NASA has released a video intended to put the world’s mind at rest about Dec. 21, 2012 — the much hyped end-date of the Mayan “Long Count” calendar. Titled “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday,” the video does a sound debunking of the misinformation being bandied about by doomsayers trying to make a fast buck out of people’s fears.
But why did the space agency bother releasing a video intended for Dec. 22 (i.e. one day after “doomsday”) a week early?
The ever watchful Alan Boyle at NBC News’ Cosmic Log questioned NASA on this oddity and received a, well, very rational answer. Kinda.
“The teaser for the video explains everything: ‘NASA is so confident that the world is not coming to an end on Dec. 21, that they have already released a video for the day after,’” Tony Philips, writer and editor for the excellent NASA Science and Spaceweather.com websites, told Boyle.
Philips attributed the video as his idea, adding: “I felt it was a lighter and more creative way to approach the topic than some of the other treatments we’ve seen. Some people have been confused by it, but not all. The unorthodox approach is definitely a conversation-starter, which was our goal all along.” (emphasis added)
While this may seem to make sense, I was left banging my head on the desk. I keep hearing confused voices: “If NASA was that confident that the world wasn’t coming to an end on Dec. 21, why didn’t they release a Dec. 22 video on… Dec. 22? Does NASA know something we don’t?”
Until now, NASA has handled the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense excellently. The agency first went on the record denouncing various doomsday scenarios during the sinister marketing ploys employed by the production company of the movie doomsday-disaster movie “2012″ in 2009. Since then they have knocked down each flawed cosmological theory in turn.
David Morrison, NASA scientist based at NASA Ames, has been combating the doomsday misinformation for many years via questions submitted to his “Ask an Astrobiologist” website (an excellent summary of the questions fielded by Morrison can be found here). Morrison attributes the public’s fear of this doomsday to “cosmophobia” — a growing trend that’s based on people’s fear of the cosmic unknown.
Doomsday scenarios such as a marauding Planet X (or Nibiru), killer solar flare, weird galactic alignments and polar/geomagnetic shifts fall firmly in under “cosmophobia,” and doomsayers that stand to make money out of doomsday books and website advertising use this phenomenon to great effect.
Also, the idea that there is some kind of grand conspiracy (i.e., the government or some secret society has some privileged information about the end of the world) is another strong factor. To many, NASA debunking various doomsday scenarios from their ivory towers of science is “proof” that something weird is going on. To those people, no amount of debunking or logic will stop them believing in doom and gloom, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Since I began debunking the “Mayan doomsday” in 2008, I’ve not only acquired a fascination for archaeology and the ancient Mayan culture, I’ve also been confounded by the psychology behind society’s fascination with the end of the word. Every day, through Google Alerts, I receive tidbits of news from around the globe about tales of doom and gloom and how people are “prepping” for the “Mayan prophesy.”
Today, I’ve read about how a Chinese businessman has been building expensive spherical doomsday shelters; guides on how to discuss doomsday fears with your kids; news about an obscure region of France that is rumored to be “protected” from impending doom (there’s a Turkish refuge too); and warnings about disturbances in a Chicago school district, to name just a handful of strange goings on around the world.
But what about the Mayan descendents currently living in Central America? Well, they’re bewildered. They’re approaching Dec. 21 with positivity, because this is a time of celebration and renewal for the Maya culture — not a time of dread, fear and foreboding. It seems the Western “messianic thinking” is in full flow — a marketing fallacy indeed!
“For us, this Dec. 21 is the end of a great era and also the beginning of a new era. We renew our beliefs. We renew a host of things that surround us,” said José Manrique Esquivel, a descendent of the ancient Maya. Esquivel blames a few profiteering individuals for misrepresenting his culture, turning this highly spiritual event into a doomsday circus. Sounds familiar, right?
So, we have just one more week of the doomsday silliness, but there are many people who are genuinely concerned about this Friday. For those, the “what if?” factor is strong. But this “what if?” has been fabricated by a few profit-making schemers — not by the Mayans who never predicted doomsday. In fact, they didn’t even allude to it. It’s a scam, a con, a hoax. Nothing more, nothing less. Hell, the Dec. 21 “end date” isn’t even set in stone! There’s some ambiguity as to when the Long Count calendar even ends.
Sadly, the human mind has a tendency to attach some prophesy or superstition to coincidental dates. The logic goes like this: Dec. 21, 2012 is the darkest day of the year (for the Northern Hemisphere — it’s the winter solstice), it may as well be the Apocalypse too.
And so, back to NASA’s new video. Although I admire the effort, releasing a Dec. 22 video early does little to calm the individuals who hold a genuine concern for Dec. 21. ‘What if’ NASA is covering something up? ‘What if’ they released that video a week early because they know they wont get a chance to air it on Saturday? You don’t have to take my word for it, you just have to scroll through the 2000+ comments on the video’s YouTube page to see a few people are asking these questions. Sure, the majority of people “get it,” but those aren’t the people who we should be concerned about.
Thankfully, NASA and the science media has generally done a fantastic job in confronting the “stupid-science” of the smorgasbord of doomsday scenarios that won’t happen on Dec. 21. So NASA, please don’t go getting all creative with doomsday now, right when you’re on the finishing straight. The unorthodox approach may be a “conversation starter,” but there’s already plenty of conversations going on without the tricks.
As for the Maya culture, their ancient civilization and modern day descendents, I propose a toast (on Dec. 21) for an amazing calendar system. The Long Count not only represents an ingenious means of documenting time, it is a testament to the timeless fascination we have with a culture we are only just beginning to learn about. The Long Count is the last breath of the ancient Maya, so I suggest we celebrate — and not fear — this momentous day.
Image: Painting of the Sun Exploding by Anton Brzezinski. Credit: Forrest J. Ackerman Collection/CORBIS