The most poignant thing about today’s Google+ NASA Beyond 2012 hangout, on the host of doomsday predictions which circle around the upcoming winter solstice, is the palpable sense of frustration they all seem to share at the need to revisit (yet again) all of the discredited and debunked theories about the supposed end of the world when there are so many important new discoveries and new insights about our world and the cosmos to discuss. They all seem so exasperated about the need, once again, to trot out all the same old empty nonsense and show once more how very empty and nonsensical it is.
And they can’t have been very comforted by how those same theories were once again simply reiterated in the questions, and later in the comment section for the archived video, along with increasingly deranged assertions of NASA’s perpetration of massive coverups (like paying the world’s astronomers to lie about the approach of planet X, and continuing to deny our long term interaction with beings from outer space).
The most profound moment of the whole production, for me, comes at when the moderator asked the panel to consider, from the perspective of their own field, what kind of threats face the Earth in 2012 or in the near future. Don Yeoman spoke about near earth asteroid approaches, while Paul Hertz highlighted the fundamentally non-spectacular nature of 2012 and 2013 from a cosmological perspective. And then Andrew Fraknoi, significantly (as professor of astronomy at Foothill College) the only full time educator on the panel, hit the ball out of the park.
“So, if I can give you a slightly whimsical answer, but I think a relatively important one, I think one of the greatest threats to Earth in 2012 is the low level of science education and public knowledge, and I think this entire discussion and the fears that have been generated illustrates how much more NASA, the scientific community, and those of us in science education still need to do. It’s really sad that so many people are worried and writing to David Morrison. It’s really sad that our schools have not taught skeptical thinking, and not helped students to distinguish between the reality and the fantasy of what’s going on in these areas. So I think if people are concerned about cosmic threats, part of that is a threat to our understanding of science that comes from insufficient science education, and I hope we can all redouble our efforts to help students understand the world better.”
Elegantly and beautifully stated. It is in our nature as finite creatures to be concerned with the idea of endings, more so as we grow older and get a clearer sense our own end approaching, and it can be dramatic and exciting to envision the end of all things, but we need to be realistic about the catastrophes that actually face us, and the damage our own often thoughtless behavior can bring about. Every minute that NASA must spend discussing imaginary planets is time taken away from spreading the word about discoveries on real planets like our own little blue marble, or our closest neighbor, or others very very far away.