Mayans and liars and boors, oh my

For those of us who enjoy following the rampant apocalyptophilia in contemporary culture, there was a hidden gem in this past week’s On The Media broadcast.  In the larger framework of a show on the perils and pitfalls of fact checking, Brooke Gladstone interviewed NASA scientist Dr. David Morrison, who has been doing heroic work at NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist site addressing and debunking the perennial insistence by some that the world will come to an end in a violent cataclysm on 12 December 2012 (only 88 shopping days left, folks!!).  The interview was prompted by an excellent article on The AWL by Dan Duray, who interviewed Dr. Morrison and provided what is surely one of the best section subheadings in recent memory (“Are you there, NASA?  It’s me, Nibiru”).

Sadly, as the questions repeatedly posed to Dr. Morrison illustrate, many people are resistant to even the most rigorous efforts at debunking this pernicious myth.  Push back on any one front (folks, there is no hiding “under” a spherical earth, trust me), and like one of those creepy squeeze dolls, something pops out in another location (there is no “hiding behind the sun” when the Earth and sun are in constant motion).  I suspect, though I have no objective proof beyond close analysis of the language and themes used to discuss these ideas, that people hold onto these beliefs in apocalypse because they satisfy a somewhat paradoxical need for security and stability in a modern world that has displaced many of the traditional frameworks for meaning held by humans for centuries.

Many of these people feel a deep fear and suspicion about the modern world (and its panoply of experts and authorities), and the idea of an apocalypse rolling out along a predetermined pattern offers the illusion of order and control to a world that we have been assured by those experts, is characterized by chance and serendipity as much as intent and will.  Such beliefs also provide the promise of punishment on a cosmic scale for those who disregarded the ‘fact’ of preexisting order and disbelieved in the higher power which set the clockwork heavens into motion.  Scientists are the culprits in this narrative, because it is from science that the drive for rationality and evidence-based conclusions about the universe have come, leading to the collapse of so many traditional narratives about the universe, and it is science which has played the most powerful role in highlighting the randomness and contingency of so many phenomena previously seen as inspired by divine hands.

The idea of apocalypse also fulfills many of the same psychological needs that other types of conspiracy thinking does.  It shifts the balance of cultural power significantly to believe that you hold the key to truth and a knowledge of the workings of the universe that even society’s most educated and elevated members do not seem to have access to.  It provides some measure of comfort to believe that, no matter how random and chaotic the world may seem, there is an underlying order and structure for those able to perceive it.  And, above all, it must assuage the loneliness and existential angst that so many people feel to think that there is a greater force in the universe which cares for and will seek to protect humanity.

In so many versions of these apocalypse stories, what is important to those who believe them is not so much the coming of the end (though they will fight desperately to insist on the validity of their vision of this end in the face of any pushback) but the promise of what will come after.  For those who believe in a Biblical apocalypse, the tribulation will be awful to endure (though everyone seems to believe that the enduring will happen to the other guy), but afterward peace and stability will reign.  Those who are loudly predicting an American collapse admit that, sure it’s gonna be bad for a time, especially in the cities (those horrible, diseased, sinful cities), but afterward we’ll undo the postwar modernization of the U.S. and return to the agrarian, small town existence that they prefer.  For those of the Nibiruans that I’ve had contact with, there is a small contingent who expects that it will all simply be over, and we’ll die, but most seem to move neatly from believing that there were ancient people who foretold this coming catastrophe to asserting that ancient aliens gave this knowledge to those ancient people (and may in fact have brought those people here in the first place) and that descendents of those aliens, still in touch with us to this day, will return to save us.

So, no matter how many times these ideas are shown to have no basis in anything but the sloppiest science fiction, or to have only the most tenuous connection to some piece of fact or real science that has been subsequently tortured out of all recognition, the beliefs remain.  Some argue that engaging with the 2012 conspiracy theorists (of whatever flavor) only gives credence and weight to their nonsensical assertions, by creating the illusion that there is some legitimate debate between those who believe that a massive, earth-killing planet is dancing out of our view on the other side of the sun without managing to cause even a blip in the orbit of any body in the solar system and, you know, normal people.  And I must agree that most of the time I feel the only response justified for such belief is to point and laugh, though the decision of mainstream science to stay out of the mud has not done anything to help drain the swamp.

So I applaud the efforts of Dr. Morrison and others who seek to rip this particular weed up by the roots, no matter how daunting and, at times even hopeless, that task may seem.  There is some good stuff out there, if only people will take the time to allow themselves to see and hear it.  I particularly enjoyed the efforts of C.G.P. Grey, whose brilliant work I only just discovered.  His fantastically witty piece on the 2012 hysteria is a masterpiece, and it comes in under three minutes, and he even provides an abridged version for those who can’t take time from aligning their crystals long enough to watch the full 2:27 minutes of the original.

As for me, I’ve already begun to warn people that they will not find my at my desk on the morning of 22 December, but not because I believe that my desk will have been sunk under flood waters or lava, or blown into bits by the force of a rogue planet hitting the Earth.  I intend to greet the “end of the Mayan calendar” the same way I do the end of my wall calendar every year: with champagne and munchies, and perhaps even a few fireworks (or at least some sparklers) at midnight.  Heck, as this will be the end of a really long calendar, so long that I won’t be around to tear the next one off the wall, maybe I’ll even spring for some of the really good stuff.  And on that evening, I’ll be delighted to lift a glass to Dr. Morrison and his heroic efforts on behalf of science, rationality and the reliance on evidence.

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