Debunking 2012’s doomsday

Alice Enevoldsen says the notion that the world is going to end this December has become something of a “kitchen sink” of hoaxes. Fully seven different doomsday scenarios are being put forward as causes of our imminent demise.

Alice Enevoldsen

Predictions that the world is coming to an end in December represent a kitchen sink of hoaxes, according to Alice Enevoldsen, author of Alice's Astro Info and an educator at the Pacific Science Center. Enevoldsen debunked the doomsayers at this week's meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It’s really cool how wrong they are,” Enevoldsen, planetarium specialist for the Pacific Science Center and author of Alice’s Astro Info, said during a talk this week at a meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. It was difficult to detect any signs of panic among the society membership, and there was much levity in the discussion. Enevoldsen said that while she’s not concerned about the destruction of Earth, the hoax is not entirely a laughing matter.

“The thing about the 2012 hoax is that it is hurting people. There are children writing to scientists saying ‘I’m scared that I’m not going to grow up.’ That just gives me the shivers,” she said. “There are children threatening to kill themselves. This is not OK with me.”

“That’s one of the reasons I use the word hoax. Anybody who supports this non-science stuff about how the world is going to end in 2012 is supporting children threatening to kill themselves.”

Much of the talk about impending doom is fueled by a strange mashup of three stories: the fictional planet Nibiru (and its ancient astronauts) cooked up by novelist Zecharia Sitchin, predictions by “psychic” Nancy Lieder that a “Planet X” would slam into Earth, and the 2009 disaster film 2012. Enevoldsen expressed dismay that people can be swayed by movies, pointed out Lieder’s original prediction was that “X” would smack us in 2003, and noted that astronomers have found no evidence of anything large with the remotest chance of colliding with us.

“You guys all know if there’s a planet that’s close enough to hit Earth at the end of this year we would be able to see it by now,” she told the society gathering.

Another misconception that is driving talk that the end of the world is nigh is that the Mayan calendar “ends” on Dec. 21 because the Maya somehow knew that was the last day.

“Today’s Maya all think we’re insane talking about how they think the world’s going to end,” Enevoldsen said. She explained that while we use month, day, and year to describe any date, the Maya “long count” uses five numbers to do so. A kin is a day, a uinal is about 20 days, a tun is about a year, a katun is roughly 20 years, and a baktun is about 400 years. By coincidence, they all re-set in December.

“It just rolls over. It’s like an odometer,” Enevoldsen said. “It’s not ending, we’re rolling over to the next count.” She said it is something like our turn of the century.

“If I were using the Mayan long count I would be pretty excited on Dec. 20 of this year because it means I get to change over all the numbers on my calendar,” she said. “This is a cool thing, but it’s kind of meaningless.”

Several other apocalyptic notions are included in the kitchen sink, some of them with at least a grain of truth.

  • The Earth’s magnetic poles will shift, causing earthquakes and leaving us exposed to radiation. Enevoldsen said we’re sort of due for a shift, but there’s no reason to believe it will happen this year. It’s happened before and we’re still here.
  • The Earth’s rotational poles will shift. Enevoldsen said it would take a collision with a massive object to make that happen. There’s nothing on the radar that is on a collision course.
  • Solar maximum will arrive and the Sun will zap us with cosmic rays. 2012 does promise to be an active year for sunspots and such, but scientists think the true maximum won’t get here until 2013. This is a roughly 11-year cycle that hasn’t wiped us out yet.
  • The planets will align, causing lots of disruption. Enevoldsen pointed out that this simply isn’t true.
  • We’ll be lined up with the galactic plane and the center of the galaxy, causing lots of disruption. Enevoldsen said there are some half a dozen definitions of the galactic plane, and there’s no reason to believe that our periodic passes through it mean anything. And we’re aligned with the center of the galaxy every year around the winter solstice.

Enevoldsen suggested not simply dismissing people who have concern about 2012, but instead validating their interest in the subject. But, she said it’s important to share the facts in order to quash the hoax, and suggest astronomical activities to share, such as this year’s solar eclipse or the transit of Venus. She added that professional help might be in order for those truly gripped by fear that the world is doomed.

The 2012 hoax has received enough attention that many mainstream media have taken on the task of providing more information. Enevoldsen suggested the website as a great source about the topic. She’s also written her own paper, published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and aimed at educators, that explains many of these concepts in greater detail.