If the Mayans were right, it was probably about Internet comments

By Phil Plait | May 15, 2012 6:55 am

A little while back, I was at Utah State University to give a public talk about the threat from asteroid impacts and what we can do to stop them (PLUG ALERT: if you want me to come talk at your venue, my agent would love to hear from you).

While I was there I was interviewed by Utah Public Radio, and that interview is online.

I was also chatted up by the local TV station, KSL. I think it went OK, and they put it online as well:

[You may have to refresh this page to get the video to load.]

While I rather wish I had stated succinctly that even the basis of the "Mayan 2012 doomsday" nonsense is itself a gross misinterpretation of Mayan history, culture, and calendar, I think I was pretty clear. I have to walk a fine line sometimes: debunking crap doomsday scenarios like 2012 while also warning of real dangers like asteroid impacts… while neither over- or understating that danger. It’s a delicate balance.

A balance, I’ll note, which is apparently completely lost on some of the commenters on the KSL website who are saying I’m totally wrong and that the doomsday is coming in December [Note: I checked just before posting this, and most of the really over-the-top comments have been deleted, and I thank the forum moderators for that]. The sheer blind eye some have toward reality is stunning.

I know some people have deep beliefs they hold true, and are willing to deny what’s right in front of their face if they have to. I also know it’s the Internet out there, where people don’t read past the first line or watch a video past the first few seconds. Still, the denial and — to be blunt — dickery is breathtaking. One person actually said they hoped the Universe kills me so they don’t have to listen to my "drivel" [that was one of the comments deleted, BTW].

Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve had someone wish me dead, or that I’d shut up. Duh. But what I find fascinating is the irony. One complaint I hear about critical thinking is that it takes away hope, takes away beauty, and replaces them with despair and the ugly nature of reality. And yet here we see people shredding their critical thinking to hold fast to a doomsday scenario that is as ugly as it is hopeless.

If they actually applied a bit of skepticism, they’d see the 2012 doomsday garbage for what it is. But they cleave unto it as fervently as a drowning man to a life preserver.

I don’t think I have anything particularly profound to add to this; I’m just shining a light on it for you to see. Be aware of this, and always remember people’s ability to be paradoxical and completely embrace a nonsensical danger while denying the real one.


Related Posts:

- Re-cycled Mayan calendar nonsense
- My asteroid impact talk is now on TED!
- MSNBC interview: 2012, the year the Earth doesn’t end. Again.
- Betelgeuse and 2012
- Giant spaceships to attack December 2012?
- No, a pole shift won’t cause global superstorms

Comments (58)

  1. Mike

    To paraphrase a famous line, “The Dingbats will always be with us.”

  2. Who’s got two thumbs and is a big fan of Phil’s “drivel?” This guy! *thumbs pointing at me*

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    I’m just shining a light on it for you to see. Be aware of this, and always remember people’s ability to be paradoxical and completely embrace a nonsensical danger while denying the real one.

    Humans? Paradoxical? By Jove yes! :-)

    And thanks, BA, your light has shone superluminously indeed. I know I’m not the only person here whose views on a few things have changed because of this blog. :-)

    The title here reminds me of another wry saying :

    Nostradamus predicted one thing absolutely correctly and clearly – the future level of human gullibility! ;-)

  4. Slugsie

    Just checked over the comments that are left. I can’t believe that there is someone who is genuinely proposing that the Mayans could detect and track the orbit of an asteroid sufficiently accurately enough that they could predict where it would be thousands of years in the future! Even with our advanced telescopes and computer modelling we can’t even accurately track most asteroids past a couple of decades.

    Where is your ‘The Stupid, it burns’ graphic Phil, not seen that in a while.

  5. Chris

    Phil, I clicked on your agent’s link and the page is completely blank, so you might want to give him a call to fix that.

  6. Druhim

    Of course the Mayans could track asteroids better than we can. They were in contact with aliens with highly advanced technology. DUH. :P

  7. Zathras

    A quote from Larry Niven comes to mind:
    “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity”

  8. Marc

    I never really thought people take this seriously at all! I thought everyone knows it’s like a silly joke gone a bit too far.

  9. Maria

    @6 Yes! Of course. Now you’re getting it. The aliens communicated with the Mayans via crop circles. See? They are doing it now but we’ve sorta lost the human to alien babble fish translator and all we get are pretty pictures and a bunch of insurance claims. Now here’s the amazing part guys, the Mayans didn’t use wheels except for toys right? Right guys? So they MUST HAVE KNOWN the dangers of roads and expressways. That’s why they didn’t use the wheel for transport. IT’S ANOTHER WARNING! The Mayans were warning us about the intergalactic expressway that’s coming through in December! The plans have been on file in Alpha Century for 3000 years!!!11!one

    If you don’t believe me Google ‘the bees are disappearing! or ask the dolphins.

  10. F16 guy

    I stand prepared to accept the deeds to homes and titles to vehicles of all that believe the “end” is coming.

    Let’s see just how serious they are !

  11. Thorne

    I never really thought people take this seriously at all! I thought everyone knows it’s like a silly joke gone a bit too far.

    You would think so, wouldn’t you? Most people I know don’t really take it seriously, but they’re not all that sure about it, either. And then my brother-in-law informed us that he’ll be coming to stay with us in December, just in case the Mayans were right! He wants to be with family at the end of the world. (Don’t bother, people. I’ve already made the joke about his visit CAUSING the end of the world.)

    But I wonder how much of this kind of thinking is caused by a macabre wish that the world WILL end. Like believers in the Apocalypse, are these people unwilling, or unable, to contemplate the idea that the world will continue on without them? Would they rather have the entire world destroyed so that there would be no one left when they die? I’m beginning to believe this is true, and it scares the hell out of me! What will these people be capable of when doomsday actually dawns?

  12. Maria

    Joking aside, some of these people are trolls but some… get really quite angry and upset, even vitriolic over the smallest intrusions of logic into their bubbles. It’s almost like a cult.

    The sad thing? If all this energy, effort, time, money, and resources could be channeled to real science for identifying and mitigating space (solar storms/asteroids) and geological/weather based threats. That’s the only silver lining I can think of. An increased interest in space, our planet, and our stellar neighborhood due to exposure to this Mayan “death cult”.

    And when December comes and goes without so much as a whimper… Maybe that will signal some sort of sobering up and growing up of humanity? Maybe that’s what the Mayans were really getting at? One can hope (and keep driveling on! ;)

  13. Dennis

    Comments like those invoke Poe’s Law…
    They’re just so far off the wall that there’s no way to tell if they’re serious or not.
    It’s almost as hard to believe that people could be that foolish as it is to believe the doomsday bunk.

  14. Thorne

    I stand prepared to accept the deeds to homes and titles to vehicles of all that believe the “end” is coming.

    Folks, don’t just give your stuff away! I will PAY you, one cent on the dollar, for your property titles! Have the cash you need for that end of the world party! Buy that jet ski to take you out to the impact zone in the ocean! Get that all important cash you need to pay the priests so YOU can be one of the SAVED!

    And I will guarantee your satisfaction! If the End of the World doesn’t come, you can BUY BACK your property, for only ten percent of it’s value! Even God won’t give you that kind of a deal!

  15. DennyMo

    “But they cleave unto it as fervently as a drowning man to a life preserver.”

    Thank you for your brilliant use of one of my favorite dual-meaning words. Not just “dual-meaning”, but the two definitions are essentially diametric opposites. English is phun!

  16. Miles_B

    Just got back from that Kansas website – I’m amazed. Folks in Kansas must either be slack-jawed Troglodytes or Trolls. Whichever, they seem to play wicked college basketball.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Marc (8) said:

    I never really thought people take this seriously at all! I thought everyone knows it’s like a silly joke gone a bit too far.

    Beware of silly jokes – once they have been unleashed on the internet, sooner or later someone is bound to take them seriously.

    Another example is the “bumblebees can’t fly” meme. A bunch of aerospace students once “proved” that bumblebees could not fly, by applying the equations relating to fixed-wing aircraft to the bumblebee. Of course, it’s pretty obvious that a bumblebee isn’t a fixed-wing aircraft, which is what made it funny. Ish. Fast forward 10 or 20 years and you have people claiming that this prank proves that science doesn’t know anything. Or whatever.

  18. Keith K

    The ugliest and most hopeless reality must certainly be the lack of critical thinking.

  19. Daffy

    I can predict the future: when December comes and goes without incident, it will be impossible to find anyone who admits ever believing this Mayan nonsense in the first place.

    Maybe people will send me money for being psychic.

  20. April Brown

    Makes me sad that somebody actually wants you to die so they don’t have to deal with you challenging their beliefs. Not surprised, just sad.

  21. OtherRob

    Wait, the dolphins are eating the bees? I’m so confused.

  22. Jess Tauber

    The Old Mayan Overlords were too busy cutting up their privates and plucking out the hearts of enemies to worry too deeply about astronomy. One imagines that the ‘peaceful astronomer kings” actual astronomer priests thanked THEIR lucky stars every day that they didn’t have to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even someone who hates math might be motivated to be the next Ramanujan in similar circumstances, and tell the kings whatever they wanted to hear.

  23. Daniel Lustig

    “And when December comes and goes without so much as a whimper… Maybe that will signal some sort of sobering up and growing up of humanity?”

    It seems paradoxical, but unfortunately the failure of a doomsday prophecy often only causes its adherants to double down in their beliefs. Read Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails”; it uses the real world example of a 1950s UFO cult to demonstrate how believers often only have their belief STRENTHENED by the failure of prophecy.

  24. Ed

    “Everyone forgets that Cesar invented Leap year long after the Myans were gone.”

    Is “after” another of those words, like “cleave”, with two near-opposite meanings, then?

  25. @OtherRob,

    They’re becoming dolphins with bees in their mouths and when they click at you they shoot bees at you. Or was that dogs I was thinking of?

  26. But they cleave unto it as fervently as a drowning man to a life preserver.

    Even more strangely, they cling to an anchor.

  27. sorrykb

    @TechyDad (#23): I think we have the next SyFy “monster of the week” movie here. “Dolphin Swarm” — It’ll be great!

  28. Christopher Cooke

    I think a lot of people have fallen for the romantic notion of the “golden age”. I also think the vast majority of those people have never thought enough about what this golden age actually was to be able to define it. When did it happen? What qualities defined it? They just look at their lives, and at the world around them, and decide that, since things aren’t so great, they *must* have been better in the past.

    There’s also a large number of people who, for a variety of reasons, view the idea that we actually know anything as a notion full of hubris. They’re looking for something to humble and humiliate the current curators of knowledge. I think many of these people are disappointed with the limitations of the physical universe, and want not only to see the current paradigms fall, but for them to be replaced with their own pet ideas about how the world *really* works.

    It’s the old concept of special knowledge that we often see when discussing conspiracy theorists.

    On top of all that, I also have a sneaking suspicion that when many people envision the “end of the world”, they see it in terms of their own personal action movie. They’ll be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t suffer, and doesn’t die. They’ll have their mundane lives shaken up, and they will answer the call of destiny.

    Ed @22

    I suspect “gone” may be a word of similar quality, given that the Mayans are still with us.

  29. You could just point these sorts of folks to this list of previous doomsday dates that have come and gone without incident.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

    And helpfully, there’s still some in the future for them to shift to when December 22nd comes around and they realize they have to do some last minute Christmas Shopping after all.

  30. Ken

    F16 guy @10: There are undoubtedly some who are that serious. When Harold Camping announced doomsday last year a bunch of people sold their homes and possessions, and some of them gave him the money so he could spread the message. There were also a few people early this year who sold their homes so they could move to Iowa and work on the Palin campaign.

    I’ve even read interviews with some from both groups who are in denial and still waiting for the big event. The Millerites were not a one-time phenomena.

  31. Maria

    Dolphins with bees in their mouths, sharks with laser beams… maybe the world really is coming to an end.
    http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/05/04/sharks-with-laser-beams-attached-to-their-heads-dr-evils-dream-comes-true/

    Science!

    @23 I fear you’re right. It’s like doubling down on two of a kind. But maybe this one time people can surprise us all? *sigh* I guess there’s always Apophis Mania to look forward to. (side note: Do astronomers choose these names to mess with the doom cults? Seriously good marketing.)

  32. Phil did a great job here, and the writing on the news show was pretty balanced, but the sad part is the overwhelming use of freaky Hollywood disaster footage that played on top of reasonable verbiage; if it bleeds it leads. Given how visually dependent most TV-heads are, for some the entire story could be summed up as “We”re all gonna die!!” Which is true, of course, but the hysterical footage fed the religious ferocity of the determined ignorance that has become part of the American social landscape. Creepy comments on the KSL story.

  33. @10 and 14: I’m familiar with this as well. If they don’t take you up, then you have proved to them that they really don’t take themselves seriously.

    Reminds me of the following situation: Two relatives haven’t seen each other for, say, 30 years. Both are 90 now. One dies. At the funeral, the other one is extremely sad, crying for hours etc. If such people really believe in life after death, why the crying? They will see each other again in much less than 30 years. I think crying at religious funerals sometimes indicates that people don’t really believe in life after death, or at least aren’t sure.

  34. Christopher Jablonski

    Even nonreligious doomsday predictions play to the sense that the universe is ordered and predetermined, not random. The true believers would rather the world end in a great cataclysm in their lifetimes than to be just a meaningless series of events.

  35. Zeke

    Phil, having trouble with the link for your agent. Page loads to a blank screen, even trying to go to the samaralectures main site loads a blank page.

  36. RJ

    You might be onto something with the drowning man analogy. They can probably be rescued but you may need to knock them out to stop them from struggling. :)

  37. Maybe believing the world will end in their lifetimes makes them feel like they matter. Otherwise they,like all of us, are just one more generation in an endless stream of humans and no more important than any of the anonymous billions that have already come and gone.

  38. SkyGazer

    “One person actually said they hoped the Universe kills me so they don’t have to listen to my “drivel” ”

    Is that the one leading the pack in that Southpark episode were they attacked the observatory because there was an asteroid coming?

  39. Jared

    Man, I guess everyone was way ahead of the game on me. I’ve been telling my students for the last couple years that their best bet to make a quick buck without too much work would be to find people who think the world is ending and bet them 20 bucks it doesn’t. (At which point I point out that the world isn’t ending in 2012, and that even if it did, you wouldn’t be out anything anyway.) That’s a pittance compared to deeds to houses…

  40. Miles_B @ 16 wrote:

    Folks in Kansas must either be slack-jawed Troglodytes or Trolls. Whichever, they seem to play wicked college basketball.

    Re the latter, they have a long way to go to catch some of the top tier bball schools.

    To all the sports haters: Yeah, I know; I have heard it! But, the fact is that popular sports programs subsidized some of the less popular, dare I say, Title IX supported programs.

    Proud alum of the 2012 NCAA round ball champs.

  41. CB

    Quoth Phil:

    But what I find fascinating is the irony. One complaint I hear about critical thinking is that it takes away hope, takes away beauty, and replaces them with despair and the ugly nature of reality. And yet here we see people shredding their critical thinking to hold fast to a doomsday scenario that is as ugly as it is hopeless.

    The ugly reality is that some people’s hopes and dreams aren’t for things as nice as peace on earth or being reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife, but they still cling to them with the same strength.

  42. DennyMo

    Phillip Helbig Says:
    … I think crying at religious funerals sometimes indicates that people don’t really believe in life after death, or at least aren’t sure.

    I’ve concluded that most people aren’t crying because they “miss” someone or because they’re “sad they’ll never see them again”, but because they regret the condition of their relationship with the person at the time of their death. Something went unappreciated or unresolved, and now it’s too late, and you’re left dealing with guilt or the nagging sense of wasted opportunities. It’s one thing to “know” you’ll be able to fix it in the Great Beyond, it’s another thing to carry that emotional baggage with you in the interim.

  43. CB

    I think crying at religious funerals sometimes indicates that people don’t really believe in life after death, or at least aren’t sure.

    Of course. That’s exactly what it means when they fail to follow the internal logic of their belief systems and thus nullify their grief. *gigantic eye-roll* Emotions don’t work that way. Ever had any?

  44. AMercer

    When I hear people say that critical thinking ruins the beauty of the nature, I remember that XKCD has the answers to all.

    http://xkcd.com/877/

  45. Paul Ruggeri

    I’ve always thought that grief at funerals (or even private grief) is a very selfish and personal thing. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  46. Brian Too

    As I used to say, stupid isn’t a recognized illness. There is no treatment and no cure. The best we can do is to identify it and quarantine.

  47. bubba0077

    When will the B-Ark be ready?

  48. Mephane

    One complaint I hear about critical thinking is that it takes away hope, takes away beauty, and replaces them with despair and the ugly nature of reality. And yet here we see people shredding their critical thinking to hold fast to a doomsday scenario that is as ugly as it is hopeless.

    It might be the case that you are mixing up two different sets of people, i.e. those who claim that critical thinking removes hope and beauty, and those who remove their critical thinking in order to cling to whatever end-of-the-world scenario is currently in fashion. Surely the sets are overlapping, but most likely not identical.

    (I see the same situation all over the internet. Some guys say “do X”, then when X is done, others say “why did you do X, that was stupid”, and someone enters the discussion, accusing everyone else of not being able to make up their minds, while in reality everyone had their opinion, it were just two different bunches of people raising their voices.)

  49. Dr Cy Coe

    One more thought on ‘I know some people have deep beliefs they hold true, and are willing to deny what’s right in front of their face if they have to’:

    I think this might stem from a general human quality of taking exception to being pointed out that they back up a notion that is false. In other words, people don’t like to be called stupid.

  50. erok81

    Phil – I am from salt lake. Please don’t read ksl comments. I often go there for laughs but usually end up leaving pissed. Don’t judge us all by those comments. For some reason all of the idiots of Utah collect there and comment to each other. Sometimes after reading those comments, I wish the world was ending in December. ;)

  51. Keith Bowden

    My birthday is 21 December. I keep telling people that either my party will not be earth-shattering or simply that I promise not to destroy the world. This year. ;) C’mon, it’s only my 49th. NEXT year, however, all bets are off!

  52. Wzrd1

    I’m forced to side with Phil on this issue. The 2012 thing is the most purest, distilled nonsense imaginable.
    It’s outlandish, improbable, indeed, totally impossible. After all, HOW can the world end in December 2012 when it had already ended on April 12, 1945!

  53. Number 6

    Wow, those Mayans! OK, they blew it on the calendar, but hey, you gotta hand it to them in one major area…..They figured out a way to create a marketable brand centuries into the future…..Talk about Genius!!….Maybe the marketing gurus at various corporations could learn a thing or two from this lost civilization.

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Wzrd1 (52) said:

    I’m forced to side with Phil on this issue. The 2012 thing is the most purest, distilled nonsense imaginable.

    I don’t know. I think Young-Earth Creationism gives this a run for its money on the distilled nonsense front. Also the Moon Hoax. And homeopathy.

    It’s outlandish, improbable, indeed, totally impossible. After all, HOW can the world end in December 2012 when it had already ended on April 12, 1945!

    April the 12th ’45? I thought it was August the 6th 1945.
    ;-)

  55. Wzrd1

    Nope, Nigel. April 12, 1945. FDR died and the world ended. ;)
    Well, since people love picking arbitrary dates, why not when a real person died?

  56. Joshua

    Actually people, <sheepish look> I ate the bees.

    I had the munchies.

  57. Nigel Depledge

    Wzrd1 (55) said:

    Nope, Nigel. April 12, 1945. FDR died and the world ended.

    Who?

  58. Matt B.

    Samara Lectures? I’d hate to have an appointment there.

    (Okay, so the story is “The Appointment in Samarra” with two r’s. I still like the joke.)

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