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Critical Thinking and the Mayan “Prophecy”

People laugh at the idea that the world would end December 21, 2012, but they bought hook line and sinker the rumor that this had been a Mayan prophecy.

There are a couple of interesting lessons to take away from that whole nonsense about the Maya and their so-called end-of-the-world prophecy, which was the subject of a story I reported for today's Inquirer.

One lesson is that plausible misinformation is perhaps more dangerous that preposterous misinformation because people will believe the plausible stuff.

The preposterous, in this case, is the notion that the world really will end on December 21 2012. There are of course a few people who will believe anything, even this, but far more people believe the plausible rumor that the ancient Maya really did predict doomsday with their far-reaching sacred calendar.

People who are reasonably skeptical bought into this part, but assumed the Maya didn't know what they were talking about.

Archaeologists who specialize in Mayan culture say that there was never any such prophecy. This date marks the end of a "long cycle" in the Mayan calendar, but there's no evidence the Maya connected this to the world ending. The experts who spoke to me said they think the prophecy rumor is a projection of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic thinking onto the Mayan timekeeping system.

In fact, some archaeologists say it's also wrong to assume this turnover means their calendar will end, any more than ours ends when we hit the end of a millennium. Their calendar is open-ended, just as ours is.

Archaeologist David Stuart told me that the Maya loved to play games with big numbers, and so they actually envisioned numbers in the calendar that strung together 20 20s – allowing time to go one for octillions of years into the future.  

The other lesson was that the Maya were fascinating people who made astonishing achievements in mathematics, timekeeping, and astronomy. Read more here.

(Yeah, I know, it's misclassified under health and the copy editor made a major goof in the headline. It's a shame because I put some serious effort into researching the story. On the other hand, the world probably isn't ending on December 12 either).