Followup: More on the LA contrail/missile

By Phil Plait | November 18, 2010 10:02 am

la_missile_contrailJust a quick note about that whole silly missile/contrail non-troversy that popped up last week: the website Contrail Science has a pretty good and quite lengthy writeup of the affair, complete with pretty convincing diagrams showing this was just an airplane. Interestingly, the author of that site concludes it was a different airline flight than the one I mentioned in my post the other day, but the bottom line is that this was certainly an airplane and not anything sinister.

I’ve talked about this before, both on the blog and at public lectures: the Internet is a two-edged sword when it comes to nonsense. It allows the spread of misinformation to be so rapid that there’s hardly a chance of getting corrections noticed before millions are infected… but it does make the inoculating knowledge easier to get out there as well.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before — remember the Texas fireball people thought was debris from two satellites that collided? — and we’ll see it again. We in the reality-based community must be vigilant to make sure the correct information gets out there. We can’t prevent misinformation from getting out, and we can’t even really stop it once it hits the street. But we can minimize it, and make sure there are repositories of knowledge to which we can refer others.


Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Dan Durda.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: contrail, missile

Comments (21)

  1. So what you’re saying is that missile launch was an anti-satellite attack?

  2. QuietDesperation

    So what you’re saying is that missile launch was an anti-satellite attack?

    Yes. Using a sword.

  3. Brian

    I’m surprised the chemtrails people haven’t managed to get their explanation for this into the news.

  4. Michel

    But what to do with those journalists/tv news-shows etc who blabbed about this?
    They should be brought to shame. They are supposed to be “good”.

  5. viggen

    but it does make the inoculating knowledge easier to get out there as well.

    Unfortunately, that knowledge is both smaller in volume and on equal grounds of veracity with the misinformation in the eyes of those who don’t know any better. People pick and choose what they consume and you can’t force them to consume the truth.

  6. Cave Man

    @3 and 4, of course they haven’t aired an explanation or done anything to “correct” the story, that wouldn’t be sensational. The news types aren’t worried about silly things like facts, they are more concerned about ratings. Sensational gets ratings, science and reality are “boring” and don’t get the eyeballs.

  7. Well, only a few years ago NASA mistook a contrail for a fireball and published it as an APOD…

  8. QuietDesperation

    But what to do with those journalists/tv news-shows etc who blabbed about this?
    They should be brought to shame. They are supposed to be “good”.

    Wow. There’s grown adults who still buy into that myth, huh?

    Journalism is dead, people, if it was ever truly alive. If we had real investigative journalism, most of the California government would be in jail or up on charges. Alas, Spider Jerusalem does not exist outside the pages of a graphic novel.

    Well, only a few years ago NASA mistook a contrail for a fireball and published it as an APOD…

    To be fair, the caption says that a contrail is the “most likely” explanation.

  9. Beelzebud

    When the best analysis of the event was from The Daily Show on Comedy Central, we’re really in trouble.

    While real news channels were still hyping this story as a missile, the guy on the comedy network was asking the basic quesion: “If it’s a missile, how did the camera operator track it for ten minutes?”

  10. Mike

    Regarding nonsense online, what would be the best 9/11 debunking site you could recommend?

    I have a few associates who semi-seriously believe all the garbage you can find in youtube and places like that. Like how the towers couldn’t have collapsed without explosives – or how some footage / eyewitness reports demonstrates there were explosions in lower floors during/before the collapse – or how it couldn’t have been an airplane – not a boeing 575 at least – that hit Pentagon, etc.

    I too lazy, and not nearly knowledgeable enough, to debunk all those myths myself, but I assume someone has already done it for me so if there was a link I could send these guys to that would be greatly appreciated.

  11. I like the word “non-troversy”, although it’s better without the dash, IMO. Did you just coin that, Phil?

  12. Number 6

    RE: Phil’s statement: “the Internet is a two-edged sword when it comes to nonsense. It allows the spread of misinformation to be so rapid that there’s hardly a chance of getting corrections noticed before millions are infected…”

    There’s an apt quote re: the above that’s attributed usually to Mark Twain, but the “Great Internet” says the original author was Charles Hadden Spurgeon who I bet everyone here is familiar with. :) ….

    “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

    But, hey, in this digital age, it must be revised to state….”A lie can construct a detailed web site and post thousands of comments, before the truth can open and boot up a laptop.”

  13. Jeff

    “Internet is a two-edged sword when it comes to nonsense. It allows the spread of misinformation to be so rapid that there’s hardly a chance of getting corrections noticed before millions are infected… but it does make the inoculating knowledge easier to get out there as well. ”

    This is true I’ve seen in my students. My colleague and I had debates about the internet about 10 years ago, the plusses and minuses, I argued it would help education, he argued it would dumb the students down because it would encourage a push-button approach to education.

    It is still in progress, and I’m not sure which side is winning, the plusses or minuses. But I am still proud that I myself learned the hard way: on a slide rule.

    Time will tell, at least for education.

  14. Jeff

    10. Mike: “I too lazy, and not nearly knowledgeable enough, to debunk all those myths myself, but I assume someone has already done it for me so if there was a link I could send these guys to that would be greatly appreciated”

    Mike, I think you have the exact opposite attitude you should have. Never let other people do your thinking for you. Take some time on topics to learn the basics, maybe even take a course of some sort for the basics on whatever that topic might be. Then learn it better over the years, then apply critical thinking and reasoning to come to some conclusions over the topic.

    That is what people need to do to have an advanced society.

  15. Rob P.

    3 Brian – the chemtrails folks were all over the comments on that Contrail Science post (edit – not the one posted here, but the first response the next day). It was really pretty amazing to see the fight between all the commenters who had various explanations as to why they are experts (e.g., “I was in the military/lived near Canaveral/Vandenberg and I’ve witnessed X missile/rocket launches and they do/don’t look anything like that”) and then every once in a while, the chemtrails folks would weigh in about how planes can’t form clouds like that because of temperature or just with a straightforward attack on the government misinformation machine that was obviously behind the rational explanations.

  16. Matt

    10. Mike: Here’s my favorite article on the subject.
    http://www.cracked.com/article_15740_was-911-inside-job.html
    It has bad words in it, by the way.

  17. Hevach

    there’s hardly a chance of getting corrections noticed before millions are infected… but it does make the inoculating knowledge easier to get out there as well.

    Wait, was the missile contrail infecting us or inoculating us? I’m not sure which is worse. I don’t want to get autism.

    Call the media!

  18. noen

    “Regarding nonsense online, what would be the best 9/11 debunking site you could recommend?”

    Debunking 911

    There should be a “all conspiracy theories debunked” wiki. If there isn’t one already. Carefully chosen search terms plus “debunked” usually works.

    All hail the great gazoogle!

  19. Mike

    14. Jeff “I think you have the exact opposite attitude you should have”

    Um, do you seriously mean that every time you run across some crazy conspiracy theory you take days – or weeks, you even mention years – of your time educating yourself in every relevant aspect (in this case, material physics, architecture, military tech etc.) just in order to be able to debunk the myth yourself? Man, you have way too much free time in your hands, get a job or something.

    Thanks for matt and noen for their replies.

  20. Chris Winter

    The analysis at Contrail Science is excellent and quite convincing to me — but not to a few of the commenters there, nor to Colleen Thomas of Roseville, California, more’s the pity. There’s a link to an interview of her on Russia Today.

  21. I can’t believe (well, I can really) the comments on a similar story in Australia
    http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/top-stories/meteor-plunges-into-ocean-lighting-up-perth-sky/story-e6frg12l-1226413309565
    Early in the comments I linked to this page, but variety of opinions – wow!

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »