A little rant about that 2012 nonsense…

Up until this week, I hadn’t been in a bookstore for a while.  I’m trying to save money, I have a backlogue of interesting books to read (and blog about), and I was expecting to get a number of books as Christmas gifts (which I did: thanks, all!).  I did get a Barnes & Noble gift card, though, and stopped to pick up a few things the other day.

I was appalled to see no less than three books prominently displayed at the front of the store discussing the year 2012. Why was I appalled, you ask?  Because the date has achieved special significance amongst new age types as a date which represents the end of the world. This belief originally comes, apparently, from the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, used by the ancient Maya.  2012 (in Mayan, anyway) represents the end of the ‘fourth age’ of creation in which men were created.

It shouldn’t take much effort to realize how absurd it is to believe in prophecy, let alone prophecy made by a civilization that couldn’t foresee its own collapse.  Nevertheless, the idea has gotten a lot of traction and will even be the focus of a disaster movie due out this year, ‘directed’ by Roland Emmerich.

There’s plenty to find annoying about spreading apocalypse propaganda, the worst of which is that such fear-mongering kills.

For my particular rant, however, I’d like to pick apart the blurbs on the back cover of one particular 2012 book, which illustrates the sloppy thinking and misleading statements made in apocalypse fantasies.

The book in question (and I single this one out only because I happened to look at it) is Apocalypse 2012, which has the following set of statements on its back cover:

So why read this book?
Because you can’t look away when not just the religious fanatics are saying we’re all going to be destroyed but the scientists are in on the act too. Here’s what they’re saying:

We’re a million years over due for a mass extinction.

The sun at radiation minimum is acting much worse than at solar maximum, and one misdirected spewing of plasma could fry us in an instant.

The magnetic field—which shields us from harmful radiation—is developing a mysterious crack.

Our solar system is entering an energetically hostile part of the galaxy.

The Yellowstone supervolcano is getting ready to blow, and if it does, we can look forward to nuclear winter and 90 percent annihilation.

The Maya, the world’s greatest timekeepers ever, say it’s all going to stop on December 21, 2012.

Let’s tackle a few of these:

…not just the religious fanatics are saying we’re all going to be destroyed but the scientists are in on the act too.

This is a huge stretch.  Scientists have pointed out a number of cataclysmic events which could effect the earth.  None of them, however, are saying that it’s going to happen in 2012, much less are they saying that the Mayans predicted it.

We’re a million years over due for a mass extinction.

This statement assumes that mass extinctions occur regularly, like clockwork.  Though some scientists have postulated a cyclic nature to extinctions, the data is far from certain. Even if such extinctions are cyclic, the uncertainty in the cycle could be millions of years, i.e. there’s no reason to think, when we’re ‘due’, that we’re due in the next four years!

Those extinctions caused by catastrophic random events such as asteroid or comet impacts are essentially independent of one another, and it would be silly to say we’re “overdue”, just as it would be silly to say I’m “overdue” for a car accident if I haven’t had one for a while.

The magnetic field—which shields us from harmful radiation—is developing a mysterious crack.

It is well-known that the earth’s magnetic field develops cracks in it, acting at times like a ‘drafty old house’.  The largest of these was detected in December, but the ‘largeness’ of it is probably due to the sparsity of data on the subject (which first was reported in 2003).  To put it another way, the first time you see a dog, it is unlikely that you’ve seen the largest dog; the next few dogs you see are likely to be much larger or much smaller than the first one.

How long do these cracks remain open?  From the article above, “the one observed last year lasted about an hour.”

The Yellowstone supervolcano is getting ready to blow, and if it does, we can look forward to nuclear winter and 90 percent annihilation.

Maybe.  It is well-known that Yellowstone park is a massive supervolcano which has a roughly cyclic eruption cycle of 650,000 years.  We are rather due for a massive eruption, but again one must take into account the uncertainty of the measurements.  Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that the volcano erupts like clockwork, we still don’t know enough about the clock to say whether it’ll happen tomorrow or 10,000 years from now!

There has been recent activity at the Yellowstone caldera, the largest since recording was done.  However, recording only started in 1923, which means we have less than a hundred years of data on the behavior of a volcano which has a cycle of nearly a million years.  The current activity is likely only large in comparison with the limited data we’ve been able to take.  And, to quote the lead scientist on the recent study, “I don’t believe this is evidence for an impending volcanic eruption, but it would be prudent to keep monitoring the volcano.”

The Maya, the world’s greatest timekeepers ever, say it’s all going to stop on December 21, 2012.

I think Tom at Swans on Tea would take particular issue with this claim.  The Maya aren’t the world’s greatest timekeepers ever: we are.    Atomic clocks used at the national standard keep time to an accuracy of 1 billionth of a second per day.  In contrast, the Mayans used a solar calendar of 365 days, which misses a leap year correction and meant that winter would eventually occur during summer, and vice versa.  It is also pretty clear that the Maya were ignorant of most elements of modern cosmology, though they were a (relatively) advanced people with some surprising scientific discoveries.

It is fair to say that the Maya were the most elaborate timekeepers ever, with their system of multiple calendars.  It is a gross misstatement to call them the ‘greatest’ timekeepers because of this.  If I make a timekeeping system with a dozen calendars stretching over a billion years, does that make me the greatest timekeeper?  Of course not.

************

So what do we have?  The 2012 speculation is based on ignorance; specifically, ignorance of the exact mechanisms by which various natural phenomena work.  It is also based on a religiously-based predictions using an imperfect calendar by a civilization which collapsed over a thousand years ago.

Yeesh.  If you want to read an enjoyable and accurate book about potential catastrophic events, read Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies!

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20 Responses to A little rant about that 2012 nonsense…

  1. Tom says:

    I think it’s even simpler than timekeeping — it’s bookkeeping. The calendar ends. Big deal. Should we predict that the world ends on Dec 31, 2009, because that’s when our calendar runs out?

  2. Tom: Well put. (I had a feeling you could sum up the problem better than I could!)

    “Should we predict that the world ends on Dec 31, 2009, because that’s when our calendar runs out?”

    Hey, lots of people did predict that civilization would end in the year 2000, apparently because 2000 is a big, round number. Looks like that prediction didn’t come true!

  3. Nibiru et al. says:

    Surely we can refute the 2012 speculation fantasies without relying on sloppy language and problematic logic.

    “It is well-known that Yellowstone park is a massive supervolcano which has a roughly cyclic eruption cycle of 650,000 years.”

    Is “massive” necessary here? Is Yellowstone that much larger than other supervolcanoes?

    Is an “eruption cycle of 650,000 years” really “a cycle of nearly a million years?”

    How useful is an accurate time-keeping device without a clock to tell you what time it is? By extension, how useful is an atomic clock in determining some time on 31 December 2012?

    And when did the time of day and the day of the year cease to be social conventions and become natural categories?

  4. Nibiru wrote: “Surely we can refute the 2012 speculation fantasies without relying on sloppy language and problematic logic.”

    What’s with the hostility? Let’s look at your comments:

    Is “massive” necessary here?

    Admittedly, no. But this changes the essence of the post not one whit. This is a blog, not an edited journal, so grammatical errors and redundancy will happen. If you think this is unacceptable, you don’t really understand blogging.

    Is an “eruption cycle of 650,000 years” really “a cycle of nearly a million years?”

    It is the same order of magnitude, just as the era between 1923 and today is of the order of 100 years. Again, it does not change the essence of the post.

    How useful is an accurate time-keeping device without a clock to tell you what time it is? By extension, how useful is an atomic clock in determining some time on 31 December 2012?

    I’m not really sure what your point is here; this must be what you refer to as my ‘problematic logic.’

    The whole point of the comparison between the atomic clock and the Mayan system is that we understand the passage and the measurement of time very well, while the Mayans apparently couldn’t figure out how to make their solar calendar work properly. The whole point of a solar calendar is to keep track of yearly cycles – if it isn’t matched up to a proper solar year, it is a relatively poor calendar.

    And when did the time of day and the day of the year cease to be social conventions and become natural categories?

    I’m not sure what you’re arguing against, but it doesn’t seem to be anything I said (strawman). Hours, minutes, and days are defined units of time, but time of day and time of year definitely have natural significance — as anyone experiencing winter up north will tell you right now.

  5. stuwat says:

    Your counter arguments are all nicely put and if I ever come across anyone gullible enough to buy into the 2012 scare mongering, I will be sure to direct them to your blog post. Unfortunately your use of critical thinking to dissolve these baseless arguments will never be enough to convince the die-hard believers and those that are making good money out of propagating them. Even after we’ve rung in the new year of 2013, these people will find some way to stand by their beliefs. They will perhaps state that 2012 is the start of the end; or they’ll claim that our calculations were wrong and set another doomsday date; or they may even suggest that the Mayans had prophesised something a little less cataclysmic… the credit crunch perhaps?. For the authors of the books on this subject, their next move will simply be to find another area of pseudo-science or needless scare mongering and make even more money from their gullible prey.

  6. babs aka the fiancee says:

    Nibru must be some frustrated English teacher or just an asshole. Your choice…

  7. Gina Difford says:

    The ‘2012’ books – and many others – are irrefutable proof …..

    that we are sliding back into superstition and are so easily fooled by charlatans.

  8. axarey says:

    It’s not just New Age people, it’s also Nostradamus following Christians (yes, they do exist in America)
    It’s just Y2K all over again.

    Christians were sure that Jesus would reapear once the Muslims were driven out of Jerusalem during the crusades, and again they were sure the antichrist was coming in 1666 AD.

    Every decade or so we are sure the end is just around the corner. It’s been that way for thousands of years. Ever since the religions became too large and too fundamental to ignore each other. Causing an inevitable and unwavering hostility towards eachother; keeping us on the brink of yet another Great/Holy War.

    Also as an Animal Science Graduate I can tell you there is no such thing as an “overdue extinction”. Massive extinctions happen due to cataclysmic events that change the environment of the Earth rapidly. causing only a few to survive (and spread quickly with their new advantages) and become the new ancestors of a new age of evolution.

    Technically you could say we are already in our massive extinction right now. 100’s of species are disappearing everyday (from insects to large mammals). And if scientists come to title it as such this would be the second mass extinction caused by overpopulation and overconsumption of one species. I forget the name of the organism but it was during the time the first large vertebrates appeared. It looked like a HUGE Trilobite/Cockroach.

  9. David says:

    you know whats gonna make me laugh is yes there will be some world event like a hurricane in America or a Tsuarmi in Indonnesia or an earth quake in some distant land and yes 1000’s will die and theres gonna be that fair few saying “I TOLD YOU SO”

  10. David says:

    and guess what i predict its gonna be happing in 2012 just like every year its life =]

  11. Tony says:

    But what about the Norwegian politician and the underground bunkers??

    http://www.projectcamelot.org/norway.html

    :o)

  12. Tony says:

    Siv Jensen never got elected Prime Minister on September 14th this year for a start..?

  13. Ryan says:

    The Mayan calendar ended in 2012 because their pen ran out of ink.

  14. Mark says:

    You need to do a lot more reading my friend. This whole new age movement is indeed misleading people and making them paranoid, but you also have to realize that the events that will destroy “all” of humanity will not be natural disasters. I cant believe people actually believe the world will end, because of a natural disaster ect. I think that movie was just a tool to scare average people and some “free thinkers” into buying all of this, to fund a much greater threat. I recommend everyone reading this to look up the New World Bible, the Story of Truth. I dont believe it is the truth, but the patterns are really interesting, and they match the timeline of humanity accurately. The Mayans didn’t predict, the end of this world, they never even said it would end, but they knew something big would happen around this time. There are so many sources you can read on this topic, but the average person likes to believe what they see in the media (2012 movie ect.) Where does it say in the Bible that all of humanity will disappear due to natural events out of our control? Everyone has to understand that the bible and other “prophecies” were written by people, and the same people can fulfill these prophecies at will. Enough with the whole end of the world bs, and do some research. The prophecies will happen but not necessarily in 2012. The reason why scientists have found no real evidence of natural disasters is because, that’s not whats supposed to happen! And i guarantee you that with everyone’s attention towards that year, nothing will probably happen immediately. Have you read anything about the history of most of these religions secret societies etc.? What will happen in 2012? Who knows?! We’ll just wait and see.

  15. Thomas Upton says:

    I am so glad to see im not even close to the only one who doesnt believe in this nonsense about the end of the world. Your theories seem very well put and well thought out and I commend you for it. I have always said that hey I mean we have already had several end of the world predictions already starting with my knowledge of 1994, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2011, and lastly 2012. Of course I have no doubt in my mind that they will come up with yet another one after 2012 passes so I dont even worry about it. Lastly people all over the world have been spreading the end of the world crap for hundreds of years apparently, I mean you see them in past depictions in movies and books all the time raving about the end of the world and guess what it never happens. Thank you for this meaningful blog in a sea of absolute internet gossip nonsense.

  16. Religion s the root cause of all problems, every human needs a support in the form of a belief known as religion, when the belief is challenged by someone else people turn to safeguard their beliefs and this is what causes the hostility among people of different religions,. if there was no religion in the world, there would be no mental support, no human would have an energized belief about a particular entity and no one would fight with each other for safeguarding this virtual entity, NO WAR, NO TERRORISM, consider bringing your children without using the word religion in the English Dictionary

  17. Pingback: The movie 2012… stoopid before it even comes out | Skulls in the Stars

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