Did you see the documentary aired a few weeks ago [on MSNBC]? It was a rerun about those who have studied what everyone believes about what they say will really happen on Dec 20th 2012 Mayan calendar. Even the remaining Mayans are almost sorry people know about it. Me I am more inclined to believe what Richard C. Hoagland said will happen to our Earth. What do you think or have found out anything new on this?
I’m afraid I missed this particular program on MSNBC, but I have seen several shows on the same subject, particularly on The History Channel. Unfortunately, these programs tend to lend more credence to these theories than they really deserve, alternating between interviews with scientists and fringe thinkers as though the evidence is equally compelling on both sides (for a succinct refutation of the various 2012 claims, check out NASA’s page devoted to it here).
I am not very familiar with Richard Hoagland’s views on the Mayan Calendar / 2012 Doomsday Prophecy, but a little research on his background will tell you this gentleman’s claims are suspect. Mr. Hoagland is a proponent of multiple space-based conspiracy theories. For instance, he believes that the United States government is covering up evidence of ancient alien civilizations on the Moon and on Mars. In his view, not only has the photographic evidence been suppressed, but the 12 Apollo astronauts who set foot on the Moon were actually hypnotized upon their return to Earth, so that they have no memory of seeing the semi-transparent structures he claims are all over the surface. Mr. Hoagland also believes that a sect of Nazis escaped into space following World War II, and has been operating there ever since, with superior technology to our own. According to Mr. Hoagland, fears of these space Nazis convinced President Obama to abandon the Constellation program. Mr. Hoagland also believes that Mars’ small moon Phobos is actually an enormous, decaying alien spaceship, and he is a major supporter of the Face on Mars theory.
Let’s be honest. Conspiracy theories are a lot of fun to think about. We have a natural affinity for the idea that the world we see is really just an illusion, that there may be some clandestine underpinning, perhaps with malevolent purposes, and that we are one of the few people able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors. This theme is prominent in many fantastic dystopian films, like The Matrix or Dark City, or one of my favorites, Soylent Green. For years people have speculated about a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and a popular film like JFK can easily whip up a fresh batch of skepticism over the official account. And of course, we know that many governments around the world really do engage in some covert activity, so it’s only natural to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The problem is, while most of us dismiss these more outlandish conspiracy theories as little more than entertaining ways of looking at the world, to the conspiracy theorist, or the person falling victim to pseudoscience, these are real world problems that must be solved. In extreme cases some of these people could even develop a Cassandra complex, believing that they alone see the truth and that the rest of us are drones, skipping along happily, ignorant of the dark reality of our lives. And in this respect, sensationalist programming can do a disservice to the general population. They can fill susceptible minds with unfounded fears, and undermine legitimate science. After all, if these scientists are so blind to the coming apocalypse just two years from now, what else do they not know? Can we trust vaccines? Does global warming really exist?
It may be that some conspiracy theories really are true. As a matter of course, these scenarios if real would leave behind little evidence, as the proof would have been necessarily destroyed. But when we come across a career conspiracy theorist like Mr. Hoagland, we should be even more skeptical, because if his livelihood depends on propagating new theories about government secrets and alien civilizations, he would be well advised to come up with new ones all the time.
As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The reality is, scientists would be thrilled to discover evidence of life on the Moon or on Mars, and it would be enormously difficult to keep such an astonishing discovery secret. If Phobos really were a dilapidated alien spacecraft, you can be assured that NASA would want to go investigate it (and even if the exact nature of the project were kept secret, the powers that be would probably be pursuing an overt mission to Mars much more aggressively). Would we like there to be an unknown reptile of large dimensions, a relic of the cretaceous period perhaps, swimming around in Loch Ness? Of course we would! And we’re open to convincing evidence. But a few hazy photographs that are easily faked will not suffice.
Mr. Hoagland’s claims may be imaginative, but they don’t hold up to scrutiny. Indeed, much of the evidence for his claims relies on his other unverifiable theories. He puts together an interesting concoction of old and new ideas, blending space Nazis with UFOs and even 9/11 conspiracy theories. But the photographs he uses to support his theories are usually inconclusive or doctored, and the connections he draws between otherwise ordinary events are tenuous and far-fetched.
More to the point, nothing we know of in the solar system or galaxy gives any indication that the 2012 Doomsday prophecy holds water. The theories are, once again, a wild mix of various ideas, based on cryptic or misconstrued passages from old texts, astrology, numerology, and faulty science. Of course some apocalyptic scenarios are plausible, if very unlikely: an as-yet undiscovered asteroid could slam into the Earth, or a nuclear war could break out. But if nothing happens, as I suspect will be the case, these fringe thinkers won’t go out of business. Rather, they’ll simply recalculate, or explain away their error. They’ll say the world is really going to end in 2020, perhaps, or say that some flood in Siberia is the event Nostradamus was really predicting.... but that another passage is far more ominous. Doomsday predictions have been common throughout history, but of course none of them have ever come true.
Many fundamentalist Christians believe that we are living in the End Times, and that the apocalypse is eminent. For them, this may be a moment to celebrate, and the 2012 predictions may feed their excitement. As for me, I do fear an unanticipated asteroid collision, as well as the madness that might ensue from a nuclear detonation. But rather than subscribing to mysticism and fatalism, we can rely on science and diplomacy to help us avoid these possibilities. They're not perfect tools, but they're a lot better than the alternative.
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