ABC scare-mongering

By Phil Plait | August 29, 2006 10:11 pm

It’s pretty obvious I love astronomy. It inspires us, and I think in many cases brings out the best in humanity: the wonder, the curiosity, and the desire to explore.

That’s why I get more than a little upset when someone twists astronomy, misusing it to further their own ends. You can find any number of people who do that; check the main site for names if you care to. But just about the worst thing that can be done to astronomy is for it to be used to scare people. There are scary things in space, sure, but it’s easy for these things to get amplified beyond what they deserve. And amplified they are, in many cases so that money can be made.

Enter ABC television.

They have a show coming out tonight (Wednesday, Aug 30 at 9:00 p.m.) about doomsday scenarios. Several friends of mine, scientists, were interviewed for it, and it looks like it will be an interesting and fun show. I think this is a great hook to get people interested in astronomy, but only if it’s done right. A lot of people don’t understand the science involved, and so you have to tread carefully lest you scare them needlessly. The show may very well balance things, giving a fair picture of dangers from space. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of their advertising for it.

ABC has been promoting the show online, and their advertising department went out of its way to scare people needlessly. Here’s the opening line from the promotional article (which, incidentally, is billed as a science news article):

Imagine a black hole swallowing Earth, ending life in an instant. It’s not only the stuff of pulp sci-fi novels but, scientists say, a looming possibility.

Not to be too subtle here, but that’s a load of crap. It’s not "looming" at all. I found a paper that showed that the odds of even a normal star getting anywhere near us are only one in 100,000, and that’s over the next 3.5 billion years. The odds of a black hole getting that close are much smaller. I’ll be clear: there is nothing to worry about. Black holes are really far away, and pose no danger to the Earth.

Later they quote physicist Michio Kaku as saying,

“Then, in the year 2000, all hell broke loose,” Kaku says. “At that point, we had conclusive evidence that there are wandering black holes — nomads, renegades — right next to us in our own backyard of a galaxy.”

When he says "right next to us" he is not being literal. The nearest known black hole is 1600 light years away, or about a quadrillion miles. I feel pretty safe about that.

It isn’t until the next paragraph, almost all the way down the first page of the article, that they ease this up somewhat:

Fortunately, scientists say the probability of a black hole heading straight toward Earth and swallowing us whole is highly unlikely.

No kidding. That would have been a nice thing to say up front… along with numbers to back it up.

This is fear-mongering, pure and simple, and it’s loathsome. I am particularly sensitive to this after the scare-tactic garbage spewed by such people as Nancy Lieder and Mark Hazlewood. It’s truly awful behavior.

Mind you, I participated in a show on the SciFi channel about doomsday scenarios as well, but I was careful to talk about how long the odds are of any of them actually doing any damage (though most of that was cut out, of course). I also wrote an article for Sky and Telescope magazine that appeared in June about this exact topic, and again I was careful to say that the odds are long indeed; I’d worry more about an iceberg hitting a cruise ship in Bermuda.

The scientists interviewed were trying to provide fun quotes, so I don’t blame Kaku (much– I do think he should have been more circumspect with his comments, but for all I know he was quoted out of context, and may have put things in perspective but wasn’t quoted doing so), or any of the other scientists in the article (or in the ABC show so far as the previews available let me see them). I blame ABC for promoting this like it’s an imminent threat.

And while I’m at it, I’ll poke an accusatory finger at The Huffington Post, who linked to this story with the headline "Scientists Worry “Wandering Black Holes” Could Approach Earth…". That’s just so much eyewash as well.

I’ll watch the show tonight if I can, but I’m leaving extremely early in the morning for Dragon*Con, so I doubt I’ll be able to write up anything until later Thursday, if at all. The show may be pretty good; they did get some good people in it. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything about the show… until I see it. It’s ABC’s advertising department I hold in contempt.


Comments (37)

Links to this Post

  1. IT: Instructional Technology | August 29, 2006
  2. Doomsday predictions « Ideasblog | September 2, 2006
  1. Eric Ingram
  2. BB

    Speaking of that Doomsday thing you were on, you know the very next day, Jon Stewart made fun of it on The Daily Show.

  3. Hey Phil,
    Greetings from Greece.
    I took a look at the ABC dramatization that accompanies the written article. Hmm… how can I put this subtly… horrible. (Are those guys talking on it your colleagues?) and the graphics didn’t see all that very accurate anyway (I’m sure you’ll be commenting on all these things once you get to see the actual broadcast).
    Along with this video there were also a whole bunch of other doomsday scenarios… all accompanied by “appropriate” commercials (of course). I can only say I’m happy we’re not getting “documentaries” like this here. : So sad.

  4. Gerrsun Greatoak

    I know I am selling all MY property and moving in to an orgy cult in New Mexico right away! Before the black holes consume us all.

    Honestly though, what do you expect? It’s TV? You know? The ‘vast wasteland’

    BTW, Could you pick me up a new Cthulhu Tequila t-shirt at Dragon Con. Mine is geting real raggedy.

  5. Mark Martin

    Well, ABC is owned by Disney, and these days Disney is, to put it politely, wholly disinterested in the edification of its herd of cattle.

  6. ABC’s advertising dept. may not know much about astronomy, but of course they know how to advertise, and as such they understand the basic Human Condition. People like to be scared, pure and simple. If it encourages more people to watch the programme (excuse my spelling but I’m English, and I use that spelling to differentiate between a TV “programme” and a computer “program” – anyway, I digress) – and maybe to learn a bit about what’s out there, then all the better. Of course, there will always be the fringe nutcases who will pounce on stuff like this and use it for their own nefarious ends, and there will be the fools who will follow them. All still part of the Human Condition, and that’s not going to go away any time before some rogue black hole swallows us up!

    Weighing up the pros and cons, I think I tend to side with ATV on this one. It may cause people like you and me to grind our teeth, but fools will always be fools and won’t watch the programme anyway, whereas others might just have their curiosity piqued enough to tune in and thereby learn something. And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? If the show (however advertised) presents the unbiased facts, then I believe that’s what really matters.

  7. “Not to be too subtle here, but that’s a load of crap. It’s not “looming” at all.?

    Yeah, Phil, I agree. And it’s frustrating when scriptwriters insist on using such sensationalistic language. I hope scientists everywhere will contact ABC and demand some accountability.

    Nevertheless, I saw this program in today’s TV listings and I thought, “Cool!” I love speculation about doomsday scenarios, especially if supplemented by great special effects footage. Maybe they’ll run that wonderful Japanese asteroid impact animation you posted here not too long ago.

    There’s some kind of car commercial on TV now that depicts a whole city turning upside down, while one car maintains its reassuring grip on the road. Eventually you see people and vehicles falling upwards into the sky, in the same sort of way that might occur if a neutron star makes a close approach. As Rachael Ray would say, “How cool is THAT?”

  8. Amstrad

    What is the likelihood of the interaction between Sirius A and B causing a supernova that would siriusly (sorry, had to use that pun) hamper life on Earth?

  9. P. Edward Murray

    It’s called, unfortunately, ratings. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it just matters if people watch it. It’s just like sex, if there is a hint or two more of flesh, people will watch it.

    Of course, it’s just prime time for those who want to believe other nutty ideas like the world was born 6,000 years ago and abortions are ok because unborn babies are not babies and you really don’t need to go to school and people can live happily ever after on very low pay.

    The dumbing down of America that’s all and look who is president!

  10. Guillermo

    Phil, I have seen this scarying tendency in other scientific popularization channels also, such as Discovery Channel (at least the version we see in Argentina). Since a few years ago, not only the problems they address, but also the language they use in their programs is loaded with catastrophe. In a recent nice documentary about the Universe, with terrific special effects, instead of delighting in the marvels of the deep space, they focused in the tragic doom that awaits the Milky Way and Humanity when the Andromeda galaxy collides with us. This happens also in other fields, for example when describing the animal life in the African savanna, and the script speaks of murder, assassins, victims… (And certainly most of their new programs deal with crime, forensics, survivors, catastrophes…)

  11. Dunc

    Fear interferes with rational thought. Rational thought interferes with advertising. Advertising is the product that media companies sell – the “content” is just packaging.

  12. Amstrad– it’s extremely unlikely for Sirius to go supernova. They are too far apart; when Sirius A turns into a red giant, from what I understand, it won’t be able to dump enough mass on Sirius B for it to explode. It’ll pour out X-rays, which should be interesting… but that won’t happen for a long long time. Millions of years, certainly. A book came out about this scenario called “Supernova”, written by an astronomer using the pseudonym Eric Kotani. It’s not a great book but it’s enjoyable.

  13. Incidentally, as I said in this entry, I don’t have a problem with doomsday shows. They’re fun! They just have to be handled properly so they don’t scare people needlessly.


    Leading scientist says, “I’d worry … about an iceberg hitting a cruise ship in Bermuda.” More at 11!

  15. Speaking of doomsday scenarios, either Sky & Telescope or Astronomy (I can never remember which one I read a particular article in) recently reprinted a series of astronomical doomsday scenarios that Chesley Bonestell painted in the 1950’s (I think). One of the favorites was the “rapture” painting in which a passing rogue star or black hole has positioned itself so it is drawing people, dogs, cars, ships, and busses off the surface of the Earth, as seen from ground level in a major city. It appears that some car company has essentially lifted this idea for its latest commercial, in which the only thing left holding onto the Earth is their car. (Not sure of the point they’re trying to make – I think it has something to do with stability or traction.)

  16. Harold, that was the issue I mentioned in my blog entry. My doomsday article was a companion piece with it.

  17. PK

    During my stay in the US, and watching American, British, and Dutch television, I have come to the conclusion that (middle class) Americans are easily scared compared to the Brits and Dutch, and more importantly, they want to be scared. It is therefore not surprising that politicians who play on people’s fears do well in the US.

  18. D’oh! That was by YOU! I should have noticed that!

  19. Aerimus

    Yeah, news is bad and doomsday and….


    What are you doing at DragonCon?

  20. Phil,
    I hear you are doing the skeptics board at Dragon Con! I hope you come by for some fear-mongering at the Mad Scientist panel. I’m sure you can come up with at least one trillion dollar project.

  21. Heh, the Huffington Post, I just heard about them on a radio show I enjoy. I think doomsday scenarios are really interesting, but they do certainly need to be put in perspective. Thanks.

  22. Antares Richard

    Maybe it was all a typo and the advert was meant to read: “a ‘blooming’ possibility.” Then again, I’d worried about all those “looming” idiots circling in the dark out there, myself included. Watch out! Zoom! Boy, that was close!

  23. Antares Richard

    Whoops! I just doomed my own humor. “Blooming” would only make matters worse without the “idiot” tag I realized. Perhaps I should work for their advertising department.

  24. The fact that planet Earth is about 4.6 billion or so years old is a convincing argument against rogue black holes causing havoc. Earth would never made it to that age if rogue black holes were a serious menace to continued planetary existence

  25. Richard Smith

    A. Maylis: The fact that planet Earth is about 4.6 billion or so years old is a convincing argument against rogue black holes causing havoc.

    No, man, you don’t get it! It’s the exact opposite! I mean, Earth’s been around for about 4.6 billion years, and it hasn’t been hit by a black hole yet, so you know it’s gotta be coming soon!

  26. idlemind

    So, if someone watches and forms some sort of cult (see: comet Hale-Bopp) and that group then offs themselves rather than get sucked into looming black holes, will their survivors sue Disney for some significant fraction of the national debt?

  27. “The sky is falling there! Come with us to tell the king.” So Goosey Poosey joined Cocky Locky, Henny Penny and Chicken Little, and they went along as fast …”

    Nuclear War is the only scenario to REALLY worry about in the 21st Century. Yet, just like the above book quote, people enjoy thinking the world may end quickly.

  28. Cate Mato

    Why do these programs keep giving Kaku a microphone?? He speaks in soundbytes, and comments on NGC crop circle documentaries! Sheesh!

  29. Michael

    I recently discovered that my cable internet service includes basic TV channels, so I was surfing for interesting things and happened to come across this show, just as it was coming on. So I watched the show, and I thought was pretty decent. Most of the scenarios involved the decimation of the human race, not total annihilation.

    [I reserve the right to make mistakes about quoted dates and such–I think they’re right, but my memory only works so well.]

    They talked about GRBs, black holes, sentient computers, super volcanoes, asteroids, nuclear war, biological war/plagues, and global warming. I believe that’s the order they had it in, and they listed them as least risk to greatest risk.

    I do think they should have done a better job with measurements–they were rather abstract with their terminology and relatives in places–but I think they weren’t ever terribly far from reality.

    They mentioned asteroids, and a specific asteroid that’s supposed to come really close to the Earth on April 13, 2029 (Friday the 13th, no less). There’s a small chance (quoted as 1 in 1000’s) the Earth’s gravity could tug it just right and cause a collision in 2036. Then they pretty much explained that if the asteroid hit us, it would do a lot of damage within thousands of miles, but wouldn’t seriously cripple humanity as a species. Next, they describe the results of a larger impact and how it would extinct most life on earth by blocking all the Sun’s radiation. However, they never explained the size of asteroid needed for such a large impact, nor the odds of said asteroid hitting us. They also compared such an asteroid to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, but ignored that fact that life obviously survived that one (they start by talking about the survival of small mammals, but later keep saying how only a few things will survive, like microbes).

    Gamma ray bursts and roving black holes were touted as seriously bad news, but I got the impression they were quite unlikely to happen. A friend watching with me is probably a better representation of the average viewer, and he understood (without me saying anything) that the show was considering these a significantly lower threat than global warming or nuclear winter. Although I would have been more clear about the real odds of some things (they seemed very pessimistic at times), I don’t think the show itself was scare-mongering in any way.

    I don’t see computers taking over the world (in a hostile sense) anytime soon. The show doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that most robot programmers are as fond of life as the next guy, aren’t likely to program robots to take over the world, and are likely to include fail-safe devices in anything remotely capable of doing so.

    The end of the show seemed to be very strongly encouraging people to take the initiative to minimize the very real threat of global warming. I honestly don’t know a lot about global warming, other than not wanting to look like Venus, but they seemed to give a pretty clear indication of what is likely to happen if global warming goes unchecked.

    It was interesting to note all the people who talked about the things they’d do if they knew imminent doom was upon us; somehow I don’t think anyone would get anything done since most of the 6 billion people on Earth would have the same idea at the same time.

    As another aside, I thought it funny that their text-to-voice translator used the basic Windows voice, but I also thought it was pretty cool that technology has advanced to the point where a disabled mute can speak on national TV by translating blinking eyes to spoken words (they did say it wasn’t in real-time, but it’s cool anyway).

    Anyhow, that’s my review (probably not as correct or useful as the BA’s reviews, but I tried), and I’m heading to bed. ‘Night.

  30. I have been protesting for a long time in my blog against scaremongering, also on the taboo topic of Climate Change. Somehow I feel vindicated

  31. Michael

    I especially enjoyed the last segment, when anyone who dared question AGW was compared by Mr. Gore to the evil cigarette makers, and then equated (by someone else) to Holocaust deniers. Way to encourage sensible, reasoned scientific debate. Never mind that both the ABC report and Al Gore continue to base their claims heavily on the IPCC ‘hockey stick’ report, which seems to me to be clearly at odds with historical fact. They also made the outright false claim (i.e. a lie) that every year for the last ten years has been hotter than the year before, when the satellite temperature data shows that there has been NO increase since 1998 in average global temperature. But I guess the ends justify the means. That’s good science….

  32. Sally

    I watched part of the 20/20 disaster show last night. Of course, they listed Global Warming as the number one risk. Yes, humans and our activities contribute to the problem. So do volcanic eruptions–not much we can do about that, is there? My big beef is that Global Warming seems always to mean “humans are bad and ruining the Earth”. We may not be helping, but we are not the whole cause and not likely the major cause. In addition to the above mentioned volcanic eruptions, the earth naturally goes through warming and cooling periods. I am sure we have all heard of ice ages/periods of glaciation. If you look back through geologic time, it is a long standing situation, and there is no reason to expect that just because there are humans on the Earth who may not be able to tolerate these temperature changes, it will stop. I am horrified by scientists who think they can stop this current warming trend, by making modifications to our environment. What then happens during the next naturally occurring glaciation period, if the Earth’s cliimate has already been cooled by human design? Reduce emissions, do what we can, and make arrangements to survive the natural warming that will surely occur.

  33. Gary Ansorge

    I spent several years in Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and ’80s, when there wasn’t enough TV to be worth watching. Upon returning to the good old USA, when watching the Boob tube, I felt like the proverbial MArtian, trying to figure out what the heck they were saying. There is a powerful reality formation that is continually reinforced from the Tube. Leave that reinforcement for only a few months and the connections fade. It’s something ( the disconnect from advertising, etc) everyone should try at least once. Then you can begin to see, we are not what society says we are. It’s a very strange and interesting experience and can provide a way of understanding why other cultures think we’re crazy,,,

    Gary 7

  34. There is most definitely a culture of fear that’s being cultivated. At this point I think it’s anyone’s guess as far as who started it, but but the media/advertisers and politicians are using it. And they are using it liberally. Geez, everystinkingtime W opens his mouth, he’s 1) inventing a new reason for us to be at war and 2) supporting that reason by listing all the things we have to fear in the world. As if we weren’t the world power we are reputed to be.

    What WE need to do is cultivate a culture of skepticism. “Culture” as in “bacterial” in its method and rate of spreading. I have a whole school of Preschool through 8th graders, and I am teaching them all “critical thinking” as part of their art curriculum. Yeah, ART class. It’s a parochial school, and I’m the only way they’ll get it. I reinforce all year that this great tool “critical thinking” is a gift to be used for the rest of their lives, in all walks of life.

    That Chthulu t-shirt sounds cool. I’m jealous. Any chance you’ll get to play the new Chthulu game while you’re at the Con? One of my friends met the developer, got to play it in beta-testing. Sounds wicked good. Have a great time.

  35. FYI, for anybody that missed the show, I wrote up a point-by-point critique of it (I know, I have no life):

    I didn’t work from a transcript (just typed away while I watched the show), but think I hit most of their major points. I’d be interested in any / all comments.




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