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21 December 2012

Winnipeg Sun Coverage of the "Mayan Apocalypse"

Cross-posted from the Winnipeg Skeptics blog.

No, the world isn't ending today. Sorry to disappoint. But the Winnipeg Sun has quite the spread on the subject of the "Mayan" notpocalypse, this morning. I was contacted earlier in the week by two different journalists from the Sun who were writing stories about the (non-)event, and they'd heard about our party.

(By the way: in case you hadn't heard, the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba are hosting a joint "End of the World" party tonight at the Assiniboine Golf Club at 2045 Ness Avenue. We're starting the evening off at 7:00 with an apocalypse-themed pub quiz, followed by music, dancing, and general merriment! There'll be food, a cash bar, and a silent auction. Tickets are $15, and there will be a few available at the door.)

You can find the Winnipeg Sun articles here:
Manitobans ready for apocalypse, by Joyanne Pursaga
Don't blame the Mayans for apocalypse, by Tessa Vanderhart

Since space is limited in print media, I knew that only a few of the points that I made in the interviews would see the light of day, so I figured that I might as well share the answers to some of the questions that I was asked here:

Why are you skeptical that the world will end Friday?
The first rule of skepticism is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in this case there is good reason to disbelieve. First, while the thirteenth b'ak'tun of the ancient Mesoamerican long-count calendar does end on Friday, there's little reason to think that the Mayans actually believed the world would end on that day. (When your calendar runs out, you don't think it's the end of the world: you get a new calendar.) Second, even if Mayans did believe this, there's no reason to think that they'd be right. Third, every single proposed mechanism by which the world might end has been handily debunked by scientists in the appropriate fields (NASA has a web page devoted to it, for example). And finally, given the absolutely staggering number of actual end of the world predictions that have come and gone uneventfully, I think that we're pretty safe.

As a skeptic, how do you think the world will end (assuming it will, some day)?
That's a hard question to answer. If you're taking a human-centric view, then I'm rather concerned about both environmental degradation and international conflict. I think that the planet will probably outlast us well enough, but given enough time some astronomical calamity is almost certain to do the Earth in, be it an asteroid, a gamma ray burst, or the eventual expansion of the sun into a red giant, 5 billion years from now. Those interested in ways the world could end would do well to take a look at astronomer Phil Plait's book Death from the Skies.

Is there any goal to the party or just a get together in itself?
Simple good cheer is the primary purpose, to be honest. Sharing a drink and a laugh with other members of the community is the way many people choose to spend their time during the holiday season, and the "non-event" of the supposed Mayan Apocalypse makes a convenient focal point for the festivities. And although I doubt many people are seriously worried about it, the party should add some levity to the "doom and gloom" that people might otherwise expect from discussions surrounding the apocalypse.

Can people who think that the world might end attend the party?
Of course! Hopefully they'll find it reassuring. They'll certainly find it fun.

Why do people get so worked up over things like this?
Well, it's complicated, but there are a few straightforward reasons. Hucksterism, for one. Several authors have latched on to the date to lend weight to their crank ideas, exploiting the public's fears to make a quick buck on book sales (the supposed collision between Earth and the fictional planet "Nibiru", for example, was originally supposed to happen in May 2003, but was conveniently rescheduled after the planet failed to appear). Failed apocalypses are also quickly forgotten, so it's easy to overlook how commonplace these sorts of predictions actually are. There have been at least a dozen failed end of the world predictions in the last decade alone! There's really no reason to worry. None at all.

Finally, if you happen to know any Maya (yes, they're still around), kindly apologise to them on behalf of the rest of the human race for all of the nonsense. We'll try not to be too much of a bother from now on.

Merry Notpocalypse, everyone!

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