Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Apocalypse ongoing

A while back, I wrote about the strange and disheartening research by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, the upshot of which is that frequently when there is powerful evidence against a deeply-held belief, the result is that the belief gets stronger.

It's called the backfire effect.  The Festinger et al. study looked at a cult that centered around a belief that the world was going to end on a very specific date.  When the Big Day arrived, the cult members assembled at the leader's house to await the end.  Many were in severe emotional distress.  At 11:30 P.M., the leader -- perhaps sensing things weren't going the way he thought they would -- secluded himself to pray.  And at five minutes till midnight, he came out of his room with the amazing news that because of their faith and piety, God told him he'd decided to spare the world after all.

The astonishing part is that the followers didn't do what I would have done, which is to tell the leader, "You are either a liar or a complete loon, and I am done with you."  They became even more devoted to him.  Because, after all, without him instructing them to keep the vigil, God would have destroyed the world, right?

Of course right.

The peculiar fact-resistance a lot of people have can reach amazing lengths, as I found out when a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago having to do with the fact that people are still blathering on about the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse.  Remember that?  Supposedly the Mayan Long Count Calendar indicated that one of their long time-cycles (b'ak'tuns) was going to end on December 21, 2012, and because of that there was going to be absolute chaos.  Some people thought it would be the literal end of the world; the more hopeful types thought it would be some kind of renewal or Celestial Ascension that would mark the beginning of a new spiritual regime filled with peace, love, and harmony.

The problem was -- well, amongst the many problems was -- the fact that if you talked to actual Mayan scholars, they told you that the interpretation of the Long Count Calendar was dependent not only on translations of uncertain accuracy, but an alignment of that calendar with our own that could have been off in either direction by as much as fifty years.  Plus, there was no truth to the claim that the passage into the next b'ak'tun was anything more than a benchmark, same as going from December 31 to January 1.

Mostly what I remember about the Mayan Apocalypse is that evening, my wife and I threw an End-of-the-World-themed costume party.

Although the party was a smashing success, what ended up happening apocalypse-wise was... nothing.  December 22, 2012 dawned, and everyone just kept loping along as usual.  There were no asteroid impacts, nuclear wars, or alien invasions, and the giant tsunami that crested over the Himalayas in the catastrophically bad movie 2012 never showed up.

Which is a shame, because I have to admit that was pretty cool-looking.

So -- huge wind-up, with thousands of people weighing in, and then bupkis.  What's an apocalyptoid to do, in the face of that?

Well, according to the article my friend sent -- their response has been sort of along the lines of Senator George Aiken's solution to the Vietnam War: "Declare victory and go home."  Apparently there is a slice of true believers who think that the answer to the apocalypse not happening back in 2012 is that...

... the apocalypse did too happen.

I find this kind of puzzling.  I mean, if the world ended, you'd think someone would have noticed.  But that, they say, is part of how we know it actually happened.  Otherwise, why would we all be so oblivious?

The parallels to Festinger et al. are a little alarming.

The mechanisms of how all this worked are, unsurprisingly, a little sketchy.  Some think we dropped past the event horizon of a black hole and are now in a separate universe from the one we inhabited pre-2012.  Others think that we got folded into a Matrix-style simulation, and this is an explanation for the Mandela effect.  A common theme is that it has something to do with the discovery by CERN of the Higgs boson, which also happened in 2012 and therefore can't be a coincidence.

Some say it's significant that ever since then, time seems to be moving faster, so we're hurtling ever more quickly toward... something.  They're a little fuzzy on this part.  My question, though, is if time did speed up, how could we tell?  The only way you'd notice is if time in one place sped up by comparison to time in a different place, which is not what they're claiming.  They say that time everywhere is getting faster, to which I ask: getting faster relative to what, exactly?

In any case, the whole thing makes me want to take Ockham's Razor and slit my wrists with it.

So that's our dive in the deep end for the day.  No need to worry about the world ending, because it already did.  The good news is that we seem to be doing okay despite that, if you discount the possibility that we could be inside a black hole.

Me, I'm not going to fret about it.  I've had enough on my mind lately.  Besides, if the apocalypse happened eleven years ago, there's nothing more to be apprehensive about, right?

Of course right.


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