Mayan Insanity! Check that, Non-Mayan insanity!

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.

About Stephen Propatier

Stephen Propatier is a board certified acute care nurse practitioner who specializes in spine and sports medicine. He is a member of the Society for Science Based Medicine. He is adjunct faculty for both Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island College Graduate School of Nursing.
This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories, Events, New Age, Paranormal, Pseudoscience, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Mayan Insanity! Check that, Non-Mayan insanity!

  1. I actually do think the world is coming to an end, and we’re rapidly approaching a time when money will no longer have usefulness. So everyone out there might as well send it to me. Thanks!

  2. Wordwizard says:

    Once, some years ago, I met a young man pamphleting passersby to accept Jesus before the world ended in a few days. I urged him to remember that Jesus, when invited by Satan to jump off of a cliff so as to have angels catch him, refused to put the Lord his God to the test–that it was sacrilegious–and therefore he should emulate Jesus by NOT quitting his job and giving his money and possessions away, trusting the end of the world to save him. I couldn’t convince him that the world would not end, but I DID get through to him not to do anything drastic and irreversible. Was that offering another fantasy? Or granting the validity of the one he already had? I believe I did good. What say you?

    • Stephen Propatier says:

      You may have “Done good” but maybe not. You did nothing to prevent him from making the same mistake for similar reasons when the next doomsday prophecy approaches. The next time they may want his life not his money. From a science standpoint you did offer another fantasy. You will never convince a believer that he is wrong. By propping up his belief, you perpetuate the legitimacy of the belief. A believer will cherry pick the parts of your story that fits into his anxiety and discard what opposes it. Research clearly demonstrates that reorienting people to reality has fewer negative outcomes than than perpetuating a delusion even if the temporary outcome is positive. Although you were effective in this case it is not a direction I would recommend. Most likely he was back handing out pamphlets the next day. Results do not justify methods in isolated anecdotal cases.

      • Wordwizard says:

        I was perfectly clear that I was an atheist, and was sure the end of the world was not coming. However, since I was aware that I could not convince that believer that he was wrong, I simply tried to reduce the harm that it would do to him, in the hope that he MIGHT rethink his beliefs based on my comments later, when Doomsday did not come. I was NEVER trying to prop up his belief.

        • Stephen Propatier says:

          “and therefore he should emulate Jesus by NOT quitting his job and giving his money and possessions away, trusting the end of the world to save him.”
          Emulating Jesus is not propping up his belief in Jesus?? To him you believe in Jesus.
          If this was a UFO believer, and his theory was aliens will destroy the world. Would you say “remember the aliens are advanced and peaceful beings so don’t be afraid”. Equally bad argument at best. If he went home and killed his family because he felt you were an Angel sent to test him, is it still good? peripheral support of delusional thinking is still supporting it.
          It is certainly a unique tactic for an atheist.
          Why is your religious structure significant in this situation? Where did you say that you were an atheist?

          • Wordwizard says:

            I said that I was an atheist from the start. I believe that at the time, I DID believe that there WAS a historical Jesus, i.e., Yoshua ben Yosef (sp?), a Jewish rabbi. It was only some time later that I was exposed to the idea that there is no historical evidence that such a person actually existed. Urging someone to emulate the teachings of an, as I thought then, real person that he admired, is not supporting delusion.

  3. Stephen Propatier says:

    Maybe delusional was a poor word choice. Ideological thinking may be a better choice. You did the best that you could with knowledge that you had. That was one one individual discussion.
    This was a religious leader saying to group of agitated people don’t worry about that doomsday, worry about my doomsday. Irresponsible. There is no evidence for either doomsday. Special pleading is not a way to quiet a panicky mob. You can say to your friend “Fire” and its a joke. Do in a crowded theater and you may cause a panic. Big difference.
    In your case if you believed what you were saying then it is just a conversation. If you say I am an atheist, and try to argue logically using a special pleading it does not work and it is dangerous. Playing along with a stranger, even in a limited way, who is devoted to an ideology is giving legitimacy to the ideology. If in this case he had a mental illness it could have been disastrous. There are a million different factors involved. Stick with facts and do not try to placate someone. Jesus is not “just a person he admires” to him. He is an all powerful god telling him that he is going to die.Trying to alter his perception of his God can backfire badly. Equal chance he would have attacked you as well as listened to you. Try to tell an anti-vax advocate that autism is not caused by vaccine see how well they react. Plus they don’t think they are going to die tomorrow.
    No where in your original quote did you state I am an atheist. I don’t think it is germane to the discussion anyways. Believing or not does not give or take away scientific evidence about the 2012 apocalypse. I have not identified my personal beliefs. Skeptic does not equal atheist.

    If you run across a crowded interstate at rush hour and make it, you are lucky. You don’t use it a guide for crossing the street. You were lucky.

    • Wordwizard says:

      Huh?

      • Stephen Propatier says:

        Your case is a singular anecdotal story, with a scientifically poor choice. It is not a option I would recommend for dealing with religious anxiety. The preponderance of research related to delusional thinking indicates that providing counter opinion within the framework of the delusion fails to relieve anxiety and instead elevates it. In my post it is my opinion that the religious leader using this technique in a mass hysteria situation is compounding the mistake dangerously.
        Atheism is irrelevant.
        Simple enough?

        • Wordwizard says:

          Nah. Scientifically poor choice? I successfully talked the guy out of doing anything he couldn’t take back when he found out Doomsday was cancelled. The religious leader was not acting with this guy’s best interests in mind–Don’t be silly.

          • Stephen Propatier says:

            Mindset is irrelevant and anecdote is not reliable. Anecdote is compelling and even interesting, but not a scientific method of measuring results or effectiveness. Filled with logically fallacy, confirmation bias, cherry picking, and argument from authority. Not science.

            APA Recommendations for delusional behavior
            ” “Do not question or discuss the details of delusional statements in any depth. Do not try to convince or argue people out of a delusion. It won’t work.
            Do not tell people that what they are saying is crazy, delusional, or untrue—unless that is specifically asked of you. Even then, do so with caution.
            If your relative is calm, listen neutrally, calmly, and respectfully. Then do any or all of the following:

            1. Respond to any non-delusional remarks that have been made.
            2. Lead the conversation away from the delusional content.
            3. Explicitly, but non-judgmentally, express you desire to change the subject.

            If your relative insists on your making a comment about the delusional material, you can:

            1. Say you don’t know or hedge.
            2. Acknowledge the person’s reality and, being as respectful of his or her opinion as you are of your own, explain that there is an honest difference of opinion or perception between you.

            If strong feelings accompany the delusions, you can:

            1. Acknowledge or address the emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, sadness) without commenting on the delusion.
            2. Offer assistance in coping with the feelings—for example, you can ask, “What can you or I do to help you feel safer?”.

            That is what the science says and that is why I would call your anecdote a scientifically poor choice.

          • Wordwizard says:

            I was not conducting an experiment, and that guy was not my relative–just someone I encountered on the street. Your comments are somewhat off-track–You just don’t seem to get it!

          • Stephen Propatier says:

            Interesting you post comments. You ask for my opinion. “Did I do good?”. I give you an answer. You, not me continue the discussion. You could have accepted my opinion as opinion and moved on. Yet you keep coming back and continuing the discussion. You clearly believe what you did is correct. I get it. What I don’t understand why you keep on trying to convince me that it was a good method to deal with”a young man pamphleting passersby to accept Jesus before the world ended in a few days“. You seem to be surprised and confused that I bring up logic and evidence to support my opinion of your question “did I do Good?“. This is after all a science and skepticism website. It is my post so I read all comments, but you don’t have to. We obviously disagree that science is the only way to describe or predict behavior. You have not said it directly but all your comments lead me to that conclusion. It was not the right thing to do, you may believe otherwise, and that is your right. Again I do not agree. I have clearly listed my logical reasons why. I find little evidence that you are skeptic. I do see several threads of evidence that you are mostly likely offended by my calling a mainstream religion fantasy. I highly doubt the scenario you asked my opinion about occurred in the way that you describe if, it happened at all. Your post -hoc admonitions about how you are an atheist but had some beliefs at the time is an attempt to cover an obvious ideological bent. At any point you could have quit commenting if it was just an anecdote again not your blog. However your persistent illogical and adamant defense is more consistent with ideology and a agenda. I think it is more likely that you proposed the argument to to point out how some religion can be good. I could be wrong but I doubt it.

          • Wordwizard says:

            “Interesting you post comments. You ask for my opinion. “Did I do good?”. I give you an answer. You, not me continue the discussion. You could have accepted my opinion as opinion and moved on. Yet you keep coming back and continuing the discussion. You clearly believe what you did is correct. I get it. What I don’t understand why you keep on trying to convince me that it was a good method to deal with”a young man pamphleting passersby to accept Jesus before the world ended in a few days“. You seem to be surprised and confused that I bring up logic and evidence to support my opinion of your question “did I do Good?“. This is after all a science and skepticism website. It is my post so I read all comments, but you don’t have to.” –I actually agree with everything you’ve said to this point–

            “We obviously disagree that science is the only way to describe or predict behavior. You have not said it directly but all your comments lead me to that conclusion. It was not the right thing to do, you may believe otherwise, and that is your right. Again I do not agree. I have clearly listed my logical reasons why. I find little evidence that you are skeptic. I do see several threads of evidence that you are mostly likely offended by my calling a mainstream religion fantasy. I highly doubt the scenario you asked my opinion about occurred in the way that you describe if, it happened at all. Your post -hoc admonitions about how you are an atheist but had some beliefs at the time is an attempt to cover an obvious ideological bent. At any point you could have quit commenting if it was just an anecdote again not your blog. However your persistent illogical and adamant defense is more consistent with ideology and a agenda. I think it is more likely that you proposed the argument to to point out how some religion can be good. I could be wrong but I doubt it.”

            I am indeed a skeptic, and would hardly become offended at someone calling a mainstream religion fantasy, as I do so all the time, but what does that have to do with anything? Pamphleting that the world is about to end in a few days is not yet mainstream, as I understand the term. Red herring.

            What “obvious ideological bent”? What “agenda”? Arguing that I am NOT an atheist because I continue to reply to YOUR replies makes no sense, and is INSULTING. I have NEVER tried to make out that some religion can be good. “Had some beliefs at the time”? I was simply UNAWARE at the time that there was probably no historical Jesus. (I accepted that there had been–that is, a human being with no miraculous aspects– because I knew no reason not to do so.) ” I highly doubt the scenario you asked my opinion about occurred in the way that you describe if, it happened at all.” So now you’re stooping to calling me a LIAR? Name-calling. Shame on you.

          • Stephen Propatier says:

            Your first post. “Once, some years ago, I met a young man pamphleting passersby to accept Jesus before the world ended in a few days. I urged him to remember that Jesus, when invited by Satan to jump off of a cliff so as to have angels catch him, refused to put the Lord his God to the test–that it was sacrilegious–and therefore he should emulate Jesus by NOT quitting his job and giving his money and possessions away, trusting the end of the world to save him. I couldn’t convince him that the world would not end, but I DID get through to him not to do anything drastic and irreversible. Was that offering another fantasy? Or granting the validity of the one he already had? I believe I did good. What say you?”

            My reply “You may have “Done good” but maybe not. You did nothing to prevent him from making the same mistake for similar reasons when the next doomsday prophecy approaches. The next time they may want his life not his money. From a science standpoint you did offer another fantasy. You will never convince a believer that he is wrong. By propping up his belief, you perpetuate the legitimacy of the belief. A believer will cherry pick the parts of your story that fits into his anxiety and discard what opposes it. Research clearly demonstrates that reorienting people to reality has fewer negative outcomes than than perpetuating a delusion even if the temporary outcome is positive. Although you were effective in this case it is not a direction I would recommend. Most likely he was back handing out pamphlets the next day. Results do not justify methods in isolated anecdotal cases.” I stated nothing about your beliefs

            Next your reply “I was perfectly clear that I was an atheist, and was sure the end of the world was not coming.”

            My reply”Where is that in your first post?”

            Your reply”I said that I was an atheist from the start.”

            My reply”No where in your original quote did you state I am an atheist. ”

            Your reply” Huh?”

            You never ever replied to my question and you insisted that you did this even though the proof was right in print. That leaves only two conclusions you did not read your own words, and refused to do so. The other possibility is that you decided to ignore your mistake and try distraction. So you are not arguing you are pronouncing. I am not accusing you of lying, just of ignoring facts and avoiding the parts of the conversation that don’t help your argument. This makes your non-provable statements unreliable. This is because you lack consistency and a ability to see mistakes. This behavior is consistent with ideology not skepticism. I stick by my statements about the unreliable nature of your comments. If you choose to be insulted I am sorry but that is the evidence I have.

          • Wordwizard says:

            If I missed your question as to where IN THE FIRST POST did I SAY I was an atheist, it was simply because there was so much else in your reply. I supposed it was obvious, and it wasn’t, to you. So if I’m guilty of having missed that, I’m guilty. Of having MISSED that. I didn’t deliberately ignore, or refuse to read my own words. (I haven’t re-read the entire train of comments before replying to this latest one, either. Yikes!) I DO know that you are lifting your own words out of context, and mine, which I believe is cherry-picking. My “Huh?” was an expression of incomprehension of the ENTIRE reply. I don’t think I lack consistency, but if I was unable to see the mistake, you were also unclear, until now, in pointing out what the mistake was. I supposed you would know I was an atheist, and that was not necessarily an obvious assumption FOR YOU to make. However, all the yes, insulting, remarks are still unjustified.

          • Stephen Propatier says:

            @ Wordwizard
            In retrospect I regret that tact that I have taken in communication with you and MUD. It has been pointed out to me that you are not the same person. I can safely assume I have been in error about other things. I posted about you and Mud, namely being a troll. This was essentially name calling, and unprofessional. I am apologetic. When I get things wrong I try to correct them so I hope you get this comment. I welcome your input, please point out to me where I am being snide in the future. I hope in the future when we disagree it will be more equitable. Name calling is arguing from weakness and not science.

          • Wordwizard says:

            Apology accepted in the spirit it was offered.

  4. Stephen Propatier says:

    You say you are skeptic fine, you are an atheist fine. you are insulted fine I understand. You asked my opinion and answered. You don’t like the answer. Clear, good.

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