Monday, November 09, 2009

2012: The Mayan Y2K Bug

Let's start with first principles: despite a movie called 2012 opening worldwide on November 13, 2009, and despite hundreds of websites claiming that December 21, 2012 will usher in either the end of the material world, or of the materialist world, there is nothing yet apparent in the Mayan calendar that is prophetic about that date.

The 2012 fad, which predicts either a global apocalypse or a global awakening on the December solstice of that year, is based on evidence as flimsy as that of many notorious failed prophecies of the past. And there are hundreds, even thousands of those.

The forecasts of either doom or transformation are based on what is claimed to be the end-date of the current baktun (144,000-day) cycle of the Mesoamerican or Mayan Long Count calendar, which lasts for 5,126 years and terminates on the fateful date. We must note here that scholars disagree widely on the calendar calculations – German scientist Andreas Fuls puts the end-date at about 2200.

The current (13th) baktun will be completed on the date known to the Mayan civilization of Central America (its classic period lasting about six centuries from c. 300 CE) as – December 21, 2012 in our Gregorian calendar. The Long Count calendar identifies a date by counting the number of days from a starting date that is generally calculated to be August 11, 3114 BCE in our reckoning.

The calibration of the Long Count calendar can be a bit off-putting to our eyes, but it's not really too complicated. Science writer Dr Karl Kruszelnicki succinctly puts it thus: "The calendar read a little like the odometer in your car's speedo … when it got to 19 days ( [it] would reset to zero, and the next slot across to the left would increase by one ... So was one day, and was 20 days. Then was about one year, was about 20 years and with, you've clocked up about 400 years."

There is no evidence that – the August 11, 3114 BCE date – marks any historical event, nor that is the very end of all time, nor even the end of the calendar, because the calendar can start again, just like ours. So will be followed by, and so far nobody seems to argue, with conclusiveness, anything to the contrary. To complicate matters further, in some Mayan places, such as Palenque and Tortuguero (both in southern Mexico), the calendar went at least as far as the twentieth baktun, not the 13th, and that's thousands of years in the future even for us. If the Mayans could differ, we can beg to as well.

In 1957, the early Mayan scholar and archaeoastronomer, Maud Worcester Makemson, wrote that "[t]he completion of a Great Period of 13 baktuns would have been of the utmost significance to the Maya". Its significance is that it is the end of an arbitrary calendar cycle, much like the year 2000 when the modern world celebrated the millennium. Party time, without a doubt, but nothing more.

In the Chilam Balam, books written centuries after the Mayan period, Makemson found the expression, "the god will come to visit his little ones", but other Maya scholars such as Linda Schele and David Freidel argue that the Maya "did not conceive this to be the end of creation, as many have suggested". Anthropologist Munro S Edmonson, who translated the Chilam Balam, even considered the Long Count calendar to be entirely absent from the books.

Today's popular notion of 2012 was taken up and made popular by authors such as José Argüelles, Carl Johan Calleman, Ian Xel Lungold, John Major Jenkins and Terence McKenna, and the discerning eye detects some 'noble savage' worship. New Age thought is often notoriously fixated on a belief that some (not all) ancient civilizations were incredibly more advanced than ours, with their citizens possessing paranormal powers. The fact that there is no evidence to support this view is neither here nor there to those who require no evidence for their beliefs, except what can be ‘shoehorned’ in to fit preconceived and deeply desired notions. Meanwhile, those who believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, await some facts. For many of a rational perspective, even any evidence at all would greatly aid further study.

As for me, I have been interested in the '2012 Mayan prophecy' for enough years to have read hundreds of thousands of words on it, all the while keeping an open mind. But a mind that is too open is leakier than suits me. I have searched long enough for evidence that seems not to exist. We are confronted with the weakest of gullible pop culture at its unseemly worst.

Perhaps there is also self loathing in the wide acceptance of unsubstantiated assertions. There is a tendency for many believers in the Mayan 2012 'prophecy' to see the ancient people of Central America as having a superior consciousness to our own, but this is as unproven as the 2012 prognostication. For example, Jenkins claims that "the early Maya formulated a profound galactic cosmology … naturally enough, with their uncorrupted intelligence intact". In fact, the best we can say is that the Mayans were like us and as clever as we are, but different. History and geography repeatedly show that people are people.

Artist and art historian José Argüelles was formerly best known for his role in the 'Harmonic Convergence', a New Age astrological term applied to a planetary alignment that occurred on August 16 to 17, 1987. That event was supposed to be a harbinger of global peace. Some still believe that it was, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Astronomers said nothing especially unusual happened with that rather arbitrary event in space (arbitrary because it was a convergence only as viewed from our planet), and likewise they say nothing especially unusual is likely to happen in 2012.

The late Ian Xel Lungold was a colleague of toxicologist and Mayan calendar commentator, Carl Calleman, and a tireless advocate of an apocalypse date based on the Mayan calendar, but his date was October 28, 2011. His lectures, circulated on CDs and the Internet, convince many people of his claims. Admitting he did not have much of an education, he was still influential in what is now called 'Mayanism'. His lectures, however, might be taken with a grain of salt, containing, as they do, numerous easily refuted errors of fact. For example, Lungold claims that the Roman Catholic Inquisition murdered four million women for being witches, when in fact the victims, from the Inquisition, plus secular courts, numbered in the thousands over 500 years. He also suggests that there is a remarkable coincidence that one Mayan calendar (the Tun) has 360 days, and that celestial bodies, being spherical, have 360 degrees. The fact that 360 degrees in a circle represent an arbitrary number seems to have escaped him.

Despite the hype, no scholars have found in Mayan writings any prophecies – whether for good or ill – concerning There have been, however, numerous alleged prophecies from extraterrestrial beings. Even today's Maya, who make up about half of Guatemala's population, are not noted for joining in the 2012 craze, despite the fact that some of them still use the ancient calendars.

"There is no concept of apocalypse in the Mayan culture," Jesus Gomez, head of the Guatemalan confederation of Mayan priests and spiritual guides, told Britain's The Sunday Telegraph.

The film 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, is likely to be a box office favourite. Emmerich favours a mix of history, religion and sci-fi. He directed The Noah's Ark Principle (1984), set in 1997, when world peace seems to have come, and most weapons of mass destruction abolished. He also directed Independence Day (the 22nd highest-ever worldwide grossing movie), Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, so his disaster movie movie credentials are solid, if not reception of his work by film critics and experts. Palaeoclimatologist William Hyde of Duke University said that The Day After Tomorrow is "to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery". Critics and scholars panned Emmerich's movie 10,000 BC for its sloppy historicity. American film critic and screenwriter Roger Ebert said of another Emmerich film, "the movie Ed Wood, about the worst director of all time, was made to prepare us for Stargate".

The tagline for 2012 is "Mankind's earliest civilization warned us this day would come". Many are wondering if Mayans have been promoted to a new status to rival the Sumerians. Theirs is clearly not the earliest civilization, nor anything like it.

Such folly as the 2012 fad may be fun, but it's not much more, and it is far from new. Classic failed prophecies that gained a great many devotees are legion. On May 15, 1527, when the Last Judgement failed to come, Anabaptist leader Hans Huth postponed it to 1529. Other examples: Joanna Soutcott's prediction that she would give birth to the Messiah on October 19, 1814; William Miller's prophecy of the return of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844; George Riffert's prophecy in his book The Great Pyramid: Its Divine Message (1925) that the world would end on September 6, 1936; Moses David Berg, head of the Children of God cult, prophesied that the USA would be destroyed by Comet Kohoutek by January 1974 and that Jesus Christ would return in 1993. South Australian house painter John Nash predicted that an earthquake and tidal waves would destroy the city of Adelaide on January 19, 1975. On November 24, 1993, the world failed to end on the day promised by Maria Devi Christos, the self-styled Final Incarnation of God on Earth.

American Christian author Hal Lindsey has sold 35 million copies of his 1970 book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, predicting imminent apocalypse, and untold numbers of people radically altered their lives to suit the coming catastrophe. Lindsey predicted in his book, 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, that the end times would take place in the '80s. He continued writing and lecturing on the same themes despite the disconfirmations.

Why do people continue in their beliefs despite such disconfirmations? In the classic work, When Prophecies Fail (1956), social psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that holding two contradictory beliefs leads to 'cognitive dissonance', a state of mind disconcerting to the human psyche. Festinger infiltrated a UFO doomsday cult whose members were convinced the end of the world was nigh; when the date came and went uneventfully, the cult's official position was that its prayer-power had prevented the apocalypse. "A believer may then selectively reinterpret data, reinforcing one of the beliefs regardless of the strength of the contradictory case," says Christina Valhouli in the 1999 article, 'Cutting down the dissonance: the psychology of gullibility'.

Victims of failed prophecies might even become more devout in their failed beliefs, possibly because the more people they can convert to their cause, the less foolish they will appear. The further out on a limb they have gone (such as selling their goods and donating them to the cause, and going public with their beliefs), the greater the incentive to say that the limb was sound. We might expect this in 2013, but I make no predictions. To do so is to invite almost inevitable egg on face.

What we can best prophesy about December 21, 2012 is that 1,440 suckers will be born on that day, given the generally accepted theory among scholars and lay people alike that there is one born every minute.

Does it matter? Well, actually, yes it does. NASA scientist, David Morrison, who says there are at least 200 different books for sale about 2012, says he gets about 12 questions a day on the topic. Says Morrison: "Two teenagers said they didn't want to see the end of the world so they were thinking of ending their lives". Many letters, Morrison says, presume that the US Government is covering up the impending doom. Letters begin, "I know you can't tell me the truth, but … ".

Failed prophecies can have tragic consequences: on February 18, 1857, the Xhosa tribe in South Africa discovered that it had destroyed much of its food resources in vain. Fourteen-year-old female shaman, Nongqawuse, had reported to her tribe a vision she had had. Nongqawuse interpreted "omens" that to retain the ancestors' favour, the tribe must slaughter all its livestock and destroy all its crops before February 18, 1857, on which date the ancestor spirits would bring the Xhosa people many blessings. Unfortunately for the tribe, it followed the soothsayer's advice and tens of thousands of Xhosas died in the ensuing famine.

Marshall Applewhite, a leader of the Heaven's Gate cult, died in the cult's suicide on or about March 26, 1997. Heaven's Gate believed that Comet Hale-Bopp was associated with apocalyptic prophecies, and their suicide was timed just prior to when it passed perihelion on April 1, 1997. Their website is still on the Net, a terrible relic of misguided belief.

Yes, it matters.

(Copyright Pip Wilson, Wilson's Almanac, 2009.)

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Blogger Fignatz said...

Here's my idea, Pip.
All those people who claim to believe the world's gonna end on that day should transfer their money to my bank account the day before.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Pip said...

Great idea!

6:11 PM  
Blogger Sean Aaron said...

Great article, thanks!

1:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos to you for mentioning the 'cognitive dissonance' experiment - hopefully now people will realise the exact thing is going to happen again in 2012 and therefore try to avoid looking stupid.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

haha loved this. My next door neighbour is a firm believer in atlantis 2012 and aliens.I rather enjoy studying him. I have met so many others like him (YES I am a nutcase magnet)out there that i have been inspired to start my own religion. I could certanly make a more believable religious movement than this 2012 shit. Wish me luck.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting website too. I will be back to read more

3:18 PM  

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