Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The true dangers of December 21, 2012

December 21, 2012.  The end of the world.  Mayan calendars.  Rogue planets.  Asteroids.  Pole shifts.  Magnetic madness.  Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness.    Earthquakes, volcanoes.  The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!  (Venkmann et al, 1984)

As a scientist, it is very tempting to dismiss these ideas out of hand and without a word (or with a few humorous statements before moving on to real science).  There is absolutely no scientific basis to any of the over-the-top scenarios being touted as certain to happen this Friday.  Granted, a few of the scenarios (like asteroid impacts or solar flares) have a needle or two of science deep in the hyperbolic haystack, but that science has been distorted and twisted to serve utterly non-scientific ends.  The sun will rise on December 22, and no creature on this planet besides a few humans will be surprised by that development.

No, the true dangers of this Friday lie with us humans.  NASA scientists have been getting emails and calls from genuinely worried children and teachers of those children.  Many of us adults are comfortable joking about doomsday theories because we've seen many doomsdays come and go, a trend that dates back to Assyrian and Sumerian civilizations

But children don't have that perspective. I remember when I was in kindergarten and I heard that Skylab was going to fall back to Earth.  Despite my parents' assurances that it would most likely hit Jaws, I still nervously watched the skies.  Why would the news talk about it if it wasn't a big danger?   And the 2012 date has been in movies, on the news, discussed by "documentaries" on supposedly serious cable channels, and splashed all over the Internet.  If I were that kindergartner today, I'd be freaked out. So if you know a child who expresses any concern about the end of the world, reassure them that the world is not ending, and that they and their friends will be safe.  Schoolchildren have enough real news to worry and frighten them without the need for fictitious dangers.

Doomsayers are also preying on other vulnerable people.  Millions of dollars of books, videos, survival kits and doom bunkers have been sold. (Which begs the question - if these charlatans truly know the world is ending, what's the point of collecting money for goods and services?  Money won't be useful in their post-apocalypse scenarios).   These snake-oil salesmen target many different groups of people: those who are already nervous about the economy, those who are deeply religious, those who are paranoid, those who are not well-educated.  And on December 22, these swindlers will be laughing all the way to the bank with no legal repercussions, while their victims will have spent their life savings or even gone into bankruptcy over worthless fears.

Many people with mental health issues also suffer from well-publicized end-of-the-world scenarios.  Many of these people are not capable enough of rational scientific thought to be assured that this 2012 hooey is just that. 

"Popular" doomsday scenarios like 2012 are much more insidious than simply the deranged ravings of a few kooks.  Some polls suggest 10% of Americans think the world will end this Friday.  I suspect that is high, but even if it is just one out of a thousand people who is truly worried, that still ads up to over 7 million people worldwide.  (And what number of them are stocking up on guns and ammunition with the sole aim of protecting themselves in a post-apocalyptic world?  I shudder at the thought).

There are real threats to humanity, and the phantom threats about this Friday are not among them.  Hoaxes like 2012 distract us from these very real concerns.  To name just a few: violence, disease, nuclear proliferation, global warming, hunger, poverty, hatred -- all of these are very real threats.  We must better educate ourselves and our children to be able to discern clear and present dangers from monsters that hide in our closets at night.  Alas, my personal doomsday scenario is that we will fail in that crucial mission.

Here are some trustworthy and sound sources on the 2012 Doomsday Hoax:
  • NASA - Beyond 2012 - NASA scientists lay out some of the commonly cited agents of doom and the science disproving each.
  • 2012hoax.org - Scientists and rational citizens have created a massive repository of the hoax, its roots, its proponents, its lies, and the scientific truth.
  • Resources for Responding to Doomsday 2012 - Scientist and educator Andrew Fraknoi has created a compendium of links with honest discussions and facts about 2012, especially useful for educators needing to address students' concerns

1 comment:

  1. It is rather scary that, despite a 100% failure rate in the apocalyptic predictions up until now, human beings are still able to be deluded into thinking that "this will be the one", and every failure to predict correctly just makes the believers all the more fervent in their convictions.