There’s going to be a massive millenniarist industry build up. While one half of the population will be getting ready for the Mother of All New Year Parties, the other half will be getting ready for Armageddon. So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, I’m not worried about Nostradamus predicting the Gulf War as the start of the Apocalypse. I’m not worried about the European Community being the Beast of the Book of Revelations. I’m not worried about the Rapture picking up my friends and relations and whisking them away to Heaven while the rest of us perish in a global nuclear war.

What I do worry about is the associated fear, paranoia, gullibility and stupidity that inevitably accompanies such predictions.

I worry about the ominously named Ukrainian White Brotherhood who have caused riots and bloodshed in an already shaky nation. Their end of the world — the one predicted for November 14th — didn’t arrive, but that didn’t deter them from trying again with another date.

I feel sorry for the believers who sold up their businesses and their homes in preparation for the end of the world predicted by a Korean fraudster. There were people in New Zealand drawn into that fatalistic vision. Fortunately, unlike a number of other apocalyptic visionaries, the prophet in this case didn’t enjoin his followers to bring their world to a real end by mass suicide.

I worry about the people who end up with impoverished wallets and impoverished minds buying yet another book purporting to be the last word in interpreting the so-called prophecies of Nostradamus.

I worry about having a Cabinet Minister confidently asserting that the Bible tells us we’re going to have more earthquakes, and saying this the same month that two government seismologists lose their jobs.

I’m concerned about the fundamentalists who see the hand of Satan everywhere, most particularly at work in our child care centres. With the end-time coming, they say, a worldwide conspiracy of Satanists is preparing for the ultimate showdown by abusing, sacrificing and eating toddlers at your local crech

I worry about all these various apocalyptic views because I know that we will be seeing more and more of them as that crucial year 2000 approaches. And I know that the fear, paranoia and hysteria they engender will increase — we’re not so far removed from our ancestors who, on facing the turn of the first millennium, held their own riots, witch-hunts and death-watches. There’s something in human nature which seems to love a good doomsday scenario.

So don’t panic folks. Next time you hear a doomsday prediction, make a note of it — it means you can always laugh about it afterwards.

The Effect of the Calendar on Climate

John Cole, editor of Creation/Evolution, recently wrote of his tendency toward hair-pulling, in the National Centre for Science Education Reports, Vol 12 No 2 (Summer 1992).

Anti-evolutionists continue to contradict optimists who would like to think that we’re about to enter the 21st Century. Unscientific and anti-scientific ideas abound in our society.

The coming Millennium has already inspired Millenarian thinking such as the writings of Hal Lindsay (The Late Great Planet Earth) — i.e., that the “End Times” are approaching with a “promise” of Armageddon (and that’s from the optimists!). The Lubbovitcher Rebbe recently declared that the Messiah is among us, so Jews, he says, should be ready to celebrate the end by 2000 (he hints that he may be the one).

We can expect a lot of craziness in the next few years because of the calendar. As an example of this, an environmental policymaker recently asked me for information about the projected effect of the millennium on the Earth’s magnetic field and climate. I was taken aback, at first, but I then tried to explain that “2000” was an arbitrary number — why not use the Jewish calendar, for example? 2000 is not even an accurate date if you accept it as meaning the number of years since the birth of Jesus — which scholars now treat as 4 to 7 years “B.C.” if they accept it at all. (And for that matter, 2001 C.E. begins the next millennium, not 2000.)

But this guy persisted — interested in my argument about the calendar, certainly, but still concerned. “Could you give me some references on that?” I was asked.

Examples like this show the need to keep trying, I think, rather than the futility of trying. (However, hair-pulling and discreet screaming may well be in order…)