Dec 21 2012

The End of the World

Yet again we face a doomsday prophecy – the Mayan Apocalypse. By now most people have heard that according to the ancient Mayan calendar, today marks the end of the current cycle, with tomorrow (the bit doomsday prophets miss) the beginning of another. As many people have already pointed out, it’s no more big a deal than December 31 giving way to January 1st. In fact there are Mayan calendars that extend well into the future.

One big clue that this is nothing to worry about is the fact that modern day Mayans living in Mexico are openly unconcerned, and are celebrating their “new year.”

I must say that I am happy this time around there isn’t much end-of-the-world hysteria. Sure, there are a few pockets of crackpots that are helpfully announcing themselves to the world by huddling in remote villages waiting for aliens to come rescue them. The average person, however, seems to be greeting doomsday with a big yawn, and maybe an amused grin.

Having lived through the end of the earth multiple times, I can start to compare the events. In my memory the biggest apocalyptic fear surrounded Y2K. This was the perfect storm of doomsday prophecy, however – there was actually something legitimate happening (the computer 2-digit date thing), government and corporations were spending real money to hopefully avoid the problem, and the turning of the millennium gave the whole thing a mystical feel. We like round numbers – they should mark big events. At that time I personally knew regular people (not cult members) who were genuinely scared.

Most other doomsday prophecies occur in small groups – cults or subcultures, and not the general population. Harold Camping’s multiple predictions of the end of the world were amusing theater for most people (and devastating for those caught in that particular delusion).

Fears with broad appeal tend to surround natural disasters, like an asteroid impact, or a supervolcano. These have the advantage of being real, if extremely unlikely to occur in our lifetime.

Nibiru, the mythological rogue planet that is supposed to crash into the earth, or come so close as to disturb our orbit, is possible but fake. There are rogue planets wandering between the stars, and one could potentially come pay us a visit – but again the chance is damn unlikely, and Nibiru is just fiction (and recycled fiction at that).

For those who think Nibiru was supposed to come near or even strike the earth today (combining two separate doomsday myths), just look up. No Nibiru.

It is interesting to think about the anti-climax of the Mayan apocalypse. Does the public have doomsday fatigue? Perhaps it can be blamed on my favorite new sociological variable – the internet. Is the rapid communication of the internet allowing skeptics to debunk such nonsense more effectively, or burn out interest in these fictions before the alleged date even arrives? I think this is plausible.

People seem to know (and enjoy knowing) all about why the Mayan apocalypse is bunk. This is skepticism at its best – promoting the joy of critical thinking and knowledge as a shield against fashionable nonsense. No one wants to be the rube who is sent the link (cc’d to everyone they know) that definitively exposes their gullibility.

In the pre-internet days, I would have endless discussions with people spouting all kinds of nonsense. It would always end without conclusion, as both sides had their “facts” and neither side could pull research papers out of their jacket pocket to show that the other side was wrong. We often ended with an agreement to look up the other person’s claims, or provide that study that we read somewhere, but there was rarely follow through.

Now – we can pull research papers out of our virtual pockets. We go online, and someone’s facts (perhaps even both side’s) are exploded by helpful experts who will provide references and analysis. This is also why the internet is the real battleground between science and pseudoscience. The charlatans are trying to flood the internet with fake sites and fake information.

Fortunately, credible evidence seems to have an advantage, if not in numbers. Credible references are better linked, and rank higher on Google. But we cannot let our guard drop – we need to continue to protect the credibility and legitimacy of information on this world repository of human knowledge.

Perhaps the Mayan apocalypse is a sign of something – a brave new world where critical thinking has a fighting chance.

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