End of the world, as they know it

12/21/12 speculation fires the faithful

skeptics scorn

  • Today's release of the end-of-the-world film "2012," above, has added to Internet chatter and late-night talk-radio speculation on a Dec. 21, 2012, doomsday. Some believe the ancient Maya pinpointed the day as an end time in their 5,125-year calendar.
Today's release of the end-of-the-world film "2012,"… (Courtesy of Columbia Tristar…)
November 13, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | matthew.brown@baltsun.com

As doomsday scenarios go, it's got everything you could ask for: ancient prophecies, a rogue planet, the reversal of Earth's magnetic poles - and a worldwide conspiracy to conceal the truth.

John Kehne can't say how it all adds up. But come Dec. 21, 2012, he's expecting something big.

"We're seeing now, and will continue to see, more and more disasters, both man-made and natural," says the Maryland native, whose "official" Web site on the subject features a clock counting down to the end of the world as we know it.

"On that day, we will reach a pretty major disaster," Kehne says. "What that is, I'm not really sure. Earthquakes are a definite possibility."

Nonsense, say skeptics, who dismiss the claims of a growing body of magazine articles, books, Web sites and a blockbuster Hollywood movie that opens today.

"We're pattern-seeking primates," says science historian Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society. "We look for patterns to connect A to B. And often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. The problem is we don't have a baloney-detection module in our brain to help us tell the true from the false patterns."

The Internet chatter and late-night radio talk is building with today's release of "2012," a film by serial doomsayer Roland Emmerich, who previously assaulted Earth with aliens in "Independence Day" and global warming in "The Day After Tomorrow."

The movie draws on the popular belief that the ancient Maya predicted the end of the world, possibly in a collision with the as-yet-undetected planet Nibiru, when their calendar ends on the winter solstice three years from now.

"Good luck everyone!" declares 2012warning.com, a Christian-themed Web site. "Remember to pray, for prayer is the ONLY way."

On the bright side: Some interpretations have the inhabitants of Nibiru making contact with Earth, perhaps to raise humanity to a new level of consciousness.

The shifting complex of ideas animating such beliefs does contain elements of truth. For example, the long-count calendar used by the Maya does conclude a 5,125-year Great Cycle on or around Dec. 21, 2012. But the Maya themselves did not equate the date with the end of the world, and in their writings predicted events they said would take place long after it.

"I've got a calendar on my wall that ends on Dec. 31," says Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "I'm not particularly worried that there isn't going to be another one after it."

The comparison is apt, according to University of New Hampshire anthropologist Eleanor Harrison-Buck.

"In a lot of ways, it wasn't very different than our New Year's," says Harrison-Buck, who has studied the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica. "It would have been seen as a very powerful time. But rather than simply the end of the world, the Maya would have viewed the end of this great cycle as a really important and powerful time of reordering and renewal."

Similarly, a rogue planet hurtling into the inner solar system could wreak havoc with Earth. But Griffith Observatory director E.C. Krupp wants to know: Where is it?

"Those who have spoken of this have said that by now we should all be seeing it," he says. "It should all be visible in our skies."

The emergence of 2012 as the subject most frequently raised by visitors to the Los Angeles observatory led Krupp to debunk the claims in the November issue of Sky and Telescope magazine. He and others place this latest doomsday scenario in a long line of such warnings, ranging from religious prophecies of the end times to modern fears of a technological catastrophe, such as the Y2K bug.

"There is a real human need for people to be concerned about these things," says Radford, of Skeptical Inquirer. "As long as people have been around, they have wondered, 'What is the end? What is the end of my life? What is the end of civilization?'

"This is nothing new. What is new is the marketing of that sort of prophecy."

But fascination with the end of the world has a dark side. NASA scientist David Morrison, host of the Web site Ask an Astrobiologist, told the Los Angeles Times last month that he had heard from two teenagers so concerned about 2012 that they were "thinking of ending their lives."

Radford cites the Heaven's Gate cult, 39 members of which committed suicide in 1997 in the apparent belief that it would enable them to board a spacecraft trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp and flee a doomed Earth.

"You had an actual astronomical event, the Comet Hale-Bopp, and it was tied to Christian theology and end times," he says. "For the people in that group, it was the end of the world."

More conventional Christian theology has its own sets of beliefs about the end of the world. In one interpretation, Jesus Christ will return before the beginning of a period of turmoil on Earth called the Tribulation. Believers will rise into the sky in a phenomenon known as the Rapture.

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