Piatkus, 2008 (paperback)
This review article first appeared in The Skeptic (UK) 21:4 (2009), 24
Reproduced with permission
Many non-mainstream thinkers are currently focusing on the now familiar fact that the 5000-year Mayan ‘Long Count’ reaches an end-point in December 2012. In this book, Pinchbeck presents an unusually complex case for the genuine significance of this crisis. He argues (in the tradition of Capra etc) that Mayan ideas about the upcoming changes coincide not only with similar traditions in other, supposedly unrelated cultures but also, dramatically, with modern scientific notions (suggesting much greater sophistication than mainstream scholars would attribute to the Maya). Humanity, he says, should modify its world-view so as to be ready for these changes and to move into a radically different future, embracing ecological imperatives (inevitably!) and accepting overtly spiritual aspects of existence.
Although Pinchbeck is well-informed on some of the relevant issues and at times sober and even scholarly, large sections of his book are intensely emotional and indeed personal and subjective; parts are semi-autobiographical. While revealing, this element of the work is distracting to the modernist scholar, and must often be factored out in attempts to assess the claims made. The vastly multi-disciplinary scope of the work also hinders evaluation by any one reader, given the (only partly beneficial) specialisation of modern scholarship.
Pinchbeck has rather little to say about matters within my own professional expertise (linguistics), but it has to be said that where he does address such points he displays only a very scanty awareness of the discipline, accepting too readily any points that appear to support his case and failing to acknowledge associated problems. For instance, he uses the dated and highly unreliable etymological methods typical of the fringe (eg pp 202-203, where he follows the eccentric Arguelles on links between the word Maya and superficially similar words from other cultures); he accepts an extreme interpretation of Chomsky’s points about the allegedly mysterious origins of language, and indeed ignores the strong cases made within linguistics against Chomskyan ideas generally (p 174); he accepts as probably valid Stevenson’s ideas about reincarnation without acknowledging the weakness of the linguistic arguments prominently used in their support (pp 171-172). This is the area I myself know best, and Pinchbeck’s performance here does not inspire any confidence at all.
And, more generally, even a non-expert can observe that Pinchbeck’s presentation is often fatally one-sided. He accepts the reality of spiritual entities and paranormal phenomena, treating writers such as Radin as authoritative (pp 36-38, etc) and ignoring persuasive skeptical criticisms of this kind of work; he displays exaggerated respect for ‘deep ecological’ thinking (pp 5-8, etc) and for traditional myths (pp 10-11, etc); he repeats the common but much overstated condemnation of mainstream scientists and skeptics as hidebound (p 5, 11, etc). Although it seems highly unlikely that a major crisis specifically centred on December 2012 really looms, Pinchbeck may perhaps have an arguable case for some of his more specific claims. But, unless he can disengage his emotions somewhat and consider more fairly the weighty objections to the ideas that he favours, he will not persuade the skeptical or scientifically-trained reader.