Many people have heard the myths: the world will end in 2012. The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012 reportedly marking the end of the world. A large "invisible" planet, Niribu, is allegedly heading towards a collision with Earth in December 2012. The Earth's poles are supposedly going to switch in 2012. However, none of these doomsday scenarios are based in science. Scientists around the world have not reported a large planet heading towards us. Historians say that yes, the Mayan calendar does end -- but just like our calendars end every December 31; a new one starts the next day. Still people continue to be fearful the world will soon end, and skeptical of the science saying otherwise.
AAAS member David Morrison, Ph.D., is the senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute in California. He has been answering questions from the public for many years as part of NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" program. He says he has received almost a thousand questions about 2012, with the number increasing daily. But he continues to talk to the public, and try to answer their questions and relieve their fears.
Morrison answered several questions from AAAS MemberCentral about what it is like to talk to the public about such a scary, although false, idea.
AAASMC: How and why did you first become involved in public outreach?
David Morrison, Ph.D., senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif: My thesis adviser and role model was Carl Sagan. He was a great teacher, and he cared passionately about explaining science to the public. About 20 years ago, Clark Chapman and I wrote a popular trade book called "Cosmic Catastrophes," and that led to opportunities to testify before Congress and speak to space advocacy groups. As the public became conscious of the hazard of comet and asteroid impacts, I found opportunities to be a spokesperson for that particular cosmic hazard.
AAASMC: I understand a lot of your communication with the public has to do with the supposed Doomsday in 2012, please explain the fear the public has and what they often ask about.
Morrison: For nearly a decade I have been posting online answers to questions sent to NASA's Ask an Astrobiologist website. Three years ago, I began to hear about a doomsday supposedly associated with the Mayan calendar and a hypothetical rogue planet called Nibiru. The pace of questions increased from one a week, to one a day, to one every couple of hours. Many of these are from people who are genuinely afraid of the "end of the world."
Many letters represent what I call "cosmophobia" -- fear of the universe. Whenever a new astronomical discovery is announced, people write to me asking if it will hurt them. It is especially distressing to hear of children who are afraid of black holes, or the galactic equator, or the star Betelgeuse -- just to name a few of these fears.
AAASMC: Why are these fears misguided? What will really happen in 2012?
Morrison: Nothing will happen in 2012. This widespread fear has no factual basis whatsoever. The roots of this myth lie in the Mayan calendar, which is composed of interlocking cycles of day counts. The way the Mayan calendar is constructed, the cycle starts again the next day, but some claim 2012 is the end of the calendar, and hence the end of the world.
Another thread leads to Zecharia Sitchin's fabulist books about the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer. Sitchin claimed that he found and translated Sumerian documents that identify the planet Nibiru, orbiting the Sun and passing through the inner solar system every 3600 years. All this sounds crazy to a scientist. But apparently tens millions of people believe this prediction of an imminent end of the world.
AAASMC: Many feel trying to communicate with people who have "crazy" or extreme ideas is misguided, why do you persevere?
Morrison: I have no illusions that I can convince or convert the hard-core believers in these doomsday fantasies, any more than scientists can convert the true believers in creationism. My target audience is the much larger number of people who are frightened by these doomsday predictions and don't know what to believe. Most of the people who write to "Ask an Astrobiologist," for example, are looking for help. They lack the background or the skills to distinguish science from pseudoscience, truth from fiction.
AAASMC: What do you find most rewarding about public outreach? Are there any triumphant moments or people you have spoken to that stick out in your memory?
Morrison: Every week I receive thank-you letters from people who have read my publications or seen the two short videos I have posted on YouTube. I treasure the notes from parents who say they were able to use my videos to calm their children's fears.
There is a real disconnect here. Many of the people who write to me or post comments on the Internet seem to feel that everyone shares their concern about the end of the world. I get phrases like "everyone is worrying about doomsday" or "all the people on my block are buying telescopes so they can see Nibiru for themselves." However, I have never actually met anyone who is afraid of 2012.
AAASMC: What is the most frustrating part about talking with the public, especially in regards to fears about the end of the world.
Morrison: I have been surprised and disturbed by the number of people who seem to believe everything on Internet websites or YouTube. I am frequently asked to look at YouTube videos that are obviously amateur efforts by people who don't know what they are talking about. There is one popular video by a person taken with a webcam standing in his kitchen, who claims to be representing NASA. Others report "leaks" from anonymous scientists whose life would be in danger if their names were revealed. Yet many people apparently accept all this at face value. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others seem to accept nothing. There is dialog on the Internet where people say they don't believe anything from the government and they are following their gut instinct, that people should "do their own research" or "think for themselves." It is all very sad.
AAASMC: How would you convince other scientists to become more involved in communicating with the public? Why do you think this work is important?
Morrison: Everyone should take an interest in communicating about science. There are many opportunities, ranging from Internet chat rooms to visiting school classes. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions of what we can do to improve science literacy and promote critical thinking. I am pleased to see more scientists becoming involved in public outreach. I hope that this is becoming easier to do, and that promotion and tenure committees no longer penalize faculty for time spent in public education, as many did a generation ago.
AAASMC: What do you think is the most pressing scientific issue that needs more public outreach, whether because of public misinformation, lack of information or simply importance?
Morrison: The greatest danger our planet faces is not from the sky; it is climate change. I am amazed that the climate change deniers can continue to fool so many members of the public. The constant repetition of statements that the Earth is not warming, or if it is the warming is not caused by humans, and in any case a warmer planet with more carbon dioxide might a good thing, unfortunately has had an effect. One of the lies is that climate scientists are faking their data in order to get research grants. Yet another is that the consensus among climate scientists is falling apart, with more scientists every day admitting that climate change is not real. However, the facts are to the contrary.
But can facts that inconvenience major industries win the debate? Can money trump science? The only hope for a rational discussion of climate change seems to depend on greater efforts by scientists to communicate not only the facts but, even more important, the kind of critical thinking that is needed to distinguish truth from fiction.
- Recent Science Magazine interview with David Morrison Into the Stretch for Science's Point Man on Doomsday
- NASA's Ask an Astrobiologist page
- David Morrison's YouTube video The Truth about Comet Elenin
- David Morrison's YouTube video The Truth about 2012