Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Apocalypse Soon?

The other night I went to see the new remake of the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (you might say that that's my own fault, and you would be right). It was chock full of wacky science, plot holes and a performance by Keanu Reeves that make cabbages look downright emotive. However the most troubling part of the whole experience came before the movie even began. The teaser trailer for the upcoming film "2012" flashed across the screen, and I nearly walked out.

I never thought I would see a movie advertisement that actively disparaged real science outright. But there it was, in big white letters.

The film's overall premise sounds like your typical end of the world faire. A group of people have to struggle to survive against the oncoming apocalypse which includes storms, volcanoes and glaciers. I would expect the same kind of attention to scientific detail that you see in a movie like The Core, but really nothing to rustle any feathers. 2012 refers to the year that the Mayan Long Count Calendar runs out, and apparently is the harbinger of Armageddon. Last time I checked, when any of my calendars run out, the world doesn't end, I just have to buy a new calendar. But it sounds like a half decent excuse to see major metropolitan areas get leveled on screen for the umpteenth time.

The problem is that there are a lot of people who really believe the end is going to come in 2012, and they've been using a lot of very bad pseudoscience to "prove it." This is where things start getting ugly. The only actual information in the trailer is a few sentences spliced between scenes of destruction. They read:

"How would the governments of our planet prepare six billion people for the end
of the world? They wouldn't. Find out the Truth; Google: 2012"

When I typed "2012" into Google, the film's webpage didn't appear until the 7th page, and even then because of poor marketing, the only thing on it is the trailer. I had to wade through pages and pages of wild theories "proving" how the world will end in four years time. These sites claim everything from pole changes to rogue planets, cosmic rays, asteroids, little green men and possibly Elvis will bring about the end of the world. Some of these have a rudimentary base in science, but there is no evidence that any of them are going to actually happen, much less destroy the planet. When the trailer tells people to find out "the truth" and points them here, it adds a lot of undeserved credibility to these wild conjectures.

I'm not going to take time to dispel every wild allegation on the internet. There's too many of them that are either completely groundless or twist actual physics into something absurd. The folks over at the National Astrobiology Institute have been inundated by questions about it, and over the last year Universe Today published a stellar series of articles that set the record straight.

The real trouble with the marketing of "2012," it tacitly encourages very bad misinformation about physics in the public mind. The film's tagline adds to the paranoia and discourages real rational thought. We went through this kind of silliness a decade ago with the Y2K scare, it wasn't particularly fun then, and isn't today.


  1. It's just a movie man. If this was airing on Discovery, ok, but people don't go to the movies to learn. They go to be entertained. Major metropolitan areas getting leveled are like zombies. If you put it on a screen, they will come.

    On another note, as to all of the other movies based on potential doomsday events, especially those based on global warming, consider this: A new movie comes out. This movie contains blatant scientific impossibilities and contradicts known facts consistently. 20 million people go to see this movie. 1% of those people are convinced everything they just saw is real. In 90 minutes time, 200,000 people have, through blatant misinformation, just become more self and eco-aware. Perhaps they will begin changing certain habits. Perhaps they will consciously try to be more environmentally friendly. Perhaps they will also influence others, and so on, until another 20 million people go to the next box office hit.

    Nobody want's to wake up the day after tomorrow.

  2. Sure, it's just entertainment, but, unfortunately many people have issues distinguishing pseudoscience from real science. The fact of the matter is that pseudoscience is typically easier to believe, because people want to believe it.

    Just look at what happened when the LHC began operations. Just Google "Black Holes eat earth" for 897,000 reasons why pseudoscience has gone unchecked for far too long.

  3. In response to Vaelek:
    It's not airing on the Discovery channel but the History Channel. "Armageddon Week" is running from Jan. 4-11 featuring not one, but two specials about how we're all doomed in 2012.

    On your second point about it only being a movie, that's true, but that's not my big qualm with it. My problem is the marketing they're using explicitly sends people to some of the most disreputable and unreliable "science" websites out there and tells people they're "the truth." I know that most people are too smart to believe outright what passes for science in a major blockbuster, but using websites like that sounds "scientific"-ish further promotes scientific illiteracy at a time when science is more important than ever.

    As to your last point, about other end of the world movies, I will say this much: It sounds like your argument is in essence "the ends justify the means" that as long as people are cajoled into living a certain way by taking advantage of their misunderstandings of science it's ok. My goal is not for every Hollywood movie to be 100% scientifically accurate, but for major institutions to promote real science over paranoid pseudoscience.

  4. So how did the remake of How the Earth Stood Still compare to the original? Was the theme and plot the same?

  5. (SPOILER!!)

    Oh the new one was just unfortunate. The first movie the aliens wnated to come and destroy the earth to stop our warlike ways from spreading throughout the cosmos, but are stopped when they witness humans can love too. That dosn't translate so well to a movie about global warming. Mostly it just didn't make any sense