As December 12, 2012 approaches, I thought it would be interesting to review the Mayan apocalyptic fantasy. Skeptoid effectively broke down this overblown fable in episode #93 Apocalypse 2012. I will not review the highlights, if you haven’t heard it I recommend reading it before this post. As an aside Dunning, you were totally wrong….about the World Trade Center being complete. Otherwise it it was a spot on analysis of the science or lack thereof. According to the myth, the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close. Skeptoid fans know that despite this dire prophecy, it is probably a good idea to pay your Mortgage this month.
Like most pseudoscience, this myth is an unsinkable rubber duck. End of the world myths permeate human existence. In the United States end of the world myths are often scoffed at. Many believe that Apocalypse myths and their believers are harmless. The are myriad myths and they are usually mutually exclusive. People often take a “what’s the harm?” type of attitude about apocalypse myths. In fact, they are anything but harmless, as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult. The Mayan Long Calender myth is no different.
The popularity of these myths never fails to intrigue the public. News outlets tend to use them as news filler. In my opinion it gives the fables undue attention and possible validity. Still as of December the 5th in the US it has been mostly quiet. A widely publicized news story postulating that there may have been a misinterpretation of the Mayan Calender, has actually quieted this myth. I liken this story to the recent skeptoid about the Bermuda triangle/devils triangle. It is a scientific explanation of a scientifically unsound question. That is not science. The explanation does not prove, that an ancient culture has some insight into the end of the world. There are other factors that make this myth less popular: millennium bug fail, Harold Camping, it has been in the news for at least 4 years, there was a bad major motion picture, it is a busy news cycle in a election year. I like to think that skepticism and critical thinking are making some inroads.
Still it is out there and according to a recent NY times story causing havoc in Russia. The chaos it caused forced the Russian government to come out with a statement saying that the end of the world was not going to happen. I wish is could say I was surprised that was necessary, but I was not. Lets review some of the happenings in Russia.
“Inmates in a women’s prison near the Chinese border are said to have experienced a “collective mass psychosis” so intense that their wardens summoned a priest to calm them. In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles. A huge Mayan-style archway is being built — out of ice — on Karl Marx Street in Chelyabinsk in the south.” Remember when the end of the world is coming, what you need is a good ice sculpture.
“Once, when the prisoners were standing in formation, one of them imagined that the earth yawned, and they were all stricken by fear and ran in all directions,” the priest said. He lectured the inmates about the signs of the apocalypse according to the New Testament, he said, and after that “the populist statements about the end of the world were dispelled and the tension eased.” As every skeptic knows the best way to address fantasy is providing an alternate fantasy.
France, not to be outdone by anyone, has thrown their hat into the ring.“In France, the authorities plan to bar access to Bugarach mountain in the south to keep out a flood of visitors who believe it is a sacred place that will protect a lucky few from the end of the world. The patriarch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church recently issued a statement assuring the faithful that “doomsday is sure to come,” but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the “so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.” Better be good , better not shout, better not cry I’m tellin ya why.
Sure I joke, but as I noted above there are serious consequences to this type of nonsense. “There are no candles in all of Omutninsk. You get the sense that the end of the world is a commercial project,” Mikhail Degtyaryov told the newspaper Izvestiya. “Just look at how many swindlers are trying to make money on this affair, starting from the pseudo-magicians, ending with people selling groceries and other rations.” Even the Russian Parliament was forced to speak out. “You cannot endlessly speak about the end of the world, and I say this as a doctor,” said Leonid Ogul, a member of Parliament’s environment committee. “Everyone has a different nervous system, and this kind of information affects them differently. Information acts subconsciously. Some people are provoked to laughter, some to heart attacks, and some — to some negative actions.” Well Said!
It has become an international case of pseudoscience gone wrong. Russian lawmakers wrote a letter to their main news outlets asking them to stop airing the prophecy. According to the NY Times article it has little impact. Russia has a ingrained history of mysticism despite a long period of atheist totalitarian rule. Russia has become more susceptible to this type of chaos due to recent political state sanctioned nonsense. “Maria Eismont, a columnist for the newspaper Vedomosti, argued that the government’s recent embrace of archaic religious conservatism set the stage for apocalyptic thinking. At the blasphemy trial against the punk protest band Pussy Riot last summer, she noted, the young band members were sentenced in part on the basis of writings by Orthodox clerics from the seventh and fourth centuries.”.
So what is learning point here? Simply put fighting nonsense even fringe, ridiculous nonsense is always worth it. Until critical thinking and scientific method is widely accepted humans will always be susceptible. Saying “what’s the harm?” may leave you staring at empty grocery shelves and your neighbors fighting over candles. What I got out of the NY Times article is that you should never dismiss popularized apocalypse myths as harmless, or silly. The consequences are very very real.
What is most amusing about this myth, in particular, is the fact that the Mayans themselves are just fine with their calendar rolling over. “In Yucatán State in Mexico, which has a large Mayan population, most place little stock in end-of-days talk. Officials are planning a Mayan cultural festival on Dec. 21 and, to show that all will be well after that, a follow-up in 2013.”.
Always remember if someone proclaims that they know that the end of the world is coming, and the date is less than 1 to 2 billion years(when the sun’s declining hydrogen will increase solar output frying the inner planets). You have good reason to be skeptical.