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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Prophecies and Probabilities

Since I normally do my weekly blog post at the weekend, it just occurred to me that this is my last opportunity to jump on the Mayan Prophecy bandwagon. The basic idea is that the world is going to end on Friday (21 December 2012), because more than a thousand years ago a Central American civilization called the Maya said that’s what would happen. Most of what I’ve read on the subject has been debunking the idea, with a lot of effort being put into proving that the Maya never actually said the world would end on Friday. This is really funny, because it suggests that if the Maya had said the world would end on Friday, then there would be serious cause for alarm, but actually it’s okay because they didn’t.

The Maya were a sophisticated and clever culture – they built pyramids like the one on the right, for example (photo courtesy of Paul Jackson). But history is filled with sophisticated and clever cultures. In the Western world, ancient Greece and Rome have been revered as paragons of wisdom and insight since the late Middle Ages. During the 18th and 19th centuries, other ancient civilizations were added to the cultural pantheon: Egypt, India, China and several others. But not the Maya. The idea that the teachings of the Maya should be heeded above all the others is (to put it politely) of recent manufacture. The most catastrophic event in Mayan history was the coming of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, which resulted in the near-total obliteration of their cultural heritage. If they didn’t foresee that clearly enough to prevent it, why believe their powers of prophecy are better than anyone else’s?

Anyone who wants to take the Mayan Prophecy seriously needs to explain why the Maya—of all cultures—got it right when no-one else did. And there’s a bigger thing they need to explain – why anyone should believe that a date-specific prophecy made more than a thousand years ago is going to come true. There simply isn’t a precedent. In the whole of history, date-specific prophecies of disaster conspicuously fail to come true.

There’s a reason for this. Macroscopic physical processes are probabilistic, not deterministic. You can’t predict when catastrophes will happen, because even the catastrophes themselves don’t know. There are plenty of big disasters that will happen, with certainty, at some point in the future – even “apocalyptic” disasters on a scale greater than anything in recorded history. A supervolcano, or a massive geomagnetic storm—particularly if coupled with a weakening of the Earth’s magnetic field—could destroy the infrastructure that holds the modern, high-tech world together. That might not literally be the “end of the world”, but it would be the end of civilized society. Events like that have happened before in Earth’s history, and it’s a dead cert they will happen again. But there’s inherent randomness in the system, so it’s impossible to determine exactly when they will happen. It may be a thousand years from now, or it may be next Thursday. Or Friday.

The Met Office can’t even predict the weather next Friday (except in terms of probabilities), so it’s ludicrous to suppose the Maya could predict some catastrophe—to the exact day—more than a thousand years in advance. Even if they were in contact with extraterrestrial aliens who had computer technology millions of years ahead of ours, they couldn’t predict something that is fundamentally indeterminate. On the other hand, it’s equally foolish to say—as some extreme skeptics have—that there definitely won’t be a world-ending catastrophe on Friday. That’s effectively saying that such a thing is less likely to occur on that day than on any other day. In other words, the extreme skeptics give special significance to that particular day just as much as the extreme believers do!


Kandinsky said...

I sometimes wonder if the proponents and believers of these predictions aren't susceptible to racial stereotyping.

After all, a preponderance of the on-line believers tend to be wedded to particular New Age notions of the world. These extend to the premise that Native Americans have more insight, deeper wisdom and latent powers to see into the future. They also cast their net further afield into time and space by also associating the Mayans with their super-mystical narratives. Toss in the Maoris, a few Aborigines and maybe some Inuits and Aluits and we see a picture forming.

Beyond the shade of pigmentation, from where exactly do they think these powers of scrying arise?

If we look at the archaeological and anthropological records, aren't (or weren't) these same populations as susceptible to warfare, societal collapse and intestinal worms as their lighter-skinned brothers and sisters? Isn't alcoholism a problem on reservations and in cities? Where is the evidence that any culture, colour or historical population had the advantage of foresight over others?

Maybe it's the way proponents phrase their cryptic predictions like a Weissmuller Tarzan?

It might be lovely if humanity had some form of reliable predictive ability. Eastern tsunamis and terrifying Chinese earthquakes would have a less devastating effect if folk could bale out earlier. It might also add something magical to our experience of life. Who knows? The thing is that nobody was able to prophesy any of them to the extent of saving lives and your point that they never come to pass anyway is all too true.

Bills will be paid in the New Year regardless of the world changing (ahem) 'as we know it.'

Merry Christmas Andrew.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - happy Christmas to you too. I've never really been able to get my head round New Age epistemology, but it seems to be based to a large extent on contrariness vis a vis the mainstream view. The mainstream emphasizes the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions, not to mention the scientific paradigm, so all of these are perforce wrong in New Age eyes. On the other hand, the more mysterious (less well recorded and less well studied) traditions must necessarily be correct, simply because they are more mysterious!

jackwebbor said...

Prophecies are less about predicting the future than interpreting the past, finding patterns, and then applying those patterns to the days to come. Conceivably, the Mayans could have observed such patterns and formed their calendar around them. The ending date relating to the beginning date and their original reason for creating the calendar.

Andrew May said...

That's an interesting point. I can believe that early cultures would have put a lot of intellectual effort into trying to discern and understand patterns in nature, and it's possible the Mayan calendar is an result of this.