In this day and media-saturated age, you can’t go about your business without encountering chatter about the apocalypse. And over the past month, two different takes about the end of the world have come out. It’s interesting to compare and contrast them.

The first take comes from experts at Oxford University’s Global Challenges Foundation that came out last month. As the Financial Times’s Clive Crookson summarizes:

Although civilisation has ended many times in popular fiction, the issue has been almost entirely ignored by governments. “We were surprised to find that no one else had compiled a list of global risks with impacts that, for all practical purposes, can be called infinite,” says co-author Dennis Pamlin of the Global Challenges Foundation. “We don’t want to be accused of scaremongering but we want to get policy makers talking.”
The report itself says: “This is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities. We are confronted with possibly the greatest challenge ever and our response needs to match this through global collaboration in new and innovative ways.”

Now what’s interesting is that over the past week, someone commissioned YouGov to poll American and British respondents about how the world will end as well. A lot of the analyses are focusing on partisan splits about the end of the world. As Vox’s German Lopez notes, “Republicans, as a group, said nuclear war and Judgment Day will be the most likely causes of the apocalypse. Democrats cited climate change, although they were more confident than Republicans that there won’t be an apocalypse at all.”

What interests me, however, is not the partisan splits but rather the splits between experts and citizens. As I’ve written numerous times, I think that popular narratives radically overstate the likelihood of an apocalyptic breakdown of society. Now we can at least quasi-compare expert assessments with public opinion on this question.

Let’s focus on the British polling responses, given that the experts were based in Great Britain as well.

The most interesting thing — and consistent with my thesis —  is that the public is more confident that the apocalypse is coming. True, when asked if an apocalypse would happen in their lifetime, 77 percent of respondents said that it was either somewhat or very unlikely. But that means that 23 percent thought it was pretty likely.

If we turn to the Oxford study, however, and amalgamate all of their quantifiable risks, they offer at most only a 10.13526 percent chance that the world will be ending in our lifetime. To be fair, there were some risks that they didn’t quantify — but looking at the odds they placed on things like climate change and nuclear war, I’m reasonably confident that all those, amalgamated together, wouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 percent. Which means the British public is roughly twice as pessimistic as experts about the world coming to an end.

When asked how the world would end, the results are also intriguing: 37 percent of British respondents thought a nuclear war would be the cause of the world ending, followed by 13 percent who answered climate change, 8 percent who provided an unspecified cause, 5 percent who said “worldwide revolution,” and 3 percent who said … zombies.

If we turn to the Oxford folk, we discover that their causes, in rank order, were:

  1. Artificial intelligence (0-10% chance)
  2. Unspecified cause (0.1%)
  3. Three-way tie between climate change, synthetic biology and nanotechnology (0.01%).

So what is the big takeaway here? The public might be more pessimistic about the world coming to an end for any reason, but the experts are far more pessimistic about technology causing the world to come to an end.

Have a nice weekend, everyone!!