Waiting for the big one

If the beliefs of a sizeable number of people turn out to be correct, this will be the final issue of the NZ Skeptic. According to a survey of 16,262 people in 21 countries conducted by market research company Ipsos for Reuters News, two percent of respondents strongly agree, and eight percent somewhat agree, with the proposition that 21 December 2012, the end of the current cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar, marks the end of the world. Perhaps surprisingly agreement is highest in China (20 percent), while the Germans and Indonesians (four percent) are relatively dubious. One could perhaps question the representativeness of the sample (comprised of people who have agreed to take part in online surveys), but there must be a lot of people out there who are really worried about this.

David Morrison, who runs the Ask an Astrobiologist page on NASA’s website, was reported in Canada’s National Post (28 September) as saying he has been flooded with thousands of questions about the issue, with at least one a week from teenagers so concerned that they’re considering suicide. “The one thing in common with all of these scare stories about December 2012 is that they have absolutely zero basis in fact,” he said. “There was no Mayan prediction of anything going wrong, there’s no planet Nibiru, there’s no planet alignment, there’s no change in the Earth’s axis, there’s no change in anything about the Earth. It’s just a complete fantasy.”

Belief in impending apocalypse has long been a feature of certain religious groups, but the various 2012 scenarios have a distinctly secular flavour. There seems to be something deeply and paradoxically appealing about the notion that we will all be wiped off the face of the Earth, and it’s not all driven by religion. Some see it as a response to the uncertainties of life, providing a sense of narrative amid the chaos. Another factor may be that, at least in its secular incarnations, it derives from a sense of insignificance in the face of the immensity of deep time. The universe is more than 13 billion years old, life has existed on Earth for at least three and a half billion years, and we probably have another five billion years before the sun runs out of fuel. Against that, what is the value of a single human life? (That’s a question I believe can be answered, but space precludes discussion of it here.)

If Doomsday is almost here, at least it means that we don’t have to face the idea of life going on without us. Some, perhaps, would see our lives today as having more meaning if all of history was leading up to this moment, and there won’t be any more to come. We would become the heroes of the Story of Life – that story may be a tragedy, but at least we were in at the end.

The murder that never was

George Gwaze was first cleared of the murder of his adopted daughter Charlene Makaza on 21 May 2008. At the time I wrote in NZ Skeptic 88‘s Newsfront that it had taken since the first week of 2007 for him to be acquitted of a non-existent crime: Charlene had died from a massive Aids:related infection. Little did I realise the Crown would retry the case – the only time a Not Guilty verdict has been overturned in a New Zealand court – and Gwaze would have to face another four years to clear his name.

It may seem a strange case to attract the interest of the NZ Skeptics, apart from the fact that one of our members, Dr Felicity Goodyear-Smith, acted as a medical adviser for the defence in the first trial, but it could be seen as a late manifestation of the sexual abuse panic which swept the western world in the 1980s and 1990s. This had its origins in a book titled Michelle Remembers, which recounted memories of satanic ritual abuse recovered under hypnosis from a young woman, Michelle Smith, by her therapist (later husband) Lawrence Pazder. Though skeptics at the time were quick to note that these ‘recovered memories’ had similarities with those reported by Budd Hopkins, who used hypnosis to uncover ‘memories’ of alien abduction, or various proponents of reincarnation who used similar techniques, there was a rash of satanic ritual abuse cases arising out of hypnotherapy sessions over the next few years.

In time, the satanic element faded, but the panic only became the more destructive because of that, with many people ‘recovering’ memories of more mundane forms of sexual abuse, often by their parents. Families were torn apart; the damage continues to this day. In a parallel development, testimony of sexual abuse (often ritual in nature) was elicited from pre-school children at day-care centres and kindergartens by suspect interviewing techniques.

In most of the world the day-care sexual abuse panic has been recognised for what it was, and those who fell victim to it have mostly received large compensation packages. Not so in New Zealand, where Peter Ellis is still on record as a convicted child abuser, after spending seven years in prison for alleged offences at the Civic Creche in Christchurch – the same city where the Gwaze family lives. Sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime and, perhaps understandably, when the prospect is raised rationality tends to fly out the window; other scenarios often don’t get a look in. The George Gwaze case – and the ongoing injustice suffered by Peter Ellis – shows that even (or perhaps especially) on this most emotional of issues, it’s necessary to keep a cool head, and to consider all possibilities.