Sunday, May 24, 2009

2012: The End of the World (Again)?

By Alexandre Couto de Andrade

"Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."

Have you ever heard or read anything like the statement above? Does it seem familiar to you? Well, if you have been living on Earth for a while, it certainly does. This particular statement is nearly five thousand years old. It was found inscribed upon an Assyrian clay tablet and is the oldest known doomsday prediction. It is very probably not the first one ever. We cannot be sure. One thing, however, is certain: people never ceased to make predictions like this ever since. The website “A Brief History of the Apocalypse” provides a list of more than 250 dates on which the world should have ended according to the most relevant prophecies. Take a look. It is worth reading.
Some doomsday prophecies are simply ridiculous, while others are elaborate and have probably sounded very convincing to many of those who heard them. Many of them were pronounced by eminent religious leaders or written in sacred books. In some cases, the predictions were made when the circumstances really suggested that humankind was on the path to imminent self-destruction (the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, viewed World War I as the Battle of Armageddon). Some predictions were purely mystical, while others were supposed to be “scientific”, at least in some degree. All of them, however, have something in common: the facts they foretold have obviously never occurred.
My purpose in this post is to write about the most recent of these prophecies: the 2012 doomsday prediction. Based on the Mayan calendar (Long Count), some people believe that the world will end on December 21 or 23, 2012. That's when the calender ends. This apocalyptic interpretation is disputed by academic scholars of Mayan civilization.
Pseudoscientists and mystics generally have very peculiar opinions about ancient civilizations. Many pseudoscientists simply underestimate them. According to Erich von Däniken, for example, the ancient egyptians needed extraterrestrial help to build the pyramids (a claim supported only by ignorance). Other pseudoscientists, as well as most mystics, on the other hand, overestimate them. Myths and superstitions are seen as “ancient knowledge”. Vague and obscure “prophecies”, that can mean almost anything (Nostradamus', for instance), always find a convenient interpretation (generally after the “foretold” event has occurred). That is clearly what happens in this case. How could the Mayans possibly have determined when the world is going to end? What kind of special knowledge did they have?
The proponents of the 2012 doomsday are not intimidated by questions like these. There are “other evidences”, after all. They are provided by astrology. Well, if you think that astrology is credible, read my first blog post (Astrology: What does Science have to say about it?).
Some people also argue that the wars, famine, natural catastrophes, diseases, among many other misfortunes that the world faces nowadays are signs that indicate that the end is indeed near. But haven't these problems always been with us? As a matter of fact, although things are still very far from being good, humankind has never been so prosperous as it is now.
We, human beings, will undoubtedly eventually face extinction. Nevertheless, the end is neither written in the stars, nor was predicted by any primitive people.

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