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Doomsday (Again) - Experts On Mayan Calendar Myth

Doomsday (Again) - Experts On Mayan Calendar Myth

17 Dec 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 date 21 December 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 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).

NB: These quotes are heavily abridged. Full commentaries can be found on the SMC website.

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, or the predictions are so vague that almost any calamitous event will satisfy such a claim.

"Doomsday theories like the claim that the 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?' We need to ask whether the evidence is the kind of thing most people would find plausible, and does the evidence give us good reason to treat the prediction seriously?

"All doomsday theories rely 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."

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

"This year is not special. Remember Y2K? Didn't happen. There have been at least 100 internationally recognisable doomsdays predicted since 2000!

"It is 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!

"If we see bad stuff happening, 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).

"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.

"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).

"Some people will also rationalise the non-event as having happened BECAUSE they believed in doomsday -- 'If we hadn't had our faith it would have happened - we prevented doomsday!'

"I have no doubt that if something vaguely doomsdayish 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."

More information

To follow up with to these or other experts, contact the Science Media Centre on (04) 499 5476, or smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz

Note to editors

The Science Media Centre (NZ) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, evidence-based reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC (NZ) is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Business, Employment and Innovation . The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz.


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