Archeologists working in the Guatemalan rainforest have discovered an ancient mural room evidently used by Mayan scientists, on which extensive calendrical calculations had been written. The newly discovered instances of Mayan timekeeping are older than earlier calendars recovered from ruins of the civilization – the ones that notoriously end after the thirteenth baktun, or four hundred year cycle, and that convince some New Agey people that the world is scheduled to end seven months and nine days from now, on December 21st, 2012.
Those expectations are ostensibly undercut by the reporting on this new discovery of what you might think of as a beta version of the super-long Mayan calendar. When the coverage of this story proves not to change anything, though, I think it will convey a worthwhile lesson about nature of people’s beliefs. The longer false information is reinforced, the stronger the eventual revelation needs to be to push people to the breaking point of abandoning irrational ideas.
This Mayan calendar speculation has been going on for so long that there are certainly people out there who accept its credence even though they know nothing about the context of Mayan timekeeping, or even about the Mayan civilization in general. It’s common knowledge, or rather common bullshit, to the extent that it’s been used without explanation in recent ad campaigns. Of course, that same fact indicates that people are immune to the reference. By and large, they either reject it out of hand without having to argue the point anymore, or they accept it but have accepted it for so long that waiting for the end of days has become about as engaging as waiting for one’s number to be called at the DMV.
People can become absolutely committed to the craziest beliefs just by virtue of proximity and repetition. As somebody who’s been prone to a good deal of mythological thinking and esotericism myself, I don’t rush to judge the so-called Mayan calendar prophecy as crazy or stupid, but it is pretty well divorced from anything that could be construed as objective fact. Speculation isn’t an intellectual crime, per se, just as long as you recognize that you’re speculating and that it won’t take much additional evidence to discount your ideas altogether.
That’s what a lot of people don’t understand, and it is a serious problem for the entire belief structure and process of rationality in the minds of some people who are otherwise capable of great intelligence. I’m certain that some such people still think that the world might end on the winter solstice, and I’m equally certain that the mere fact that their sole piece of evidence for that has been directly refuted by the same 3000 year-old dead civilization that had been the source of it in the first place.
Breaking points are by their very nature hard things to reach on one’s own, and much harder to bring about in others. That’s what makes them either so damaging or so satisfying, depending on the outcome. That’s also why they ought to be confined to matters of principle or behavior or ideology, and not factual information. It is an unfortunate complication to rational dialogue when the breaking point for one’s genuine understanding is pushed back by the fact that he insists on stubbornly clinging to beliefs that were based on pure speculation in absence of the factual data that is to become available later.
In this sense, I’m looking forward to a sort of meta breaking point in social psychological trends, one that encourages people to dispense with their need for a breaking point in issues of pure fact. Fact, theory, speculation, and opinion all need to be relegated to their own spheres. If any significant number of people persist in conflating those categories so much that they believe that recurrent speculation is knowledge, it is that much more difficult for the public to have effective discussions about opinions that can’t be outright disproven but can – and should – be broken.