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Archive for Saturday, December 22, 2012

Opinion: The world is still with us

December 22, 2012

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This is being written on Dec. 17, 2012.  If the world comes to an end on Dec. 21, as followers of the Mayan calendar choose to believe, you will not read this op-ed piece in the Lawrence Journal-World.  But the chances are surefire that you will. Why? Because being archaic does not mean being all-knowing.

This belief — that mere antiquity imparts magical powers of prognostication, or access to the supernatural — underlies worship of fashionable archaeological objects such as the Mayan calendar, or the Caveman Diet, or the writings of Nostradamus, or Biblical numerology. And this belief is widespread — a worldwide poll determined that 1 in 10 people are terrified of doomsday striking on Dec. 21.  So much for common sense, critical  thinking and a healthy dose of deja vu.

In March, 2011 Harold Camping captured the news media and panicked believers with his predictions of Jesus’ second coming on May 21, 2011, and the end of the world six months later on Oct. 21.  It was the second time his calculus of Biblical end times didn’t add up. He had previously predicted Judgment Day for Sept. 6, 1994. If writings are primeval, it makes them … well … primeval, not prophetic. 

Same with Nostradamus. All one can say about his medieval prophecies is that, dating to 1555, they are medieval, written in quatrains, or four lines of verse, and no more prophetic about the modern world than is the crystal-peering into the past by other self-proclaimed oracles and doomsters.

Followers of the Caveman Diet, aka the Paleolithic Diet, believe that Neanderthals and other ancestors ate healthier and smarter during the Paleolithic Era, an archaeological period prior to 10,000 years ago.  Hence the caveman diet — red meat, nuts, berries and seeds, no salt, sugar, potatoes or other carbs, and long periods of intermittent fasting. Hmmm. When Neandertals  were lucky, they got to eat mammoth or aurochs (an extinct bison relative) or wild boar or reindeer, none of which are available in today’s supermarkets. When they were unlucky, which was most of the time, Neanderthals got to eat worms, tubers, leaves and each other — and fast for long periods of time. Neanderthals and their diet had a life expectancy of between 15 and 30 years of age. None lived beyond 30. And, most obviously, they became extinct. 

Scholarly studies of the Mayan system of short- and long-cycle calendars tell us a good deal about Mayan culture, their math and astronomy — how they counted the days and years and how they perceived the march of the Earth amid the celestial bodies. But, the human future does not rest on whether Mayans calculated their calendar to mark the end of times or the end of a cycle-of-time on Dec. 21. The Mayan calendar isn’t about our stocking the survival shelter with beans and rice and other foods that Neandertals never got to eat. It’s about understanding the Mayan sense of fates, not the fate of the world.

Divining the future is hard work. It takes more than old parchment or ancient hieroglyphics or the alleged decoding of the claimed words of an antediluvian deity. For political predictions, it takes a keen chronicler of history and political behavior, such as George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian vision of totalitarian tyranny, “1984,” or Francisco Goya’s 1797 print “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”  For technological futures, it takes a creative mind for imagining science fiction evolving into science, as did Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and other artists. 

And for environmental forecasts, it takes poets such as Robert Frost to tell us the world will end in fire or ice, and climate scientists to use terabytes of data, complex mathematical models, ferocious computational power, and intricate knowledge of the planet’s natural systems to tell us how the poetic warning will proceed and how to turn its rhyme into reason and resolution. 

— Leonard Krishtalka is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.

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