Thursday, January 05, 2012

Weekend Post - Is this the year that the world will end?

Is this the year that the world will end? No, it isn’t and next year won’t be either.

For several years we’ve been hearing a whole lot of nonsensical speculation about 2012 being the year of the end of the world. If you do a Google search for the exact phrase “2012 end of the world” you’ll find over 18 million hits, almost all of them suggesting that this is somehow true. One of the most important things to know in the 21st century is that just because something’s on the Internet that doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact I’m tempted to suggest that if something IS widely mentioned on the Internet then it’s almost certainly rubbish. The 2012 prophecies are a fine example of that.

To begin with let’s face a simple fact. Without doubt, every single prediction of the end of the world so far has been wrong. Every one, without exception. Not once has the world ended. By this stage surely we should have cast aside end of the world predictions along with witch-burning, reading chicken entrails, astrology and homeopathy. They’ve never worked in the past, they have no rational basis and they’re just plain silly.

However, because each of these things persists those of us who believe in the power of the scientific method and reason have to confront them over and over again.

Let’s start with the main 2012 production. One of the popular things you’ll see is the idea that a Mayan calendar reaches a major turning point in 2012, often referred to as the end of a “Great Cycle”. Even if this were true does it actually mean anything? It’s no more than just the end of a calendar, no more meaningful than reaching 31st December or my birthday. The date is just arbitrary.

But this business about the end of the Great Cycle is nonsense anyway. According to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies: “there is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012. The notion of a ‘Great Cycle’ coming to an end is completely a modern invention.”

So if it isn’t the Mayans predicting the Apocalypse, who is it? Ironically it’s a strange mixture of fundamentalist Christians who predict the end of the world every year, astrologers and New Age claptrap purveyors.

I’m not going to comment on the US TV and radio evangelist predictions of the Apocalypse. Instead I’ll just refer you to last year’s predictions by Harold Camping and his gullible followers who plastered billboards all over the world with detailed predictions of Judgment Day in both May and October last year. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us we’re still here.

Astrologers have been predicting that in 2012 a “galactic alignment” promises doom for us all. However here’s another slightly inconvenient truth. This galactic alignment is a true as the end of the Mayan Grand Cycle. It’s not true. According to NASA, who should know about these things: “There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades, Earth will not cross the galactic plane in 2012, and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible.”

So still no evidence.

Another often-Internet-quoted belief is that there’s a mystery planet on it’s way to destroy us. Sometimes it’s just called Planet X or other times “Nibiru”. Again let me quote the people who know about these things, NASA. “Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in getting rational people to believe that all of this is nonsense is Hollywood. Every year there’s a disaster movie that features the end of the world, caused either by something from outer space or something closer to home. We all have images in our heads from films like Armageddon, War of the Worlds, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Just because Hollywood has made a film about something doesn’t make it real.

I know it’s a forlorn hope but I’m an optimist. Why don’t we all be rational this year and cast aside the thoughts of supernatural doom? Let’s face the real threats like poverty, unemployment and hunger rather than made up ones?


Correction: The Google search for "2012 end of the world" now has 21 million hits.

National Geographic (who know stuff) has a very good and entertaining summary of various 2012 myths here. The excellent material from NASA (who know everything) is here. A very comprehensive response from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (who seem to know what they're talking about) can be seen here.

Finally if you want to see a list of the "Top 10 Apocalyptic Movies" go here. Warning, some of the films are very good (I Robot, Andromeda Strain, The Terminator), others are just terrible (Armageddon, Independence Day).

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