Why we didn’t all die yesterday

Thanks NASA.

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Won’t someone please think of the children?!

Every time I think that the contemporary media can’t possibly get any worse, I am presented with yet another facepalm-inducing example of ‘journalists’ pretending that they are interested in providing information and clarity while what they really want are clicks, lots of clicks, and the ad dollars they bring.

This past week brought NASA’s Google+ hangout with prominent scientists and educators to explain (and debunk) the many common apocalyptic predictions floating about the more fetid and dank corners of the internet.  It was an informative and at times, even entertaining hour of content, and I’m happy they did it if just a bit dismayed that they needed to.  I suppose the only real tragedy is that those who really needed to see it were probably watching Mayan Apocalypse: 2012 or Armageddon instead.

The news media were thus presented with an opportunity to do a bit of public service by reporting on NASA’s effort to inform the public about threats to Earth both bogus and completely real, clear and present.  I’d like to say they rose to the challenge, but alas, no.  Nothing in the major media, at least not here in the U.S., and meanwhile elsewhere in the world the hangout, and NASA’s message more generally has been reported with winking skepticism at best and crass opportunistic fearmongering masquerading at worst.

Lowest of the low, unsurprisingly, is The Daily Mail (whose editors never met a potential threat they didn’t want to light their hair on fire and run wild with)

NASA warns Mayan apocalypse stories pose threat to frightened children and suicidal teenagers

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration warns that 2012 Mayan apocalypse rumors pose a real-life threat to frightened children and depressive teenagers
  • Some say they can’t eat, or are too worried to sleep, while others say that they are suicidal, according to NASA astrobiologist David Morrison
  • The apocalypse rumors began with claims that Nibiru, a rogue planet discovered by the Sumerians, will crash into Earth on December 21, killing everyone

Lest you think that this headline with its subheads reflects a real desire to alleviate the fears of children and teens everywhere, take notice that the lede is immediately followed by a dramatic piece of photographic art depicting space debris hurtling toward the east coast of the United States.  They did correctly report David Morrison’s assertion that those who stir up such fears are “evil,” though they then ran Dr Morrison’s picture right alongside that of Zecharia Sitchin who, according to crack reporting by The Mail’s Damian Ghigliotty, predicted the impending arrival of a mysterious murdering planet called Nibiru based on “Sumerian documents” which he had found and translated for the benefit of the world.  The article goes on cribbing from the Wikipedia article on Sitchin to note his death in 2010, while somehow forgetting to mention that Sitchin is generally regarded (by those who rely on experts from this planet, at least) to be a crackpot hoaxer who mistranslated much of what he says he found, ignored anything which didn’t fit with the fantasy he wanted to produce, and made up still more in order to paper over the massive gaps in his understanding.

Ghigliotty didn’t mention Nancy Lieder, presumably because she doesn’t have her own Wikipedia entry, and because his exhaustive research process didn’t include reading the actual text of the entry for Nibiru, instead of just scanning the subheads.  It couldn’t be because of the alien thing, the Daily Mail has no trouble at all reporting on aliens.

Our intrepid reporter was so focused on the welfare of those poor, credulous children and on his intensive search for information relevant to the threat that he didn’t spend much time on figuring out what those little red wavy lines were below the page of text.  What text he managed to squeeze in around the Wikimedia photographs is studded with gems like this:

“The rumors began with claims that Nibiru, a rogue planet discovered by the Sumerians, will crash into Earth on December 21, killing everyone, according to NASA’s website.”

Is it just me, or does this borderline-inarticulate text give the distinct impression (whether by design or simple lazy refusal to edit) that it is in fact NASA’s website which predicts that Nibiru will “crash into the Earth on December 21, killing everyone”?
P.S.  Hey, Damian?  That there’s an Aztec calendar stone you got yourself a picture of.  The Mayan ones weren’t quite so, you know, round.

NASA lunchtime apocalypse roundup

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.