The Government Guide to the End of the World

Apocalyptic hysteria has raised some public health concerns and larger questions about science education in America.
by | December 19, 2012

The world isn’t ending Friday. We’re (pretty) sure.

But that doesn’t mean the doomsday prophesying that’s accompanied the end of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar hasn’t been a little stressful for government officials.

Most notably, NASA has published an entire FAQ section on their website, meticulously debunking some of the more popular theories around Dec. 21, 2012. For example, the likelihood that a rogue planet or brown dwarf could collide with Earth -- known as the Planet X or Nibiru theory -- is nil.

“Astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye,” NASA’s scientists write. “Obviously, it does not exist.”

But while dedicating public resources to debunking fringe conspiracies might seem like an overreaction, officials said the effort was spurred by very real public health concerns. NASA’s “Ask an Astrobiologist” website had received a barrage of questions, including from people who were considering harming themselves because they worried the end was nigh.

There were “people asking if the world will end, saying they’re scared and don’t know what to do,” David Morrison, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, told TIME. “A few even talk about suicide.”

There is also the sobering possibility that the apocalyptic fervor could inspire someone to do something rash. Already in Clackamas County, Ore., which is still recovering from the mall shootings that killed two earlier this month, local police were alerted to a threat, linked to Friday’s doomsday scenario, issued on Facebook that threatened to blow up a public school. The student has since been detained, according to the Portland Tribune, but officials statewide are raising awareness about other potential warning signs of end-times violence. In Lapeer County, Michigan, the public schools superintendent sent students and teachers home two days early for Christmas in part because of the Mayan apocalypse fervor, as well as the Newtoon school shootings, according to Slate.

Some see a cultural element in any such hysteria and blame, at least in part, public policy. One scientist took the opportunity to bemoan the lack of science literacy in the United States for the unnecessary panic -- a point reinforced by President Barack Obama’s pledge to hire 100,000 more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively known as STEM) in the next four years. A report released earlier this year by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave the majority of states a grade of D or F for their science standards.

“Our schools have not taught skeptical thinking, have not taught children to distinguish between fantasy and reality,” said Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomer at Foothill College in California, in a recent NASA webcast, according to TIME. “The real threat in 2012 is the public’s low level of science understanding.”

Thankfully, though, a few local officials have been able to bring a little levity to our collective impending doom. In Wilcox, Ariz., for example, Police Chief Jake Weaver issued a statement Wednesday formally cancelling the supposedly scheduled annihilation of mankind. It read:

After much consideration, the “Mayan Apocalypse” has been cancelled due to conflicts with prior scheduled events. I apologize for any inconvenience this cancellation may have caused anyone who may have been looking forward to the “end of the world”, however we still have plans, and the apocalypse just didn’t fit into our schedule.

Feel free to continue living your lives, and as always let’s be careful out there.

But what if there is an unimaginable cataclysm that brings us to the brink of extinction? Unfortunately, according to a well-timed annual report on emergency preparedness that Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) released this week, state and local authorities might not be prepared to handle it. The report gave 35 states plus the District of Columbia a failing grade in their readiness to react to disease epidemics, natural disasters and bioterrorism. Nearly 30 states cut their public health funding for FY 2011-2012, according to TFAH.

Though we mention their findings in the context of a thoroughly unlikely public health emergency, the authors note that some recent examples of very real tragedies, such as Hurricane Sandy and the fungal meningitis outbreak, underlie the importance of that preparedness.

“Severe budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels threaten to undermine that progress,” Paul Kuehnert, director of the public health team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a statement. “We must establish a baseline of ‘better-safe-than-sorry' preparedness that should not be crossed.”

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