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Dinkins gives subject serious treatment


“It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
-- REM


The end of the world, or at least as we know it, is a topic mostly reserved for heartbreak songs or disaster movies. Rarely does it intersect with academia -- until now.

Dr. Christine Dinkins, associate professor of philosophy, has delved into the subject twice now in learning communities at Wofford with colleague Steven Zides, a physics instructor. The two are working on a book together, and Dinkins is studying it as part of Wofford’s Community of Scholars program this summer.

“We noticed that the topic and the way in which we taught the class really struck a chord with the students,” Dinkins says. “We thought it had potential for a wider audience, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to pursue it.”

The other reason is that it gradually will become a much more prominent topic of conversation over the next three years, with the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012 gaining steam on the Internet and, soon enough, at the movie complex nearest you.

“We’ve realized there is a lot of hype about 2012,” says Dinkins. “It’s just starting in terms of cultural buzz. There’s even a disaster movie coming out called ‘2012.’”

Of course, if you have seen “Armageddon” or “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Knowing” in recent years, you know that the directors of those movies were more interested in testing their audience’s fear of the unknown than educating them.

“I think part of people’s fascination (with disaster movies) is that they’re horror movies where we’re all potential victims,” Dinkins says. “We get a thrill from the fright of it and the destruction, as long as it’s on a movie screen. But I find that once I start talking to people one-on-one about it, it’s a very different reaction. A lot of people don’t want to hear about these topics.

“Frankly, much of the material available on these topics is irresponsible. There are lots of books on the topic of possible cataclysmic events in the near future, but we couldn’t find a single one that was written by someone with a science degree. That also motivated us to do this.

“I’m going to be providing philosophical tools to deal with these issues, regarding what we need to think about to prevent some of these dangers, and if they do happen, how we are going to handle them. In particular, I’ll be raising a lot of ethical concerns. Our impression is that none of this is being discussed, and we wanted to add that to the conversation.”

The list of potential world-ending events is scary in both its length and its scope. There is science (think robots gone amok or high-energy particle colliders), war (with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction a constant threat), overpopulation and overconsumption (pollution and loss of food and water supplies), global warming (rising sea levels, volatile weather changes), and natural disasters (super volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteors, etc.).

dink200Of that group, which scares Dinkins most?

“I would say climate change, because it’s by far the most likely to go beyond the danger point without us being able to stop it,” she says. “Taking the likelihood out of the equation, I’d say high-energy physics, because some scientists think those experiments have a tiny, tiny chance of causing a black hole or even a new Big Bang.”

But the point of all of this isn’t to be scared, but rather informed. Education has always been fear’s best antidote.

“The message I’d really like to get out there is that we are hoping, through our learning communities and our book, to reach out to people and convince them that this is a topic we need to be talking about and it’s not helpful for any of us to bury our heads in the sand,” says Dinkins. “Getting people to talk about it now might help to prevent us from irresponsibly creating artificial intelligence beings or affecting climate change to the point of no return. It’s incredibly important and it’s better to take responsibility and be informed on these issues. I feel very strongly about that.”