The Sciences

Countdown to 2012 Doomsday

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJan 3, 2012 11:30 AM

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As you know, the world didn't end last year, like it was supposed to. By now, this is an old story. Yet many people continue to be drawn to doomsday alerts. 2012 promises to be another banner year for failed end-of-world predictions. But instead of arbitrary biblical interpretations, attention will shift to a supposed Mayan prophecy. As Mathew Restall and Amara Solari wrote this past weekend in the Washington Post:

What makes 2012ology different is the starring role it gives to the ancient Maya. Among numerous native cultures in the Americas, the Maya seem to have captured the popular imagination. They are cast as a mysteriously wise civilization, one that disappeared into the tropical forests of Central America, taking with it a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light.

So the internet is rife with references to the Mayan Long Count calendar and Dec. 21, 2012 as the latest date of reckoning. As Stephanie Pappas reported in Live Science,

a number of predictions have attached themselves to Dec. 21, from the end of the world via collision with a rogue planet, to the ushering in of a new world era. But neither historians nor astronomers put much credence in these predictions.

Not that that matters much. In their WaPo essay, Restall and Solari ask:

If the evidence for Maya doomsday predictions is so flimsy "” if the impending Maya apocalypse is a mere myth "” then why are so many people so willing to believe it is true? Why do some seem to want Dec. 21 to be the long-awaited end of the world?

The authors, who teach history and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, suggest a few reasons:

One explanation is the persistent power of ancient wisdom. All societies are drawn to knowledge that seems time-worn, mysterious, coded "” and to the magic of its decoding. That is partly why "The Da Vinci Code" has sold 100 million copies, why people listened to Camping's predictions about Judgment Day and even, in a sense, why billions are attracted to religion. That is also why we are drawn to ancient civilizations whose knowledge has been buried "” literally "” for hundreds or thousands of years. A century ago, ancient Egypt was in the limelight, as archaeologists excavated the tombs of pharaohs. In recent decades, the Maya have taken a star turn, as more of their ancient cities in Mexico and Central America have been unearthed and their hieroglyphic texts deciphered. Another explanation lies deep within our own Western civilization and religious traditions, which include teachings about the end of the world. In stark contrast to the Maya, medieval Europeans generated a vast body of literature and artwork predicting and describing the world's end. Nobody questioned that it would come; the issue was how and when. Some were willing "” then, as now "” to stick their necks out and predict a specific day. When Joachim of Fiore insisted that 1260 would be the end, many thousands in Europe listened. They listened, too, across the English-speaking world when William Miller in Vermont picked 1843 (and then 1844) as our final year. Likewise, Camping generated huge publicity for his 2011 predictions. Apocalyptic imaginings and doomsday gullibility are woven into the very fabric of Western society. A final explanation lies in the comfort of belief, in the security of taking a leap of faith. The great revolutions in science, industry and technology have profoundly transformed life on Earth. But science has not replaced religion. Instead, the two have developed a complicated relationship. Science is a religion; religion has become a science. Anxiety and skepticism abound. The more answers science offers, the more questions we have. Overwhelmed by the evidence for a phenomenon such as global warming, some choose to believe in it or not

This last graph I find especially interesting (though I suspect some readers of this blog will key in on the last line) and fodder for much debate, such as the part about science and religion having an uneasy, complicated relationship. A similar exploration of our End Days attraction can be found in this excellent essay by Daniel Baird in the current issue of The Walrus. After taking stock of the various biblical, New Agey and ecological prophecies of doom, he writes:

The difficulty with prophecies "” whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books "” is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity.

I imagine that some will take offense at climate science being lumped in with the Mayan Calendar and the Bible. (The point Baird is making pertains not to the science, but the interpretations of it.) On what he concludes, however, there should be wide agreement:

The real problem with the future is that it doesn't yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance "” or ever.

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