Culture, History, Prophecy, Religion, Science

A 2012 Non-pocalypse Post-mortem: Lessons I Learned

Note: As I mentioned earlier at the beginning of the year, this is the post I had been working on when the telecast came calling (along with the Charlotte weekend) in late December–about the time that my final commentary on the subject was posted (“After the Non-pocalypse” on tomorrowsworld.org). It has sat in my drafts folder like a poor, neglected child, so I thought I would wrap it up the final bits and post it. It concerns the lessons I learned while dealing with 2012-related matters for the Church, mostly about academic integrity, how easily that integrity can be lost or prostituted in the service of one’s own ideas, and how I want to be sure to never cross those lines in the future. A lot of shameful tactics were practiced by many of the various 2012-ologists I encountered over the past several years, and it was a real reminder to me how easily one can deceive himself into finding “evidence” to believe whatever he wants to believe. Jeremiah 17:9 is alive and well…


Well, December 21, 2012 went by with the whimper every rational person expected instead of the bang others feared/hoped for. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been profitable! It certainly has been for me.

I am really thankful that I’ve had the chance to serve by looking into the crazy matter of 2012ness and writing about it for the Church. It has been both fun and frustrating… “Fun” in that debunking stupid thinking is fun and preaching the truth is fun. Why talk about 2012-related goofiness at all? Because other people are talking about it and those people need to hear the truth like anyone else–and I enjoy every opportunity to turn someone from fables to the truth. Who wouldn’t? Yet, it has been frustrating, too. For one, the 2012-hysteria truly is junk, and it can be disheartening to see individuals so caught up in such stupidity. Also, it isn’t just the hippies and the drug users one has to wrestle against who perpetuate the nonsense, but even those who should truly know better. Some of the worst “scholarship” I have ever seen publicly displayed has been done in 2012-related work, by those who seem to be under the delusion that their methods are good, strong, and of high levels of academic integrity, when it is, instead, bad, weak, and an example of some truly shameful practices.

For one such as me, this can too easily tap into one of my weaknesses: the old “Someone’s wrong on the Internet” trap.

xkcd comic:

I totally feel this sometimes…

I’ve overcome this weakness to a great degree (though my wife would likely disagree…), and I’m thankful for God’s help in that. Having a public face of some sort has made me a desirable target for some (though not nearly to the degree that, say, Mr. Meredith, Mr. Ames, Dr. Winnail do, and admire their ability to show such Christian restraint!), and recognizing that you truly can waste an incredible amount of time countering all the sincerely-believed-yet-still-mind-bogglingly-stupid things someone might say about you is a helpful way to just get used to fact that there is and will always be falsehoods and stupidity on the Internet. Mr. Meredith told me his uncle, C. Paul Meredith, used to tell him that if respond to every attack the devil throws out at you then you will never have time to do God’s Work—an outcome that, of course, the devil would be quite pleased with. But while I have learned that to a good degree, there are things that still get to me, and when it comes to 2012-quackery, some of the shoddy “scholarship” I have seen has really pushed some of those buttons on occasion.

At the same time, dredging through countless 2012-related books for this stuff has provided a way to be exposed to a myriad of various forms of shoddy “scholarship” in a concentrated way, and in this I have learned some helpful things that I hope will make any future work I do that much more solid and well-grounded. In short, I hope I can avoid the mistakes in the many horrid examples I have seen. Here are some of those mistakes:

[EDIT: Actually, before you continue reading, I have to warn you that now that I am done making this post I see that my example listing gets pretty long! After all, shoddy scholarship is an awful lot easier to come up with than good scholarship, and 2012-ology was full of shoddy-though-(mostly)-sincere scholarship. And, since this is the last post I anticipate writing on the 2012 phenomenon, I apparently wanted it to be thorough. If you get bored half-way through and just scroll down to the end, don’t worry, I won’t blame you! – WGS]


•  The “Any Support Will Do” Mistake. For example, I’ve seen some try to claim that Bolon Yokte, the “god” referred to on Tortuguero Monument 6, which does refer to 2012 (though not in the way it is often assumed to, discussed below), is also depicted in the last page of the Dresden Codex, perhaps trying to establish some sort of connection between the Monument and the Codex. “Hey, fascinating!” I thought. “Maybe there is a connection I missed!” But when I followed the link provided to the “source” of this insight, it was nothing but a weird, rambling comment on someone’s blog (note: not even a post on the blog, just a comment) made by some conspiracy-orientated individual who clearly wasn’t concerned about good scholarship. The comment was rubbish, and the Bolon Yokte/Dresden Codex “connection” was an illusion.

(I saw something similar in a “connection” I saw a presumably Protestant, evangelical pastor tried to force on his blog between Bolon Yokte and Jesus Christ, perhaps trying (but failing) to add a 2012 context to the Chilam Balam, which has no real connection to the 2012-phenomenon, at all. The “connection” is not only nonsensical, but also the attempt to make it does nothing but illustrate a deep ignorance of how the Maya expressed themselves in their monuments, writings, and “prophecies” over the centuries—a different sort of mistake that I will mention later.)

However, when a person gets too sold on a bad idea they can become too eager for any support they can find—any “outside” confirmation that their idea is a good one, even if the “confirmation” comes from a thoroughly disreputable source. In the end, giving in to that temptation to reference such a source does nothing but hurt your credibility, and understandably so. (And, no, there is no credible “2012” connection between Bolon Yokte and the Dresden Codex. My apologies to any Bolon Yokte fans out there.)

An analogy might be this: Let’s say I really believe that NASA should go back to the moon—that we should send new manned missions and even build a base there—as a matter of national pride (motivating, unifying), national advancement (new science or a stepping stone to Mars), or even national security (doing so before other nations do)… All of which are not uncommon arguments. However, let’s say that most everyone else thinks it’s a crazy idea, a waste of money, etc. Well, if I really wanted to bolster the position, I might be tempted to say, “Many people think that going back to the moon is a good idea (http://linktosomeplace.html).” Those who don’t follow the link might be fooled. However, those who follow the link to see an example of these “Many people” would then find out that it is a link to the “The Moon is Made of Cheese” branch of the Flat Earth Society where someone made a serious comment on their forum that “We have to go to the moon again for a new harvest in this decade before we run out of Gouda or Munster!”… well, suffice it to say that those who followed the link would understandably wonder why I thought this opinion was noteworthy support for my idea….

[By the way: My apologies to the real Flat Earth Society for suggesting in my hypothetical example that some of their members might believe the Moon is made of cheese, as I know of no such individual in your organization. I hope you don’t mind, as I suspect that your members are of good humor…]

It’s a worthwhile lesson. I believe in some things that most mainstream scientists and historians certainly do not (e.g., that neo-Darwinian evolution is false, the identity of modern Israel, etc.). I am willing to differ from such academic authorities for a variety of reasons, including the fact that biblical revelation is real data which must be considered in order to establish the truth. (A consideration I will mention again, later.) And when making one’s case, it is nice to reference evidence on occasion that others of reasonable mind have drawn similar conclusions. However, it has the opposite effect when referencing discreditable sources, and, while I already knew this, my experience wading around in 2012-ology has helped emphasize this to me.

•  The “Hide My Position’s Inadequacies With Vagueness” Mistake.  I saw a good bit of this, too, in the 2012 stuff out there, though I’m happy to assume it was accidental. For instance, the Dresden Codex/Bolon Yokte non-connection was hinted by saying, “Some say…” when, in reality, virtually no one was saying that.  The same thing is sometimes done by newspaper reporters, who will say “some say that the Republicans/Democrats blah blah blah” when it really seems as though they are expressing their own opinion. Regrettably, though, as I saw it used at times in 2012-ology, it was a way to hide the inadequacies of the position by allowing the reader to think many more people held the position than actually do and by hiding the complete lack of relevance of those who do hold that position (think “The Moon is Made of Cheese” folks, above). Even if the use of a vague “some” is not intended to be misleading, the net effect is that it can be misleading, and I don’t want to be misleading even on accident. Truth is too important to handle it carelessly.

This mistake was evident, as well, in expressions like “Some scholars say…” In truth, when you look into it, the “some scholars” being referenced were sometimes simply the author, himself/herself! “After all, I’m a ‘scholar’ and I think these things, so I can claim, ‘Some scholars say this,’ because I do!” That is, truly, vagueness in the service of deception and bearing false witness. (Christ pointed out that God looks on the heart and the intent: a “technical” truth does not cover for a desire to mislead or exaggerate, even if it is subconscious.) Similarly, the “scholars” to which one might refer might be either (1) “scholars” in a completely different field (e.g., a fellow may have earned an MD in medicine or a PhD in dentistry or international affairs, but that doesn’t make his thoughts on the Maya any more relevant than your neighbor’s) or (2) dead scholars whose ideas have long been discredited. (E.g., Dr. Förstermann’s opinion about the last page of the Dresden Codex is a good example here; one might as well quote Samuel Birley Rowbotham on whether the earth is round or flat, or Erik Sandberg-Diment in the 80s on the viability of MS Windows and laptops—and, yes, I enjoyed finding that obscure reference, thank you for asking!) If I have a PhD in Sports Injury Rehabilitation and I believe that the earth is the center of the solar system, just as Ptolemy and Anaximander used to believe, am I justified in saying, “Some scholars believe that earth is the center of the solar system”?

No. No, I am not.

Now if I found some real, current scholars (other than yours truly, of course) who, based on modern research in the field, do think so, it might be justified. And if I found some scholars who used to think so (again, other than myself) and whose research hasn’t been completely discredited over the decades, I could say, “Some scholars used to believe…” But I can’t find, say, one guy, and think, “Well, I’m a scholar (in other topics) and he’s a scholar (even if he’s dead and his ideas are completely discredited), so that makes two! So I’ll write ‘Some scholars think…’” That’s bordering academic dishonesty. Better simply to say, “I believe such-and-such is so.” If I find someone who used to think so, as well, then I can say, “This view was once held by so-and-so.” But to make my position seem stronger than it is by a vague reference to “scholars”? Hard to justify. [For a related mistake, see the “Wow, I’m a Scholar on This Topic!” Mistake, below.]

May I not fall prey to that temptation. If I believe what I am writing will stand up to scrutiny, I should be brave enough to present a good picture of the facts and to avoid slight-of-hand.

•  The “They’re Ancient and Primitive So They MUST Be Right!” Mistake.  This was one of the single most irritating facets of working with the 2012 hype. Even though the Maya really did not predict virtually anything AT ALL concerning 2012, the simple impression that they did was enough to help sell the hoax to millions. As I have commented before, there seems to be a tendency among those of us in the developed world to look on ancient, indigenous peoples of the past as though they had some sort of “special wisdom” about all things that we simply don’t have today. And, to be sure, many of them did understand things we don’t; the passage of time is not enough to make a people wiser and closer to God and truth. But the instant “credibility” with which any old loopy idea can be adorned simply by associating it with an ancient people is ludicrous. “The Mayans thought the world would end in 2012? Oh, well, I guess it might be so!” Yet, do we ever hear, also, “The Mayans thought that child sacrifice was pretty awesome? Oh, well, I guess it might be so!” The ways of the Gentiles have always had a special sheen in the eyes of Israelites, it seems, and this thankfully-now-past 2012-phenomenon may have been fueled by that to a certain extent.

While I don’t see this as too much of a temptation for me, at the same time I do hate it when people assume that ancient peoples were somehow so primitive that they were virtually children compared to us “moderns” as opposed to being adult, thinking people more similar to us than we give them credit for. In that irritation, I suppose I could find a temptation to over-glamorize an ancient people. However, other than the false assertion that the ancient Maya had no sufficiently sophisticated writing system until the arrival of the Spanish with their Latin alphabet—which is silly to anyone who has bothered to look into the complexity of the Mayan syllabic glyphs and logograms—most of what I’ve seen written of the ancient Maya seems to over-glorify them.

Ancient peoples should not be put down as lesser humans than we are, yet they should not be seen as somehow superior, either. Though they did not, even if the Mayan’s had said something significant about 2012AD, what difference would it make in any way at all? No more than if the local Kiwanis Club said something about the year 3012AD.

•  The “I Think I Can Hide This with an Ellipsis (…)” Mistake.  This one is a tempting one, as well. Sometimes someone says something in some literature or in an article and the words seem to be just what you need to support your point. Yet, the context makes it clear that what they mean by what they say is not what you mean. So, how can one grab the words while hiding the difference? The strategic ellipsis, or “…”

There are, to be sure, legitimate uses for a well-placed “…” in a quotation. For instance, perhaps one wants to keep the quotation shorter and less relevant material could be removed without impacting the meaning of the statement. I could even see using a “…” to remove a part of the quotation that would distract the reader from the point at hand. That might take a judgment call, but one that needs to be made with integrity and proper purpose.

However, to use ellipses to essentially alter the meaning of text–that usage would be inappropriate and could border on (if not cross over into) bearing false witness.

And in 2012-ology, I have seen a good bit of that. I’ve seen scientists “quoted” out of magazine articles or newspaper columns as if they agree with 2012 End of Days/New Age scenarios through the use of strategic “…” placement. However, when one looks up the source of the quote and sees it in context, one finds that the scientist actually believes quite the opposite! The ellipses were placed, intentionally or not, in such a way as to change the meaning of his actual words or to make it seem he supported something he does not. Those examples were academically sloppy at best and academically dishonest at worst.

As I did before, let me create an analogous example. Let’s say I’m an atheist who believes that many of the writers of the Bible didn’t believe in God and I believe David was such a writer. Well, I could write that Psalm 53 says, “A contemplation of David… ‘There is no God.’” That would be, of course, dishonest, since the “…” hides something important: “A contemplation of David. ‘The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”’”

(For the record, I have seen this used in more than 2012-related work. I’ve seen some quote our literature, for instance, for their own purposes and use the “…” to make the quote seem more supportive of their own opinion than it truly is. In fact, I have seen entire Tomorrow’s World articles and commentaries plagiarized by individuals online while using a strategic “…” to remove a sentence or two they don’t agree with. The plagiarism is carnal and bad enough with or without the ellipses (simply citing the source, however well or poorly, is not enough to make something not plagiarism, by the way), but the strategic “…” is all the more worthy of disapprobation. Such practices are shameful, they blatantly violate at least one commandment if not two or more, and I do hope that those individuals repent of such behavior. Time will tell.)

I can see this mistake as one that is easy to make relatively innocently, but it is still a mistake, and I want to be careful to avoid it. Also, I want to avoid quoting someone to such an extent that either I risk plagiarizing them (again, listing them as the source is insufficient to prevent this) or I risk stealing internet traffic that is rightfully theirs as the originators of the content (and providing a link to their content is not enough if I quote them too heavily).

I think this would be a matter of loving my neighbor as myself—a commandment held in high esteem by the Lord (Mark 12:31) and, thus, by those who follow Him—and I would want my own words handled carefully by both those who agree with me and those who don’t.

•  The “Wow, I’m a Scholar on This Topic!” Mistake.  2012-ology was chock-full of self-appointed “scholars” who, in reality, were no more than hobbyists (or, in some cases, obsessive fanatics). “A little knowledge is dangerous,” as they say, and the abundance of 2012 “research” proved that to be true. Somehow, the fact that someone can piece together Chilam Balam quotes, references to Quetzalcoatl, Dresden Codex pictures, and various inscriptions in personally exciting ways does not make them a scholar. Rather, it simply makes them someone who can piece together Chilam Balam quotes, references to Quetzalcoatl, Dresden Codex pictures, and various inscriptions in personally exciting ways. Using original source materials does not make one a scholar or expert on how those source materials should be used.  Really, the ways I have seen disparate works, such as the Codex and the Chilam Balam, combined in complete ignorance (or, in some cases, in unjustified denial) of legitimate scholars’ work on those materials was disheartening. I believe the work I saw was innocent in the sense that it was sincere, but it was still shoddy and represented both poor academic thinking and a startling presumption of unearned expertise.

I tried to avoid this mistake in my 2012 writing, not allowing myself to believe I had become an expert on matters for which, in truth, I was simply a well-informed hobbyist. I hope I succeeded. And being a well-informed hobbyist was, indeed, more than enough to enable one to see through the wrong conclusions of the many who considered themselves to be “scholars.”

And all of this said, two additional things probably should be said, as well. One, I don’t have a problem with one who is “simply a well-informed hobbyist” standing his ground and disagreeing with established scholars. Sometimes there are reasonable grounds for doing so—a case I think Thomas Nagel makes in his anti-neo-Darwinist book, to which I referred earlier. We can’t fault some for doubting us if that’s the case, and we should be brave enough to admit the disagreement with established scholarship as opposed to pretending that we somehow represent the “mainstream” thought versus a radical or divergent view, but we don’t have to let others do our thinking for us, either. And, two, as Christians, we understand that the Bible is relevant, trustworthy information in addition to what scholars study on such issues. So, for instance, those who research history who ignore what the Bible has to say about it, in both its historical writings and its prophetic writings, are not including all relevant data, and I have no qualms with coming to different conclusions than they do. Of course, when it comes to Mayan’s supposed-beliefs about 2012, the Bible is silent: It does not say that they predicted an End of the World Event in 2012, nor does it say that they didn’t. Consequently, we have every reason in the world to defer to actual Mayan scholarship. (And, no, sifting Mayan writings for the stuff that fits our idea does not count as scholarship.)

•  The “Every Connection I Can Make is a Good Connection!” Mistake.  This can be a very tempting mistake, as well. In its most tempting form, it involves seeing “connections” that seem so reasonable to us that they simply “must” be true and then failing to do the “hard yards” to see of those connections really are justified. The example I alluded to parenthetically above about connecting Bolon Yokte on Monument 6 and Jesus Christ is a good example—the hobbyist might connect them, yet if one digs deeper one sees that such a connection is completely unjustified.

However, I saw worse. For instance, in trying to claim a connection between the Dresden Codex and 2012, I saw a claim made that the Venus Transit in 2012 establishes such a connection. Does it really? No, not in any way whatsoever, and the assertion is ridiculous on its face. Yes, the Dresden Codex apparently has astronomical Venus tables, so it is plausible that the transit that occurred in 2012 would be indicated in one of the many positions noted in the table (though I would like to see someone show that table entry to me—something I’ve never seen displayed). But this simply does not indicate that the Dresden Codex, let alone its decorative last page, is related to 2012-goofiness at all! It would be like saying that the last page of the Farmer’s Almanac is all about my birthday because, after all, my birthday is in the Almanac! Of course, so is yours, and your mother’s, your dog’s, your parakeet’s, Steven Spielberg’s, etc.

When we want to see a connection between two things desperately enough, we will see such “connections” even where they don’t exist, and they will seem reasonable to us (Jer. 17:9). Academic integrity, as well as simple honesty, will help to hold us back from banking on such “connections” if they are ultimately ungrounded—however tempting they may be. (Unless you’re Russell Crowe’s John Nash. Then…)

•  The “I Think I Can Interpret This However I’d Like” Mistake.  This happens in just about any endeavor which requires interpretation—which means virtually any endeavor in which humans are trying to understand anything. It certainly happens in Bible interpretation, and it also most certainly happened in 2012-tomfoolery.

In fact, hobbyists’ poorly interpreting Mayan writings through the filter of modern Christian apocalyptic thinking is one of the things that real Mayan scholars complained about most.  I saw it myself in many, many examples: Trying to treat the Chilam Balam as if it were fairly linear like the book of Revelation or some other sort of Christian “end of days” work, as if the cultural mindset and context behind its writing weren’t completely different; trying to tie together the Dresden Codex and the Chilam Balam in manners that violate basic research into the progression of Mayan culture through the centuries; trying to interpret Monument 6 at Tortuguero or the Comalcalco Brick apart from understanding the Mayan culture that would motivate and generate such carvings, inserting, instead, Christian or modern Western ideas completely foreign to the objects’ creators; et al.

When one bothers to look at the products of the Mayan culture through even a modicum of understanding of that culture, most of the horrible misinterpretations of those Mayan writings and carvings vanish like a vapor.

This is a mistake—interpreting things in the manner I like most—that I have made before, and I know I can be tempted to do.

And when it comes to the stack of 2012-related books I had to slog through which chose to interpret the Maya however they liked, that temptation claimed a lot of victims over the last decade. It’s a warning I appreciate: That even the best of minds can be so married to a subject that academic integrity slides in the service of, what someone once called, an “idea baby.” But trustworthy interpretive methodology should be adhered to, lest I become unmoored. And the examples 2012-ology has given me of unmoored individuals will serve as reminders in my memory banks for, hopefully, a long, long time.


I’ve learned a lot more, to be sure, but this list is getting big as it is! Given that this is the last 2012-related post I ever plan to write (though I assume we should never say “never”!), I wanted to be thorough. And I wanted to have a more positive slant than previous posts: Again, though it has been an irritating pursuit in one sense, it really has been really fun in another sense and ultimately very educational. Whether I did it well or not, I got the opportunity to use a popular “fad” to point people to God’s beautiful truth, and I got to learn many lessons, as well, about academic integrity and about making sure our stance in our writings is the most credible one to take (and, thankfully, in this case it clearly was).

And I should add that I will be forever grateful for being allowed to utter the phrases “jeweled, self-dribbling basketballs” and “self-transforming machine elves” on television. Really—a dream come true.

So, to that lone church member who first suggested to me, long ago, that I create a telecast about the 2012-hysteria: Thank you for that e-mail. I really do appreciate it, and I believe it has been a profitable effort for God’s Work—and a fun one, too.

About Wallace G. Smith

Pastor for the Living Church of God (www.lcg.org) and a presenter on the Tomorrow's World television program (www.tomorrowsworld.org).

Discussion

2 thoughts on “A 2012 Non-pocalypse Post-mortem: Lessons I Learned

  1. How long does it take you to write something like this?! And a corollary: how do you get anything else done?

    I totally feel like that sometimes too (e.g., like the man in, ahem, the cartoon “citation”). ;) for the same feeling and ;) for the tease about “citations”. :D

    Keep up the good work, funny phrases on TV and all.

    Posted by John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav) | January 8, 2013, 4:33 pm
  2. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler! This was something that I had assembled over a bit of time while meditating on what I had learned from the 2012 “experience” and I typed on it here and there over a week-or-so. A good bit of it was done in one late night at a hotel in Charlotte during the most recent trip there. It’s probably rife with some typos, but I felt sorry for the little guy sitting in the “draft” queue and went ahead and gave him a shot.

    Posted by Wallace G. Smith | January 8, 2013, 4:39 pm

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