Humanity will survive the supposed December 2012 apocalypse, but, unfortunately, so will irrational doomsday fears, scientists say.
Doomsayers around the world are gearing up for armageddon on Dec. 21, based on predictions supposedly made by the Mayans more than 1,000 years ago. Even after the sun rises Dec. 22, however, many folks will be only momentarily reassured, quickly latching onto another scenario purported to bring about the apocalypse within their lifetime.
The persistence of these worries stems from a variety of factors, researchers say. The deluge of misinformation on the Internet, poorly developed or underutilized critical thinking skills and plain old human nature all contribute, convincing many people to fear the worst despite the lack of compelling evidence (and the poor track record of such dire predictions over the years).
"There have been end-of-the-world predictions every few years throughout history, really," said astronomer David Morrison, head of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We had two or three last year."
Morrison spoke at the SETICon 2 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 23 during a panel discussion called "Cosmophobia: Doomsday 2012 and Other Fiction Science." [Don't Panic: 2012 Doomsday Fears Debunked]
Flood of misinformation
Though Morrison and other scientists work hard to tamp down fears of Comet Elenin, the mythical planet Nibiru and other supposed agents of impending doom, their voices of reason have a hard time being heard these days.
"We are completely drowned out by the doomsayers on the Internet," Morrison said. "It's very hard for the truth to even get a hearing."
It's especially hard to reach young people, most of whom seem unable to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, he added.
"At the best, they will just count numbers," Morrison said. "'Well, there are 83 websites that say the world will end in 2012, and one that says it won't. So it must be true.'"
Not all of the misinformation is coming from altruistic folks who just want to get the worried word out, said fellow panelist Andrew Fraknoi, chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Some of it is probably pumped out by people trying to make a buck.
"Today, it seems like money is much more important than truth, that anything goes," Fraknoi said. "Fear-mongering has become a large and profitable industry."
Data from the publishing world appear to back him up: A search for "Doomsday 2012" books on Amazon.com returns nearly 200 titles.
But not all of the blame can be laid at the Internet's feet. Doomsday fears have cropped up repeatedly throughout history, and in most cases they weren't sustained by YouTube videos and "Nibiru" Google searches. [Oops! 11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
The Millerites, for example, believed that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in 1843 or 1844, and that the world as we know it would be destroyed in the process. Another group called the Seekers thought a huge flood would ravage our planet on Dec. 21, 1954. The Seekers' leader, a Chicago woman named Dorothy Martin, claimed to have gotten this information from aliens living on the planet Clarion.
We shouldn't be too surprised whenever such cults grab the headlines, said Leonard Mlodinow, a Caltech physicist and author of such books as "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randonmness Rules Our Lives" and "The Grand Design" (which he wrote with Stephen Hawking).
"I think it's a very natural human phenomenon," Mlodninow said. "People who we consider very rational believe such things all the time."
He cited today's major religions, saying that they would have seemed just as odd and irrational as the doomsday cults if we'd encountered them back in the early days, before they became so well established.
"I don't consider those people particularly weird," Mlodinow said of modern doomsayers. "I just think that they're early adopters, you might call them."
There's likely some ego-boosting pyschology involved as well, said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.
"To some extent, it's a very empowering thought — that you know something very important that those nerdy, pointy-headed, tweed-jacketed academics down at the local university won't acknowledge," Shostak said. "I think you have to look for the answers there."
Is education the answer?
Whatever their causes, doomsday fears are quite prevalent in the United States and abroad.
For example, a poll commisioned by the news agency Reuters earlier this year found that 15 percent of people worldwide — or roughy 1 billion folks — believe the apocalypse will come during their lifetime. In the United States, the figure is 22 percent.
Such worries aren't just interesting sociological or psychological phenomena, Morrison said. They can have tragic consequences for believers.
"At least once a week, I get a question from a young person — usually 11, 12 years old — who says they are contemplating suicide before the end of the world," Morrison said. "I know of several cases at least of reported suicides, of people who are obsessed with the end of the world in 2012."
The best way to combat irrational doomsday worries — especially among the young — is education, Fraknoi said. We need to teach better critical thinking skills and instill a love of discovery that will inspire kids to seek out the truth — and make them less likely to be gulled by fanciful rumors.
"Ask yourself the question, 'Why should I believe a word of this?'" Fraknoi said. "If you know how to answer, 'Why should I believe a word of this?' then you're much closer to scientific truth."