Why People Believe Doomsday Rumors – A Historical Perspective
December 20, 2012By Faye Flam
It seems a safe bet to assume this week's end-of-the-world concerns won't be the last. Americans love a good doomsday rumor. According to some accounts, Russians are even more excited by this week's forecasted apocalypse.
The date, December 20-23, depending on how it's calculated, has been tied to a widespread misconception that the Mayan calendar ends around 12/21/12, which also happens to be the Winter Solstice. Experts on these ancient people of Mexico and the Yucatan have tried to argue otherwise, insisting that the Mayan calendar merely turns over a cycle. That hasn't stopped doomsayers from spreading rumors that we will all perish from an inauspicious planetary alignment, something going haywire with our magnetic field, or a plunge into a black hole.
Why are these rumors gaining traction? For insights, I turned first to Princeton University historian Michael Gordin, whose recent book on pseudoscience details the retrospective doom-mongering of Russian born writer Immanuel Velikovsky. Read more here.
Velikovsky's 1950 mega bestseller "Worlds in Collision" told of a weird planetary rearrangement that took place in 1500 B.C., triggering all the major biblical catastrophes, from plagues to the parting of the Red Sea. Venus, according to Velikovsky, didn't exist until that year. Our neighbor toward the sun was somehow shot out of Jupiter. It headed for Earth, where it thankfully missed us but still caught our planet in a deadly gravitational dance. "There were electric discharges, rains of fire, and an exchange of atmosphere so catastrophic that it changed the tilt of Earth's axis and caused tremendous havoc," Gordin said. Then, Venus finally drifted off to its own orbit and eventually stopped tormenting us.
People loved Velikovsky's book for the same reason they're buying the current end-of-the-world rumors, said Gordin. It's because Americans love science – or at least the love the trappings of science. Planetary movement, magnetic fields, the tild of Earth's rotational axis – all that fascinates people but even more so if it can add up to a dramatic, action movie crescendo.
There's a religious aspect of the doomsaying as well, said NYU historian Matthew Stanley, who has written about end-of-the-world concerns through time. Because Christianity is so widely practiced in the U.S., the notion of a coming apocalypse is ingrained in our culture, regardless of our personal and family beliefs. The apocalypse was particularly important to the Puritans, Stanley said. "It's deep in our cultural roots to obsess about these questions."
Both historians also connect our tendency to latch onto doomsday rumors to the shadow of nuclear annihilation that hung over us during most of the second half of the 20th century. The cold war may be over but the bombs remain as do the drop-and-cover childhood memories of baby boomers and members generation X. Stanley, who was born in the 1970s, remember coolly discussing with teachers and other adults whether they would all die suddenly when the bombs dropped, or slowly from radiation poisoning. "It was banal to talk about nuclear annihilation."
Who knows if the nuclear shadow is also influencing those who were on the other side of the cold war? A recent survey claims that Russians and Chinese are even more likely than Americans to say they believe the world will end by this weekend.
As for the Mayans, there's no evidence they thought the world would end at all. Mayan experts say the calendar kept time through periods of 20 days, each of which had a name much as our seven days of the week do. 13 of those 20 day periods marked another cycle lasting 260 days.
The Mayans also recognized periods of 360 days as a tun. There were units of 20 tuns, 400 tuns, and 5200 tuns, which is a long cycle, equivalent to 5125 years 133.7 days. In a talk last spring at the Penn Museum, archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas noted that while the Mayan calendar does turn over one of those long cycles this week, the calendar itself has room to accommodate octillions of years in the past and the future.
Today, scientists predict that the sun will expand into a red giant and cook the Earth in a mere five billion years from now and the planet will become too hot to be habitable well before that. The Mayans, it turns out, were optimistic.