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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Debunking doomsday

By Phil Plait

In January, I was interviewed live on WHYY radio in Philadelphia about 2012 doomsday conspiracy theories. NASA astrobiologist (and my old pal) David Morrison was there as well, and we talked about some of the (wrong) ideas behind 2012 end-of-the-world prophecies, their impact, and why people believe them.

Here's a direct link to the archived interview.

It was an interesting discussion. We took some calls from folks, including two from people who seemed to be trying to blame 2012 stuff on religious beliefs, which I think is misguided. Believing in something without evidence or despite evidence against it is human nature, and something we all need to be aware of. Religion falls under that category, as does any other belief system. Conspiracy theories and doomsday prophecies are all part of that larger umbrella. Now, you could make a point that our unquestioning tolerance of religious belief in the US supports the growth of things like 2012 belief. That would make for an interesting discussion, I think, but not one that's easy to get into on a radio program where you need to keep things brief!

A woman called in and relayed the very sad story of her brother who joined a cult, and wound up killing himself over their doomsday beliefs. This was terrible to hear, and I wrestled with how to discuss it. The Heavens Gate cult came to mind right away, as did that of Jim Jones. I tweeted about it, saying:

"A woman called into WHYY and said her brother committed suicide over doomsday theories. Damn this stuff so much."

[NOTE: I got emails and tweets from people after I tweeted that saying that there's no evidence this woman was telling the truth, and that she may have made this story up. That may very well be true; we have no evidence either way besides her claims. However, David hears similar stories all the time, and I myself have first-hand knowledge of lots of people who are really scared by 2012 claims. So even if the woman's story is not true, the sentiment is relevant.]

It's hard to convey depth and subtlety in a tweet, and I wrote that during a very short station break, so I didn't have time to elaborate. I'm not blaming his suicide on doomsday beliefs per se (and note it wasn't necessarily the 2012 stuff); clearly anyone who contemplates killing themself has deeper issues than that and needs to find help -- by coincidence, the wonderful, wonderful Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, wrote a moving blog post related to this topic the same day.

But certainly circumstances play their role. David has said that he gets a lot of emails from people with similar suicidal thoughts due to 2012. Let's be clear: these people need to find help; neither David nor I am qualified to help them. And perhaps if this 2012 garbage didn't exist something else would come along to take its place in their minds. But it is here, and it is influencing these people (a couple in Utah was arrested for a homicide and crime spree, and apparently 2012 doomsday thinking played a role there).

And think of this: unlike other issues, this one has a deadline. Having an actual date on this (imaginary) event makes it seem more solid, more real. I hate to write this, but I expect we'll be hearing more about people going through with suicide over the next few months because of these doomsday claims. How many of them might have had a chance to seek help, to live longer, if the idea of a 2012 doomsday weren't so prevalent?

And it's not just this terrible circumstance of people contemplating or even committing suicide; I've started giving public talks about 2012, and hear from a lot of folks in the Q&A after about how they're really scared about this. Most of them are kids. The other day I chatted with some kids about it, and the visible look of relief on their faces as I assuaged their 2012 doomsday fears was amazing.

I can't say why specific people are out there plugging 2012 by writing books and making websites; perhaps they honestly believe something will happen, or maybe they are loathesome scummy immoral mind-parasites, not caring how they affect people as long as they get money or fame. But either way they are wrong. There is no evidence that any of the 2012 claims is true, and in fact plenty of evidence they're all wrong.

I'll be writing more about this, don't you fret. I've been putting it off a long time for various reasons, but it's long past time for me to hunker down and give this crap both barrels of reality.

Hat tip to Ian O'Neill for the Utah story.

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