My friend Cara Santa Maria is a scientific researcher and educator. She’s also Senior Science Editor with The Huffington Post, where she does a video show called "Talk Nerdy To Me". She contacted me recently because she wanted to do an episode on solar storms – how they work, and how they can affect us here on Earth. She interviewed me about them, and the episode is online at HuffPo:
[Note: If the video doesn’t appear directly above this sentence, refresh your screen.]
The Sun has been a bit feisty lately, spitting out some decent flares and coronal mass ejections. So far, none has been both strong enough and aimed at us to do any damage (there was a fairly powerful CME in July, but it was on the other side of the Sun, directed away from us). And while they can’t hurt us directly due to our protective atmosphere, as I say in the video solar storms can disrupt our power grid and our satellites, creating havoc. The more we study the Sun the better we understand it, and the more likely we’ll be able to protect ourselves should it decide to throw another major hissy fit.
I’ll add that Cara’s good people, and I like her show (she interviewed me for the Venus Transit, too). She’s passionate about science education, and like me she finds real joy and wonder in all fields of science and nature. You can follow her on Twitter.
[Edited to add: the shirt I’m wearing in the video (watch to the very end!) is available at Lardfork’s Spreadshirt store.]
Oh for FSM’s sake. Again?
First, let me be clear: the odds of the 250-meter-wide asteroid Apophis hitting the Earth in 2036 are extremely slim, like less than 1 in 135,000 (and I just heard 1 in 250,000 from another expert). This is less than the odds of getting dealt a straight flush in five-card stud poker. Those are teeny tiny odds.
So then why oh why did The Huffington Post just put up an article about Apophis hitting us in 2036? With the headline "Apophis Asteroid Could Hit Earth In 2036, Scientists Say"? After I already posted that this original story was totally garbled by a Russian journalist, who grossly misquoted a Russian astronomer?
Now, they claim this info comes from a UPI article, but that article is pretty clear about the odds. While the HuffPo article also puts in the odds, they interlace it with a lot of doomsday stuff.
For example, they used a graphic illustration right at the top of a huge asteroid impact, just to make sure they scare their readers. They also include a video, saying "Watch a shocking visualization of what the event could look like,"… and the video shows what it would look like if the Earth were hit by an asteroid that was 800 km (500 miles) across.
That’s a little bit bigger than 250 meters. By a factor of 30 billion (in volume, which is what counts in impacts). I actually wrote about this video a couple of years ago. While an Apophis impact would suck (if it happened, which it almost certainly won’t), it would not rip the crust of the planet off and eject it into space, leaving behind a boiling, seething mass of lava and killing every thing down on Earth to the last bacterium.
So, nice going HuffPo. You’ve managed to once again mangle science and reality, adding to the already shameful articles about the Betelgeuse nonsense, and the nearly daily dangerous antivax and alt-med stuff.
Man. The least they could do is space this stuff out a little bit so I have time to breathe between debunkings.
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.
I used to write for the Huffington Post, before it became overrun with antiscience alt-med antivax garbage so thick I could smell it through my monitor.
Case in point would be a somewhat targetless essay by Dr. Larry Dossey, who seems to be trying to say that because science is portrayed as an individual effort, but is actually usually a team effort, students get confused and marginalized. Or something. His point is difficult to determine. But in any case, he’s quite wrong; the idea of science being done by groups of people collaboratively is everywhere, from astronomy to zoology.
I need not go into details, because, happily, Steve Newton from the NCSE has posted a rebuttal on HuffPo that tears Dossey to shreds. My favorite part was when Dossey says Nobel Prizes are only given to individuals, and my first thought was "Wow, I wonder if the IPCC knows about this?"… in his essay, Newton says almost exactly the same thing. Great minds, yadda yadda.
Anyway, I suggest you read Dossey’s screed, and then read Newton’s slamdunking of it. It’s a wonderful exercise in muddied and clear thinking, in that order. With people like Newton writing for HuffPo, it makes me feel a bit better that I don’t need to as much.
Tip o’ the white lab coat Robert Luhn of the NCSE.
Steve Newton of the wonderful National Center for Science Education has written another article promoting science in the Huffington Post, this time about asteroid impacts. And special bonus; he gives your loyal host here a shout-out.
Specifically, he mentions that I have said that the Hale-Bopp comet was larger than what wiped out the dinosaurs. It’s true: the object that created the Chicxulub crater off the coast of the Yucatan was something like 10 km (6 miles) across. The nucleus of Hale-Bopp was roughly 60 km (36 miles) across, meaning it would have had something like 100 times the mass of the dinosaur killer. I have vivid nightmares about asteroid impacts, and one 100x the size of the K-T extinction event is beyond scary.
Right now we lack the capability to stop such a comet impact; Hale-Bopp was discovered less than two years before it sailed by the Earth. It missed us by a huge margin, but had it been aimed at us things would look a lot different around here right now. We may be years away from being able to stop such an event, but as I’ve written before, people like Rusty Schweikart and Dan Durda are seriously considering what we can do, and have even started the B612 Foundation to look into it.
If we’re serious about such threats, were just a few years away from being able to prevent them. Given that statistically big impacts are very rare and only happen every few hundred thousand years or so, I’m rather liking where we stand right now. But that’s if we actually do something now. We need to start working on mitigation techniques, and rockets to carry them. I’m glad the B612 Foundation is working on it.
Related articles: A Pro-science article on HuffPo?
Steven Newton, a project director for the wonderful National Center for Science Education — a group that fights creationists who want to shred the Constitution — has written a nice article about science denialism in, of all places, the Huffington Post. Generally, HuffPo is
a wretched hive of scum and villainy a repository of antivax and alt-med nonsense, but it’s nice to see that some of the contributors are pro-science. Full disclosure: I wrote several astronomy articles on HuffPo, but stopped when the antivaxxers became the darlings of the site.
Newton’s article talks about how science learns, but denialists remain firm in their denial. It’s a good read.
Speaking of which, I just finished reading Michael Specter’s book Denialism. It’s an interesting look into the attitudes of people who deny obvious reality — people like antivaxxers, creationists, and so on. The book is mostly specific examples of these folks. Specter does discuss a bit why some people are denialists, and it’s mostly what you’d expect: it’s safe, it’s comforting, we have a tendency to believe pre-conceived notions and look for confirmation. I’ll note the book goes off the rails a bit in the last two chapters where he talks about genomics; it becomes more pro-genomics than a refutation of denialism. He pulls it out in the last few pages though, and all in all I’d recommend the book.
All of us — especially skeptics, but all of us — need to understand why people deny reality. In many cases the only thing these people damage are themselves. But they also vote, and cause health problems, and never forget that not only do they run for political office, they often win. Denialism is safe and comforting, and while science is more important in the long run, the denialists are getting more and sometimes better press.
We can deny that all we want, but what does that make us?