A little while back, I was at Utah State University to give a public talk about the threat from asteroid impacts and what we can do to stop them (PLUG ALERT: if you want me to come talk at your venue, my agent would love to hear from you).
While I was there I was interviewed by Utah Public Radio, and that interview is online.
I was also chatted up by the local TV station, KSL. I think it went OK, and they put it online as well:
[You may have to refresh this page to get the video to load.]
While I rather wish I had stated succinctly that even the basis of the "Mayan 2012 doomsday" nonsense is itself a gross misinterpretation of Mayan history, culture, and calendar, I think I was pretty clear. I have to walk a fine line sometimes: debunking crap doomsday scenarios like 2012 while also warning of real dangers like asteroid impacts… while neither over- or understating that danger. It’s a delicate balance.
A balance, I’ll note, which is apparently completely lost on some of the commenters on the KSL website who are saying I’m totally wrong and that the doomsday is coming in December [Note: I checked just before posting this, and most of the really over-the-top comments have been deleted, and I thank the forum moderators for that]. The sheer blind eye some have toward reality is stunning.
I know some people have deep beliefs they hold true, and are willing to deny what’s right in front of their face if they have to. I also know it’s the Internet out there, where people don’t read past the first line or watch a video past the first few seconds. Still, the denial and — to be blunt — dickery is breathtaking. One person actually said they hoped the Universe kills me so they don’t have to listen to my "drivel" [that was one of the comments deleted, BTW].
Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve had someone wish me dead, or that I’d shut up. Duh. But what I find fascinating is the irony. One complaint I hear about critical thinking is that it takes away hope, takes away beauty, and replaces them with despair and the ugly nature of reality. And yet here we see people shredding their critical thinking to hold fast to a doomsday scenario that is as ugly as it is hopeless.
If they actually applied a bit of skepticism, they’d see the 2012 doomsday garbage for what it is. But they cleave unto it as fervently as a drowning man to a life preserver.
I don’t think I have anything particularly profound to add to this; I’m just shining a light on it for you to see. Be aware of this, and always remember people’s ability to be paradoxical and completely embrace a nonsensical danger while denying the real one.
- Re-cycled Mayan calendar nonsense
- My asteroid impact talk is now on TED!
- MSNBC interview: 2012, the year the Earth doesn’t end. Again.
- Betelgeuse and 2012
- Giant spaceships to attack December 2012?
- No, a pole shift won’t cause global superstorms
Charlie McDonnell — who is still adorable — does a bang-up job debunking the big claims of the 2012 doomsday predictions.
I know, he posted this back at New Year’s, but I’m a bit behind on watching videos. Sue me. I’m free on December 22.
Tip o’ the bomb shelter door to Tommy V.
I was at the SXSW tech conference over the weekend to be on a panel about 2012 doomsday nonsense. Right after, Helen Popkin of MSNBC interviewed me about this stuff:
[If the video above doesn't load, hit refresh; I've found that happens sometimes and refreshing usually fixes it.]
The panel was fun — I gave an overview to and quickly debunked a bunch of 2012 claims, while JPL scientists Don Yeomans and Veronica McGregor talked about asteroid impacts, and what NASA is doing to calm unfounded fears about them. Asteroids are indeed a threat, but that danger is routinely exaggerated way beyond reality by lots of folks (YouTube fearmongers, I’m looking at you). There’s no real danger of the Earth ending in 2012, Mayan calendar-wise or otherwise — but the real danger is the overhyped fear of nonsense.
Forewarned is forearmed. Be aware of the reality of the situation, and save yourself a lot of trouble.
But it’s not all fun and games: I’m on a panel about asteroid impacts and doomsday nonsense called 2012: You Bet Your Asteroid the World Won’t End. I’ll be talking about random 2012 doomsday stuff, NASA asteroid expert Don Yeomans will be talking about the real threat of impacts, and JPL’s Veronica McGregor will discuss how they’re trying to stave off hysteria (she runs the @AsteroidWatch Twitter feed).
This should be fun, as well as informative. And I plan on really soaking up as much of SXSW and Austin as I can. I’ve been to the town many times, and I love it. It’ll be weird to see it so crowded, but I know it’ll be a blast. I know a lot of friends will be there too. Any BABloggees planning on dropping by the panel?
In January, I was interviewed live on WHYY radio in Philadelphia about 2012 doomsday conspiracy theories. NASA astrobiologist (and my old pal) David Morrison was there as well, and we talked about some of the (wrong) ideas behind 2012 end-of-the-world prophecies, their impact, and why people believe them.
It was an interesting discussion. We took some calls from folks, including two from people who seemed to be trying to blame 2012 stuff on religious beliefs, which I think is misguided. Believing in something without evidence or despite evidence against it is human nature, and something we all need to be aware of. Religion falls under that category, as does any other belief system. Conspiracy theories and doomsday prophecies are all part of that larger umbrella. Now, you could make a point that our unquestioning tolerance of religious belief in the US supports the growth of things like 2012 belief. That would make for an interesting discussion, I think, but not one that’s easy to get into on a radio program where you need to keep things brief!
A woman called in and relayed the very sad story of her brother who joined a cult, and wound up killing himself over their doomsday beliefs. This was terrible to hear, and I wrestled with how to discuss it. The Heavens Gate cult came to mind right away, as did that of Jim Jones. I tweeted about it, saying:
"A woman called into WHYY and said her brother committed suicide over doomsday theories. Damn this stuff so much."
[NOTE: I got emails and tweets from people after I tweeted that saying that there's no evidence this woman was telling the truth, and that she may have made this story up. That may very well be true; we have no evidence either way besides her claims. However, David hears similar stories all the time, and I myself have first-hand knowledge of lots of people who are really scared by 2012 claims. So even if the woman's story is not true, the sentiment is relevant.]
It’s hard to convey depth and subtlety in a tweet, and I wrote that during a very short station break, so I didn’t have time to elaborate. I’m not blaming his suicide on doomsday beliefs per se (and note it wasn’t necessarily the 2012 stuff); clearly anyone who contemplates killing themself has deeper issues than that and needs to find help — by coincidence, the wonderful, wonderful Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, wrote a moving blog post related to this topic the same day.
But certainly circumstances play their role. David has said that he gets a lot of emails from people with similar suicidal thoughts due to 2012. Let’s be clear: these people need to find help; neither David nor I am qualified to help them. And perhaps if this 2012 garbage didn’t exist something else would come along to take its place in their minds. But it is here, and it is influencing these people (a couple in Utah was arrested for a homicide and crime spree, and apparently 2012 doomsday thinking played a role there).
And think of this: unlike other issues, this one has a deadline. Having an actual date on this (imaginary) event makes it seem more solid, more real. I hate to write this, but I expect we’ll be hearing more about people going through with suicide over the next few months because of these doomsday claims. How many of them might have had a chance to seek help, to live longer, if the idea of a 2012 doomsday weren’t so prevalent?
And it’s not just this terrible circumstance of people contemplating or even committing suicide; I’ve started giving public talks about 2012, and hear from a lot of folks in the Q&A after about how they’re really scared about this. Most of them are kids. The other day I chatted with some kids about it, and the visible look of relief on their faces as I assuaged their 2012 doomsday fears was amazing.
I can’t say why specific people are out there plugging 2012 by writing books and making websites; perhaps they honestly believe something will happen, or maybe they are loathesome scummy immoral mind-parasites, not caring how they affect people as long as they get money or fame. But either way they are wrong. There is no evidence that any of the 2012 claims is true, and in fact plenty of evidence they’re all wrong.
I’ll be writing more about this, don’t you fret. I’ve been putting it off a long time for various reasons, but it’s long past time for me to hunker down and give this crap both barrels of reality.
Hat tip to Ian O’Neill for the Utah story.
Yesterday, I was in a live video chat session with several other scientists and science journalists. I wrote up the details of it yesterday, and it went pretty well! We had a lot of fun talking about the new GRAIL Moon mission, the fiery future return of Phobos-Grunt, 2012, and of course President Obama’s purported teleportation trip to Mars many years ago.
Well, if you wanna know more, now you can: the video’s online.
The plan is to do these every week on Thursdays, and have a rotating cast of characters over time. I hope you like it. And I strongly suggest people join up over at Google+. I really like it there, and post quite a few things you won’t see here or on Twitter.
It’s been a couple of days since the foofooraw involving Betelegeuse, 2012, and media laziness took place. As you may recall, a site in Australia made some dubious connections between 2012 and the red supergiant star Betelgeuse exploding, which you may imagine I took a fairly dim view on. As bad as that was, it got worse when The Huffington Post weighed in, adding their own nonsense to the story, misattributing parts of the story and making even more faulty connections to 2012.
The story went viral rapidly. Other media venues quickly picked up on it, furthering the nonsense without doing any independent investigation of it. Happily, not everyone got it wrong; I’ll note that the first venue that apparently got it right was Fox News, who linked to an earlier article I wrote about Betelgeuse.
I was also contacted by Jesse Emspak from International Business Times, who asked me specific questions about it and wrote a very well-written and factually accurate article about all this, doing something that made my heart sing: not just presenting the real science we could get out of a Betelgeuse supernova, but making that the focus of the article! As it should be. Kudos to him and IBT.
Stories like 2012 and nearby supernovae are sexy, easy to sell, and get eyeballs on a webpage. It’s the devil’s bargain to write about them even on a skeptical astronomy blog; it can reinforce bad science in people’s minds, or it might put a spotlight on something that could otherwise wither and die on its own (which is why I didn’t write about this story until HuffPo posted it). It’s also amazing to me how some media — some actual, mainstream news sources — didn’t do any real fact-checking before putting up links to HuffPo. It once again reinforces what I learned long ago: keep a very skeptical frame of mind when reading or listening to the news. If they can mess up something as simple as this, then what else are they getting wrong?
I swear, I need to trust my instincts. As soon as I saw the article on the news.com.au site desperately trying to link Betelgeuse going supernova with the nonsense about the Mayans and 2012, my gut reaction was to write about it.
But no, I figured a minute later, this story would blow over. So to speak.
I should’ve known: instead of going away, it gets picked up by that bastion of antiscience, The Huffington Post.
The actual science in the original article is pretty good; they talked with scientist Brad Carter who discusses the scenario of Betelgeuse going supernova. The whole story is pretty interesting — I wrote about it in detail the last time there was nonsense about Betelgeuse blowing up — but in a nutshell Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star in Orion with about 20 times the mass of the Sun, and it’s very near the end of its life. When stars this massive die, they explode as supernovae. The distance to Betelgeuse is unclear (it has a very puffy outer atmosphere which makes distance determination somewhat dicey) but it’s something like a bit more than 600 light years, way way too far away to hurt us.
It’s the question of when that the two articles go off the rails. Betelgeuse may explode tomorrow night, or it may not go kerblooie until the year 100,000 A.D. We don’t know. But given that huge range, the odds of it blowing up next year are pretty slim. And clearly, the original article was really trying to tie in the 2012 date to this, even when it has nothing to do with anything. The tie-in was a rickety link to scuttlebutt on the web about it, but that’s about it.
What’s worse, the HuffPo article attributes the date to Dr. Carter himself, but in the original article he never says anything about it; the connection is all made by the article author. Given how popular HuffPo is, I imagine a lot of people will now think an actual scientist is saying Betelgeuse will blow up in 2012.
OK then, tell you what: I’m an actual scientist, and I would give the odds of Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012 at all — let alone close to December, the supposed doomsdate — as many thousands to one against. It’s not impossible, it’s just really really really really really really really unlikely.
Are there three giant spaceships on their way to Earth, dooming us to extinction when they arrive in — gasp! — December 2012?
But you might think otherwise reading an article about this on The Examiner’s website. It documents the three spaceships, shows images, and even has quotes from a SETI astrophysicist!
SETI Astrophysicist Craig Kasnov (not to be confused with Craig Kasnoff ) has announced the approach to the Earth of 3 very large, very fast moving objects. The length of the "flying saucers" is in the range of tens of kilometers. Landing, according to calculations of scientists, should be in mid-December 2012. Date coincides with the end of the Mayan calendar.
There are some teeny, tiny, problems with this story, though. Like, the "spaceships" are actually image defects and aren’t real, there’s no way to figure out how big they from the picture, and the "astrophysicist" quoted in the article doesn’t even exist.
But gee, other than that…
1) The spaceship that wasn’t
It’s been a while since I’ve done a good ol’ smackdown debunking, so let’s take these one at a time. First things first: the spaceships. Shown here, as you can see, the article refers to a picture of a big blue wormy-thingy floating in space. What could it be? Well, because I don’t trust articles online talking about giant spaceships invading us (or anything anyone says about doomsday in 2012), I went to the original pictures themselves.
NASA has an image archive viewer called SkyView, which I used to use all the time when I worked on Hubble data. It has access to dozens of surveys of the sky taken using various telescopes, including the Second Digitized Sky Survey the UFO article mentions. Amazingly, the article gives coordinates for the "spaceships", so I took a look for myself. Read More
I love geeks. I love clever people. I love sciencey stuff.
So this fills my heart with squishiness: a skirt with rows of lights that illuminate when facing north:
Make those LEDs red and every astronomer could use it. Not to mention campers, hikers, and let’s face it, nerds like all of us. I would dance all night with someone wearing this.
Want one? She’s selling kits so you can make one yourself!
Of course, in 2012* when the poles flip the skirt will light up when facing south. Oh! I know! You could wear it backwards. Problem solved.
Tip o’ the compass needle to that bon vivant, Josh A. Cagan.