Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Richard Hoagland, Pseudoscience and the 2012 Doomsday Prophecies

A reader writes:
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.

I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to write me at with any questions or comments.


  1. I agree with you, there is more to fear from the things we know about, like terrorism, nuclear accidents etc.

    Hypnotized when they arrived back from the Moon? Smart Nazis? Come on.

  2. I saw this really cool docummentary on the topic. It had John Cusack in it.

  3. I do find it interesting that so many people lend credence to the 2012 Doomsday prophecy based primarily on an ancient Mayan calendar. I have a degree in Biology and am currently in Nursing school so I understand the value of solid, scientific evidence when making such extreme claims. As for the belief that we are living in the End Times, well, I have my own views on that. I am a Christian--and yes, I know that many people believe there is some discrepancy between trusting in science and having faith in God--so I have heard all of the End Time claims my whole life. Honestly, these 2012 prophecies don't fuel my excitement and if the apocolypse is going to be as horrible as people predict, then I don't find it worth celebrating. I think it a mistake to constantly claim that we are nearing the end of the world. Terrible natural catastrophes, wars, mass genocide--these have occured at various times throughout history and when they did people were quick to declare the End Times. Really, nobody knows when or how the world as we know it will end. Nuclear warfare could break out tonight or the earth and it's inhabitants could linger on for a million more years. All we can do is continue to live as best we can. The belief that I will go to heaven when I die is comforting, but I am in no way eager for life to end. This world is far from perfect, but there is still much good in it, and I cannot agree with those who are so heaven minded that they do not appreciate the wonders of what we have here. Those Doomsday prophecies are mere speculation and stir up a lot of unnecessary fear and hype.

  4. Hi Tuesday,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think you caught what I was saying, but to be clear I was referring specifically to those Christians who do look forward to the apocalypse. Having been raised a Christian myself -- in a church that did not put much emphasis on the Rapture -- I know that not all Christians subscribe to that school of thought (I'm not sure what percentage do). But I do believe that such thinking is dangerous, particularly when it is found in high places (people with the power to launch nuclear weapons, for instance). I am nervous about any leader who has both the capacity and the motive to hasten the end of the world.

    In any case, I personally do not believe there is an inherent contradiction between believing in God and believing in science, and I am heartened to hear Christians say the same. Thanks for reading.

  5. He is just another whack job proclaiming the end is nigh. Why do people even waste their time worrying about people such as this?

  6. I agree 100% with your assessment of Richard Hoagland and others like him. Although my biggest fear is the self inflected disasters. Global warming is one very real problem and may be equally deadly to the planet. These self inflected threats are most dangerous because they are slow and with small changes they go unnoticed until it's too late. I saw the special on TV and could not believe what was presented. I was being generous when I told my wife Hoagland is a real nut case. You are correct thought about influencing the naive listener. We have a friend who is very scared about all this. She believes it because she is not well educated. I would like to know who pays for his travels? What does he do for a living? And for further entertainment where can one find the circuit diagrams for the Magnetic field resonance sensor he uses? I think it was an Accutron electric watch from the 70's somehow wired to his laptop computer to gather his scientific data.

  7. I don't agree with the way you dismiss Richard Hoagland, but I am not going to point by point dispute with you. This is not the proper forum. You are not too heavy-handed, but you subtly suggest that anyone who listens to Richard must be naive or stupid. Wouldn't you agree that an intelligent person should encourage people to first examine a theory and the evidence in detail before dismissing it. Does that sound radical? Does that sound "whacko fringe?" To actually hear a matter before judging it? You ridicule him without going into detail about his evidence or theories. Granted, this is not the proper forum. However, the propaganda technique you are using has the effect of getting people to self-censor and to avoid informing themselves so that they could make a more or less cogent determination. This is anti-science, and anti-intellectual. I would encourage people to examine an issue for themselves and to make their own determination. I would not try and substitute my views for theirs by using worn-out and over-used (just look at what passes for journalism these days) propaganda techniques.

  8. Hi J,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I would encourage everyone reading this post to read as much as they like about Richard Hoagland, and judge for themselves. Here are a couple of links:

    His website -

    His wikipedia page -

    As you pointed out, it is beyond the scope of this article to debunk his numerous claims. Rather, it is my intention here to encourage people to be skeptical about extraordinary claims, and to think critically about the motives of those in a position to influence other people, as Mr. Hoagland is. Since Mr. Hoagland makes his living from propagating numerous alternative theories, I think it is only fair that we ask whether he is advancing his various theories because he thinks they are probable, or because he would be out of a job if he didn't. I suspect the latter may be the case, but I leave it to you to judge for yourself.

    I do not wish to accuse anyone of being naive or stupid. Instead, I simply wish to remind people that we humans have fallible judgment, that we are susceptible to fraud. In spite of our best efforts, we can be fooled. But if we can be skeptical, we may be able to avoid being bamboozled by charismatic charlatans, at least some of the time. In a complex world, with competing ideologies and vigorous debate in the public sphere, this is a very important tool. It is the only way we can make the right decisions about our world.

    I would never discourage people from reading or watching anything about alternative theories. I would hope that people are able to evaluate the trustworthiness of their sources, but it is important that we examine all sides of any argument and come to an informed decision. That's what science is all about. But we should remember that we have a tendency to hear the evidence that supports our opinions and dismiss the evidence that contradicts us. We should try to see the cosmos as it really is, and not how we might wish it to be.

    Thanks for reading.