Friday, June 15, 2012

The end of the world (not)

I've my regular ABC column up today, 'Mayan calendar and the end of thought'.

Apparently one in ten Australians believe that the world might end this year. Why? Because an ancient Mesoamerican calendar suggests it. Sort of. A sample:
that almost one in 10 Australians are ready for the end of days, because of one interpretation of one pre-modern calendar, is surprising. Most obviously, it is just factually dubious. According to several experts in Mesoamerican civilisation, the Mayan calendar says nothing about an apocalypse. It is simply the end of a long cycle. Were the Mayans still here – and they are not, I add – they might simply flip the calendar over to the next cycle, as we do from December 31 to January 1. 
And even if the Mayans calendar did forecast doom, there is little reason to believe them. There have been many predictions about the end of the world, and the fact that folks are still here to play prophet is wonderfully ironic evidence of previous failures. What most doomsday auguries have in common is a complete lack of evidence, usually combined with a great deal of ambiguous supernaturalism. Man-made dates are calculated, and read in light of vague scriptures – the world will end on 1000AD, 2000AD, when the equations equal 666, and so on. My birth date adds up to thirty-six, I am thirty-six, and the comic New Mutants #36 is released this year – proof that I am destined to fight crime alongside Wolverine. Right? 
It is also a dubiously capricious use of ancient 'wisdom'. Aside from goods like corn and tomatoes, Australians are not known for their interest in archaic Mesoamerican exports. I am yet to hear of a single Australian giving ritualistic blood sacrifices to the four gods at the corners of the (flat) earth holding up the sky, which rests on the back of a giant crocodile. But a few news channels, or internet sites, report the end of the Mayan calendar, and suddenly we are all devoted to their religious and mathematical genius?

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