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Renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan once described a “baloney detection kit” — a set of tools that skeptical thinkers use to investigate any new concept. A few of the key tools include a healthy distrust of information that isn’t independently verified, critically assessing an idea rather than becoming irrationally attached to it simply because it’s intriguing, and a preference for simple explanations over wildly speculative ones.
The waxing obsession with the planet Nibiru , which conspiracy theorists say is a planet swinging in from the outskirts of our solar system that is going to crash into Earth and wipe out humanity in 2012 — or, in some opinions, 2011 — shows that an astonishing number of people “are watching YouTube videos and visiting slick websites with nothing in their skeptical toolkit,” in the words of David Morrison, a planetary astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center and senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
Morrison estimates that there are 2 million websites discussing the impending Nibiru-Earth collision. He receives, on average, five email inquiries about Nibiru every day.
“At least a once a week I get a message from a young person — as young as 11 — who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday,” Morrison told Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to SPACE.com.
What’s the origin of this mass panic about Nibiru, which astronomers say doesn’t exist?
A suspect origin
The idea that doomsday will result from a planetary collision was first proposed in 1995 by Nancy Lieder, a self-described “contactee.” Lieder claims she has the ability to receive messages through an implant in her brain from aliens in the Zeta Reticuli star system. On her website, ZetaTalk, she stated that she was chosen to warn mankind of an impending planetary collision which would wipe out humanity in May 2003. (When no such cataclysmic event occurred, Lieder’s followers chose 2012 as the new date for the Nibiru collision, which coincides neatly with other doomsday prophecies focused on the ending of the Mayan calendar.)
The biggest missing link in the doomsday prophecy is Nibiru itself. Because no giant, rogue planet has been found in the outer solar system to play the role of Nibiru, some conspiracy theorists have decided that a small comet called Elenin (which will pass nearest Earth in October 2011) is actually Nibiru. Even then, though, scientists say Elenin will come no closer than 100 times farther than the distance from Earth to the moon.
“The fact is that these folks are constantly changing their story,” Morrison wrote in an email. “For some, Nibiru is no longer the Sumerian god or planet that is supposed to be returning to Earth in late 2012. It has become a catchword for almost any cosmic catastrophe.”
The Nibiru conspiracies are so nonsensical that Morrison wonders whether even their purveyors believe them. Because many websites sell Nibiru books, tapes and even “survival kits,” Morrison thinks they are purposely taking advantage of people who aren’t able to distinguish credible sources from crackpot ones. “This is especially a problem for young people, which is why I am so angry at those who target children,” he said.