The world will come to an end. In approximately 4 billion years time, when the sun has depleted its supply of hydrogen in its core, our nearest star will swell like a balloon when it starts to burn heavier elements, swallowing the planets of the inner solar system.
Earth will be toast.
However, this is the only guaranteed end-date scheduled in our planet’s future. Granted, there will undoubtedly be asteroid strikes, “killer” solar flares, geomagnetic reversals and possibly one or two interstellar gamma-ray bursts, but 4 billion years is Earth’s sell-by date.
But what’s all this talk about doomsday in 2012? That’s a bit soon isn’t it?
In May 2008, I started to write about the 2012 doomsday phenomenon in a Universe Today article called “No Doomsday in 2012.” This wasn’t an idealistic move — I wasn’t planning on starting a debunking crusade — it was simply because Fraser Cain (publisher of the Universe Today) happened to mention that the site had been receiving a lot of keyword searches including the terms “2012″ and “doomsday.”
What were these people looking for? Curious, I did some research and decided there was enough material for me to write an article on the subject of a proposed doomsday “thing” in 2012. Who knows, it might be popular? I thought to myself.
The response to this first 2012 article was astonishing and it quickly became the most popular article on the Web site in its 10 year history.
From this foundation I proceeded to tackle each of the most “popular” doomsday theories in turn, including Planet X, “killer” solar flares, Nibiru, geomagnetic reversal and a doomsday comet. Each article was flooded with traffic, but it wasn’t until I finished the most recent article (on Dec. 21, 2008 no less, three years to the day before the supposed Mayan Long Count calendar end date in 2012, spooky) that I realized what an impact they had.
Millions of people had read my 2012 series.
It was quite liberating to dredge through the awful conspiracy videos on YouTube and read through the crazy doomsayer Web sites and investigate their predictions of doom to find they were hopelessly flawed. Triumphantly, I’d explain from a scientific viewpoint as to why each theory was wrong and I’d back my findings up with the facts.
Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” was my bedrock skeptical foundation during this time as I was dealing with often convincing theorists who knew every trick in the book to sell their version of doom. Quickly, it became apparent that “selling” was the operative word; they usually had a book or a DVD or a Web site to profit from.
But where was this “extraordinary evidence”? I have yet to find any.
I’d receive dozens of messages per day from worried readers who would thank me for writing these articles, but there was a stubborn core of individuals who would send me abuse. Many of the abusive messages accused me of being a government agent (covering up the “truth”), others simply refused to believe science.
Other messages used religious misinterpretations “proving” I was being naïve and a fool not to believe some kind of rapture was upon us.
Those were fun times; I’d never received hate mail before.
Joyfully, I would fire back arguments as to why these people were wrong, but I soon realized my efforts were futile. Conspiracy theorists, doomsayers and other “believers” had little care for scientific evidence, they didn’t need some jumped-up science blogger to tell them they were wrong. They believed the end was nigh and that was enough.
But the harder I tried to expose this nonsense, the more angry messages I’d receive. Once again I realized that there was something else going on, and it wasn’t a lack of science. It was an overriding “belief” that there was some overarching force — something supernatural — that would get all the worlds scientists scratching their heads in confusion when the world exploded in 2012.
I was infuriated, was there no reasoning with these people?
It was around this time when I was contacted by the producer for the TV series Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!. This is when I was a part of another highly effective skeptical treatment of the nonsensical doomsday theories: mockery.
Mockery may not be particularly scientific, but when dealing with doomsayers with a tenuous grip on reality, poking fun at their idiotic claims is often the only thing left to do.
When the Penn & Teller episode “The Apocalypse” aired earlier this year, I was so happy that I could be a part of it. The excellent Penn Jillette is as subtle as a sledgehammer in his commentary, exposing the “believers” for what they really are. Some critics might say the conspiracy theorists didn’t get a fair hearing, but if you’ve seen the episode, you’ll see that they don’t need any help in convincing the audience that they are crazy.
And then came Roland Emmerich’s movie “2012″, firmly branding the year 2012 in the mainstream psyche.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t involved in the making of the movie, but I do appear in the Discovery Channel’s doomsday compendium “2012 Apocalypse,” in which a bunch of us scientists explain the science behind all that CGI doom in Emmerich’s disaster epic.
If you want to hear what we have to say on the subject, check Discovery’s documentary schedule. However, at the end of the program, ignore the narrator when he refers to us, saying, “…but they might be wrong!” Don’t worry, we’re not wrong, that little one-liner was included for comedy effect, I presume.
So what have I learned since I started to research 2012?
But probably the most frightening thing of all is that many people will blindly believe that the Apocalypse is just around the corner, and no amount of science will convince them otherwise. This often distracts from real-world problems, such as climate change. Perhaps this is one of the motivating factors for believing doomsday is “out of our hands”? I’ll leave that for a psychologist to explain.
As for everyone else, some skeptical thought has proven that, although pseudo-science will always be buzzing in the background, real science can make a difference, quelling unnecessary fears about the end of the world.
Sure, the world will end in 4 billion years time, but we don’t need to worry about that quite yet…