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The Great Panic of 2012 and the Balm of Skepticism

December 14, 2012, 6:00 AM

All throughout this year, I've been hearing people excitedly claiming that December 21, 2012, one week from today, will be the date of some major world event. Amusingly, the many New Age authors who've written about this date all have completely different ideas of what specifically is going to happen - they don't even agree on whether it's going to be good or bad. (See the inset image for this post for a few of the ideas that have been proposed: "Eloheim and the council", galactic alignment, "fractal time", apocalypse, world cataclysm, the return of the "Great Mother", and the return of Quetzalcoatl, who I presume is not the same as the Great Mother or Eloheim.)

But while I knew that there was breathless blather about 2012 and the Mayans, I had no idea that there was more to it than a flurry of cash-in books. I guess I should have been expecting it, but I was still shocked to discover that there are people all over the world who are genuinely frightened and disturbed by what they believe to be a rapidly approaching catastrophe.

In Russia, for example, there have been outbreaks of panic and hoarding, to the point where government officials found it necessary to release an official statement trying to calm people. (A Russian Orthodox church official no doubt helped matters greatly by saying that "doomsday is sure to come", just that it wouldn't take place according to the Mayan timetable.) In the U.S. NASA has felt it necessary to issue similar statements. Pilgrims are flocking to supposedly "sacred" sites all over the world, including Mount Rtanj in Serbia, the village of Sirince in Turkey, and in southern France, the mountain of Bugarach, where they believe that alien ships are waiting underneath to whisk them away from the destruction of the planet. (Wasn't that the plot of a Nicolas Cage movie?)

One of the more interesting tidbits was this one, about an outbreak of mass hysteria at a prison in Russia:

In an interview with the Data news service, Father Tikhon said he was summoned to the prison in November. The wardens told him that anxiety over the Mayan prophecy had been building for two months, and some inmates had broken out of the facility "because of their disturbing thoughts." Some of the women were sick, or having seizures, he said.

"Once, when the prisoners were standing in formation, one of them imagined that the earth yawned, and they were all stricken by fear and ran in all directions," the priest said.

It's not hard to see how similar outbreaks of religious fervor, in an age even more superstitious and credulous than our own, could have given rise to breathless tall tales like the supposed miracle of Fatima. In mobs of people who share the same beliefs, who are taut with expectation and on the edge of panic, it doesn't take much to produce a shared mass delusion.

This is an underappreciated benefit of being a skeptic: it means not being tossed to and fro by apocalyptic fads and panics. Millenarianism always flourishes in times of danger and uncertainty, as people who are disheartened and downtrodden by this world put their hopes in the coming of a better one. But it inevitably leads to failure and disappointment, as people put effort into girding for the apocalypse rather than taking meaningful steps to improve their own lives. We saw it with Harold Camping, and we'll see it again in a few weeks' time.

No doubt, when next week comes and goes and the Earth isn't destroyed, true believers will seamlessly switch to giving the day a "spiritual" interpretation, claiming that some great event did occur but went unnoticed by the unenlightened masses. (That's how the Seventh-Day Adventists got their start, for example.) But they'll still have wasted their time and money preparing for a non-event (I wonder how many of those pilgrims to Bugarach and elsewhere bought one-way tickets?), and they'll still have either tortured themselves with needless fear and anxiety, or raised their hopes high only to have them dashed. The tranquility that skepticism affords, and the ability to tell the real dangers apart from the delusions, is a benefit that's never more significant than in times like this.

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The Great Panic of 2012 and...

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