Apparently, a lot of people think the world is going to end in 2012. The ancient Mayan calendar ends in 2012, you see; also, a hidden planet named Nibiru is about to crash into the earth, destroying all life.

The apocalyptic warnings are being spread online through email and pseudo-scientific websites. A NASA scientist tells the LA Times that two different teenagers have told him they are considering suicide to avoid facing the end of the earth. “‘I’m getting more and more questions from people who are upset and scared,’ he said. Some people say their children are refusing to eat.”

Because earth is about to be whacked by stealth-planet Nibiru.

The seeming ease with which significant numbers of Americans fall for conspiracy theories like the 2012 scare, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is a disturbing phenomenon, particularly in a democratic nation. The thought that large numbers of American voters are actually convinced that the government orchestrated 9/11, to pick one example, makes one slightly queasy. It’s true that popular delusions are hardly a new phenomenon, but surely in today’s age of widely available information such large numbers should not fall for claims so easily refuted?

The problem is that Americans are no longer taught how to think critically, how to evaluate an idea on its merits or lack thereof. Today’s education is almost entirely centered around accumulating information, rather than evaluating truth claims. (After all, it is intolerant to point out that someone else’s truth, isn’t.) Even at the university level, the educator’s job is to present students with a set of facts, and their job is to assimilate and remember those facts.

Having become accustomed to uncritically accepting the statements of authoritative figures, is it any wonder such habits persist beyond school? Politics becomes a battle of slogans, because we rarely think to look deeper and ask, “Why?” Internet rumors and conspiracy theories are given credence, because we have not been taught how to evaluate claims before accepting them.

Like any other skill, critical thinking must be taught and practiced before it can be used effectively to distinguish between the plausible and the implausible. In a world buzzing with an unprecedented supply of facts and information, claims and counterclaims, it is small wonder that unpracticed judgments are often less than reliable.