Analysis/Comment
Surprise! The world did not end on December 21, 2012; Mayans were not the stupid ones
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Dec 19, 2012 - 2:06 PM

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Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in 1945 Archives, California Institute of Technology

NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has released a video (see below) intended to put the world's mind at rest about December 21, 2012 -- the much hyped end-date of the Mayan "Long Count" calendar. Discovery News says the video does a sound debunking of the misinformation being bandied about by doomsayers trying to make a fast buck out of people's fears. The Mayans were not the stupid ones!

Discovery News says NASA has handled the "Mayan doomsday" nonsense excellently. The agency first went on the record denouncing various doomsday scenarios during the sinister marketing ploys employed by the production company of the movie doomsday-disaster movie "2012" in 2009. Since then they have knocked down each flawed cosmological theory in turn.

WIDE ANGLE: What Is The Mayan Doomsday?

David Morrison, NASA scientist based at NASA Ames, has been combating the doomsday misinformation for many years via questions submitted to his "Ask an Astrobiologist" website (an excellent summary of the questions fielded by Morrison can be found here). Morrison attributes the public's fear of this doomsday to "cosmophobia" -- a growing trend that's based on people's fear of the cosmic unknown.

Doomsday scenarios such as a marauding Planet X (or Nibiru), killer solar flare, weird galactic alignments and polar/geomagnetic shifts fall firmly in under "cosmophobia," and doomsayers that stand to make money out of doomsday books and website advertising use this phenomenon to great effect.

Also, the idea that there is some kind of grand conspiracy (i.e., the government or some secret society has some privileged information about the end of the world) is another strong factor. To many, NASA debunking various doomsday scenarios from their ivory towers of science is "proof" that something weird is going on. To those people, no amount of debunking or logic will stop them believing in doom and gloom, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The shortcomings of science and why even people with education reject facts on climate change?

People with education as distinct from being educated often reject facts based on current knowledge on the risk of future events or even in respect of actual events.

Climate change provides many examples and Google provides access to a resource to provide support for any view, no matter how wacky. However, scientists who ignore the shortcomings of science and claim infallibility, are also fanning scepticism.

What are selected as facts are often linked with emotion, set values and self-interest. For example, why would an opponent of the waste incinerator project at Poolbeg in Dublin also likely be against the growing of genetically modified food?

The thread between the two may be an antipathy towards multinational companies rather than the facts of each case.

John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist,  famously said: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

Nikita Blue,  American blogger says :"Everyone has the compulsion to form immediate conclusions about their environment -- that’s how we survive. We use knowledge that we have accumulated from things we’ve observed, experienced or 'heard about' and apply them to our lives with the intent to avoid conflict and pursue future positive and beneficial experiences. However, at a certain point, this hasty tendency becomes worthless -- even detrimental."

Nikita Blue says when people assume that black women are “sassy,” or that fat people have low self-esteem, or that girls love the colour pink, or that gay guys are feminine, they begin to lose their ability to know the individual. Fortunately, there is a way to fight these automatic assumptions: PRACTICE.

The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine says there are a lot of clichés thrown around about the elderly, but one that seems to be true - - or at least is backed up by research - - is the belief they tend to be more prejudiced than younger people. This phenomenon --  noted in The New York Times as early as 1941 - - is widely assumed to be the result of socialization. After all, today's senior citizens grew up in an era when racism was widespread and gays stayed in the closet. Of course they aren't as open-minded as their children and grandchildren.

A decade ago, a research team led by William von Hippel of the University of Queensland challenged that assumption. The psychologists proposed that older people may exhibit greater prejudice because they have difficulty inhibiting the stereotypes that regularly get activated in all of our brains. They suggested an ageing brain is not as effective in suppressing unwanted information - - including stereotypes.

In the May/June 2011 issue of the popular American liberal magazine Mother Jones, Chris Mooney has a long article on how our brains fool us on for example climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.

Mooney writes: "A man of conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point." So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger [pdf], in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial - - the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that - - this was the 1950s - - and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens - - including one, "Sananda," who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics (The word Dianetics comes from the Greek dia, meaning 'through' and nous, meaning 'soul', and is defined as 'what the soul is doing to the body. ' Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard devised the term and the concept is practiced by followers of Scientology) devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Mooney says through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin's followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers - - the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, the "boys upstairs" (as the aliens were sometimes called) did not show up and rescue the Seekers. Then December 21 arrived without incident. It was the moment Festinger had been waiting for: How would people so emotionally invested in a belief system react, now that it had been soundly refuted?

At first, the group struggled for an explanation. But then rationalization set in. A new message arrived, announcing that they'd all been spared at the last minute. Festinger summarized the extraterrestrials' new pronouncement: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." Their willingness to believe in the prophecy had saved Earth from the prophecy!

From that day forward, the Seekers, previously shy of the press and indifferent toward evangelizing, began to proselytize. "Their sense of urgency was enormous," wrote Festinger. The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs.

Mooney says that in the annals of denial, it doesn't get much more extreme than the Seekers. They lost their jobs, the press mocked them, and there were efforts to keep them away from impressionable young minds. But while Martin's space cult might lie at on the far end of the spectrum of human self-delusion, there's plenty to go around. And since Festinger's day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even colour what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.

Mooney says a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs. Results have been found for how people respond to "evidence" about affirmative action, gun control, the accuracy of gay stereotypes, and much else. Even when study subjects are explicitly instructed to be unbiased and even-handed about the evidence, they often fail.

In a 2008 Pew survey only 19% of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31% of non-college educated Republicans. In other words, a higher education correlated with an increased likelihood of denying the science on the issue. Meanwhile, among Democrats and independents, more education correlated with greater acceptance of the science.

Mooney concludes that conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what has been called a "culture war of fact." In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values - - so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

Plenty of today’s scientific theories will one day be discredited; so should we be sceptical of science itself?


Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, writes in Intelligent Life that if a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism -- all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be - - they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.

Gottlieb says that fact partly explains why some influential climate scientists today, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are having a hard time. At the end of her book 'Science: A Four Thousand Year History' (2009), Patricia Fara of Cambridge University wrote that “there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow.”

Gottlieb says most laymen probably assume that the 350-year-old institution of “peer review”, which acts as a gatekeeper to publication in scientific journals, involves some attempt to check the articles that see the light of day. In fact they are rarely checked for accuracy, and, as a study for the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, reported last year, “the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that post-publication verification is equally rare.”

Gottlieb says it is perhaps the biases of science reporting in the popular press that produce the most misinformation, especially in medicine. The faintest whiff of a breakthrough treatment for a common disease is news, yet the fact that yesterday’s breakthrough didn’t pan out - - which ought to be equally interesting to a seeker after truth - - rarely is.

While discredited research is regularly cited in support of other research, Gottlieb says the shortcomings of science do not make it rational to believe cranks instead.

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