Thursday, July 5, 2012

Absurd fear of an apocalypse in 2012

I watched a TV program about the supposed apocalypse coming in 2012.  It seems to have spawned a whole industry of folks seeking to make a profit from the absurd notion that the world will suffer some sort of horrible destruction in December of 2012.  There are all sorts of money-making schemes out there, hoping to encourage frightened people to waste their cash on survival items for a non-existent threat.

This sort of scam is particularly annoying to me because we're having so much trouble convincing people to prepare for the legitimate natural hazards associated with our world and the cosmos in which it's embedded.  No matter what cockamamie idea crops up - the end of the Mayan calendar being the end of the world, massive solar storms causing the Earth's rotation to be reversed (!?!?), rogue planets about to knock the Earth out of its orbit, and so on and on - there seem to be millions of people ready to seize upon this sort of  nonsense to feed some sort of primal paranoia.

During the show, it was darkly amusing to see a NASA scientist doing his best to dismiss these nightmares as utter balderdash.  He was having trouble keeping his composure because of the extreme stupidity of the questions being asked of him.  [I can relate to that, which is one of many reasons I don't do interviews for TV documentaries any more.]  His attempts at introducing real science into the program were swept aside in a tsunami of bullshit, to be drowned in an ocean of nonsense.  His few soundbites were the only moments of sanity in a torrent of content that either supported the insanity or at least did nothing to refute it.  Typical "balanced" media reporting!!

We have many legitimate reasons to be concerned about our future.  The world is not a benign place - nor is it malevolent.  Real natural processes on Earth are simply indifferent to humans.  Tumultuous events happen not as divine retribution for our failings, nor as the malevolent works of some sort of evil spirit.  From time to time, some of us will be devastated by natural hazards simply by being unlucky enough to be in their path.  Science tells us these things have happened in the past and they will happen again!

As a scientist, it's clear that more disasters await us in the future:  major tornado outbreaks, landfalling tropical cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mega-tsunamis caused by landslides, incoming asteroids and comets, anthropogenic global warming and so on.  The fiscal support for science to help us understand (thereby helping us to prepare for) these disasters is being eroded in our challenging economic times, even as millions are "preparing" by spending their hard-earned money for protection from disasters for which no solid evidence exists!  Where we put our money says a lot about who we are, actually.  And seeing a program describing the investment by people in preparation for a mythical disaster is discouraging.

It seems America is sliding down a path toward discrediting legitimate science and simultaneously moving toward belief in mythology, and other forms of nonsense unsupported by any historical or physical evidence.  Perhaps this trend toward disbelief in science, combined with a rising belief in pseudo-science and outright ridiculous bullshit is part of an explanation for why we can't get people to do much to prepare for the real natural hazards that threaten us.


John Huntington said...

I'm a big fan of your work and blog, and share many of your views. But I'm writing to take issue with one part of this post.

Can you present evidence for your claim, "It seems America is sliding down a path toward discrediting legitimate science and simultaneously moving toward belief in mythology". My guess is that there has always been faith-based ignorance in our society, and always will be. But I actually think things seems to be improving overall. For example, from the Pew survey released last month, "In the current survey, 68% of Millennials say they never doubt the existence of God, a decline of 15 points since 2007. Over this period, the proportion of older age cohorts expressing firm belief in God has remained stable."

These are the same people who aren't bothered by gay marriage, etc.

I heard Penn Jillette make the point once that biologists (for example), who really need to understand and "believe" in evolution, do. While a bunch of loud mouthed charlatans sway some people and do some damage, they aren't really holding back science as a whole. I think it's the same for Mayan doomsday believers.

And I hope you will accept TV interviews--we need strong voices of rationality to opposed the nonsense. And I would bet you that Mythbusters gets a lot better ratings than the Mayan doomsday shows, even if they appear on the same network.

Keep up the great work!

Chuck Doswell said...

John H.,

Although some polls indicate decreasing confidence in organized religion, it seems those who DO retain such confidence are working very hard to push their ideas on all of us. Other polls also show decreasing confidence in scientists.

I would be pleased if new generations of Americans increasingly rejected irrational religious beliefs in favor of an evidence-based world view. But I'm not sure where the "milennials" are going and just what represents their world view. They seem uninterested in science, except for the few.

To say that science isn't being held back by the influence of religion is, I believe, an overstatement of the situation. American science and science literacy is declining, beyond any doubt.