I wish it were only in Russia

As we count down to the 21st, a lot of people are getting panicky.  Some of us are worried that there aren’t enough remaining days to complete the miniature model of Chichen Itza’s El Castillo made from royal icing and angel food cake (with sacrificial tableau composed of gummy bears at the top) which would be the ideal centerpiece of an Apocalypse Eve party.  Unfortunately the panic in other places is more existential than culinary.

Across Russia, for example, there seems to have been a rash of episodes from simple hoarding of candles and other perfectly rational and useful supplies, to episodes of mass psychosis.

Here in the US, we’ve had streaks of fire in the skies over Texas, though this was “reported” by a site that also tracks the exploration of crystal pyramids under the Bermuda Triangle and how we’re all going to be forced to carry the number of the beast in the form of implantable microchips as required by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), so let’s salt that one liberally, shall we?


OMG, Australia!!

Here in the United States, citizens are stumbling around in a zombie-like daze wondering when, if ever, our politicians are going to get their hands on some brains (and perhaps a spine as well) and get down to business solving the completely, totally, 100% self inflicted catastrophe we seem to be headed toward with the ‘fiscal cliff’ (here, I’ll admit I find the term ‘austerity bomb’ both more compelling as a phrase as well as more accurate as a description) debacle.  Many of our national political leaders have acted in ways that were (one imagines unintentionally) hilarious, but even our president, with his characteristic dry wit, doesn’t have anything which quite compares to this.

Apparently the Australians are known for a dry, irreverent wit, which Prime Minster Julia Gillard put on display in a mock statement to the nation promoting a morning show program focused on the impending end of all things, predicted for the morning of 7 December.  The big news is that apparently we missed it, here in the United States, because we woke up this morning and went about our days.

I will admit to being ever so slightly conflicted about humor like this.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the satire and am always reduced to giggles of joy whenever someone ups the ante on apocalyptic humor, as PM Gillard has managed to do here.  And I think it must say something about the health of a political system when a national politician is able to step out from behind the screen of Very Serous National Leadership to have a bit of light-hearted fun.  But I do worry about all the people who can’t, for any number of different reasons, tell the difference between reality and the fantasy.  I would never argue that the topic ought to be verboten, my feeling about censorship is that more speech is better, and for every person running around with their hair on fire claiming that the earth is about to come to a violent end because of some swiftly approaching calamity, I think we ought to have a few others explaining that the 21st will come and go just like any other day, and in fact like every other predicted doomsday.

But I remain concerned nonetheless.  It’s normal for us to be concerned about the future and fascinated by the idea of apocalypse.  What I continue to be completely mystified by is the tenaciousness of irrational fears and a clinging to belief, especially so fundamentally pessimistic a belief, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Science can give us so much more information about how the world works, and the triumph of education is that more people have access to an unprecedented amount of that information, and yet we seem to be more, rather than less, susceptible to the lure of our worst fears.  Clearly, we need more information, more discussion, and even more humor to draw attention to the fact that some people have, with a great deal of certainty and copious ‘evidence,’ always predicted the end of things for one reason or another.  Those people have always been wrong.  There is no reason to believe, and many, many, MANY reasons to be skeptical that this time is going to be any different.

In a side note, I now have Prime Minister Gillard to thank for introducing me to Tom and Alex and, in a roundabout way, to Ig Nobel prize winning scientist Karl Kruszelnicki, whose ground breaking and tireless research deserves to be celebrated!

And, in a related note, Tom and Alex reminded me of this, which is one of my favorite movie clips.  As someone who has lived in Los Angeles, nothing makes me happier than watching it be burned, bombed, blown up and generally wrecked.

We’re in the teens now

So today is (according to the Mayan calendar) and, as is fast approaching, it is time to really start our prepping.

Time to start making lists of vital provisions (chocolates, cheese and crackers, champagne) and equipment (sparklers, noisemakers, and a variety of weapons to use on anyone who blows a vuvuzela), and lists of all those you want to spend the end of the world with (so lucky it falls on a Friday, so we can sleep off our hangovers on the 22nd).

Get cracking, folks!  Only 19 days to go!!

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)!

Pic de Bugarach update

Sadly, it seems that millions will be denied salvation when the destruction ‘foretold’ by the Maya arrives on the 21st of December.  Officials in the département of Aude have decided to ban access to the Pic de Bugarach, and to limit access to the village on its slopes, fearing an influx of “New Age fanatics, sightseers and media crews” (I wonder which would be the most potentially destructive?).

So if you were planning to leave the planet via alien transport to avoid global cataclysm, you’ll need to check your tickets.

Since we’ll all be staying on the planet, you could head to Belize or Guatemala for your apocalypse vacation needs.

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.