On Dec. 31, the Gregorian calendar did something terrifying. It flipped from the year "2011" to "2012."
What did we experience as the year came to an end? Global earthquakes? A planetary collision? Weird gravitational effects caused by an alignment with the galactic plane? A comet impact? Global enlightenment?
As much as I'd love the latter to be true, the New Year celebrations most likely just involved a ton of alcohol and fireworks. It's the start of a brand-new year for our calendar. Nothing more, nothing less.
But it is the beginning of a much hyped year. Rather than being the year of the U.S. presidential election or the London Olympics, 2012 has been hijacked by a small group of strange people who seem hell-bent on insisting that, by the end of the year, some kind of apocalyptic scenario will play out.
According to them, on or around Dec. 21, 2012, the world will "come to an end." Well, to quote Penn & Teller, that's "Bullsh*t!"
In case you've been living under a rock since 2009, you may have noticed an upsurge in the "2012 doomsday" nonsense — 2009 was the year of a bad John Cusack disaster movie involving killer solar neutrinos and a crazed Woody Harrelson. It was also the year that doomsday went mainstream. In the run-up to the release of 2012, a Sony Pictures viral marketing campaign caused as much confusion as it did panic.
The upshot was that millions of people who wouldn't normally give a damn about doomsday "predictions" by ancient civilizations, suddenly did. 2012 ended up being a massive lucrative success for director Roland Emmerich — despite the fact that to sell tickets, the movie had to sell out science.
Science fiction movies are just that, fiction. So one can't be overly critical of any sci-fi story line, but I was savagely critical of the movie's marketing campaign.
Through the combination of a website (the fabricated "Institute of Human Continuity"), social media, viral marketing and a multimillion-dollar mass TV advertising campaign, the Maya civilization became popularized prophets of doom.
The Mayans lived in Central America (in the geographical locations of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras) between A.d. 250 and 900. It just so happens that archaeologists discovered that one of their (many) calendars — the "Long Count" — will end its 13th "Baktun" on Dec. 21, 2012. For more on this, read the Discovery News article "2012 Doomsday Is a 'Marketing Fallacy.'"
This is nothing more than a numerical coincidence, and apart from the end of their calendar likely being a spiritual event, there's no evidence to suggest the Mayans believed the end of their Long Count calendar would spell doomsday.
Unfortunately, the facts matter little to doomsayers who are trying to sell a book. In their strange little doom-filled universe, all they need is to spark fear in the minds of a very small percentage of the population and they can promote their ideas on the weird and wonderful ways in which the world is going to end in 2012.
The best thing is that history is ambiguous enough that they can link together the Mayan "predictions" with other ancient texts (most notably the Chinese I Ching and Sumerian cuneiform scriptures) and conclude that civilizations living hundreds, or thousands, of years ago had some divine knowledge of doom in 2012.
Ever since I started writing on this bizarre topic for Universe Today in May 2008, I have received countless emails from people genuinely worried about the end of the world — as have many other scientists. (Have a read of the article that started it all: "No Doomsday in 2012," Universe Today, May 19, 2008.) Often, they will quote some "doomsday expert" and passages from pseudo-scientific books. Evidently the "fear factor" is working. Whether or not the published doomsayers are making a ton of money from their books is open to debate,, but they populate the shelves at Barnes & Noble, regardless.
Here at Discovery News and other genuine science news websites, the whole "2012 business" is easy to debunk. There is zero scientific evidence to suggest any 2012 doomsday scenario will happen. No one has ever predicted the future, and that isn't about to change.
2012 will have its fair share of disasters, wars and turmoil, but none will have been predicted by a crazed doomsayer or prophesized by an ancient civilization.
In fact, to many of our readers, 2012 has become the subject of boredom and ridicule. I've received a number of messages asking why we insist on debunking theories of doom … and something about "beating a dead horse."
And yet, only today, I noticed a friend on Facebook posting a message saying: Enjoy every day of 2012 like it's your last, we only have 12 months left. Sadly, she wasn't joking.
To some who believe the idiotic theories of doom, the end of the world is inevitable. Others are using this end date to justify their beliefs in astrology and conspiracy. Some are using 2012 as a soapbox for their personal ideas of global carnage. Pop stars are even singing about it.
It's becoming less about the science of debunking and more about the science of psychology. For some reason, some people are hopelessly addicted to ideas of doom, and there's little we can do to change their minds.
Discovery News will continue its campaign of watching for 2012 doomsday theories that abuse science to manipulate people into thinking the end of the world is just around the corner. Although the majority of our readership is savvy enough to spot a con man, I am still receiving emails of concern from people who are worried about the garbage doomsayers are promoting.
In short, doomsayers, you've been put on notice. For every book you sell, you needlessly frighten people who would have otherwise lived their lives without the worry of thinking their families were at risk from some fantasy. It is up to scientists and the science media to react, debunking your false claims.
This year, we will be watching you closer than ever.
Image: The sun is blocked by a Mayan pyramid. (Credit: CORBIS).