Why we didn’t all die yesterday

Thanks NASA.

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My own opportunity to play “Ask Me About 2012”

I got one of those rather heartbreaking emails that seem to be going around, were people (kids mostly) ask whether it is really true that the world is going to come to an end next Friday.  While some people like to troll the people who ask those questions, I think it’s worth taking them seriously.  I can only hope that these answers can get out there and even if they can’t keep up with the lies racing around, they can at least give people the kind of answers that can lead them to think more clearly about the claims so many liars and hoaxers are putting out.

So I thought I would reprint my answer here in it’s entirety and allow people to link or forward or whatever as they desire…

Hi, Caren, thanks for emailing me with your question.

I know that it seems like a real thing that the world will end on the 21st, because there are a lot of people out there trying to make money by scaring people, but it’s just not going to happen.  The thing you should pay attention to is that all of the “evidence” that people have for saying the world is going to come to an end is either made up (sometimes by some people who are kinda crazy) or it is based on real facts that are misunderstood or misinterpreted.

First, a lot of people focus on the date of 21 December because that was the end of what was called the Mayan long count calendar.  But the people who made that calendar didn’t think the world was going to end on that day, only that it would be like the 31st of December on our calendar, and the day after would just be January 1st of the new count.  The Maya called this count a baktun, and this coming new one starting on the 22nd will be the 13th.  The “end” of the calendar that is happening next Friday has already happened 12 times before, so there is no reason (none at all) to believe that anything is going to happen.

Even the Maya didn’t think that the world would end with the end of the 12th baktun, and in several murals they referred to events which would happen long after 21 December 2012.  See this article for some proof that the Maya were looking to dates beyond next Friday.

Some people are saying that there is a planet out there which will hit the earth like in the movie Melancholia, while others say it’s just an asteroid like the one that hit in the movie Deep Impact.  Neither is true.  NASA has been watching and counting all the objects that are in the sky around us for years and they know where all those objects are and they can use computers to find out where they will be at any moment in the future.  If there were a planet, or even an asteroid which was going to be a danger to us on the 21st, it would be the brightest thing in the sky right now and you could go out and look up and see it without a telescope even during the day.  There is nothing out there, and the pictures and videos that people have been posting are hoaxes.  You can see this with your own eyes just by going outside and looking up.

Some of the people who say that the planet or asteroid mentioned above is being hidden somehow – they say it is “behind the sun” (though if it were going to hit us when “they” say it would now be between us and the sun) or they say it is “below the earth” (there is no such place, as anything we couldn’t see in our hemisphere would still be visible to people in South America or Africa or Antarctica).  People also say that the 100,000 or more astronomers on earth have seen this mysterious planet or asteroid and are lying about it, or that NASA has told them that they aren’t allowed to reveal the “secret” of this object.  But as I said above, if there really were such an object, everyday folks would be able to see it, because it would be so big and so close that there would be no way to hide it.  If it were really there, people you could trust would see it: people on the real news (not just somebody who has a free website) and at universities all over the world, and average people would be able to see it even without telescopes.  No one can see anything because there is nothing out there to see.

Finally, lots of people are saying that the world will end like on the movie 2012 because of some weird, sorta scientific sounding thing.  But if you look into every one of these claims, you can see that in lots of cases, the things they are saying are even somewhat true, and they don’t matter at all.

Some people are concerned that the earth and the sun are going to line up with the center of the galaxy or a far off black hole or something like that.  And that is actually true, but we “line up” with other parts of the galaxy all the time and nothing happens, because these things are so far away that there is no way the effects of their gravity or any other force they could possibly exert can reach us.  The moon, for example, is pretty big and pretty close to us, but the best it can do is pull the oceans just enough to make tides.  The center of the galaxy and the black holes in the universe are much, MUCH farther away and we simply can’t feel any effects from that far away.

Lots of folks have been talking about something bad happening when the magnetic poles of the earth switch places, or because the geological poles would move.  Both of these things are happening, right now, and have been going on for the entire history of the planet.  The magnetic and physical poles of the Earth are moving all the time; 99% of us never even notice because we don’t have to make measurements or give directions that are precise enough to worry about it.  Over thousands of years the magnetic poles have sometimes shifted completely, but there is no evidence anywhere that this is going to happen in the near future or that, if it did, it would affect us beyond causing some difficulties for our orbital satellites and some electrical equipment.  It certainly wouldn’t be enough to drop Los Angeles into the Pacific ocean (no matter how much we may sometimes want it to!).

NASA’s Beyond 2012 site and it has a lot of good information for you to get more answers.   There is also a scientist at NASA who has been answering questions for a year or so now, and he has lots of in-depth answers there for you, too.   Finally, there is a really great site that keeps track of all the lies and hoaxes people are making up about 2012 and gives explanations of why you shouldn’t believe them.

The key fact to keep in mind is that a lot of people are trying to make money by telling lies and making people afraid so that they can get a lot of clicks on their websites, which make it possible for them to charge lots of money from their advertisers.  Some of these liars and hoaxers will even have a book or a video or something to sell you so that they can get some money from you, too!  Whenever you see some really scary claim that they make, don’t just go to Google, go directly to a site where there are experts who have spent a long time studying the science behind the claims and where you can get answers you can trust.

Next Friday, 21 December 2012 will be just like any other day, except that it will also be like New Year’s Eve for the Maya.  So instead of being afraid, you should be happy that this year you will have two opportunities to have a party and celebrate getting a new calendar.

Won’t someone please think of the children?!

Every time I think that the contemporary media can’t possibly get any worse, I am presented with yet another facepalm-inducing example of ‘journalists’ pretending that they are interested in providing information and clarity while what they really want are clicks, lots of clicks, and the ad dollars they bring.

This past week brought NASA’s Google+ hangout with prominent scientists and educators to explain (and debunk) the many common apocalyptic predictions floating about the more fetid and dank corners of the internet.  It was an informative and at times, even entertaining hour of content, and I’m happy they did it if just a bit dismayed that they needed to.  I suppose the only real tragedy is that those who really needed to see it were probably watching Mayan Apocalypse: 2012 or Armageddon instead.

The news media were thus presented with an opportunity to do a bit of public service by reporting on NASA’s effort to inform the public about threats to Earth both bogus and completely real, clear and present.  I’d like to say they rose to the challenge, but alas, no.  Nothing in the major media, at least not here in the U.S., and meanwhile elsewhere in the world the hangout, and NASA’s message more generally has been reported with winking skepticism at best and crass opportunistic fearmongering masquerading at worst.

Lowest of the low, unsurprisingly, is The Daily Mail (whose editors never met a potential threat they didn’t want to light their hair on fire and run wild with)

NASA warns Mayan apocalypse stories pose threat to frightened children and suicidal teenagers

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration warns that 2012 Mayan apocalypse rumors pose a real-life threat to frightened children and depressive teenagers
  • Some say they can’t eat, or are too worried to sleep, while others say that they are suicidal, according to NASA astrobiologist David Morrison
  • The apocalypse rumors began with claims that Nibiru, a rogue planet discovered by the Sumerians, will crash into Earth on December 21, killing everyone

Lest you think that this headline with its subheads reflects a real desire to alleviate the fears of children and teens everywhere, take notice that the lede is immediately followed by a dramatic piece of photographic art depicting space debris hurtling toward the east coast of the United States.  They did correctly report David Morrison’s assertion that those who stir up such fears are “evil,” though they then ran Dr Morrison’s picture right alongside that of Zecharia Sitchin who, according to crack reporting by The Mail’s Damian Ghigliotty, predicted the impending arrival of a mysterious murdering planet called Nibiru based on “Sumerian documents” which he had found and translated for the benefit of the world.  The article goes on cribbing from the Wikipedia article on Sitchin to note his death in 2010, while somehow forgetting to mention that Sitchin is generally regarded (by those who rely on experts from this planet, at least) to be a crackpot hoaxer who mistranslated much of what he says he found, ignored anything which didn’t fit with the fantasy he wanted to produce, and made up still more in order to paper over the massive gaps in his understanding.

Ghigliotty didn’t mention Nancy Lieder, presumably because she doesn’t have her own Wikipedia entry, and because his exhaustive research process didn’t include reading the actual text of the entry for Nibiru, instead of just scanning the subheads.  It couldn’t be because of the alien thing, the Daily Mail has no trouble at all reporting on aliens.

Our intrepid reporter was so focused on the welfare of those poor, credulous children and on his intensive search for information relevant to the threat that he didn’t spend much time on figuring out what those little red wavy lines were below the page of text.  What text he managed to squeeze in around the Wikimedia photographs is studded with gems like this:

“The rumors began with claims that Nibiru, a rogue planet discovered by the Sumerians, will crash into Earth on December 21, killing everyone, according to NASA’s website.”

Is it just me, or does this borderline-inarticulate text give the distinct impression (whether by design or simple lazy refusal to edit) that it is in fact NASA’s website which predicts that Nibiru will “crash into the Earth on December 21, killing everyone”?
P.S.  Hey, Damian?  That there’s an Aztec calendar stone you got yourself a picture of.  The Mayan ones weren’t quite so, you know, round.

NASA lunchtime apocalypse roundup

The most poignant thing about today’s Google+ NASA Beyond 2012 hangout, on the host of doomsday predictions which circle around the upcoming winter solstice, is the palpable sense of frustration they all seem to share at the need to revisit (yet again) all of the discredited and debunked theories about the supposed end of the world when there are so many important new discoveries and new insights about our world and the cosmos to discuss.  They all seem so exasperated about the need, once again, to trot out all the same old empty nonsense and show once more how very empty and nonsensical it is.

And they can’t have been very comforted by how those same theories were once again simply reiterated in the questions, and later in the comment section for the archived video, along with increasingly deranged assertions of NASA’s perpetration of massive coverups (like paying the world’s astronomers to lie about the approach of planet X, and continuing to deny our long term interaction with beings from outer space).

The most profound moment of the whole production, for me, comes at when the moderator asked the panel to consider, from the perspective of their own field, what kind of threats face the Earth in 2012 or in the near future.  Don Yeoman spoke about near earth asteroid approaches, while Paul Hertz highlighted the fundamentally non-spectacular nature of 2012 and 2013 from a cosmological perspective.  And then Andrew Fraknoi, significantly (as professor of astronomy at Foothill College) the only full time educator on the panel, hit the ball out of the park.

“So, if I can give you a slightly whimsical answer, but I think a relatively important one, I think one of the greatest threats to Earth in 2012 is the low level of science education and public knowledge, and I think this entire discussion and the fears that have been generated illustrates how much more NASA, the scientific community, and those of us in science education still need to do.  It’s really sad that so many people are worried and writing to David Morrison.  It’s really sad that our schools have not taught skeptical thinking, and not helped students to distinguish between the reality and the fantasy of what’s going on in these areas.  So I think if people are concerned about cosmic threats, part of that is a threat to our understanding of science that comes from insufficient science education, and I hope we can all redouble our efforts to help students understand the world better.”

Elegantly and beautifully stated.  It is in our nature as finite creatures to be concerned with the idea of endings, more so as we grow older and get a clearer sense our own end approaching, and it can be dramatic and exciting to envision the end of all things, but we need to be realistic about the catastrophes that actually face us, and the damage our own often thoughtless behavior can bring about.  Every minute that NASA must spend discussing imaginary planets is time taken away from spreading the word about discoveries on real planets like our own little blue marble, or our closest neighbor, or others very very far away.

Ask an astrobiologist

Dr David Morrison was featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Monday.  It’s worth a listen, for the usual answers, if not for any insight into why the question just keeps popping up again and again no matter how many times it is debunked.  As with the vaccine issue, it surprises me how many smart people seem to find these crackpot theories so compelling, despite all rational evidence to the contrary.

During the interview, Dr Morrison mentioned that NASA will be having a Google+ hangout to discuss the 2012 myths tomorrow, 28 November 2012 at 2pm EST/10am PST.  Bookmark that link and I’ll see you there (who knows, maybe they will let slip something about the upcoming “historic” Mars news)!

Definitely *NOT* Nibiru

So, apparently a group of astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the  European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope recently published a paper announcing the identification of a free-floating object of planetary mass in the AB Doradus Moving Group, a loose assemblage of relatively young stars moving together through the galaxy.  Did you miss it in there?  The casual reference to the possibility of a planet floating loose out there in the black, and one of the closest we’ve ever discovered at that!!  It gives us the opportunity to learn a great deal about the nature and composition of planets in other solar systems and clusters, and this one potentially offers the opportunity to develop a standard against which all future planetary discoveries will be judged and provides an incredibly valuable peek into the characteristics of stars, planets and systems much younger than our own (a mere 50 to 120 million years as opposed to the 4.6 billion of our own solar system).

Unfortunately it also provides the opportunity for rampant, mindless panic and ill informed fearmongering.  I’ve been surprised how many of the news sites which have mentioned the new planet have connected it, however tenuously, to the Nibiru hoax, presumably to draw more traffic to their site, though in at least one case, the Nibiru fantasists have definitively rejected any connection.

My favorite take on the news is provided by Hank Green at SciShow.  Incidentally, I completely agree that it needs a new name.  And I have a humble proposition, to name it for David Morrison, in honor of his heroic struggle against the Nibiru hoax hysteria.  Seriously.

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.