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Science Alert: Experts Respond

Doomsday (again) – experts on Mayan calendar myth

Posted in Science Alert: Experts Respond on December 17th, 2012.

Only seven sleeps left until Christmas — or just four more sleeps until the End of the World — depending on who you listen to.
The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, depicted in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (ca. 1497–98)

The date December 21st, 2012,  is at the centre of a number of vague theories which predict an impending apocalypse and have attracted growing media attention.

The US space agency NASA has provided a number of resources offering more information about the 2012 phenomenon and debunking many of the assertions made by doomsday theorists.

As the dreaded date approaches, the Science Media Centre in New Zealand has contacted experts seeking insights into the basis of such theories and why they persist in the face of contrary evidence.

Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to speak to an expert please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

Associate Professor Marc Wilson, Department of Psychology, Victoria University Wellington, comments (abridged):

“One issue for consideration when one goes looking for evidence comes from ‘confirmation bias’ – our tendency to pay attention to the things that confirm what we already believe. Many ghost-sightings for example are mundane phenomena that people interpret as ghosts because, well, they believe that ghosts exist!

“Regardless of whether or not you’re religious, most people like to feel in control or at least able to understand what’s going on around them. If we see bad stuff happening, for example, we want to know why it’s happening so we can prevent it. Lots of things we just can’t prevent though, and that’s a very uncomfortable feeling that we might deal with by looking for reasons.

“Now, what will happen when people awaiting doomsday inevitably wake up on the 22nd and everything’s still there? This is a fundamentally uncomfortable position to be in because we all have a drive to believe that we’re rational and sensible rather than gullible and credulous! The phenomenon is technically called cognitive dissonance.

“Well, people will deal with this through rationalisation. Some will rationalise it by claiming they didn’t believe it in the first place (sour grapes type behaviour) and they will really convince themselves that this was the case. Some will rationalise it by revisiting the evidence and finding the flaw that leads to them to what the REAL date will be (and it starts over again).”

Read Prof Wilson’s full comments…

Dr Matthew Dentith, Faculty Member, Department of Philosophy, University of Auckland, wrote his PhD thesis on the understanding and evaluation of conspiracy theories and comments (abridged):

“Doomsday theories like the claim that Mayan Long Count Calendar predicts the end of the world are common, popular and, thus far, all examples of failed predictions. As such, we have to ask not just “Why are they popular?” but also “Should we believe them?” If we want to assess the merit of a doomsday theory, we need to assess the argument that we should take the prediction seriously. We need to ask whether the evidence is the kind of thing most people would find plausible and does the collected evidence give us good reason to treat the prediction seriously?

“All doomsday theories thus far have relied upon controversial interpretations of their supporting evidence. For example, the Mayan Long Count Calendar does not predict a catastrophe on the 21st of December but, rather, the end of a cycle. To infer that the end of a cycle entails an apocalypse is like claiming the world is going to end because the year is coming to a close. Even if the evidence wasn’t controversial, the actual argument doesn’t strongly suggest, let alone entail, that we should believe there is going to be a worldwide calamity this Friday. Given the poor track record of doomsday predictions in general and the various other rival, non-doomsday hypotheses, the 21st of December, 2012, is likely to be as interesting as the 21st of December, 2011 or, indeed, any random day of the year.”

Read Dr Dentith’s full comments…

Full comments on 2012 doomsday theories

Associate Professor Marc Wilson, Department of Psychology, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

There is little research on doomsday beliefs. What I do know comes from a broader framework that considers why people might endorse other kinds of ‘unusual’ beliefs like paranormal phenomena and conspiracy beliefs. I think it is really important to point out that following doomsday predictions doesn’t mean that someone is necessarily psychologically unwell. It’s inappropriate to characterise people as nuts because they are concerned about the Mayan hypothesis!

First, there are reasons that might come from one’s membership of groups for whom things like doomsday might be a part. For instance, some (if not most) Christian traditions have a belief in the end of days as the precursor to a brighter time. More than that, the end of days is anticipated to occur after numerous portentous events – floods, wars, famine etc, and you only have to turn the tv on to see news of real bad stuff! In fact, thanks to media and internet we can easily access lots more bad stuff than ever before and it’s not clear if there is more of it or we’re just able to find it more easily! There is also reason to think that people who watch a lot of TV also tend to think the world is a more dangerous place – again because news programmes tend to focus on bad stuff anyway, and you’re therefore exposed to more of it.

Regardless, lots of Christian doomsayers point to things like earthquakes, tsunamis, September 11, as indicators that we are living in the end of days. I suppose that one problem is that if you go looking for signs of the end, you’re going to find them just be virtue of the fact that you’re looking!

One issue for consideration when one goes looking for evidence comes from ‘confirmation bias’ – our tendency to pay attention to the things that confirm what we already believe. Many ghost-sightings for example are mundane phenomena that people interpret as ghosts because, well, they believe that ghosts exist!

Regardless of whether or not you’re religious, most people like to feel in control or at least able to understand what’s going on around them. If we see bad stuff happening, for example, we want to know why it’s happening so we can prevent it. Lots of things we just can’t prevent though, and that’s a very uncomfortable feeling that we might deal with by looking for reasons.

It’s a quick step from there to making connections or seeing patterns in the ‘evidence’ that might support what many of us think are odd beliefs. The whole Mayan Calendar thing is very like this – it’s got numbers and patterns, and it appears to produce a date that people can hang on to. I will eat my hat if the world comes to an end (or rather I will NOT eat my hat when it DOESN’T come to an end).

This year is not special. Remember Y2K? Didn’t happen. There have been at least 100 internationally recognisable doomsdays predicted since 2000! Many of these are based on very convoluted evidence-chains that really require either suspension of disbelief, or seriously buying in, if they’re to be believed!

In sum, different people will have different reasons for following doomsday prophecies. For some it will be a reflection of the groups to which they belong, and the information sources they trust (or distrust) but it will also be a factor of the particular individual differences that predispose some people more than others to believing in things that other people dismiss out of hand, Those predispositions will include the tendency to see the world as threatening (not only will you go looking for reasons for the threat but you want to feel comfortable that it will get better – nirvana, Rapture, whatever) as well as some more pathological traits. For instance, schizotypy is a trait-level psychological syndrome that includes the tendency to engage in magical thinking – making causal links between things that other people wouldn’t. In the case of conspiracy theories I have found that people who are more paranoid than their peers AND who show this tendency to magical thinking are those people most likely to see conspiracies in the world. This is because they are paranoid and worry that there are people out there trying to do wrong AND they go looking for evidence. For instance, I look out of the window every ten minutes and I notice a black van that I saw a couple of weeks ago – they MUST be following me!…

Now, what will happen when people awaiting doomsday inevitably wake up on the 22nd and everything’s still there? This is a fundamentally uncomfortable position to be in because we all have a drive to believe that we’re rational and sensible rather than gullible and credulous! The phenomenon is technically called cognitive dissonance.

Well, people will deal with this through rationalisation. Some will rationalise it by claiming they didn’t believe it in the first place (sour grapes type behaviour) and they will really convince themselves that this was the case. Some will rationalise it by revisiting the evidence and finding the flaw that leads to them to what the REAL date will be (and it starts over again). The book When Prophecy Fails also suggests that some people will also rationalise the non-event as having happened BECAUSE they believed in doomsday – if we hadn’t our faith it would have happened – we prevented doomsday! Incidentally that book was focused on a prophecy that was also centered on December 21st!

I have no doubt that if something vaguely doomsday-ish happens on the 21st that at least some people will claim that as evidence – Ken Ring predicted a massive quake in Christchurch last year that didn’t actually happen, but a smaller 4.0 did and that was then used as evidence that the prediction was right but the scale was wrong.

In the case of Harold Camping who predicted several ‘raptures’ in 2011, he finally turned around and apologised for his hubris in trying to predict God’s will, and essentially suggested it was a lesson designed to humble people like him – but the underlying belief system remained intact.

Dr Matthew Dentith, Faculty Member, Department of Philosophy, University of Auckland, wrote his PhD thesis on the understanding and evaluation of conspiracy theories and comments:

If the world ends on the 21st of December, it’s going to be a surprise despite the numerous predictions about that date because the various arguments being put forward in support of an impending apocalypse are, typically, suspect. They either rely on evidence which does not strongly suggest the end of the world will occur on the 21st of this month, the predictions are so vague that almost any calamitous event will satisfy such a claim or there are alternative and more plausible explanations for whatever might happen that day.

Firstly, the evidence for the various doomsday scenarios being put forward for the 21st at, the very best, weakly suggest that some event is going to occur. They point towards either vague predictions, the purveyors of which tend to have poor track records and when they are specific, they tend to be based upon either a misunderstanding of some scientific principle or are based entirely in pseudoscience. For example, the apocalyptic claim that the magnetic poles will shift and this will lead to mass extinctions mistakes a change in the environment in one sense for a catastrophic change in the environment in another sense. Another similar claim, that, there will be a planetary alignment which will magnify the gravitational force of the super massive black holes which make up the centre of the galaxy  is pure pseudoscience; such planetary alighments are both not rare and have occurred in the recent past but they also do not cause widespread calamity and do not, in any way, magnifiy the effect of the black holes in the galactic centre.

Secondly, most of the predictions that make up these doomsday scenarios are phrased in vague terms which are easily satisfied by nearly any weird or freak event. If there is a series of earthquakes along the Ring of Fire on the 21st, then some will claim this vindicates their theories about an oncoming global catastrophe. However, that overlooks that such a sequence of earthquakes is relatively likely on any given day. Unless we know something about usual frequency of certain types of events (eruptions, earthquakes, solar flares and the like), even if there is a sequence of natural disasters on the 21st we would still have to ask “Is this in anyway an odd occurrence or just part of a natural sequence?”

Thirdly, and finally, we need to be aware that there are a host of competing theories in play for the apocalypse. If we were to believe them all, for example, we would need to believe that on the 21st Planet X/Nibiru will crash into the Earth’s surface whilst a planetary alignment will focus the gravitational waves of Sagittarius A* on the Earth, causing massive earthquakes, floods and volcanic activity whilst aliens both invade us and come to save us from the threat of nuclear annihilation. As such, most of the doomsday scenarios are mutually exclusive so we have to ask both “Which, if any, do we take seriously?” and “What other rival hypotheses should we consider?” the chief of which is “Maybe the 21st will we be a day like any other?” Given the poor track record of previous doomsday predictions, it seems quite reasonable for us to be sceptical of the claims about the 21st of December, 2012 and just go about our lives as usual.

So, even if the world does end on Friday or there is some world shattering event which changes everything, it was still perfectly rational for us to sceptical about the various doomsday hypotheses on offer because, in the end, they aren’t very persuasive.

Doomsday theories like the claim that Mayan Long Count Calendar predicts the end of the world are common, popular and, thus far, all examples of failed predictions. As such, we have to ask not just “Why are they popular?” but also “Should we believe them?” If we want to assess the merit of a doomsday theory, we need to assess the argument that we should take the prediction seriously. We need to ask whether the evidence is the kind of thing most people would find plausible and does the collected evidence give us good reason to treat the prediction seriously?

All doomsday theories thus far have relied upon controversial interpretations of their supporting evidence. For example, the Mayan Long Count Calendar does not predict a catastrophe on the 21st of December but, rather, the end of a cycle. To infer that the end of a cycle entails an apocalypse is like claiming the world is going to end because the year is coming to a close. Even if the evidence wasn’t controversial, the actual argument doesn’t strongly suggest, let alone entail, that we should believe there is going to be a worldwide calamity this Friday. Given the poor track record of doomsday predictions in general and the various other rival, non-doomsday hypotheses, the 21st of December, 2012, is likely to be as interesting as the 21st of December, 2011 or, indeed, any random day of the year.

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