It's the End of the World, Again

"In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments."

Those are the words of psychic Sylvia Browne in her 2008 book End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies about the End of the World, which rose to the number two position on Amazon's non-fiction chart after Kim Kardashian tweeted about this. For the naive, the accuracy of Browne's prediction seems impressive. But of course it really isn't.

To begin with, the fact that she stated something that turned out more-or-less right is easy to explain: That there will be a widespread virus, and that it will cause “pneumonia-like” symptoms (why not simply “pneumonia”?) are both fairly safe guesses as to what could happen in a given year — even though one is of course still likely to be wrong when making such a prediction. In this case, Browne just got lucky. But she also made far more incorrect than correct predictions. Kardashian's tweet includes the above picture of the relevant page in Browne's book, and there one can also read that another epidemic would take place in 2010, this one involving a flesh-eating disease transmitted by mites that came from exotic birds. You probably don't remember that epidemic, since it never happened.

Some of the other things Browne incorrectly predicted were that by 2010, a DNA database of every newborn on earth would have been created, that by 2014 microchips would be implanted in people's brains to “override” such conditions as schizophrenia, and that by 2020 no one would be blind or deaf, and many births would take place in “gravity-rigged birthing chambers” (whatever that means). The funniest one I've come across is her claim that fertility rates would drop as end times approached because “fewer and fewer spirits will choose to reincarnate and be around when life on Earth ceases to exist. The fewer the spirits wanting to come here, the fewer the fetuses they’ll need to occupy.”

One prediction that is safe to make is that whenever there is a pandemic, it will bring out the crazy in people. Browne's book isn't popular right now just because of this one prediction; it is popular because it is about the end times. She is being read because people think that they will find information there about the coming apocalypse. And as one might expect, quite a few other charlatans are referring to the current crisis as a sign that the end is near.

Anyone listening to these charlatans should keep in mind that the track record for such predictions isn't exactly good.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.