Signs from Above

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

The release of an apocalyptic movie prompts NASA to debunk planetary rumors, fowl play shuts down the LHC, and the Catholic Church discusses alien life.

Illustration: Mike Pick

The new disaster blockbuster 2012 opens today, and while the movie isn’t a documentary, there are plenty of people who take the ideas in it seriously. Not the folks at NASA, though, who will most certainly not be attending the premier. In fact, they’ve been busy trying to dispel the movie’s premise, releasing a fact sheet that outlines all the reasons the world will not end on December 21, 2012.

The calumny that drives 2012‘s plot is never fully explained, but if its anything like the viral theories zipping around the Internet, it begins with a rogue member of our solar system—Planet X—grazing the Earth after millennia in a highly eccentric orbit. This isn’t Pluto’s revenge (though Planet X shares the dwarf planet’s original designation), but the imagined eschaton of an increasingly popular doomsday theory.

It would be difficult to refute, point by point, all the non-science stuff that happens in the film, as it seems like everything happens in this film. From the trailer alone, there are volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, meteor strikes, and lots and lots of soon-to-be-dead people. Director Roland Emmerich wasn’t content to beat the standard-bearer in any one kind of disaster movie, he wanted to beat them all at once.

Instead, NASA is going after the mythos behind the movie. Current 2012 theories are a mash-up of crackpot ideas in archeology, anthropology, geology, meteorology, and astronomy into one meta-theory that seems to have a life of its own.

At its core is Terrence McKenna’s 1975 drugged-out opus The Invisible Landscape, which kick-started the dubious idea that the Mayan Long Calendar’s December 2012 expiration date signified some great “transformation.” Daniel Pinchbeck then took the ball and ran with it, mutating the meme into a cultish New Age phenomenon. That got combined with Zechariah Sitchin’s The 12 Planet, which mangled Sumerian artifacts rather than Mayan ones to produce the idea of a rogue Planet X named Nibiru.

For starters, there are obviously no planets on a collision course with Earth—they would be plainly visible to the naked eye. NASA is also debunking rotational shifts, magnetic pole reversals, coronal mass ejections, the current sunspot drought and the Maunder Minimum.

While these things have little to nothing to do with one another, and most would not cause world-ending destruction even if they were real, an earnest heart-to-heart with an expert in the field, as in this video from NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist, is unlikely to change the minds of true 2012-ers; they are not on a quest for facts but for meaning.

Like science, their goal is to achieve an understanding of the universe and our place in it. But as with all conspiratorial thinking, 2012 adherents are working backward from a conclusion. The free-association and agglutination of so many disparate ideas and theories epitomizes this technique: Coincidences are elevated to meaningful connections, as facts at odds with the preconceived pattern are simply discarded. 

It’s the difference between mathematics and numerology.  The right approach is not changing what such people think, but how

Breaking bread at the LHC

A similar kind of mystical thinking is once again swirling about the LHC. The multibillion dollar experiment was set upon by the doomsday crowd when it was first turned on. In particular, two concerned citizens, fearing an LHC-produced black hole or strangelet would consume the Earth, attempted to shutter it with a lawsuit. But the recent theory by another pair—Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya—is the storyline now.

First covered by Dennis Overbye, then pretty much everyone else (myself included), the theory suggests the Higgs Boson could sabotage particle accelerators from the future, which would explain the Superconducting Supercollider’s funding collapse or the coolant quench that took the LHC offline for a year. 
 
Fans of this theory got another sign from above last week; a “bit of baguette” dropped by a bird caused the LHC to briefly shut down. To the scientists working at CERN, the shut-down was simply a demonstration of their experiment’s robust safety protocols, good things to have when working with the highest-energy particle collisions ever conducted by humans. But this incident is a perfect example of the kind of confirmation bias that allows such theories to propagate and thrive. It’s a testament to our brains’ magnificent ability to make inferences, as well as the need for a second level of thinking necessary to distinguish useful ones from the rest. 

Mission to Mars

Given any two groups, you’d think the extraterrestrial-hunters would be the one that trend toward mystical thinking (especially if they are combing Sumerian glyphs for evidence of ancient alien astronauts from the planet Nibiru). But at a recent astrobiology conference at the Vatican, they were the ones clearly on the side of science.

The Catholic Church’s position on aliens has evolved over the years; it no longer burns people alive for suggesting there may be a “plurality of worlds.” But the purpose of last week’s convocation was not to advance the search for extraterrestrial life but to prepare religious doctrine for adapting to the possibility of its discovery.

While some sects of Christianity would consider a “second Genesis” on some lonely exoplanet to be anathema, the official line from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is that alien life will not pose a challenge to Catholic dogma.

Well, of course not. If the Church doesn’t want to be in conflict with science, it is much easier to reform the former than the latter.  Like Nibiru’s prophesied arrival, which was moved to 2012 when it failed to show in 2003, the common interpretation of scripture will change to reflect the universe as we currently know it, just as it has done before. This is the crux (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the difference between scientific and mystical thinking: whether knowledge and meaning is actively sought or retroactively justified.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published November 13, 2009

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