Willing Suspension of Disbelief

That 2012 Stuff

This is, as the old song says, “the most wonderful time of the year.”  If you celebrate any sort of holiday in December — from Hanukkah to Christmas to Festivus to Yuletide to Kwanzaa to many, many others, you’re familiar with wonderful traditions that celebrate something at this time of year.

There’s an astronomy component to celebrations at this time of year and it has to do with the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year and the point at which the Sun appears at its lowest point in the sky (for the northern hemisphere, anyway).  Historically, the earliest humans likely noted the position of the Sun in the sky throughout the year and devised rituals and celebrations around the solstice times (the summer solstice marks the point when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky).  Over time, as other cultures, religions, and rituals evolved, people began ascribing more mystical and ritual significance to this otherwise purely physical lineup of the Sun and Earth as Earth orbits the Sun.

I think it’s only natural that people at any age of our history would devise such rituals — although they have nothing to do with our scientific understanding of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the Earth’s tilt on its axis, and so forth.  They’re rituals that began as ways to help people deal with what seemed to be supernatural — i.e, the Sun’s yearly and daily path across the sky, the changing sets of star patterns we see at night throughout the year, and so forth. Charting those constellations and the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets across the backdrop of the sky was the basis for the ancient practice of astrology.   Astronomical charts came to us through those early sky mappers who were, nonetheless, adherents to mysticism, which is not a scientific way of thinking.

Science and mysticism moved apart pretty quickly when people began ascribing some powerful (but immeasurable and unprovable) influences to the constellations (which are, after all, simply random patterns of stars that we somehow recognize from our point of view on Earth as shapes of animals, people, and things), or some magical power that a planet that lies billions of miles away has on a child at birth.  Such ideas are more in the realm of human mysticism and spirituality and the forces and processes they invoke have never been detected or measured scientifically. And, in science, if it can’t be observed and measured, it’s tough to prove it exists or does what people claim it does. That’s why scientific investigations of things like ESP and astrology and crop circles and UFO “apparitions” always turn up empty — there’s nothing to measure or prove. And, just because someone says something’s mystical and wonderful and THEY can see it, doesn’t mean it exists in the reality-based world of science.

That doesn’t mean that people aren’t attracted to the mysticism that early skygazers imagined existed within the stars and planets.  Humans are born with this ability to suspend disbelief in order to believe that something exists or happened, even if it never did. Look at it this way — we read fantasy and science fiction and watch anime movies and follow Star Trek (for example) and we know that those events and people don’t exist, but we can overlook that for the sake of a good story.  Cultural star legends are built around the constellations and planets, but they’re often couched in terms of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, and mythical animals like centaurs. Those legends teach lessons and transmit cultural information. But, they have little to do with the science that explains those stars and planets.

When mysticism claims to have proofs that pretend to be science or even supplant or ignore scientific research (such as is done with modern-day astrology), then it goes too far, even for a “good story.”  One of the “good stories” I’ve been reading about lately (and it’s not even all that good since it doesn’t hang together logically as a fairy tale, let alone as good science), is about the so-called 2012 Prophecies. They conflate a  somehow-apocalyptic line-up of planets, combined with some kind of galactic beam that’s headed straight for us, along with a mysterious planet (that nobody’s observed yet, but some folks claim it exists) that’s going to shift out of its orbit and collide with Earth, into a world-bashing scenario that boggles the mind. Some Web sites that “discuss” this set of predictions also include some peripheral claims that we’ll be experiencing pole shifts, increased volcanic eruptions, psychic disruptions (well, they may be right there, but not in the way they think) and — oh my gawd — human evolution!!!

Can you stand it??

All this is being touted by a mind-boggling collection of astrologers, mystics, out-of-body proponents, crop-circle believers, amateur archaeologists, and others with little to no scientific training or understanding. Oh, and people who have books and other products to sell about this nonsense.

Apparently all this apocalyptic oogah-boogah is going to happen on the winter solstice in the year 2012. And, at the root of the thing is a claim that the whole thing was predicted by the Maya civilization that largely died out in the 1500s.  There’s even been a movie made exploiting the pseudo-scientific claims that the 2012 Apocalypse pushers are splashing all over the Web.  I heard the movie did boffo biz at the box office, and that it has great special effects.

Well, the 2012 predictions and associated pseudo-science don’t reflect reality any more than a fairy tale does. But, interestingly, the whole thing does reflect our very human propensity to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. It essentially combines end-of-the-world predictions (which are pretty common) with ancient religions and misunderstandings about science to create a nonsense mashup of epic proportions that sounds vaguely scientific and “woooooo” all at the same time. What’s not to like about that?

Of course, all of us who talk and write about astronomy are getting questions about this 2012 stuff. It’s inevitable — and it’s also a good chance to do a little proactive astronomy teaching and help people build up their Nonsense Detectors.  I did this with two of my cruise lectures and people seemed to appreciate the “heads-up” on the phenomenon. Of course, I think a lot of people don’t really buy into the 2012 “predictions” — but there are enough of them out there that do.

So, I and people like my friend Dr. Ed Krupp at Griffith Observatory, and many others are giving talks and writing articles and blog entries to give people the “straight skinny” on what it’s all about. I highly recommend Dr. Krupp’s article and a recorded talk he gave for the National Academies of Science on the subject. Dr. Krupp is an engaging speaker and, as one of the world’s experts on the astronomy of the Maya, is the man to talk to when it comes to what the Maya calendar says as it relates to astronomy and any s0-called “predictions” the Maya are claimed to have made. He’s also an astronomer and all-around good guy.  Check it out!

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3 Responses to Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Many people, very sadly, cannot be swayed by logic.
    I recently pulled up a view of the sky (on Stellarium, a must have freeware program)showing the sky on the day a friend of mine was born. I pointed out that the sun was not in the constellation of ***** and so her ‘sign’ was not *****. Her answer? “Your program is wrong.”

  2. I know there are those who cling to whatever fantasies they want — at the risk of losing touch with the reality-based world. Best we can do is teach what we can.

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