Whatever you do, don’t try to talk sense into a doomsday junky. They are fiercely protective of their belief in the apocalypse. Strangely enough though, they don’t seem to be picky about the precise details. Just as a conspiracy theorist will entertain almost any conspiracy theory (just as long as it isn’t the official story) a hardcore doomsday junkie will latch on to almost any doomsday theory. No matter how weak the evidence is, they will hang on the every word of the most inane doomsayers. This points to a profound desire to believe that the world is going to end. Interestingly, this desire isn’t strictly a feature of crazy doomsday conspiracists. Apocalipticism may be more pronounced in some, but it is nearly ubiquitous. There’s something fascinating, even appealing, about the end of the world.
Why would anyone enjoy contemplating something so horrible? There are many possible psychological explanations. Perhaps we draw comfort from nailing down the date and circumstances of our deaths, making them predictable and therefor less scary. Maybe it provides validation for those who have always had a strong sense of fatalism, giving them something to blame for their latent anxiety. Another possibility is that our inherent narcissism (which places us at the center of the narrative and can’t imagine a world without us) is comforted by the thought of the world ending with us. The thought of it continuing on without us is unbearable, like getting kicked out of a party with the knowledge that it will go on without you. Also, conspiratorial thinking, which is nearly always associated with belief in the apocalypse, has a wonderful way of making one feel special. The sense that you posses knowledge that others do not, and that you alone were clever enough to connect the dots, makes you feel uncommonly intelligent. Enlightened above all others, you can sit back and smirk as “sheeple” unwittingly go about their lives as if nothing is going to happen.
Even if you aren’t obsessed with the apocalypse, it still strikes a nerve. When the next doomsday craze comes along, the shear repetition of doomsday related discourse can’t help but plant a seed of paranoia. There’s no shame in this, as long as you use it as an incentive to educate yourself as to what the facts actually are behind the torrent of nonsense. Thankfully, for whatever reason a person believes that the end is nigh, the preponderance of the evidence points to them being wrong.
The last great doomsday scare was the “Mayan apocalypse.” Various authors said that the Maya predicted that there would be some kind of important, world-wide event on December 21st, 2012. According to some of them, the fact that the long count calendar was going to reach a round number meant that some sort of spiritual awakening would occur, according to others, the long count calendar was going to end, bringing the end of the world. Well, 2012 has come and gone, and neither happened. It’s obvious why. Like every doomsday, the Mayan Apocalypse was a complete fabrication.
Even if the Maya had been able to forecast thousands of years in the future, we had no reason to think anything would happen on December 21st, 2012, because the Mayans didn’t think the world was going to end on that date. Mayan writings refer to dates as late as 4772, so clearly they thought that the world would still be around then. People ignored this, invoking pseudosciences like astrology and numerology to bolster their claim. For the 2012 apocalypse, they even attempted to resurrect planet X (which would already have been visible to the naked eye long before December 21st if it had truly been coming to get us).
By the far the most common reason people gave for thinking the world was going to end was that they believed the Mayan calendar was coming to an end. This reasoning is similar to that used by those who believed that digital calendars rolling over to zero on the millennium would somehow spark technological armageddon. It’s like thinking that you’re car is going to explode once the odometer clicks over to some number that you’ve arbitrarily attached significance to. However, we haven’t even reached the end of the current “baktun” cycle, for that we have to wait for the year 4772. None of that matters though, because the Mayans actually considered reaching the end of the cycle something to celebrate!
Whether or not ancient people believed that the world would end on a predetermined date, I think the question that we should actually be asking is, who cares? There would be no reason for concern, even if the Maya had predicted the world was going to end today. While interesting, it would just be another pre-scientific superstition. We’re talking about a culture that practiced ritual bloodletting and human sacrifices. Yes, for such an ancient culture they had advanced astronomy, but our modern astronomy has reached a level of sophistication they couldn’t have comprehended. To make astrophysical statements about the world today, you don’t reference ancient cultures like the Mayans, you reference modern science. If something was going to happen, we would be the ones predicting it, not them.
“Y’all should know by now that if the World were going to end for any cosmic reason, I’d tell you how and I’d tell you when.” -Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter