When Worlds Collide #40: End-of-the-World, Inc.

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 4 November 2012

Coming soon to a planet near you? Not a chance!

Last Monday, I discussed the end of the world on a live TV talk show. The latest date for ‘imminent doom’ is 21 December 2012.

I do have better things to do on a Poya day afternoon, but this modern myth has become pervasive that we might as well use it as an opening to get people to pause and think.

That’s why retired astrophysicist Dr Kavan Ratnatunga (ex-NASA and Space Telescope researcher) and I joined Hiru TV alongside an astrologer (a maker of horoscopes, not to be confused with astronomers who study the night sky) and a Buddhist monk.

Kavan and I were ready for a good debate, and to have some fun in myth busting. Over the years, we’ve tackled assorted superstitions, urban legends and tall tales on public TV and at public meetings. Sri Lanka has a never-ending supply of peddlers and believers.

But our co-discussants turned out to be more moderate than most of their ilk.

The monk confined himself to core Buddhist teachings, which says nothing is permanent – but also reminds followers that the cosmic timescales are vast and incomprehensible. The cautious astrologer said his craft was based on ancient Indian wisdom that he claimed has been ‘corrupted’ by many modern-day practitioners. No arguments there.

In the end, we agreed that nothing calamitous was going to happen on December 21. Don’t relax, though: the world has plenty of real hazards, some of which can become disasters over time. I mentioned climate change and nuclear weapons. Kavan listed super volcanoes and Indian nuclear power plants. There is plenty more.

But doomsdayers are driven by their own notion of an ancient prophecy. What exactly is inspiring them?

The Mayan Calendar

The Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes the ‘2012 phenomenon’ as comprising a range of eschatological (end of the world or end of time) beliefs according to which cataclysmic or transformative events will occur on 21 December 2012. It goes into some detail about the various theories, but also offers caution and scepticism. The debate must be intense for the Wikipedia administrators to indefinitely semi-protect (i.e. no longer allow public edits) the entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon

Why this specific date? It is widely attributed to the Mayans, an ancient civilization that flourished in Central America, especially between AD 300 and 900. They were known for advanced architecture, mathematics and astronomy.

In the Mayans’ “Long Count” calendar, 2012 marks the end of a 5,125 cycle. Anthropologists and other scholars specialising in Mayan history say there is no prediction of impending doom in any chronicles, murals or other records. The end-of-the-world scenario is a New Age misinterpretation of an ancient culture.

They say that just as our own calendar begins again on January 1 each year, another long-count period would begin in the Mayan calendar on December 22.

University of Florida anthropologist Susan Gillespie was quoted in USA Today in March 2007 as saying that the 2012 phenomenon comes “from media and from other people making use of the Maya past to fulfil agendas that are really their own.”

But some won’t let facts get in the way of a good doomsday theory. As Mark Twain put it so aptly, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

So, despite scholarly and scientific denouncing, end-of-the-world prophecies, scenarios and rescue/salvation offers (next world insurance?) have become a thriving cottage industry.

NASA Clarifies

In December 2011, the US space agency NASA created a web page that clarifies misconceptions and debunks wild speculations. It says: “Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec 21, 2012, won’t be the end of the world as we know. It will, however, be another winter solstice.”

The agency reassures readers: “Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”

The web page provides concise, non-technical answers to a number of speculations, some more anchored in reality than others. These include a rogue planet Nibiru or Planet X (not known to science); sudden polar shift on Earth (impossible); meteor impacts (possible, but Earth-threatening objects are under constant surveillance); and violent solar storms (they happen every 11 years, can be disruptive but not catastrophic). See: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html

For data buffs who like detailed debunking, the best online source I have found is www.2012hoax.org. It’s a collaborative website maintained by “amateur astronomers, professional astrophysicists, chemists, software engineers, and plain old folk”.

Of course, these rational voices must counter a growing cacophony of websites, books, DVDs and other media products peddling their own versions of doom. As 2012hoax.org cautions on its home page: “Rumours of an apocalypse in 2012 are being spread by people in order to make money. Don’t be scammed!”

We shouldn’t let a good doomsday go waste. I hope enterprising sociologists would use this opportunity to study why so many people – including well educated and technically trained ones – willingly suspend their disbelief in matters like this.

Which reminds me: it was a Hollywood movie that fuelled and sustained the current panic in the first place.

In 2009, Roland Emmerich, the German-born Hollywood film director, writer and producer, made a science fiction disaster film titled ‘2012’. As a clever story teller, he used references to the Mayan calendar to anchor a planetary scale geological disaster – involving volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis – that kills most of humanity and reduces modern civilization to rubble. Predictably, though, his protagonist and family survive with some others to rebuild the world…

Hollywood has been trying to scare the daylights out of credulous movie goers for decades. So what’s new?

It was 2012’s stealth marketing campaign that blurred the line between fact and fiction. Ahead of its November 2009 release, TV commercials and a website from a non-existent ‘Institute for Human Continuity’ (www.instituteforhumancontinuity.org) called on humanity to “prepare for the end of the world”. For the whole truth, go see the movie. Oh, they forgot to mention it was all made up…

Thousands of concerned people contacted astronomers and geologists seeking more information. Real scientists heavily criticized this pseudoscience marketing campaign. To their chagrin, some laymen chose to believe the imaginary doom than the reassuring reality.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers were laughing all the way to their bank: 2012 made USD 770 million worldwide. Overall, films by Emmerich — whose past titles include Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) — have grossed over USD 3 billion.

2012 Hoax – Don’t be scammed!

Doomsday industries are not limited to Hollywood or Bollywood. We have our share of dooms-preneurs! A cursory glance at Sunday Sinhala newspapers shows their scare-and-sell strategies. Some are laced with pseudoscience while others are, well, outright non-science.

Fed up with their endless claims to mislead a gullible public, Dr Kavan Ratnatunga issued an open challenge nearly a year ago.

Speaking on a live TV talk show on 15 November 2011, he said: “If anyone is so confident that the world is going to end on 21 December 2012, write a deed of sale of your property to me, to be effective from the day after doomsday. If you do, I’ll give 10% of the property’s value upfront!”

So far, Kavan has had no takers. But the hype continues, both in the media and other public spaces. When the world doesn’t end on December 21, might these con industries die off?

Not a chance. A sucker is born every minute – these scams will continue as long as there are credulous believers.

As I predicted on TV this week, expect the world’s end to be soon “postponed”!

Follow me to the ends of the Earth on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

Read my January 2012 blog post: 2012: Will End-of-the-World industries end this year?

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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4 Responses to When Worlds Collide #40: End-of-the-World, Inc.

  1. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #46: In Search of Arthur Clarkeisms… | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

  2. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #47: Avoiding the ‘Mother of All Tsunamis’ | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

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