In January, I was interviewed live on WHYY radio in Philadelphia about 2012 doomsday conspiracy theories. NASA astrobiologist (and my old pal) David Morrison was there as well, and we talked about some of the (wrong) ideas behind 2012 end-of-the-world prophecies, their impact, and why people believe them.
It was an interesting discussion. We took some calls from folks, including two from people who seemed to be trying to blame 2012 stuff on religious beliefs, which I think is misguided. Believing in something without evidence or despite evidence against it is human nature, and something we all need to be aware of. Religion falls under that category, as does any other belief system. Conspiracy theories and doomsday prophecies are all part of that larger umbrella. Now, you could make a point that our unquestioning tolerance of religious belief in the US supports the growth of things like 2012 belief. That would make for an interesting discussion, I think, but not one that’s easy to get into on a radio program where you need to keep things brief!
A woman called in and relayed the very sad story of her brother who joined a cult, and wound up killing himself over their doomsday beliefs. This was terrible to hear, and I wrestled with how to discuss it. The Heavens Gate cult came to mind right away, as did that of Jim Jones. I tweeted about it, saying:
"A woman called into WHYY and said her brother committed suicide over doomsday theories. Damn this stuff so much."
[NOTE: I got emails and tweets from people after I tweeted that saying that there's no evidence this woman was telling the truth, and that she may have made this story up. That may very well be true; we have no evidence either way besides her claims. However, David hears similar stories all the time, and I myself have first-hand knowledge of lots of people who are really scared by 2012 claims. So even if the woman's story is not true, the sentiment is relevant.]
It’s hard to convey depth and subtlety in a tweet, and I wrote that during a very short station break, so I didn’t have time to elaborate. I’m not blaming his suicide on doomsday beliefs per se (and note it wasn’t necessarily the 2012 stuff); clearly anyone who contemplates killing themself has deeper issues than that and needs to find help — by coincidence, the wonderful, wonderful Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, wrote a moving blog post related to this topic the same day.
But certainly circumstances play their role. David has said that he gets a lot of emails from people with similar suicidal thoughts due to 2012. Let’s be clear: these people need to find help; neither David nor I am qualified to help them. And perhaps if this 2012 garbage didn’t exist something else would come along to take its place in their minds. But it is here, and it is influencing these people (a couple in Utah was arrested for a homicide and crime spree, and apparently 2012 doomsday thinking played a role there).
And think of this: unlike other issues, this one has a deadline. Having an actual date on this (imaginary) event makes it seem more solid, more real. I hate to write this, but I expect we’ll be hearing more about people going through with suicide over the next few months because of these doomsday claims. How many of them might have had a chance to seek help, to live longer, if the idea of a 2012 doomsday weren’t so prevalent?
And it’s not just this terrible circumstance of people contemplating or even committing suicide; I’ve started giving public talks about 2012, and hear from a lot of folks in the Q&A after about how they’re really scared about this. Most of them are kids. The other day I chatted with some kids about it, and the visible look of relief on their faces as I assuaged their 2012 doomsday fears was amazing.
I can’t say why specific people are out there plugging 2012 by writing books and making websites; perhaps they honestly believe something will happen, or maybe they are loathesome scummy immoral mind-parasites, not caring how they affect people as long as they get money or fame. But either way they are wrong. There is no evidence that any of the 2012 claims is true, and in fact plenty of evidence they’re all wrong.
I’ll be writing more about this, don’t you fret. I’ve been putting it off a long time for various reasons, but it’s long past time for me to hunker down and give this crap both barrels of reality.
Hat tip to Ian O’Neill for the Utah story.
My friend and fellow skeptic Tim Farley reminded me that today is the tenth anniversary of Fox airing the TV show "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"
If I had to describe that show in one word, it would be "grotesquely distorting reality, an execrable steaming pile of offal that doesn’t come within a glancing blow of the truth."
Was that more than one word? Well, it’s hard to find a single word that truly captures the feel of that program.
I remember that week pretty well, in fact. I had just started my job at Sonoma State University, having uprooted my family from suburban DC and moving 5000 km west just the month before. I was puttering around on my computer when the phone rang: it was my pal Dan Vergano, who writes for USA Today. He had some questions about Pluto, so we chatted for a while, and then he asked me that fateful question that would, quite seriously and in all honesty, change my life: "Hey, did you hear about this Fox TV show about the Moon landings being faked? It’s airing on Thursday."
Ironically, at that time I had just finished writing about people who thought Apollo was faked for my first book, Bad Astronomy, so I was pretty familiar with the arguments. I was able to procure an advance copy of the show and watched the whole thing. It was like watching a snuff film, except the victims were 1) reality, and b) the immense effort of nearly half a million people to get Apollo off the ground and to the Moon.
I sat down and wrote a point-by-point dissection of the show, waiting until after it aired to actually post it on my site. I was upset, but didn’t think the page would help much; the web was still a bit shiny and new back then.
Ha! By Monday, the page was out of control. To my shock, CNN and NASA had both linked to it, and I was getting flooded with emails. Most were supportive, but some were from, um, people whose grip on reality was somewhat tenuous. One person called me "Mr. Smarty Pants Astronomer" and proceeded to tell me how dust motes in an Apollo 13 photo were actually stars. Lots of other emails were on par with that one.
One in particular caught my eye. Read More